After nearly two and a half years working in career counseling at a major university, I found myself bored out of my mind. The repetitive nature of answering the same questions over and over was not what I envisioned for my career. I needed to feel a deeper purpose and I wasn’t getting that as a career coach.
So imagine my excitement when I received a job offer to become a trauma counselor at a non-profit for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. As abnormal as it seems to write this… it was my dream job. I had written more than enough research papers about therapeutic approaches for survivors and was thrilled to put my research into practice.
Secondary trauma: the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.
I wasn’t naïve. I knew this role wouldn’t be a cake walk. Quite frankly, the agency wasted no time forewarning new hires about the red flags of secondary trauma and encouraging us to practice self-care. But no matter how much self care I used, I found myself depressed.
I think it’s important to emphasize that I never experienced depression before this job. With no personal experiences to depression, I didn’t recognize the signs when they subtly appeared. I assumed my struggle to get out of bed was from the hustle of building Redefine Enough after 36 hours of trauma work each week. I reassured myself that my desire to isolate and “stay in” was just my introvert nature in need of “me time.” But really… it was depression… and I felt embarrassed that I wasn’t able to self-care it away.
It wasn’t until I went two months without a menstrual cycle that I realized that something was wrong. After a year of testing, blood samples, and doctor’s visits, I learned that I had polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). For me, it meant that in addition to fibroids, weight gain, and hair loss, I could expect to miss menstrual cycles when under significant stress.
When provided with a treatment plan, I was informed to eat healthy, exercise, and reduce my stress levels.
Eat healthy? I had already switched to pescatarian and integrated more fruits and vegetables into my diet. Work out? Easy enough, I practice yoga regularly. But my stress levels? How in the world would I do that as a trauma counselor?
I don’t get the option of telling my clients to stop talking because I’ve reached my secondary trauma “quota” for the week.
The primary suggestion offered by many was to go to counseling. And while I highly encourage counseling, it’s expensive… so expensive that I couldn’t afford to do it.
I know that’s a shock to many because there’s an idea that counselors make lots of money. Heck, I’ve heard several people tell me that counselors aren’t as kind and caring as we make ourselves out to be and that we’re only in it for the money.
This is all stated as if Sallie Mae/Navient, my apartment office, and grocery stores would accept compliments from clients as payment. I don’t live in that reality. In full transparency, I worked at a non profit providing pro bono counseling services to clients. Unfortunately, the funds for counseling salaries did not reflect livable wages. In fact, there wasn’t a single person who could afford to live alone within our counseling department (if that helps paint a fuller picture).
So while the idea of attending therapy was a great suggestion. It wasn’t readily accessible to someone like myself with limited finances (rather ironic considering the situation).
With few options, I made a bold decision to lower my hours to 30 per week in January 2018.
But less than 6 months later, I resigned from my position.
Trust me when I say that it was a difficult choice that wasn’t made lightly. My loyalty to my clients and colleagues was the key reason that I was able to continue doing such challenging work for so long. It was their resilience that encouraged me to power through…or maybe it's wasn't loyalty. The better word is guilt. I felt guilty walking away from clients who had survived so much. I felt like I owed them my time… even if it was to the detriment of my own physical and mental wellbeing.
Sadly, that’s a common belief in helping professions, especially when you belong to marginalized groups. When announcing my desire to take a break from the field, I was met with, “But we need more Black counselors like you… How can you leave?.”
While I recognize the significant need for clinicians of color, I am unwilling to be a martyr for my profession. I will not exhaust my mental energy and watch my body wither for the sake of another.
I deserve the same space to heal as my clients.
One of the phrases that I frequently used in counseling was...“It’s okay to make your needs a priority.”
After a month, I recognize how truly walking out that phrase has changed my life. I miss my colleagues and the amazing clients I had the privilege to meet. But I know I made the right decision for myself at this moment.
My heart and purpose will always be helping others create light in their lives. Right now, I’m creating my own.
If you're a mental health professional who's dealing with a similar experience, I hope you find comfort in being reminded that you're not alone. We all deserve space to heal and prioritize self...including you.