The first time I realized something might be wrong, I was crying in the produce section of Costco.
I’d just seen a lawyer who works at the court where I practice and turned away before he could spot me. Like me, he was spending his weekend catching up on errands. The sight of someone whose job is to try to get people deported out buying a 30-pack of paper towels sent me over the edge. I couldn’t stop the tears as I beelined toward the checkout.
Though I’d been spontaneously bursting into tears for weeks, this was the first time I had the self-awareness to think, “This cannot possibly be normal.”
During law school and the many continuing legal trainings I attended each year, I was warned about “vicarious trauma” and “compassion fatigue,” the complex mental strains that can quickly lead to complete burnout. Vicarious trauma was first conceptualized to explain changes in therapists’ beliefs and expectations of the world after hearing graphic and painful stories from their clients. It now is now recognized to affect many different types of people who work in caretaking professions. Merriam-Webster defines compassion fatigue as “the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.”
As someone who works with indigent migrants facing extreme persecution in their home countries, I was at prime risk.
Despite this, the stubborn part of me believed that I had some sort of immunity to compassion fatigue. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression since I was a preteen, but jumping into the fight had always buoyed me, not weighed me down. Being part of something bigger than myself and fighting against perceived wrongs made me feel better, not worse.
I thought of compassion and resilience kind of like hearts in video games ― when you completed a hard, emotionally draining challenge, you were rewarded with an additional heart, making you stronger over time. Under that logic, each hard case and even each loss made me stronger, more capable and more prepared for the next case and the next case.
But then I started crying in Costco, during date night with my wife and in bed in the middle of the night. After months of working exclusively with asylum-seekers under the Trump regime, I was experiencing the telltale signs of compassion fatigue.
“I am trying to really feel it when I see joy and resilience and strength in the world, and hold those moments equal in my heart with the suffering I witness.”
Overcome by emotion, I tried to excise every single bad thing from my life. First, I banned any TV with stressful plots, watching only the Food Network and HGTV. Then I started to feel bad about the animals they cooked on the Food Network, and that was out too. HGTV was OK for a while until they started showing episodes of “House Hunters International” in which wealthy white Americans searched for dream beachfront properties in Central American countries my clients fled after being tortured. When several friends took winter vacations to Cuba, I stopped looking at Instagram, because I could not reconcile their sunny snapshots with the stories I heard from Cuban clients. My entire media consumption eventually revolved around “Gilmore Girls” and “The Great British Baking Show” episodes I’d seen before.
I skipped episodes of “Gilmore Girls” when the main characters fought too much, not sure if I could handle even the most benign conflict. Soon, even purely joyful moments like seeing my wife after she got back from a long work trip were tainted by the voice in the back of my head reminding me that so many of my clients would never see their families again.
It was almost reasonable, this idea that because I spent my workdays immersed in the cruelty of humankind that I would avoid the same trauma outside work. But eventually, it wasn’t just outside of work. I felt so helpless and hopeless that I started to wonder why I even tried when it was so clear that there would be no end, no point at which we would arrive at some semblance of justice in our immigration system.
Losses started to seem inevitable. I got so anxious about work that I started taking carrying around a small pharmacy of pain relievers and anti-nausea medication to offset the stomachaches and migraines that plagued me. Even the wins felt hollow because I always was looking toward the next case, which I knew would break my heart all over again.
After my breakdown in Costco, I started looking for a solution. Everyone seemed to agree that I needed to first put on my own oxygen mask in the metaphorical plummeting airplane. But few were able to offer more suggestions than the infuriatingly vague “self-care.”
In attempting to cure my compassion fatigue, I amassed so many sheet masks I could wallpaper my bathroom with them. Bottles of calming essential oils clutter my cupboard. When natural remedies fail, I have Ativan. But all the self-care in the world won’t change the fact that I work in a place and within a system in which asylum cases are granted only around 3 percent of the time. The odds are always against my clients, and that is the root of the problem. It is hard to experience the relaxation promised by a lavender pillow mist when your clients are trapped in detention centers without access to proper hygiene or food.
Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, the author of Trauma Stewardship, writes that “people who are working to help those who suffer, or who are working to repair the world to prevent suffering, must somehow reconcile their own joy – the authentic wonder and delight in life – with the irrefutable fact of suffering in the world.”
True joy feels far-fetched to me right now, but her book did change the way I thought about self-care. I stopped believing that taking care of myself had to look like something out of a women’s magazine. Instead, I began to think about it more like a self-imposed jailbreak from the useless depressive martyrdom of refusing to allow myself to experience joy when so many that I work with are in the worst moments of their lives.
For now, I am starting there: trying to allow myself small moments of joy guilt-free. And so far, no joy has topped that of picking up newly released clients from the detention center. No matter what case is coming next, no matter how many cases were lost before this win, I am happy to have one afternoon, or even just an hour, or a moment, of happiness because right now, in this case, things went right.
I won’t ever be entirely OK ― none of us should ever be fully OK ― when things are so objectively bad. But for now, I am trying to really feel it when I see joy and resilience and strength in the world, and hold those moments equal in my heart with the suffering I witness. I’m trying to stay in the fight for more joy, more justice, moment by moment.