Slow burn: Reflecting on the emotional impact of working with chronic trauma*

*This post contains vignettes of harrowing material which may upset some readers. Case examples are all anonymised.

When I decided to do work in child protection, people warned me it was the fast road to burnout. Twenty years later I think they are right about the direction, if not about the speed.

Burnout is an insidious thing. It sneaks up on you as a chronic accumulation of many tiny things, rather than having an obvious trigger, like a single life threatening event that causes PTSD. A thousand small examples of vicarious traumatisation. Experiences that I shouldn’t complain about as I’ve chosen a career that inevitably brings exposure to distress and tragedy. It feels like I’ve chosen to wade through the grottiest parts of life, until I’m normed on that 1% of stories that cause the most concern. It saturates me. Pollutes my perceptions of life. It has been building up for a long time.

Fifteen years ago my two specialist placements included post abuse work with survivors of sexual abuse, a group for non-abusing parents of children who had been sexually abused and work with “complex” children and families, such as those on the child protection register. I knew it was emotionally harrowing work then. I talked about it with a good friend, and concluded that my drive was to go where I was most needed, to grapple with the most complex cases, and that I’d worry about burnout when I got there. I graduated onto a clinic for children who were “failing to thrive” and most of my clinical time being with Looked After Children and therapeutic work with those who had experienced trauma or maltreatment. Right from the start, it was an induction of fire, salved only by the fact that it was important work that needed to be done.

It started with individual stories.

The sad silent child who ate 7 digestive biscuits and carefully stowed extras in his pockets during clinic, but whose parents claimed he had a digestive disorder that meant he wasn’t gaining weight despite eating plenty.

The young woman with learning disabilities who repeatedly played out how the daddy bear lay on top of the baby bear and thrust, but said baby bear was a liar and nobody believed her when she told.

The adult relatives who revealed at the last moment the sadistic physical and sexual abuse that their step-father inflicted, after he had charmed the professionals enough to get residence of his grand children, when their mother was unable to cope and had reverted to chronic drug use.

The maps of children’s bodies in medical notes, used for annotating injuries, including one for babies. The paediatricians sharing photographs of torn orifices, injuries, malnourishment and legs with rickets. “This one has burns on their hands up to a straight line on their arms, showing they were held in boiling water as a punishment”. No, I don’t want to see, thanks.

The little girl in a religious cult who couldn’t disclose her abuser as she had been taught it was as bad to think or speak badly of others as what they had done, and shown pictures of people rotting in the ground or burning in hell for their sins.

The boy who was conceived through rape, whose mother couldn’t look at him, and whose grandmother thought any challenging behaviour showed he was “living up to his genes”.

A girl asking how she got the zigzag scar on her stomach. The family didn’t want to tell her about how her mother tried to cut her open to let the devil out during a puerperal psychosis. They don’t want to spoil the relationship as she goes to Mum for alternate weekends. When I meet Mum she talked incoherently about spirits and auras, telling me she likes climbing on the roof to be nearer to God. She has no need of adult mental health services, thanks.

The young woman who always claims to be pregnant. Partners are less likely to harm her that way. She is couch surfing at the moment, which is the new name for homeless. Her only possession is a photograph of her son who was removed at birth and adopted. After physical and sexual abuse at home, and attempts to stay with numerous relatives, she grew up in care. She had a sexual relationship with her male carer at 14 which she views as consensual.

Since 2000 I have done expert witness work for the family courts. That means reading bundles of documents about trauma, child abuse, neglect, loss, violence, family breakdowns and mental health problems. It means speaking to parents who have been maltreated in their own lives, lack coping resources and instead of being able to create healthy relationships and flourish have limped from one bad experience to another. It involves speaking to children who have seen too much, had to cope with awful things and missed out on the love and nurture that you’d want every child to take for granted. I read about and sometimes see the state of the home, with rubbish heaped up and rotting, flies circling, dirty nappies on the floor, no clean clothing, nowhere to store possessions and no space that isn’t filled with clutter. I hear about broken bones, bruises, burns, rapes and assaults. Sometimes there are x-rays, photographs or medical records. I see sadness and anger accumulated over many years of getting a raw deal. I measure problems with learning, attention, behaviour, life skills, self-esteem and mental health. I observe who denies the problems, who spills over with them, and who recognises themselves doing as they were done by despite all their best intentions otherwise.

