The longer I am away from doing work on the streets, the more I realize how traumatic that work actually was, the ways it impacted me and my brain, and the very real ways it continues to show up. Here’s a small example:
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but if I had to guess, it was probably in 2016 or so, when the worst of the burnout was coming on. It was probably inevitable, spending as much of my time as I did cleaning up messes other people had made because of their bad choices. But somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to watch people engage in self-destructive behavior. Even if they are only actors, pretending to do it.
For example, last year, we watched the movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday. It was a masterful movie, brilliantly shot. And I got up and walked out of the room at least five times. If you don’t know, a central theme of the movie (as well as a central theme of Holiday’s life) was her recurring bad choices around drug use.
It’s not the drug use itself that bothers me, really – it is seeing her have a way out, and making a choice you will end poorly. It’s like the opposite of empathy, or perhaps more like negative empathy – I understand what she is feeling, I just reject it. And I can’t watch it. I literally feel anxiety at watching people make self-destructive choices. And sometimes, it’s so bad I have to leave the room.
Or another example: I recently discovered the British crime drama Unforgotten, which has five seasons of back issues on Amazon Prime. Each season follows one storyline, and the idea is that we are following a police unit that deals with murders that happened 20+ years ago. Now that the murders are being investigated, all the people who were involved and haven’t heard anything about this case in forever and went on with their lives now have this all dredged up again. It’s fascinating and very well done.
But in season two, a character makes recurring bad decisions that are self-destructive, and the choices could impact a child. I had to stop in episode 4, and just skip on to the next season. I couldn’t watch someone make self-destructive decisions.
Unfortunately, people making self-destructive choices is a major plot device in TV and movies.
Take people who cheat on their partners, for example. I can watch a movie where that happens, as long as there isn’t a scene where they consciously make the decision to do it. I’m Ok with people who live a life of crime, as long as there isn’t a scene where they consciously violate someone’s trust, like stealing from Grandma to fund their addiction. If there is a scene where they appear to be making a choice, and they choose a self-destructive option when they had a healing one available to them, I will probably get up and leave – at least for a while.
These things are legitimately triggering for me. And there isn’t an easy shorthand explanation for the specific trigger. So, I get caught by surprise a lot, which makes watching anything other than kids cartoons pretty hard.
It is similar to the way I can’t handle being around people who are drunk, but it’s actually worse. I feel dread and a sense of doom for the people engaged in self-destructive behavior. I feel – literally feel, in my gut, in my bones, even – what I imagine they should feel, but don’t.
Brains are strange, though. Because I saw two violent murders happen in front of me in the years I did that work, and while I don’t particularly enjoy realistic violent movies, they don’t bother me in the same way that movies about drug use or self-destruction do.
That’s the thing about trauma – you don’t know where it will show up until it does.