It sometimes seems like my entire life is processing either the direct or secondary trauma of my past. Traumatic echoes of events that, for the most part, years and decades past, seem to invade every sense, as well as my dreams.
The very direct trauma of bullies ripping off my pants down to my Fruit-Of -The Loom underwear, tearing the pants into shreds and throwing them out in a busy street. The mile walk of shame to my home. So traumatic, that I can show you exactly where it happened in my hometown of Mt. Lebanon, Pa.
The red robin I allowed other kids to pressure me into shooting with a BB gun at sixteen years old. A senseless act of cruelty that still haunts my dreams. Did it feel pain? Will it be missed? The trauma of watching it suffer and failing to come to grips with how my teenage self could be so uncaring and vicious.
The image of the dead animal in the roadway will bother me for days as I project and internalize its trauma.
The family of the young lady I represented so many years ago. A tractor-trailer rear-ended Their daughter died, trapped in the vehicle as it burned. Her suffering. Her family’s plight.
There was a time when I allowed many of these traumatic echoes to play a role in a litany of unhealthy and self-destructive behaviors. How much impact did they have? I can’t say. Correlation is not cause. What I can attest, is my sub-conscious having decided to preserve these moments as endless ripples of water pushes further and further out from the source but never settling into a peaceful state within the framework of my reconstructive memory.
I utilize various methods of self-care to deal with these feelings. It has not always been the case. The projection of pain, suffering, guilt, and shame consumed me. I wore it all like a skintight suit affixed to my body with super-glue.
While there are some commonalities and stereotypes as to what is “trauma,” it can take many forms and be uniquely subjective in how it’s processed. Life-changing trauma to one person may be easily shrugged off without emotional or biological consequences to someone else. In my anecdotal experience, this disparity can result in feelings of guilt and shame. We compare the experience and flog ourselves for not taking the lessor of the emotional routes.
There is no shortage of direct and secondary trauma in the helping professions, including legal. When it occurs within a professional framework that does not encourage vulnerability and portrays therapeutic self-help as weakness, the issues can boil over, and they have. Our profession has the highest rate of problems drinking along with some of the highest rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Rocky Haire is a Dallas based personal injury lawyer. He is no stranger to the secondary trauma of his clients. He says,
Personal Injury law is a steady flow of injuries and death, each case bringing its unique markers of potential secondary trauma.
—–a three y/o little girl under a truck—hit and killed while her aunt was holding her hand as they walked along the road. Her yellow dress was somehow still clean. I remember her shattered mom & dad looking to me for something—anything.
—–a kid who was electrocuted & caught on fire in the CareFlite. His mom hated me—because I was the only one, she could saddle it with. I accepted it without hesitation or regret.
—– A child who was hit head-on by a drunk driver going over 100mph and his dad was the first responder. He was so brave in my office—even as he cracked and fell apart.
—– A beautiful, lifeless high school girl wearing a cardigan sweater, her brown hair just right—and her face crushed. I have hundreds more.
How do you start a conversation with broken parents? The survivors? The dads tend to compartmentalize and check out—the moms take a direct hit nuclear strike while taking care of yourself at the same time.
I remain detached, for the most part. I’m the lawyer, right? I’m not supposed to be emotional.
The way I most effectively process secondary trauma and help the survivors deal—is to help them heal when they have experienced their own trauma through loss of a loved one or other tragedy that is the focus of a personal injury claim.
I tell them, “You have to forgive. The person didn’t do it intentionally and this unforgiveness is killing you. Look at you. It’s rotting your bones, and it’s time to let it go. You have to. I’m asking you to.” They usually look at me (a little surprised) with a sad rage—but it subsides. They all say, “You have no idea.” and they’re right—but also, they know I’m right. I have felt the crushing weight of hate and resentment begin to lift off.
Helping them be free from that horrific ball & chain, I believe, is how I deal with secondary trauma. If I can get them to forgive—it somehow releases me, too. There’s a part of me that continues to see those pics—I still see their broken, decapitated, crushed, burned bodies sometimes—but I know a body is just a vehicle to get us around while we’re here. Nothing more—and death isn’t final.
Without that hope, I couldn’t do what I do. Knowing the emotional damage is healing allows me to move on with them.
In the interest of full disclosure, my focus wasn’t always as healthy as it is today. For years, I drank — a lot. I wasn’t mean or abusive; I think I just needed something to suppress it. My self-medication didn’t work & evolved into what it is now.
Of course, how Rocky deals with secondary trauma is quite possibly, not how you do it in your law practice. There is, however, a universal lynchpin across the board — the importance of continuing self-care. We are taking care of ourselves so that we don’t start exhibiting unhealthy signs and engage in destructive coping mechanisms and continue to provide clients with the highest l.
I reached out to, Maeve O’Neill a local Dallas therapist, she says,
Having helpers in all careers like attorneys, healthcare, education as well as first responders being better equipped to manage stressful situations, regulate emotions and taking better care of ourselves will also result in better client outcomes for those we serve. We can choose to take time and effort now or we will be forced to do it later…
Here are some ideas to get started with:
RECOGNIZE IT CAN AND WILL HAPPEN!
- None of us is immune to fatigue/burnout, so we all need self-care prevention;
- Identify the areas you may be most susceptible to unhealthy reacting;
- Assess your workplace for how it supports/encourages discussions about care;
MAKE AN ACTION PLAN NOW!
- Write down things that will help you when you need care;
- Care can be emotional, physical, social things;
- Whatever works for you to regulate, relax and refresh!
PRACTICE YOUR PLAN!
- Regularly, perhaps weekly try out one of the items to see how it works;
- We don’t wait to “need” the self-care plan; we practice it all the time!
- If something doesn’t work or fit for you, try something else;
REACH OUT FOR AND TO HELP OTHERS!
- Share with others what is on your plan;
- Ask others what works for them;
- Support each other in your weekly practices and keep adding to them
From my anecdotal perspective in listening to the stories of other lawyers, the trauma problem is two-fold. We not only have to deal with and process our trauma, our story, but we also have to process and deal with the trauma and stories of those we help. A double duty that even the most skilled of therapists and helpers struggle with. Figuring out a self-care plan vital and will be unique to the person. There is no shame in asking for professional help in putting that plan together. Start today.
Thanks to the following people for their invaluable contributions:
1, Maeve O’Neill, MEd, LCDC, LPC-S, CHC, CDWF/CDTLF
- Dawn D’Amico, Psychotherapist, Educator, and Consultant in Delafield, Wisconsin.
- Rocky Haire, Esquire,