the pain of others

hyejin shim
12 min readMay 28, 2021
A reflection on secondary trauma and being both a survivor and a frontline worker in domestic violence crisis response for six years (three of them Trump years). This was written in parts throughout various points in 2019 and up to my departure from my job in January 2020.

I quit my job last month. My coworkers sent me off with cake and flowers; my clients with tearful goodbyes, and one client, a small beeswax candle in the shape of a lotus blossom. When I tried to refuse this offering — we weren’t allowed to take gifts from clients — he insistently pressed the little cardboard box into my hands, simultaneously plaintive and demanding.

“Please. You have to take it. This is my heart.”

So I accepted.

My friends have been congratulating me on the new free time. Not having to report in for work is a relief. I rushed to quit as soon as I knew I needed to leave, but the adjustment since has been slow and strange. For the first few days, my memory replayed every single person that I’ve ever failed at my job: the client who went missing, the two who were deported, the one who is still homeless, the one whose mental health and housing are on the verge of collapse. Then I began to relive the many moments in my personal life in which I witnessed or experienced severe abuse, often unable to help. The flood of memories has subsided since, but I confess that I found myself completely brittle in their wake, fragile in a way that makes me hide myself from the world for fear of being caught in the act of breaking.

Leaving both was and wasn’t of my own choosing. It was the right time, yes. I was burnt out, yes. I felt ready to move on, yes. But I also left my job, community organizing, my social life, and most of my friendships abruptly, in the wake of immense loss in my personal life. This loss devoured everything; left me catatonic. A mere body in its wake. The history of my family opened up like a chasm beneath me, leveling my entire internal world overnight. I still can’t write about this loss, only around it, but it feels worth noting for the record.

Before this week, I worked at a domestic violence shelter: one of San Francisco’s three, and the only one specifically oriented towards serving immigrant and refugee survivors. For six years, my title was domestic violence advocate, and my role was to support our queer, trans, and monolingual Korean-speaking clients. A typical day at work entailed what you’d expect: answering the crisis line, providing referrals and emotional support, client accompaniments to legal offices and courthouses, hour-long counseling sessions, and routine safety planning to help people exit their abusive relationships as smoothly as possible. However, the work also came with a number of tasks and responsibilities that many would not expect — visiting jails and immigration detention centers, arguing with police and detectives, scouring Craigslist ads for viable housing opportunities, translating legal documents, and figuring out how to support clients with acute mental health crises including, but not limited to, suicidality, panic attacks, hallucinations, full-blown psychosis, and more.

I once loved my job, found it purposeful and exciting, a point of pride, not simply in spite of my history of trauma, but because I could turn that history into something useful to support others. In the beginning I eagerly dove into cases that would require years of work, not mere months; cases which regularly propelled me into organizing community defense campaigns, ghostwriting legal declarations, searching hospitals for missing clients, fundraising for emergency costs including immigration bond, and coaching survivors through the risks of arrest and deportation. I was proud of what I could do, especially in a field that was often so reliant on police interventions to enforce safety — and over time, I was able to build a practice that prioritized survivors and their needs while maintaining a deep critique of the idea of police and prisons are the remedy to gender violence. While I worked at the shelter, I helped to revive one local anti-violence group, and co-founded a national one. I excelled at “the work” until it slowly, then suddenly, became unbearable.

”Mom with two kids, no English but speaks Vietnamese, called from the hospital an hour ago.”

“Caller’s stay at her current domestic violence shelter is ending soon. She’ll have nowhere to go in a week. She’s afraid she’ll have to go back to her husband. What should we do?”

“Survivor for 15 years whose husband never applied for a green card for her, now he’s trying to take the kids away. Afraid of deportation. Can you return her call? Arabic-speaking.”

Did we have space? Who had case capacity? What options did the survivor have for government benefits, for immigration relief, for medical care, for legal protections, for help with their children, for work, for future housing? Did we have any funds left for an emergency hotel or Safeway gift cards? Could anyone else make it to their court hearing next week? How could we support an undocumented survivor in leaving abuse, given that their abuser had a gun, routinely threatened to report them to ICE, and that the survivor was completely opposed to involving law enforcement? What about the survivor who wanted a divorce, but felt they couldn’t separate from their abusive spouse until their joint asylum case concluded? Who could we report police misconduct to, or discrimination we encountered while interacting with district attorneys or court personnel? And as we tried to untangle all the different logistical aspects of someone’s case, how could we also help alleviate this person’s suffering, hold their trauma, affirm their rage, ease their despair, help them feel less alone?

