“We may be super humans, but we’re not Super-Human.”
Self-Care Series for Survivor Advocates
By Kristen Tebow (K.T. Wings), Survivor Advocate
Being a survivor working in the direct victim services field is a wonderfully rewarding and satisfying career, but it can also be mentally, emotionally and physically draining. As a survivor, I am well-known for surging full-force into whatever project or case I’m working on while, at the same time, forgetting that I may not have eaten all day, slept in two days, or spent quality time by myself or with friends or family. I often times become so focused on the job that I forget about the realities of burnout – until it’s too late. Your body tells you when you are too tired, too stressed, too hungry – basically too anything. It’s our job to listen and take care of ourselves as we take care of others.
I don’t know about you, but I am notorious for scheduling my appointments one right after the other. Half the time I feel like my feet haven’t touched the ground, and I have this weird, “floaty” feeling and can’t seem to think clearly when it comes time to recording my data. I’m also the kind of person who tends to go, go, go until my body decides to take over. It starts out as feeling anxious. Then I start raging all over people’s faces. Then I get fat. Then I start to get self-conscious. Then I have a surge of “Quit being a baby and PUSH THROUGH IT!!” Then my medical issues start flaring up as a result of not taking care of myself. Then I’m forced to take time off/quit/spend time in the hospital. I call it my Cycle of Doom and Despair. The key to stopping it is to recognize your strengths and limitations (and remember that you are not an Immortal Warrior Elf Batman Machine), recognize your signs of stress and know when you need to take a “time out,” and have a self-care plan for yourself.
Recognizing your Strengths and Limitations
Many individuals do not consider this to be self-care. My argument is that without self-awareness, how are you supposed to know when it’s time to stop, or when you need to keep pushing yourself? I think self-awareness is 60 percent of the battle!
I was literally raised by Superwoman. To this day, I still do not know how my mom did not drive herself insane with keeping up with three kids -- one who was a handful (me) -- and all three who participated in every high school group, club, sport, everything. She never missed one band recital, flute practice, football game, track meet, 4-H Club meeting, or anything else I have forgotten about (but she didn’t). Also – she worked full-time at my Dad’s business. Yeah. That is crazy making. I have spent the last two or three years trying to replicate her awesomeness, and it has led me to being catatonic in bed for a week about every three months or so. My mom figured out her strengths and learned the art of being awesome early in life. As the eldest of six kids, she became a jack of all trades by the age of 11. She helped cook dinner, helped my grandparents run the family farm, helped clean house and took care of her younger siblings. Basically for all 50-some years she has been alive, she has been in the care-taking role and dedicated her life to her family. She’s one of my heroes.
Not all of us are built to withstand only sleeping three hours per night and moving that fast from thing to thing. As advocates and direct service workers, half the battle is being realistic with our time. While I admire my mother’s ability to live an insanely productive lifestyle with little time for herself, I have long realized that I do not have the capacity to hold it together for months on end without downtime. I can still remember my first “face plant” as an advocate five years ago. I thought I could do it all -- school full-time, work full-time -- and disregard my overworked brain’s cries for help. I lived by the mantra, “Just keep going; just keep going; if you stop, you fail; if you stop, you fail.” What an uplifting message! Pretty soon, I became very difficult to live with. My husband often compared me to the crazy husband from “The Shining.” For a period of five months, I had lost my joy for life, because I was so focused on the survivors and goals of the programs I was developing; I completely disregarded my own needs and the needs of my family. I did not care about anything except work, and my relationships deteriorated. After multiple threats of being hospitalized against my will, I took some R&R. The quiet allowed me to deal with the issues I had been ignoring. I explored areas of self-care and began to enjoy downtime. I started playing videogames with my husband and our friends, and I discovered television shows I enjoyed. I went out to dinner with friends and family and made rules for myself that discussing work should not be the focus of the conversation. I started building myself back up and came back better than ever.
While it is incredibly important to recognize your limitations and be self-aware of the signs that you are overworking yourself, it is also important to recognize when you are being a rock star. We all have strengths (also known as super powers) that make the job less taxing. The strengths keep us going when life is rough. Mine is humor and the ability to overcome adverse situations like a boss. There always seems to be a day when everything seems awful. “People are looking at me weird.” “This survivor…….*rage thoughts*!!” “My coffee tastes like cancer.” “WHY CAN’T I GET ANY LIKES ON MY FACEBOOK POSTS??” “My art sucks.” Most likely, these are just thoughts running through my head. Just because the thoughts are there doesn’t mean we have to listen to them. All of us have a magical ability to overcome those thoughts with positivity and have a truly fantastic day… or to just get through the day without destroying our ability to function. I have developed a toolkit for myself that I have found helpful in overcoming difficulties on the job, within the movement, or just in everyday life.
Practicing Mindfulness Activities
Mindfulness activities can mean many things. There are therapy techniques, exercises, free-time activities, and other things that could nurture that peaceful feeling we all want to feel. The job can sometimes drive me nuts. Being a survivor, there are additional risks, such as triggers and other mental health issues that are sometimes out of my control. Because I am on the go at all times, I sometimes feel the effects of extreme stress and anxiety and need to re-center, so I can think straight and live my life when I’m not at work. Note: I call them mindfulness activities, because I focus ONLY on the task at hand. I clear everything else from my mind and focus on the one thing I am doing. Some of the things I do include:
a) Listening to music: I am lucky and have a 30-45-minute commute to and from work every day. I say I am lucky, because I have plenty of time to jam out on the highway and let loose. I have created a different playlist for each emotion I have and feel ready to unwind with my husband and puppies when I return home each day. Sometimes jamming out to the music can lead to some hilarious moments with other commuters, and I laugh myself out of my funk. Oh, the stories!
