As someone who has worked with survivors of abuse for over ten years, I’ve always considered myself fairly capable of separating work stress with the rest of life. Compartmentalizing, if you will.
People often say to me “I don’t know how you can do this work.” And I often reply to them by using a common expression people in the helping professions (social workers, psychologists, counselors, caregivers) like to use: “I developed tough skin.” Simply put this means that stories of trauma and abuse become normal. When you hear a new story, horrific as it may be, it doesn’t cause you to break down or give up, you have a job to do and you will do it. The stories don’t scratch, cut or burn the skin of your soul, your skin is too “tough” for that.
I moved back to the U.S. just over a year ago, and I’ve got to admit, many of the callouses on my soul that made it so tough, the ones that I developed from working directly with the girls in our home seem to have all but washed away. My “tough skin” is slowly becoming much more tender than I find to be comfortable.
On my last trip to the Philippines I teared up during prayers (my own and others) and I cried through speeches and testimonies (my own and others) and I even got teary eyed during case conference meetings upon hearing some of the backgrounds of our newest residents. I couldn’t believe what had happened to me! Where had all my tough skin gone?!
I often tell the stories of the girls in our home. Stories of girls like “Jamie” and “Sheila” and “Jocelyn” and “Rosa.” And you can’t tell these stories as often as I do, and cry all the way through them. But often I take it one step further and smile throughout the stories. Because at My Refuge House we are about restoration. We are about hope. The atrocities that brought the girls to our home home were tragic… but what they have done since arriving to overcome their past: that is nothing short of heroic.
However, I’m finally coming to realize something. I’m coming to realize, that there is room for the smiles and the tears. While the progress is nothing short of heroic, it doesn’t make the tragedy anything less than devastating, and I don’t have to mask one or promote the other in order for them both to be true.
So, I’m learning how to tell the stories of our girls better. I’m learning how to tell them in a way that honors their victories and pain, at the same time. Because both the tragic and the triumphant are a part of their lives. And they almost never exist apart from each other.
And maybe, just maybe, being able to share in the tragedy of those I come in contact with, along with their joy, means my soul is stronger… even if the skin of my soul is no longer “tough.”