Lee and Felicity Gerry QC discuss the unavoidable impact of Secondary Trauma.
The letter had begun: ‘Dear Lee Moore, my grandmother used to sew my clothes into my skin with yellow cotton…’. These words, written in black biro, on narrow, lined paper torn from a notebook, plus the intrusive imagery which accompanied them, prevented me from sleeping. I went downstairs at three in the morning, ate some hot-buttered toast, tried watching TV, then reading, but the imagery and words would not leave me.
I could not concentrate. Self-medication was not a successful antidote. Abandoning my resolve not to bring work home or into my marriage, I woke my husband and asked him to talk to me. It proved a temporary solution for neutralising what I was shortly to discover was a symptom of secondary traumatic stress (STS). This is a natural stress that can occur in those exposed to traumatic material on a regular basis. STS strikes suddenly and without warning. It is an event, unlike burnout, which is a slow process.
I had been the first coordinator of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers (ACAL). In that capacity, I took disclosures of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse from men and woman on a daily basis via phone-calls, emails, and letters. Concurrent to my work with the ACAL, I also accepted instructions to take statements from individuals who had been abused. My specialism was extreme abuse, formerly known as ritual or satanic abuse. I also presented at national and international conferences on issues concerning sexual abuse.
It never occurred to me to put boundaries around my work and exposure to wounded people with traumatic life stories. Ignorance, due to a lack of education regarding the psychological, physical, and professional impact of working with trauma, rendered me vulnerable, as did an unresolved, traumatic history of my own. I did not know I needed, or even think I needed, help or training.
I was in denial about the adverse impact of my work on my handling of cases, on others, and myself. It was held in place by a work addiction, which I rationalised as enthusiasm and professionalism. A passion to raise awareness about the extent of child sexual abuse in the UK and help insulate and protect people who had experienced sexual trauma from being retraumatised by our adversarial system, motivated me.
I did not know that other people’s traumas could traumatise me until I read the poignant letter about clothes being sown onto a five-year old child disclosed some 50 years later. It acted as a catalyst for change, for I was also comfort eating. My unconscious solutions for dealing with the impact of cases were becoming problems. I needed to find out how I could continue my work in the field of sexual abuse and violence while maintaining my professionalism, wellbeing, and marriage.
My Damascene moment came when I read a book by psychologist Charles Figley, entitled Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized. Compassion fatigue is another term for STS, which, if allowed to develop, has the same symptoms as post-traumatic stress disorder. I identified with what was written. I had STS disorder.
I immediately took a long holiday with my husband. It was important to deal with the symptoms of overworking, overeating, appetite changes, sleep disturbance, catching viruses frequently, headaches, and more. I put together a self-care plan which I follow to this day. I completed my personal healing. My health and wellbeing are now a conscious priority. I meditate daily, which allows me to maintain my equilibrium, whatever the provocation… most of the time. I maintain boundaries about the work that I expose myself too. I eat, drink, exercise, and sleep well. We moved out to the country; I now live in beautiful surroundings. My office has lovely views, a buffer to some work I still do occasionally regarding extreme abuse. I have hobbies, take time out, and I’m no longer a stranger to having fun.