Back in the spring of 2014, I took one of my very first cases. This client, J, struggled with severe trauma after many years of sexual abuse, which had been hidden and facilitated by her family. Within a few months of working together, she went missing. Over the course of her case, I started to have rage nightmares. I dreamed about being raped, about my body turning into dust, into lead, into a tar-like black liquid, hot and thick. Everything in those dreams was a piercing, pulsating red. I woke up furious, exhausted, and tense, like I had been running from someone, or after someone, all night. I did my best to suppress what I was feeling, because I felt that survivors were always already burdened by others’ inability to hold their pain, made to feel like they caused harm to others by simply sharing their stories and asking to be heard. I felt absurd and weak for not being able to hold it all, as cool and sturdy as steel. I judged myself by my ability to withstand the searing grief of others. Over time, my emotions became muffled and distant, pressurized; the way things sound as you sink deeper and deeper into the water. By year three, my home life consisted of staring into space and doing the bare minimum. I was getting in bed as soon as I got home, subsisting on staples like Trader Joe’s frozen food selection. I scrolled social media endlessly, hoarded Twitter memes, subscribed to astrology newsletters, smoked a ton of weed. I also started to fall ill every other week, and depleted the entirety of my sick time in both 2018 and 2019.

One night, as I was mindlessly catching up on my Instagram timeline, I saw a photo of a happy queer couple, looking sweet and in love. I was about to “like” it and thought, “That would really suck if this were an abusive relationship. It would be really hard to get out given how visible they are, how much everyone loves them, and how much others are invested in them staying together. I hope they have people they can go to for help.” So I skipped past the photo, and kept on scrolling.

The American Counseling Association defines vicarious trauma, or secondary traumatic stress, as “the emotional residue of exposure that counselors have from working with people as they are hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.” It mirrors the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which range from intrusive thoughts, insomnia, isolation, disruption in self-capacity, numbness, and hypervigilance. It bleeds into your personal life, shapes the way you perceive pleasure, your ability to be intimate. It affects your relationship to your body, wears down your immune system, and can heighten or displace your sense of being corporeal. As opposed to burnout, which can improve with a vacation or a job change, vicarious trauma is “a state of tension and preoccupation of the trauma experiences described by clients”. As a survivor myself, the concept of vicarious trauma always seemed strange, even indulgent: how could someone who hadn’t experienced a trauma directly be similarly impacted, just through exposure to the person who had?

It took me years to be able to truly recognize what was happening. It was difficult to register emotions as feelings other than fatigue, and I rarely cried or externalized distress. Was I working at a healthy distance, or was I checked out? Technically, I was doing everything right: I refused work calls or emails after 5 PM, took sick and vacation days liberally, went to weekly therapy, found hobbies, established many different self-care practices, and had a wide network of support. But emotional impact can’t be contained within the structures of professionalized time, and clocking out emotionally doesn’t happen just because you’ve logged out of your email for the day. In part of a mandatory training I’d attended for my job, the trainer said, “Vicarious trauma can alter your world view and make you see it everywhere, and make it feel like that is all there is.” Well, duh, I thought. It is actually everywhere. How could I turn it off when the world kept grinding ahead? Having seen, how was it possible to look away?

It’s a curious position to be in, to be a custodian for someone’s pain, to escort someone through what very well may be the worst and most dangerous part of their life. To have the power to support, provide resources, and fight for somebody, but little to no power to control the outcome, change the larger circumstances that precipitate abuse, or to determine the aftermath of it. To care deeply, enough to be moved by it, changed by it — and to need to let it go daily. To be expected to be competent, emotionally intact Good Samaritans that always feel fulfilled by virtue alone, while strangers exclaim, “Wow, I could never do what you do!” or abruptly change the subject as soon as you answer the question, “So, what do you do for work?”

Within the field, there is an acknowledgement that the work is “hard”, so the current popular framework for sustainable advocacy depends on the ever-elusive concept of “self care”, where if we exercise “good boundaries” and go to yoga class, if we practice somatics and go to therapy, we’ll be fine. However, secondary trauma is less of an issue of individualized self care, and more of a guaranteed occupational hazard for advocates. The reality is that you can do your best to reduce the impacts, but no matter what, you will be changed. Compounding this is the fact that most advocates in urban areas are financially insecure as they remain vastly underpaid, and that most frontline workers in the field are likely to be supporting their own loved ones through abuse in their personal lives while they support a full caseload at work. It is no wonder that people come to the work with so much heart, and often leave within a matter of two or so years.

