One of my talents is that I have a really good memory. I am good at recalling names, dates, statements, significant events, and useless trivia. Trust me, it is not photographic or anything, but I have to admit, it is pretty impressive. I surprise a lot of my friends when I can bring up something they said last week or even last year. I surprise acquaintances because I can ask a follow-up question from a two-minute conversation we had one time on an elevator.
One of my banes in life is that I have a really good memory. Having a good memory is great when you want to show your friends you really listen to them, but it has its downsides. Having a really good memory is not great when you can remember the negative and traumatic stuff you see and are told.
Secondary trauma is something one can experience when they hear or see firsthand accounts of someone else’s traumatic occurrences. In severe cases, one can experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD i.e. nightmares, change in mood, insomnia, flashbacks, or negative thoughts. Secondary trauma is known to be experienced by 911 dispatchers, doctors, nurses, EMT’s, police officers, and even social workers as they are often the first line of defense for someone in either physical or emotional need. What is not recognized as much is its effect on friends and loved ones.
As a friend, Social Worker, and perpetual ruminator, listening to my close friends or a client’s story kind of messes me up. I try to compartmentalize it, but sometimes it escapes and I find myself having nightmares, feeling down, or experiencing feelings of guilt. This is in part because I am very empathetic. It is very easy for me to grasp and understand how another person is feeling, even if I do not know them. Depending on how vivid the description is, it will replay in my mind, my stomach will drop, and I will feel sick. Please know it is not consistent. It will happen at completely random times and it could be events that happened as recently as last Monday or 10 or 20 years ago.
I think about how they must have been feeling in that moment, how I wish things would have turned out differently, or how I wish I could have helped. I try to find solace in the fact that some of them have been able to move past it and continue to build their lives. Or, I am assisting them in that process.
I share this because it may be something you or someone you know struggles with. You may find yourself pushing people away because you cannot handle seeing them or hearing more about what they are going through. You may be in one of the aforementioned helping professions and just had an ah-ha moment. You may also be in a helping profession and feel like a totally heartless person because this has never happened to you (please do not feel that way).
I pride myself on being a person that is always there for someone else to lend an ear or provide a shoulder to cry on. I, unfortunately, just happen to be a person that thinks about other people’s troubles as much as my own. Luckily, a little self-care and some TLC helps mitigate this from spiraling out of control.
I have lots of memories in this old noggin. Some of them are sweet, funny, endearing, and utterly useless. Some of them are also scary, woeful, and downright traumatic. Regardless, I am always open to making new ones