b) Art/Writing: This is something EVERYONE can do. Pinterest has so many amazing crafts and projects that are easy to do. Keep a journal in your desk drawer or your purse, and write down your thoughts to get them out of your head.. Even if you don’t think you can -– try something. It may surprise you what may happen when you let loose and create! While I LOVE to write, painting gives me a feeling that can only be described as invincibility. There is no satisfaction greater than being able to create something magical with my hands and my tools. I get this rush of energy when my hands move throughout the canvass. It is a spiritual experience when I am able to express my feelings through composition and color. It doesn’t matter how I felt before I started. I feel wonderful when I am painting. I have a list of reminders on my desk at work of activities I can do if I have time for a break. I wrote this whole article on my breaks at work. I also keep blank canvasses in my office when I need a moment to get me through the day.
c) Pets: I can’t think of anything more effective than snuggling with my fur-baby Jack Russell Terriers, Bella and Brenna (ages 6 and 1, respectively). Since I left the life, I have always had a “therapy dog,” and, sometimes, they were the only ones who could interact with me. Sometimes when I am deep in the funk and all I find myself doing is self-destructing and alienating myself, there is nothing that works better than running my fingers through my dogs’ fur. Animals have an innate sense when their human is down in the dumps. Bella and Brenna have their own routines for each state I am in. When I am actively triggering, Brenna stops horsing around and quietly finds something to do away from my body, periodically checking in on me. During this time, Bella lays next to me, sometimes putting one paw on my leg or foot. I have never hurt my dogs mid-trigger, but they are always very careful. When I am in a state of sad/depressed, Brenna lays next to me, body pressed up against me. Bella is curled up in the nook I create for her and sits with me until I seem happy again. When the family is happy, we play! I have taken Bella to appointments with me, and she is able to tell when she needs to keep her distance with survivors or when it is acceptable to lay in their laps and provide comfort. Note: I did not train her to do this. It is her calling.
d) Deep-breathing exercises: Whether it is in a yoga class or just sitting in a chair, deep breathing can be another way to release frustration or other crap you’re carrying around. It can also be an incredible spiritual experience when you feel the mind and body connect. Because the human race has evolved into a world of technological advancement, there are now phone apps for those people who can’t afford to sit and talk to a professional. These apps provide CBT, DBT, and simple breathing exercises to get through difficult moments, or to get you ready for what’s next. For a list of free apps, click here.
e) Humor and silliness: I always think about the Sex and the City movie (don’t judge me, I love that movie) when Carrie was just left at the altar by Big, and she doesn’t think she will ever be happy again, and Charlotte poops her pants, and everyone laughs, including me. As a general rules, cat videos and Buzzfeed articles are my go-to-respite care. A quick scroll through the home page of Reddit often times yields greater serotonin levels in my brain, turning my frown upside down. I make it a habit to watch my favorite TV shows and comedians to enrich my life. Then there’s humor that requires you to do. Playing harmless pranks on friends/family/coworkers usually provides enjoyment on a day-to-day basis. One of my all-time favorite things to do is to be really awkward in public. I like to dance down the aisles at the grocery store and wave enthusiastically at fellow commuters on the highway. And, let’s face it, there’s nothing funnier than a triumphant fart. You’re laughing right now.
f) Friends/Family (restrictions apply): I happen to be very lucky, with some wonderful family members and friends I completely trust to help me through difficult times or to be supportive. Although we don’t see each other often, due to busy schedules, my friends and I try meet up for dinner/coffee/art shows at least once per month to catch up and see each other’s faces. In the meantime, we engage in instant messaging and use the conversation windows to share ridiculous and sometimes inappropriate content that only my friends would understand. Hey, it’s therapeutic. It’s important to remember boundaries and know that while your friends/family loves you and want to support you, they may not be able to handle the on-the-job craziness we see every day. It’s not their fault that your calling often times leads you to questionable places at 4 a.m. Try to be understanding and set reasonable expectations. Don’t take your stress out on them, unless you are confronting them about the stress they created for you. Same goes with family. I would argue that more restrictions should be used with family. My family is from an entirely different world than the world that “raised me” into the survivor I am now. I like to protect them from it.
g) Check in with a supervisor/coworker/fellow survivor advocate comrades:
The benefit of working at a helping agency means there are ample people who care about your well-being on the job. I try to schedule at least one hour per week just to talk to my supervisor about the stressors I’m currently dealing with. Together, we try to make a plan so it won’t affect my work. I also try to maintain an active presence in the survivor networks online, as well as visit coworkers on breaks. Make sure you remember your boundaries so you aren’t abusing whoever is listening to you. It is still up to you to find a way to keep yourself together to be able to do the job. Know that those resources are available to you.
I really wanted you all to get some important lessons out of this post. First and foremost, practice self-awareness. It does not make you weak to recognize that you have weaknesses. Also, remember your strengths because those are the qualities that are going to make you soar to greatness. When your boss yells at you when you “fail” to regurgitate the company policies verbatim during a community meeting, just remember how many times you successfully connected with a survivor, leading that survivor to succeed in his/her goals. Remember your superb ability to meet with 28 survivors per week and keep all the cases neat and tidy in your brain, WHILE magically juggling a full-time, grad school schedule and kids and a husband and dogs and a house. Yeah, you’re awesome. Just know that just because you have limitations, you still have wonderful strengths that give you value.
The last important lesson is that it’s always a good idea to have a plan for you, including the use of your self-care tools (writing, air guitar, breathing, underwater basket weaving, hot yoga, pets, etc.)