I read, and I listen. I measure and observe. I pull the pieces together to see what fits and what conflicts. It is an active process, trying to understand what happened, how and why. Evaluating insight and future risks. A computer couldn’t be programmed to do this. It takes empathy, curiosity, critical thinking and detective skills. I am the barometer of relationships, of what would feel okay, of what is causing harm. If I felt nothing, I couldn’t do the job. But there is so much pain to feel. So many sad stories.

A little girl with curly dark blond hair who the foster carer told me “shook with excitement to get her own dolly for the first time and promised to keep it pristine so that when mummy gives it to her little sister she will still think it is new”. I nod politely. Take verbatim notes. I have to stop the car on the way home for a cry.

A teenage boy tells me how his father often pinned him up against the wall by his neck or beat him with a belt. He wonders why he dissociates when he perceives threat or criticism now and worries that he is going mad. I try to explain his brain learnt to protect him when nothing else could.

I observe the baby that was rescued from the fire. Her scars are healing slowly, and the medical treatments are painful. She can’t bear to be touched. There is too much pain for someone so young.

A mother tells me how it hurts her watching the foster carer do a better job than she was able to at caring for her children. “I always swore I’d be different to my mum, make better choices of partner than she did, keep my kids safe from harm. I look at where we are now and see it has happened all over again and I can’t bear it”. And neither can I.

A teenage girl tells me she took the overdose because her step-dad broke the door down and overturned the bed to reach where she and her mother were hiding, and hit her mother repeatedly with the broken bed leg. She shrugs and smiles, and says “its just how it is, you know”. I don’t know. But trying to imagine it makes my guts curl and my eyes leak involuntarily.

A mother tells me about the culture she grew up in, and how grateful she is to be here, even though the whole family live in a single room in slum conditions, and it is hard to find work as an illegal immigrant. If her son is hungry, developmentally delayed, and being beaten for misbehaviour at least he is safe. I think that isn’t safe. It is all relative.

A father tells me that his uncle sexually abused him as a young boy, but there was too much stigma to tell anyone and he was afraid to lose this special relationship. He still spends time with his uncle now, and trusts him implicitly with his own children. A few sentences later he says he is baffled why the children are showing sexualised behaviour. I am baffled that other people can’t see how obviously the pieces fit together.

I assess a couple that smell so bad I struggle not to gag. I open the windows but it is not enough. I go out for air every hour. A social worker sprays perfume on my sleeve so I can raise it to my face to mask the smell. I learn the phrase “body odour to an extent causing discomfort to anyone in the proximity”. They don’t own toothbrushes and show me teeth rotting in swollen gums.

A woman tells me she has put on 9 stone as she needs to have fat deeper than the knife blade is long, since she was stabbed by her ex-partner. She wheezes for a long time after climbing the stairs at the contact centre, and she struggles to get down on the floor to play with the baby. I worry when she is slower than expected to return from the toilet, do I need to check if she is okay?

The child was born with HIV. His mother died of it. He lives with his grandmother. She doubts the diagnosis. “He doesn’t look ill, the English doctors don’t know about us”, she says when I ask why his prescriptions have not been collected.

A lady tells me that she must have had post natal depression. If she wasn’t ill she would keep the house clean, but when she is ill she can hardly get out of bed, and gets ideas that the world is very unsafe. That is why she kept the children in her bed with her, rather than sending them to school, until they were no longer able to walk. She’s on antidepressants now, and saw a counsellor for six sessions, so everything will be fine. The social workers are making a fuss about nothing.

A man tells me he has exercised to pass the time whilst in prison. He is proud that he is bigger and tougher than his father now. He says the robbery was the fault of the friends who bought him the beer and suggested the idea, and much exaggerated by the victim. I am glad I brought with a student to observe, as the room is quite isolated and his body language makes me tense.

