When Am I Ready to Help Others?

By Sandra L. Brown, MA

At the heart of any grassroots effort or organization 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 grassroots organizations like ours, but of 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, heals, 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 20s 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. Luckily, a national pilot project for survivors of homicide victims 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 spokesperson 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 over 30 years ago. Since then, I have worked not only with survivors of homicide, but those of incest, cults, domestic violence, rape, and every kind of trauma disorder imaginable. I have started nonprofit mental-health centers, the country’s first long-term residential treatment program for women with multiple personalities (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder), hospital trauma programs, outpatient programs, and 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 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 did regular radio shows with several stations. I have written seven books (and counting), numerous e-books, created CDs and DVDs, and written for several women’s online websites and programs.

Now I direct The Institute, conduct research, phone counseling, writing, therapeutic retreats and counseling. To tell the truth, I can’t even REMEMBER everything I have done to date! LOL! (Maybe that’s a GOOD thing!) The point is, many years ago my life was altered by a murder. For over 30 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 financial gain there is, I just dole it 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.

Someone once said, “You never help someone else without first helping yourself.” Every time I help someone else with PTSD, it helps me 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 out and give others the hope that you now have. It’s only hope that keeps others going, 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’ve got.” 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 counseling programs and centers and teaching counseling classes, I heard fresh new interns come in and say, “I was raped so I want to help the raped.” It’s a great grassroots 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.

The interns 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 meltdown—crying in the group they were supposed to lead. They would go home and have nightmares or flashbacks 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 the 9/11 attacks, when so much overexposure to other people’s pain causes symptoms of PTSD they didn’t previously have.

Jumping in too early leads to reactivation of PTSD and career burnout (like being in and out of the counseling field in only a couple of years). The helper can become so re-engrossed in their own trauma that they end up acting more like the people they are trying to help because they…

  • believe they can ‘save or fix’ someone else
  • tell their own stories in too much detail in group
  • become reactivated emotionally, physically, spiritually and sexually
  • feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of helping others
  • are too invested in helping other people change their lives
  • invest too much of their personal or family time in other people’s problems
  • go home re-traumatized as if they told their own story even though they hadn’t
  • neglect their own self-care, family, and their own emotional and spiritual needs
  • can become encased in a Messiah Complex

Then they end up burning out because their startle reflex is increased, their sleep is disrupted and their irritability is high. If this happened to a professional mental-health counselor, we would call this an ‘impaired practitioner,’ and she 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 upheld 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’m leery 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 state that allows us to listen without triggers and to help without burning 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 fundraiser, 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 slo-o-ow… 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 lifestyle. 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 yourself 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 pay it forward.

(**If we can support you in your recovery process, please let us know. The Institute is the largest provider of recovery-based services for survivors of pathological love relationships. Information about pathological love relationships is in our award-winning book, Women Who Love Psychopaths, and is also available in our retreats, 1:1s, or phone sessions.  See the website for more information.)

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