We are expected to act as if we are beyond trauma, as if we are practitioners who never get sick ourselves. Yet most of us enter anti-violence work because we, ourselves, are survivors. Who ends up on what side of the hotline is mostly predicated upon mere luck. Vicarious trauma also interacts with and triggers with existing trauma, regardless of stage in healing. Still, it is difficult not to internalize the idea that in order to do our work well, we must differentiate ourselves from our clients by being immune to pain and abuse. I came to believe that this was how to work with integrity. I didn’t realize that this way of coping was similar to how I managed my own trauma — by contrasting against others’ more valid, more urgent, and more severe experiences, and using those differences to suppress the right I had to attend to my own suffering.

Support for survivors is still incredibly undervalued, under-resourced, and more often than not, contingent upon the survivor’s ability to perform a linear trajectory of recovery. At so many different junctions, survivors are judged, scrutinized, and found unworthy. Because survivors are often seen as the source of abuse for exposing it, they can become the object of rage and control as opposed to the people who have actually caused the harm. As an advocate, it was critical for me to prove to my clients that I cared and that they were worth fighting for. This crystallized into an unconscious belief that I wasn’t supposed to ever feel adversely impacted by my work; as if that meant my clients, themselves, were harming me.

Experiencing vicarious trauma after prolonged exposure to violence doesn’t mean that you are weak, or that it is their fault for bringing pain into your life, or that it is your fault for being affected by it. Vicarious trauma, if anything, shows that the impacts of abuse can be so severe that they radiate out well past the intended target, impacting not just immediate loved ones but larger communities, even across generations. If violence can do this, of course it will affect the first respondents tasked with mitigating its impacts. This is what violence and trauma do. It is less how you feel about it, and more about how you respond to its questions. What will you do with what you have seen?

In a candid moment, a coworker asked me: Do you think this work ruins us? I have asked myself for years: Am I allowed to write this? The emotional landscape of trauma is inhospitable to nuance or the simultaneous truths that characterize our lives, especially when they feel at odds with each other. But I remind myself:

I have the power to decide what I want to do with my daily life. All I can ever do is my best. I can care deeply and still experience trauma simultaneously. Feeling affected by violence is not a choice, not a value judgment, just a response that sometimes needs tending to. Being responsible for helping someone doesn’t mean that I am responsible for alleviating all of their suffering. I have so much less control than I think I do. The pain of others is not mine to carry, nor is it mine to heal. What is mine is how I choose to be present with somebody. My power matters, but is limited. I take pride in my ability to rise to the occasion when I need to, and I also honor my own smallness, my own mortality, the delicate limits of my body and mind. I am responsible for attending to the pain that builds in me over time, for allowing myself the humanity of a diverse range of emotions, and for seeing to my own healing. It isn’t irresponsible or harmful to feel. Feelings are simply feelings. Your actions are how you mediate them.

When my client J went missing, I was at a loss for what to do, how to do it, and to what end. I eventually learned that she had left the country of her own volition. It has been almost seven years. I think of her at random moments: when I’m making tea in the morning, when I’m driving across the Bay Bridge, when I walk by a church, when I read the news. I don’t know where she is now, how she is doing, or if she is even alive. I will likely never know. One of my coworkers found her client dead by suicide in her hotel room recently, and it’s hard not to think of J or the others like her who’ve vanished from my line of sight. I wonder, time and time again, if there was more I could have done, and if so, what that “more” would have been. Sometimes it’s helpful to just follow my anxious train of thought all the way through — what could I have done differently? What could I have done more of? — because I find, again, that I usually draw a blank. Because I did everything that was in my power to do. And it still wasn’t enough.

This, too, is part of the work. It will never be enough. Accepting that grief is its own bittersweet reward; the relinquishing of control, the laying down of the burden, the understanding that you, too, are only human, just a small part of any given story. The challenge is in trying your best, from wherever you are, anyway — in working to create a world where J never ends up in the hospital, where she doesn’t have to call an anonymous stranger for help, where she doesn’t ever have to disappear. A world that doesn’t exist yet. I still wish there was more I could have given her. I will never stop wishing that there was more I could have given her.

You can donate to Asian Women’s Shelter, my former workplace, here.

You can donate to Survived and Punished, my organizing home, here.

It should go without saying but neither organization listed endorsed this piece. My words and experiences are mine alone.