Vicarious Trauma

You know shit is getting real when your doctor actually prescribes that you don’t watch the news for a week. Between North Korea and Puerto Rico, my blood pressure is higher than it ought to be. So let the news blackout begin.

For those of you in the helping professions in particular, vicarious trauma is a problem that should be taken very seriously. Counselors, health professionals, firemen, police officers, social workers, soldiers, even journalists get exposed to other people’s trauma on a daily basis, and unless they have hearts of stone, these experiences, albeit secondhand, impact them as well. More and more, as all of us have greater access to disasters on a global scale, I’m beginning to believe that every single one of us is exposed to vicarious trauma.

Do you ever feel like you just can’t listen to one more news item without losing your mind? Are you convinced that one more presidential tweet just might send you over the edge? Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, forest fires… the overwhelming number of Youtube videos showing animal abuse and neglect… it is just too much to take in.

Think of trauma like a pebble thrown into a pond. The ripples that flow outward from that pebble effect all of us. It feels like we can never do enough. It’s exhausting. It makes you feel guilty, or afraid, or angry, or cynical. Sometimes it makes you feel numb, or helpless, or hopeless.

All of these are natural responses to vicarious trauma, but they’re not particularly helpful. It’s important that you learn to practice compassion for yourself as well as for other people. Give yourself a break. Be kind to you. Be sure to give yourself opportunities to engage in things outside your work, or outside the news. Set the burden down every now and then. Center yourself with family and friends. Get local. Allow yourself to have limits.

Most of all, talk to people. You are not alone. We are all getting a bit burned out. We need each other to weather the storms.

hang in

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Working a Tropical Storm

We’ve had our fair share of natural disasters this year. But when you pair that with an increasing disregard for workers, you get a toxic combination. People are getting fired for having to mandatorily evacuate and therefore being unable to show up for work. People have been forced to work in extremely unsafe situations, leaving their families at times when they’re needed most. When human life stops being the most important factor, we have reached a new low.

What follows is a letter I was forced to write back in 2008, when I was a bridgetender in Jacksonville, Florida, and the Florida Department of Transportation put my life at risk. As per usual with them, I never got any response, and there seemed to be no consequences. I hope they are treating bridgetenders more fairly now, as these disasters increase in frequency. But I doubt it.

Dear Mr. XXXXXXXX:

Hurricane season is once again upon us. As a bridgetender who had to work at Ortega River Bridge in the early morning hours of Friday, August 22nd during the very worst of Tropical Storm Fay, I feel compelled to give you some insight as to what that was like.

I had to drive to work in 50 mph winds, detouring around downed trees and power lines, and then walked up the bridge to the tenderhouse, getting drenched in the process, and nearly being blown into the street on more than one occasion, only to find out that the coast guard had closed the bridge to boat traffic. I was informed that FDOT was aware of this, but since your wind meter did not match the speeds registered by the one in the tenderhouse, you decided we had to work.

Every weather channel said that the winds were going to be at least 50 mph. Clearly the Coast Guard believed this and took boater safety very seriously. Apparently, we were only there to monitor the radio, but the only transmissions I heard all night were the many Coast Guard announcements that informed boaters of the bridge closings, because no boater in his right mind was out in that weather. No cars were out either, except for the bridgetender who was compelled to relieve me at the end of the shift.

During the entire length of my shift, surrounded by electrical equipment, I was forced to mop water down the hatch and bail as it literally poured in the doors, windows, and through the air conditioner. At one point the heavy traffic cones and life ring blew into the street and I had to wrestle them indoors. Not only should the traffic gates be secured in such weather, but also the traffic cones, life rings and convex mirror should be stowed indoors to avoid becoming projectiles. Apparently that was left up to me during the height of the storm.

When my bladder could no longer hold out, I was forced to venture outdoors and across the street to the bathroom in a downpour, and once again I was nearly blown off my feet. Had I been hurt, no one would have known for hours. Not once did anyone call to check on me.

In the meantime, the power was continually going off and on, which caused the generator to kick in as I watched transformers exploding on the horizon. I found out the next day that water spouts were spinning up on the river. The wind shook the building and the waves crested over the fenders.

When it was time to go home, I once again had to walk down the bridge, and the wind was blowing so hard that the rain was physically painful. Once again I was drenched as no rain coat in the world can stand up to those conditions, and by the time I detoured around even more downed trees and power lines to get home, my lips were blue from the cold and I had to stave off hypothermia by taking an extended hot bath. Thank God my electricity was not out or I would probably have been hospitalized.

The worst part about the whole experience, sir, was that I spent the entire shift afraid, and my family was afraid for me. And the whole time I kept thinking, “I haven’t had a raise in 5 years, and I have $5,000 in medical debt because of substandard health insurance. Must I risk my life, too?”

I can’t speak for other bridgetenders. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to climb the ladder at the Main Street Bridge under these conditions. I’m sure my life would have been flashing before my eyes.

I hope you will take this letter into consideration when making decisions in future storms. I hope I never have to have another experience like that as long as I live.

                                      Sincerely…

Tropical Storm Fay
Tropical Storm Fay. Would you have expected your employees to work in this?

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Climate Change: Points to Ponder

I think the worst thing that could have happened to those of us who hope to educate others about the dangers of climate change is one word. Warming. If it weren’t for the term “Global Warming”, people would be more able to focus on the facts rather than the terminology. Climate change deniers cling to the word warming as if it were a life ring in storm-tossed seas.

“Look! We had a snow storm in May!!! See? Global WARMING doesn’t exist!”