This couple have managed to sustain the acrimony of their separation for five years. She says he was controlling, violent and obsessive about having every last penny accounted for. She tolerated his promiscuity for far too long. He says she was moody and manipulative, and it is probably her mental health that’s the problem, and her jealousy that he moved onto another relationship. It makes me cross that both of them seem to have forgotten the kids in the middle of their conflict.

A little boy tells me what it felt like to be buggered. I try not to think about it that night in bed. I play tetris on my phone until I fall asleep at 4am.

A woman tells me that all of her relationships have been with men who present a sexual risk with children. They are all so different, she says, that whenever she learns what to avoid the next one is nothing like it. And why wouldn’t you move in with someone you’ve just met? How else do you get somewhere to live after the last relationship has turned sour?

The story stems of a girl of eight show the family repeatedly pushing the girl off a cliff and laughing at her. For variation they poison her and laugh as she vomits. She repeats the loop for 90 minutes, then returns to lying foetal under the table as I leave, just as she was when I arrived.

“I had a cold, mum caught it, and it made her sick so she fell down the stairs” says the boy with autism. “That is why she had to go to hospital”. It wasn’t the head injuries her partner caused, it was his fault. But later in the conversation “Daddy gets out of prison soon. When he finds us he will kill us this time”. It is deadpan. An emotionless fact of life.

The girl in the children’s ward tells me “I didn’t want to go home. I jumped off the bridge because it would be better to be dead. They say I will need to be in hospital at least six weeks whilst my leg heals”. She smiles showing me the metal cage and all the pins reassembling her bones, and counts the pieces in the x-ray. She won’t say what is wrong at home.

“He spat right in my face and pushed me over. I was so angry then. I hit him with the lamp until it broke, then I whipped him with the cable. I could see the shape of the switch in the bruises when I was done. They might have seen it, but that’s not the same. I’d never hurt the children.”

A boy tells me what is different in foster care. “It was the best day ever. We went to the garden centre. I got to look at the fish, and we had a drink and a slice of cake at the cafe. We eat at the table with the grown ups here. I got my own coat too, nobody wore it before me! And my skin is better”. The carers tell me that they had to wash the grime off the bath after he arrived, replace all his clothes and do twice daily treatments of his infected eczema. They had to get a court order to shave off his matted hair as his parents would not give consent.

A five year old girl tells me about the day she came into care. “I could hear they had fish and chips in the front room. I could smell it. I tried to walk there, but my legs weren’t working and I kept falling over”. The medical records show that a visitor called an ambulance when they saw her unconscious. Her blood test results are marked with blue biro. Haemoglobin is captioned “how is she alive?”. She dances when she shows me the foster carers have a rabbit run in the garden.

In each family I hear many of these stories from each individual, and I see several families each month for assessment. I’ve been doing this for over a decade now. I have banked hundreds of such narratives, maybe a thousand. All involve a child or children being harmed. The stories are each unique, but the themes recur. James blurs into Joshua and Jared and Jacob. Samira merges with Samantha and Saskia and Sasha. Depression and anxiety, broken bones and bruises, filth and mayhem, conflict and violence, cancer, obesity and sensory impairment, neglect and abuse heap up in my repertoire of human experience and leak out into my life. I see those stories lurking at the edge of my vision, in the arguments partially overheard in the shops, or behind the headlines in the news. I see their echoes amongst people that I know; my neighbours and colleagues and friends.

I set myself impossible standards. I worry if my child has messy hair when she gets back from school, or I notice mud under his fingernails. Will people think we aren’t taking proper care of them? Are we not taking proper care of them? We go to A&E after my daughter burns her hand. I ask her to tell the story before I speak and she says “it was your fault mummy, it was your drink I tipped over”. I feel like a failure and a hypocrite. My cat has a jaw infection and needs teeth removed and antibiotics. I should have known. He smells like the couple I assessed at the social work centre last year.

I say we need to leave the restaurant. I can hear a mother saying “ungrateful brat, I should never have had you” to her son. Outside the school a mother pushing a baby in a pram says to her friend “look at him giving me evils, he’s going to be just like his father”. I move away. The couple outside the pub argue incoherently and their voices get louder and shriller as we walk back to our car after a night out. The child in the park approaches me and asks me to push him on the swings. People on the internet disclose abuse. In the supermarket I hear a slap and the child is crying. The woman walks past on the street with a fading black eye. They are anonymous and legion. The scale of the problem is overwhelming. I can do nothing.

