While staying on a horse farm in North Carolina several months ago, my husband, Carmen and I took a long walk on the property’s dense woods. As city dwellers more comfortable at navigating a subway system rather than a hiking trail, we could not relax. We fought our way through the wave of bugs and patches of poison ivy. And we never dropped our vigilance around the potential for ticks.
We promised we’d conduct thorough body checks of each other as soon as we got back to the cottage. But something happened. A phone call or a text message from a family member back home took us off guard. Five hours later while we were reading, I finally remembered the body check. We’d relaxed by then in the safety of four fashionably decorated walls and a luxurious poster bed. I was merely going through the motions now as I checked Carmen’s head for ticks. When he lifted his shirt to reveal an enormous tick on his back, I reacted rather than responded.
“Oh Carmen,” I said, my voice leveling up in panic.
“What, what? Is there something on me? Is it a tick?” Carmen, tough as nails in a bar fight but not a fan of creepy crawling things, asked in the voice of an eight-year-old child.
“Yes, oh my God. It’s a TICK,” I answered, thinking immediately of Lyme disease.
“Geez, get it off me!”
Recognizing that Carmen was panicking, I knew I should at least attempt to keep my head. In spite of my intention, how quickly I was transported back to my own eight-year-old self and the memory of my mother picking a tick off of me with a pair of tweezers.
I took a deep breath to disengage from my memory and fear. “Now is it tweezers or is it smothering them in Vaseline? I can’t remember the best way to remove a tick. I should look this up.” I grabbed my cell phone.
“Are you kidding me? Get the DAMN thing off me!” Carmen yelled.
“Wait a minute. I don’t know which is the best way. We don’t want to just pull it off. I remember reading someplace that you shouldn’t pull it off, that maybe you should smother it. Or is it the other way around?” I began to search my phone, but theInternet wasn’t cooperating.
“Charlotte, I don’t care what the Internet says. Just get it off me. NOW!”
Carmen’s reaction was so strong, so violently panicked, I obliged him and pulled it off with just a tissue. It fell into the tissue without a struggle, but I immediately felt as if I’d made a huge error. “Oh, why did you push me into this without getting some more information? I could have made it worse.” Fortunately, all ended well with Carmen because the tick didn’t have time to take hold and exchange its poison with his blood.
I open with this story because it illustrates the challenging emotional path helpers must navigate when intervening in crisis, or helping to heal individuals and communities in the aftermath of trauma.
- The panic ofthe one in need ofhelp.
- The fear ofthe helper trying to remain professional and compassionate in the moment of another’s crisis and emotional flooding.
- The helper feeling triggered by another’s crisis or traumatic stress symptoms
- The helper’s attempt to self-regulate by emotionally distancing herself from the crisis or trauma by using knowledge or an academic framework as a filter.
- The frustration ofthe person in need ofhelp
- The frustration and self-doubt ofthe helper just at the resolution ofthe intervention.
- The potential for initiating a poisonous exchange that will have negative implications for years to come.
Even though the tick story is between a husband and wife rather than a professional and client, the parallel between these two very different relationships is in the therapeutic alliance helpers build with those they are supporting. This alliance must be authentic, requires heightened responsibility of the helper, and contains emotional intimacy due to the dynamic ofhuman exposure and vulnerability traumatic experiences generate.
Building an authentic and intimate relationship with a spouse is often deeply rewarding. But sometimes it’s just really hard. The same is true for the relationships we build with those who ask for our help. At the heart of it, helpers are human beings, not robots. We come to our professions with our own imprinted culture, personal narrative, identity, and bias. Thework of keeping all that in check requires we engage in a continuous practice of self-awareness.
When we help our fellow human beings on their journey of healing we’re taking on an immense commitment. Whether we are a short term helper who answers the phone at a suicide prevention hotline or a long term helper engaged with a survivor of trauma for weekly counseling sessions for two years, the responsibility of walking with someone in their darkest hour means that we’re often leading with the lights out.
The myth of the helping profession is that the professional has a skill set, which when strategically applied creates a blueprint for a tidy linear process of healing. A beginning, middle and end to the healing process. The myth does not acknowledge the energetic flow of connectedness between human beings who spend time with one another. Or the reality that there is no mechanism within crisis to cooperate with linear responses in order to be resolved. Certainly, there are stages of healing but they operate on a spiral rather than a straight line. Acknowledging these principles and practicing with them in mind is the helper’s first step in protecting herself from burnout.
-Charlotte DiBartolomeo M.A.C.T. CEO of Red Kite Project