Why Trauma is Hard
As I was thinking about the COVID pandemic and nurses and doctors and RT's and firefighters and many more on the front lines serving in New York, in California, in Illinois, and even in their home towns, I decided I would like to write them a letter. More than saying thank you, I wanted to write about trauma: why watching people suffer is hard and how it can affect you. The definition of trauma is a "response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual's ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences." But often during the time an individual is experiencing trauma, they may not feel like justified in calling it trauma or may be living in denial about how it is affecting their emotions and sense of self.
At one point in my life, I volunteered in Kenya at a medical and birth center, and it was there when I experienced some of the most trauma I have ever experienced. It wasn't an all-bad situation there were definitely great experiences through my time in Kenya and I loved certain things about my time there and learned a ton.
Yet at certain points, births or difficulties at the clinic were very traumatic to me personally. There were many near-death experiences with babies or women struggling, women were always in extreme pain, and I consistently felt incapable of making a difference or being able to relieve the pain or distress. During this time of really struggling, when I was living at the clinic and had seen some difficult births, I remember talking to a friends about my time in Kenya, and them just not getting it.I felt like I couldn't tell them how bad and how awful certain things were and certain things felt and so I sugar- coated the truth and laughed with them about things that were deep and real and hurtful. And I remember when I would send them cute pictures trying to make light of situations they would say "I wish I was you" "I wish I could be there." And when they said that my immediate and deep gut reaction was, no you don't. You don't want to go through this. You don't want to experience this, so don't say that.
And because I didn't understand how to share with others about the traumatic parts of Kenya and reach out and get help. I began to feel alone and isolated which I think is one of the primary lies of trauma "I am alone." Because even though people are reaching out to you, it feels like you are incapable of reaching back out to grab their hand. When you are so hurt or so traumatically wounded inside, you don't know how to tell people what you need. Presence is one of the best gifts people can give you. But often they don't know how to reach out or don't have the courage too, so inside you begin to feel as if you are all alone.
One of the second lies I began to feel that really affected my self-esteem when I was experiencing some trauma is "I'm too broken." For me, I felt like by watching others break, and suffering along them with them, I too was breaking. I too was hurting with the other people and it was breaking me down mentally and spiritually and I was becoming drained. I think this also highly relates to nurse-burn out or any provider burn out or over-giver. The thing about feeling broken and tired, is if you aren't careful it can be easy to take on a part of your identity as "broken" and wonder if you are still capable of healthy decisions and healthy relationships that are loving and whole.
For any health care provider, nurse, doctor, fire fighter who is feeling broken, I want to tell you right now "You are not broken beyond repair." You can still be whole. You are not a broken person just because you feel broken. Your feelings do not change your identity. Please do not feel that you are broken, because God has beautiful plans for your life.. and in a way, we are all broken people and God loves to use us that way.
The third lie that I believed when I experienced trauma after struggling with "feeling broken" was "I'm too strong or jaded." After being in a difficult or painful situation for too long, your body develops natural coping mechanisms to help you deal with pain or difficulties. Some of those mechanisms take away the ability to feel pain fully in order so that you can take care of yourself of the patient for the short term. Nurses and health care providers continually have to struggle with feeling "jaded" which means it is simply not as emotionally moving to them when they watch a patient suffer similarly to a way they have before. The "I'm too strong or jaded" feeling comes when you realize that you have witnessed trauma in front of you or suffering from patients, but you have not been emotionally moved in the way you would have used too and in response providers begin to feel shame that they are not more emotionally sensitive.
For every provider or nurse that feels shame because they feel like they are "too strong for their own good" or "too hard" or "too jaded", give yourself grace. God has seen the suffering and the experiences you have had to go through. Be kind to yourself and treat yourself kindly as you decide to treat your patients lovingly and compassionately despite how indifferent you may feel. Even if you stop feeling the pain or compassion you used too, you can still treat other people with kindness and dignity and doing so, doesn't make you "fake". Understand that your body and your emotions have undergone a lot of difficult experiences and trauma, give yourself grace, and time, and rest if possible to help yourself heal. If you don't have those options now, remember that when the crisis is over, you can seek resources and loving individuals to help you cope and remember that it is ok to be served and receive help as well.
Advice a friend shared with me is this: 3 things that affect our emotions are: 1. our evaluation of events, 2. our thinking, and 3. our silent self talk.
To all the health care providers, nurses, doctors, fire fighters, respiratory therapists, thank you for everything you do for your patients. Thank you for treating them kindly, thank you for the extra kind words you say, and thank you for showing up to work and doing your best for today. We are praying for you on the front lines and loving you, you are not alone, you are valuable and loved by God.