Friends of friends ask for advice as they have heard I am a psychologist. Its important to try to point people in the right direction, but I am depleted. Another 2 lever arch files arrive at work. Its an incest case and mother is terminally ill. Surely there can be no more stories this bad, but there is a queue awaiting my attention. The next one has police transcripts of the interviews of all of Dad’s victims. He might be a paedophile but his daughter wants to see him anyway. The one after that they want me to see Dad whilst he is in prison for abducting the children to a different country. He believes it is his right; fathers own children in his culture. Then back to the bread and butter of court work, another family where neglect and maltreatment has been the norm through many generations. One of the children is the same age and gender as one of mine. Don’t make comparisons. Don’t go there. Change the subject.

A letter from a solicitor tells me that my invoice has been reduced by the Legal Aid Agency on appraisal. I will get £400 less than the total billed, despite not billing for 6 hours work already because of the fee caps. The hours were “not proportionate”. Do I explain again that it takes longer to do assessments via a translator? I don’t have the energy. Another one is querying the hourly rate. I should work for £7 less if I only see the adults as I won’t be a child psychologist. I ask if a psychiatrist gets paid the rate for a psychotherapist if they don’t diagnose or prescribe. The solicitor is sympathetic but there is nothing they can do. A father doesn’t attend an appointment. I have driven 2 hours to get here, and I wait for an hour whilst phone calls are made, then drive 2 hours home, exhausted. I can do nothing else with my day. Legal Aid say a psychologist can fill their time productively with other activities and refuse to pay anything over travel costs, even though the contract says that they will pay for any appointment cancelled with less than 72 hours notice. I can’t bill for materials, venues or typing. The questionnaires cost an average of £5.31 each. I used 6 per child and there were 7 children in the family. Does it add enough to my report to justify £220 of lost income? The LAA ask what ‘capacity’ is and why it took me 4 hours to assess it. Is it not embarrassing to work for the family court system and not to know this or to have the sense to Google? The self-funding father wants to pay in monthly instalments, but my staff get paid next week. The wealthy mother from abroad hasn’t paid her share of the bill from 4 months ago, but the court wants me to do more work for her case. Why do I do this again?

Tomorrow is the appointment to assess the teenage mother in the mother and baby unit. Yesterday her boyfriend told me about how they met online, and gave me their usernames. Google shows me his dating site entries seeking single mothers, Facebook posts about the violence in their relationship and a video of baby’s “sexy dance”. A solicitor phones. Can I squeeze in one extra case this month? Mother has been evicted. She doesn’t want to see her child and is too anxious to talk to her lawyers. Could I fit the capacity assessment in this week? I get an email. Craig is feeling suicidal. I have reached compassion fatigue. I reply with the phone numbers for the Samaritans and the local crisis service. I turn off my phone and computer and go back to bed.

I am empty. My emotional resources have run out. Is this constant aching tiredness what they call burnout? I run on clockwork. I am a robot Mum and a robot wife. I fall asleep on the sofa. I am exhausted. At night when I finally fall to sleep I dream about children with their eyes sewn shut. I can’t save them all. When I wake I go to work and do it all over again. I’m good at this. It is important. It is needed. It is never ending.

Then I pause and take a few weeks off. The bubble of numbness bursts. I cry watching a video on Youtube. It segues into crying for all the children I’ve met, and all the children someone like me never met or didn’t reach in time, including the parents I speak to so often. I cry with frustration at my own limited reach. I cry for the selfishness of politicians, the broken systems and missing safety nets. I despair at how you increasingly need money to buy justice, and how hopeless and disengaged wide tranches of society are becoming. I click to sign petitions. I donate to campaigns. I counsel compassion in online debates. But I am tired. Achingly tired. Tired in my bones and my guts and my heart. I know how much this needs to be done. And I don’t know what else I can do. But I can’t do this any more.