Poor short-sighted, deluded people. Because of increasing temperatures there is more moisture in the air. Ever notice that it’s more humid in the summer than in the winter? When increased moisture hits a cold front, what happens? Snow. And a crap load of it. Yup, snow is cold. But that doesn’t mean the earth isn’t getting warmer. It’s a complex system, people, and one which we learn more about with each passing year. But before I get into some facts that can’t be ignored, I have two sets of questions for those who so desperately want to cling to the status quo:

1)      What do you think scientists would gain by making all of this up? Do they WANT the end of the world as we know it? Why? Do you really think there aren’t plenty of other areas of scientific pursuit that they could, well, pursue? Do you really think that thousands of scientists, from various countries, races, religions and creeds are in a global conspiracy to terrify the populous so that they can keep their jobs or alter the economy in some diabolical way? You give them a great deal of power.

2)      Even if you are right and global warming doesn’t exist, why would you NOT want to do things in an environmentally friendly way? Are you in love with garbage, pollution, undrinkable water, the death of one species after another, and air that is increasingly dangerous to breathe? Do you want that for your children? Is it just laziness, or do you really prefer that sort of planet?

Okay, here are some points to ponder and some facts to feast upon:

  • I often hear people say that a few degrees temperature difference won’t matter much, surely. But if your baby’s average temperature is a few degrees higher, especially on a regular basis, you’d panic. You’d take that child to the hospital, as you know that such things are fatal. So too with our life on this planet.
  • Hurricanes are decreasing, but becoming stronger, and now they’re coming as much as 100 miles inland.
  • Islands are disappearing. The sea has risen 8 inches since 1870. It is expected to rise anywhere from 16 to 56 inches by 2100. The following island groups are already threatened: Kiribati, Maldives, Seychelles, Torres Strait Islands, Tegua, Solomon Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Carteret Islands, and Tuvalu, as well as the country of Bangladesh, where they’re learning how to grow their crops on floating rafts. They never had to do that in the past. Don’t believe me? Talk to the people who are on the brink of being displaced.
  • Most scientists agree that temperature stability relies on 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere or less. Anything more than that spells disaster. This carbon comes, for the most part, from the burning of fossil fuels. Coal is carbon. Oil is carbon. When we burn it, it doesn’t just disappear. That carbon still exists, and it’s now in our atmosphere. Humans are responsible for this. There’s no getting around that. Sadly, in 2012, we were already at a steady 390 parts per million. On May 9th, for the first time, NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory recorded daily concentrations of 400 parts per million. This doesn’t fluctuate downward. It’s a steady and ever increasing rise.
  • Deserts are burning. Other areas are flooding. You’ve seen it.
  • Arctic summer sea ice has shrunk roughly 34% since 1979. The arctic summer could be ice free by mid-century. In the past 50 years glaciers have lost more than 2,000 cubic miles of water. That can be observed by the human eye, and all that water has to go somewhere.
  • Ice reflects the heat of the sun back into space. When it’s gone, what you have is dark land and water, both of which hold heat. This is a downward spiral that any person with a modicum of logic can follow.
  • For the past 3 decades the oceans’ surface temperatures have been higher than any other time in recorded history.
  • Coral reefs are dying.
  • A lot of Australia is in permanent drought. Farms have been abandoned forever because of firestorms. Just ask the people of Victoria about the walls of fire that killed hundreds. This has never happened before.

I know what you’re thinking. This is just a cycle. The planet has gone through cycles before. That’s true. It can’t be denied. In the Pleistocene we had ice and arctic deserts. At other times the ice caps melted and the planet was mostly ocean. The earth is a subtle system with subtle cycles that are millions of years apart. The creatures living during the Pleistocene wouldn’t have noticed a change, however, because it wasn’t occurring within decades like it is now.  It wasn’t even occurring within centuries. We’re talking millions of years. The change we’re seeing now is not a cyclical planetary change.

And another argument is that scientists make mistakes. True enough. People once believed the earth was flat. They also believed the sun rotated around the earth. Does that mean that all science should be discounted? We learn more and more over time. We stand upon the shoulders of those who came before us, mistakes and all. The more data we accumulate, the more accurate our knowledge becomes.

Argument number three: Al Gore is an idiot who doesn’t practice what he preaches. Okay, let’s stipulate that that’s true if it gives you some sort of perverse comfort. How does that negate the findings of thousands of scientists? I personally think Carrie Nation was an extremist crackpot, but that doesn’t mean I discount the fact that alcohol ruins many people’s lives. Go to any AA meeting throughout the world and you can hear it firsthand.

Stop listening to the lunatic fringe. Stop desperately clinging to beliefs that are not based on evidence simply because you would rather not alter your current lifestyle. Think for yourself. Look around. Apply some common sense before it’s too late for you, because here’s the thing: the earth will survive, even if it’s just a barren, lifeless rock floating through space. It’s humanity that’s in danger. And you can see that with your own eyes, once you let go of the word “warming” and actually pay attention. And yet half the people I know don’t even bother to recycle, which is the world’s simplest of first steps. How hard is it to recycle? Come on.

Here’s another thought: if I’m right about global warming, then we all need to make changes. If we don’t, it will be fatal. On the other hand, if I’m wrong about global warming, then we don’t need to make changes, but if we do make them, how’s it going to hurt? Is there something wrong with the concept of conserving our resources, for example? I say it’s better to err on the side of caution, especially if it’s something that has to do with life on earth. To do otherwise would be the height of stupidity and selfishness.

If you want to get some amazing ideas about things you can do in your community on a grass roots level, things that can only be good for the planet whether you believe scientists or not, then visit the website 350.org.

environment

(Image credit: debonofoods.com)