When Am I Ready to Help Others?

At the heart of any grass roots efforts or organizations is the concept of the wounded healer. There wouldn’t be a women’s movement without those who have been victims of something or other helping newer victims. It’s not only the heart of grass roots organizations (like ours) but the victims rights movement and many other strong and healing national movements in general. I think of Alcoholics Anonymous or any other 12 Step Program–drug addicts helping other addicts, rape survivors helping new victims,  domestic violence victims volunteering at shelters, Hurricane Katrina victims helping at Habitat for Humanity. And the list goes on. It’s the genesis of any giving organization—someone gets hurt, healed, and then helps. That’s how it all works. The trick is to know when you are well enough to help.

In 1983 my father was murdered. I was in my 20’s and happily working in the field of marketing–far far away from psychology or the self help field. But after seeing the murder scene, acquiring Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), finding no help and getting worse, I decided if I EVER got better I’d help others with PTSD too. Luckily, a national pilot project for homicide survivors was forming to see if we responded to group counseling. I was fortunate to be in the first test group–I was helped and I did keep my word. I stayed on at the group…helped open an office, developed training programs to teach others how to treat surviving family members of a murder, did court advocacy with family members of murder victims, was a media spokes person on large public murder trials, spoke at conferences, lobbied for new laws and went back to school to get my degree so I could do even more. As I began to heal, I slowly became more involved in the field of victimology.

That was 25 years ago. Since then, I have worked not only in homicide, but incest, cult survivors, domestic violence, rape, and every kind of trauma disorder imagniable. I have started non profit mental health centers, started the country’s first long term residential treatment program for women with multiple personalities (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder), started hospital trauma programs, outpatient programs, church programs. I have worked in domestic violence shelters, women’s programs, and court ordered battering programs for men. I have worked with the sexually addicted and the sexually traumatized.

I have traveled to Brazil and helped start victim organizations there to help the millions of abandoned street children. I have trained workers for Australia in cult deprogramming. I developed and hosted my own TV show called ‘A Voice for Victims’ and do regular radio shows with several stations. I have written 7 books, numerous e-books, CDs/DVS and write for others women’s on-line websites and programs.

Now I direct The Institute, do research, phone coaching, writing, and therapeutic retreats/coaching. To tell you the truth, I can’t even REMEMBER everything I have done to date! LOL~(Maybe that’s a GOOD thing!). The point is, 28 years ago my life was altered by a murder. For 25 years I have given my life’s work, to reaching out. I don’t want to make it seem like it’s all been easy or even financially supportive work. It’s been a financially ‘barren’ field of work–I”ll never make retirement. Whatever I make, I just dole back out to other women’s organizations. BUT it’s at the heart of my own recovery and belief system–that when we are ready enough and healthy enough, giving back strengthens our own recovery.

A famous person said “You never help someone else without first helping yourself.” Every time I help someone else with PTSD, it helps mine too. Every time I help someone recognize pathology in others, it helps me remember it too. At the core of recovery is the need and almost spiritual mandate to reach back out and give others the hope that you now have. It’s only hope that keeps others going and not ‘end it all’ or want to give up and go back to him. We don’t really have the answers for another person’s life, we only have information and hope. That’s what we give. But like Mother Teresa said “Give what you got.”

But the title ‘Wounded Healer’ is a little misleading. It sounds like anyone wounded can be a healer. That any trauma leads to triumph, that any hurt can help others. Over the years of running coaching programs and centers and teaching coaching classes, I heard new fresh interns come in and say, “I was raped so I want to help the raped.” It’s a great grassroot philosophy and when it works, it works great. And when it doesn’t work, it hurts other people. I would try to explain to interns ‘when’ they would really be able to EFFECTIVELY give back but many didn’t want to hear me….if they wanted to do it, it must be time to do it. When it matters more that you just do it than if you do it safely and effectively, then it’s probably not about the victim and more about your own woundedness that still needs healing.

They would volunteer to run an abuse group and the first story that hit too close to home or sounded like their own trauma, they ended up in a melt down–crying in the group they were suppose to lead. They would go home and have night mares or flash backs or become so preoccupied they could no
longer function well.

We call this Vicarious Trauma or Secondary PTSD–when PTSD becomes reactivated from working or helping too soon after their own trauma OR (like in 9/11) when so much over exposure to other people’s pain causes symptoms of PTSD they didn’t previously have. (For more info on reactivated PTSD, see my chapter on PTSD in my book Counseling Victims of Violence.)

Jumping in too early leads to reactivation of PTSD, career burn out (such as being in and out of the coaching field in only a couple of years), or the helper becoming so re-engrossed in their own trauma that they end up acting more like the people they are trying to help…they tell their own stories in too much detail in group, they go home re-traumatized as if they told their own story but didn’t, they become reactivated emotionally, physically, spiritually and sexually,  their startle reflex is increased, their sleep is disrupted, their irritability is high, they are TOO invested in helping other people change their lives, they believe they can ‘ save or fix’ someone else, they invest too much of their personal or family time in other people’s problems, they feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of helping others, they neglect their own self care, family, and their own emotional and spiritual needs amd  they become encased in a Messiah-Complex.

If this was happening to a professional mental health counselor, we would call this an “impaired practioner” and they might be put on a hiatus for R&R. If you are a volunteer and you act this way, you get the  Volunteer of The Year Award and are rewarded for burning yourself out. In too many self help areas, vicarious trauma is applauded and held as a standard of devotion to a cause instead of an unbalanced act of self neglect.

We need people in our organizations who WANT to give back. We need them to be healed enough that they actually HAVE something to give back (which is why I leary of online forums run by survivors who might not be in the greatest emotional shape themselves). Gauging your own self health may be subjective…Am I ready? is a great self exploratory question. Because at the heart of all of us who want to give back robustly, we want to do it with a right motive (giving not expecting to get anything back from extremely wounded people) AND with a healthy mental health that allows us to listen with out triggers and to help without burn out.

If you feel you are ready, there are lots of great places to help.  Go work at a women’s organization–answer the office phones, help with a fund raiser, work in the office, pick up donations. Get your feet wet and stay around the issue you want to work in and see how you do. Don’t offer to answer the crisis phone line if  you are only a few months out of your own crisis relationship. That isn’t realistic.

Recovery from abuse is sslllooowwww…it takes longer than you think it does. But you probably have skills you CAN use now–in other ways. When I was too burned out to be of help to anyone, I knew I could plate food at a homeless shelter and offer a smile. I could do that much at that time. Do what you can, stay healthy yourself, continue to work on your own recovery–recovery isn’t an event it’s a life style and the opportunity to help others will continue to present itself. It’s just what happens when the hurt heals and the hurt helps others.

If you know you are ready give the best of your self to a women’s organization in your own community.  Don’t volunteer to distract yourself from your necessary healing. Volunteer when you’ve achieved a healthy, strong recovery and can maintain it.  If we can help you in your recovery, we’re here to help you strengthen so you too can pass it forward.

(**Information on your recovery is in the award winning Women Who Love Psychopaths, also taught during retreats in the months of Feb and August, in 1:1 sessions during January, March, May and September or in phone sessions.)