16 thoughts on “Slow burn: Reflecting on the emotional impact of working with chronic trauma*

  1. charlotte says:

    Thank you for sharing. I feel very emotional after reading that and not just because of the harrowing vignettes. I dont know how to offer any practical advice but I can empathise with how you feel. This line of work can be very cruel. I hope you find a way to look after yourself and take some time out. Whilst you are most definitely needed you are of no use to anyone, not least yourself, if you are burnt out completely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Charlotte. I am planning to take a “sabbatical” and spend a year doing research and writing (and developing my internet projects) but I have to be sure that my business won’t fall over without the income from my court work. I want to have emotional energy left for my own family, and to start to feel more positive and creative again.

      I’m currently looking for an employee or some associates who can pick up some of the court work, with my supervision and training, which would be one option. Otherwise if we can secure a contract or grant for other work, that would be another. But I am exploring all options!

      Like

  2. pink says:

    Hi,

    It’s Pink from Clin Psy. I’ve just found your website. I’m so moved by your post M, but also really concerned for you. Actually I’ll pm you through clin psy. Just want to say in this space though that this is a brave and powerful post, and perhaps we can think about a campaign group or something that can raise the profile of these issues with an MP. Might be worth contacting a journalist or two-someone like Owen Jones or Patrick Strudwick?

    hugs to you x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Pink. I wanted to share how I felt on a low day. I do also have plenty of days that feel much more positive. But I think I need a bit of time when I step back from direct work. I’m seeking funding for an exciting new project to improve quality of life in children’s homes, and to finish the analysis and disseminate my research around risk and resilience factors in adoptive matching. I’m speaking at quite a few conferences and doing more training and consulting. And I’m developing my writing and social media, including the patreon experiment. So hopefully, plenty of irons in the fire to apply my psychology in slightly different ways. That way doing less court work won’t feel like giving up, it will feel like moving on.

      Like

  3. I was crying by the end, for both the children and you. I was sexually abused by my dad but not in anything like the horrific circumstances you are describing (we were middle class) and I know what I have been through to heal and how incredibly, unspeakably grateful I am for my very gifted therapist who has had the courage to walk through my pain with me. I say this so you know I truly understand how important what you do is. But I also know how important you are. You are not responsible for all of this evil, nor do I wish to see it claim yet another person. I was really glad to see you were going to take a sabbatical. You need rest and time away to process and heal. You’re not responsible for everything you see, but it sounds like that’s the way it’s feeling. I’m sorry words feel incredibly inadequate in response to how powerful and vulnerable this was, but what comes closest is bless you for all that you’ve done but please take care of yourself. ~ AG

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Attachment Girl. Really kind of you to comment. I don’t think I feel responsible for all the problems I see, I just wish I could do more to resolve them, or better still to prevent them. But yes, time for some self-care, and use of my lovely support network 🙂

      Like

  4. Emilia says:

    A powerful and thought-provoking read, written in a very engaging way. I’ve been working in this field for several years and can relate to many aspects of what you’ve described. Thank you for sharing and I hope you find a way of restoring your energy and work-life balance!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Emilia says:

    A powerful and thought-provoking read, written in a very engaging way. I’ve been working in the same field for several years and can relate to many aspects of what you’ve described. Thank you for sharing and I hope you find a way of restoring your energy and work-life balance!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Gabrielle says:

    Hello,

    I have recently stumbled across your blog and have found your posts so compelling, especially this one.

    I am looking at entering this field of work but hestitate for the very reasons you outline in the blog. I do not underestimate the personal impact it is likely to have on me. At the same time, the prospect of doing other things does not fire me up in quite the same way.

    I just wanted to thank you so much for sharing your experiences. Your insights are appreciated and certainly valuable to come across in my position.

    Xxx

    Like

  7. I wouldn’t let it put you off. It doesn’t always feel like this. I had 16 years in the NHS really enjoying my job. Then I had five years of increasing court work and started to feel like it was too much. So I switched around and did slightly different work for two years, and enjoyed that much more.

    I’m now getting a new kind of burnout because of frustration with dysfunctional systems and individuals who don’t deliver what they promise, but each step of my journey I’m learning where I can make most difference, what I find most satisfying, and what I want to avoid. And that ability to change aspects of what I’m doing whilst still being part of something transformative is part of what I most like about my profession.

    Like

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