What I Learned When Trauma Became My Day Job
Written by Kwynn Gonzalez-Pons // Edited by Chelsea DuDeVoire
For the past year, I’ve worked as a health advocate, primarily helping survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Although it's probably the closest I’ll get to realizing my dream of being Olivia Benson, this isn’t my first foray into the world of trauma work. In the past, I've worked as a camp counselor for at-risk youth in Louisiana as well as volunteered as a rape crisis advocate.
Due to my past experiences of working with trauma victims, I thought I had a general idea of how this work would both change and challenge me. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the degree to which it would extend outside of the job and into other parts of my life: my favorite television shows, books, and even hobbies.
The following are four lessons I learned when trauma became my day job:
1. Find ways to leave work at the office.
At first, I felt guilty for turning my phone off at 5 p.m. each day after work. What if a client needs me? What if it's an emergency?
I had to continuously remind myself that we weren’t operating a hotline, and that not answering my phone was actually allowing me to set a positive boundary between my personal life and my career. When I gave myself this time after work to recharge, I was better prepared to serve clients the following day.
2. Be cautious of the media you take in.
I am a trauma consumer.
From the TV shows I watch (Law and Order: SVU, anyone?) to the books I read, they all share a similar trauma-centered narrative. I’ll admit, this is so second nature to me that I didn’t even realize it myself - my husband pointed it out to me (urging me to put down Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving and pick up something a little more lighthearted). Now I’ve found new joy in reading “non-trauma” books like Mindy Kaling novels and watching The Mindy Project. (I guess I can thank Mindy for single-handedly helping me out of my trauma spiral.)
3. Put yourself first.
Did I mention I serve on a local task force to address domestic minor sex trafficking in my spare time? I guess you could say trauma is my day job, and my second job, and my hobby?
While serving as a rape crisis advocate was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, I had to take a step back after one year of service. This was an extremely difficult decision for me, but I didn’t want to put myself in front of a client in need if I wasn’t even able to take care of myself - which I wasn't. So I stepped back from meeting clients at the hospital and found other ways to be involved, like speaking at an advocate recruiting event and serving on a volunteer advisory committee.
By taking care of myself first, I unloaded a huge burden off of my shoulders and still found a small way to make an impact.
4. Practice self-care.
Self-care is the unicorn of the social services field: a magical, abstract idea that everyone recommends but rarely practices.
My self-care journey has evolved over the past year, improving as I learned what worked for me and what didn’t. For instance: once, when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed with my work, I decided to adopt a drastic new hairstyle. While taking time to pamper ourselves can definitely fall into the category of self-care, showing up to work with red hair was more of a “I am floundering here!” cry for help. Ironically, my co-worker happened to choose the same weekend to change up her hairstyle as well.
Our supervisor encouraged us to find other outlets, since our hair and our wallets probably couldn’t survive many more impulsive (albeit therapeutic) changes. Today, my self-care involves more budget-friendly activities like exercise, writing, and coloring.
Fast forward one year, and Trauma is still my day job. I've learned a lot about myself and about ways to implement self-care (through trial, error, and countless Mindy Project episodes) in the process. However, the most important thing I’ve taken away from this experience so far is to be my best self and to always be at peace with the work I’ve done. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Kwynn received her Master of Public Health from the University of North Texas Health Science Center. She currently works as a health advocate in Fort Worth, Texas, but will soon relocate with her husband and two rescue dogs to Salt Lake City, Utah to pursue a PhD in Social Work at the University of Utah. Kwynn is passionate about reading, triathlons, and all things Buffy the Vampire Slayer.