For the entire summer, and the beginning of fall, I worked at a place called UNC Horizons. It’s a substance abuse program for women who are either pregnant or have small children. I was a residential advisor and so I spent all of my time working with the clients, making sure they made appointments, driving them to group sessions, babysitting their children, etc. Although I am mostly unqualified to counsel, I ended up doing my fair share of it, and welcoming in stories and thoughts from these amazing women that were often completely outside my frame of understanding.
My job was incredible, but it constantly challenged me in unreal ways. Every day, I watched these women experience and perform trauma consciously and unconsciously. Trauma lived in their bodies, in each and every sense. In some ways, I felt like it could surface at any moment and completely alter their relationship to the situation at hand, and it often did. The clients seem to do everything in their power (smoke, argue, lash out) to keep at arm’s distance from their material and emotional self… this also included pushing away allies (or enemies as they often saw staff).
The performance of trauma has been widely researched and studied in fields of ethnography and communication. When we hear the pain of others, we are changed by it and want to know more about their experience and our own as witness. We witness, not just watch. What I mean is that we are a part of the survivors remembering, not just an idle viewer, our presence changes their ability or lack thereof to build their story and exorcise it. When we witness, the stories become deeply ingrained into our own bodies. While some call this internalizing of the trauma of others (or secondary PTSD), I call it empathy. As Susan Brison says, “trauma survivors need empathic listeners in order to carry on. Piecing together a shattered self requires a process of remembering and working through in which speech and affect converge in a trauma narrative.”
But how far can we push ourselves into the body and experience of another? I burned out very quickly. After 6 months, I was ready to throw in the towel. The unsettled energy of almost all the women and staff became my own, and as a witness, I began to fail. I was colder, more hostile, and less appreciative of the small blessings that each woman experienced each day. I knew it was time for me to leave when I found myself unable to truly listen. I would be making lists in my mind instead of actively engaging someone in recovery. At that point, I took another opportunity and wished everyone well.
So I pose to you, how do we keep performing as witness (in the long term) while experiencing such intense narratives? What are our responsibilities ? How can we prevent the power of a witness to become transmuted to pain?
image credit: robertjessup.com