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Jennifer Lunden | Longreads | September 2019 | 25 minutes (6,331 words)
Our fuchsia had vanished. The empty pot lay broken on the front porch where just the previous day the fully flowered plant had hung, splendid and cheery. I found one lone tendril in the driveway — its three pink and purple blossoms still miraculously attached, its roots still flecked with soil. I tried to piece together the mystery, but I could not.
Later, I got an email from our tenant, Annie:
Someone absconded with one of the hanging fuchsia! Because I am a person with a strong sense of justice, I tracked a trail of blossoms and stems up to Cumberland Ave this morning, where I found the pot smashed and the tendrils scattered.
She had reclaimed our busted pot and left it on the porch. Annie chalked it up to a drunken lark, a random act of vandalism. But somebody had climbed our front steps, unhooked our hanging fuchsia, and left a trail of uprooted stems all the way around the block. Who would do such a thing? I wondered. Why?
In the month leading up to the theft of our fuchsia, I’d read reports of several muggings in our neighborhood, including at least one at gunpoint; some break-ins, even in daytime when residents were home; and the armed robberies of both our own nearby credit union and another down the street. Never in the five years we had lived in our neighborhood had I heard of so much crime happening there. Perhaps delinquency in our part of the city was simply attracting more press. But I feared things were getting worse. Our Tea Party governor had cut back funding for food stamps, housing assistance, health insurance, and substance abuse treatment. When you remove the social safety net, people get desperate. When you take away the last things of the people who have the least, well, even if no one wants to hear what they have to say, they will find a way to speak.
I had been a clinical social worker for 13 years, and I was tired. My clients were in pain, I was in pain, and it seemed as though the world was broken. I was suffering from compassion fatigue, an occupational hazard of my profession, also known as vicarious trauma. I was emotionally exhausted. My well had run nearly dry.
Some days, I felt like I had to grip my chair to bolster myself as another client’s story of pain came my way. Like the time a client disabled by Lyme disease and unable to afford treatment wound up homeless. Or the time a client told me that he’d just found out his mother had sexually abused his six-year-old son. Or the time a client inexplicably lost her food stamps benefit and she had no money for food. Things I was powerless to change.
Sometimes I taught my clients visualizations they could use to help calm their anxiety. Sometimes I taught them how to stand up and slowly inhale, gathering all their fear and frustration and shooting it out through their fingertips as they exhaled in a loud, guttural growl. Sometimes I taught them to put one of their hands on their heart to trigger their body’s relaxation response, and to repeat aloud, “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself.” Sometimes we attempted to problem-solve together, although that rarely did much good. Sometimes, after a client left, I put my head down on my desk and wept.
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I had become a therapist because I wanted to help people who were suffering. I wanted to help them find their way to richer, more fulfilling lives. But how could I do that when the system that was meant to protect them wasn’t doing its part?
I wasn’t eager to leave our house in the midst of this rash of crime, but my husband Frank and I had plans to visit my father and stepmother in Canada — so we photographed all our valuables as the police had recommended in a press release, tucked away the things that could be tucked away, and locked all of our windows. Frank set up a security camera, and our tenant Annie, who would be taking care of our cats, agreed to switch on some lights every night.
Just before we crossed the border to Canada, we stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank and empty our bladders. Its convenience store was small and dark, with a table anchored to the floor and two locals sitting across from each other sipping coffee.
The bathroom was dimly lit by an old wooden floor lamp with no shade. A price tag dangled from the lamp, and I saw that somebody had paid $40 for it, which struck me as far more than it was worth. Two mosquitoes banged against the dingy blue wall, and the soap dispenser lay on its side on top of the sink.
While Frank took his turn in the bathroom, I scanned the newspaper headlines and saw something about a manhunt. Before I could read any more about it, the cashier looked at me and declared with satisfaction, “They caught him.”
I don’t know how neither Frank nor I had heard about the 23-day manhunt for escaped murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat, who had used contraband power tools to cut through a steel wall at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, then climbed five stories down a series of internal catwalks, crawled through a pipe, and emerged from a manhole a block beyond the prison walls.
“We’re here from Maine…. I didn’t know anything about this,” I said, unaware that this breakout had been making headlines for weeks. She said, “They caught him just ten minutes up the road from here. They already caught the other guy a couple days ago — shot him and killed him.” I gaped at her in amazement. She continued. “They escaped from the prison. I guess one of them killed a guy and cut him into pieces. The other shot a cop seven times.”
“Well, good they caught ’em,” I said with a smile and a sharp nod of the head. I don’t know if I said out loud that I was glad the one was dead, but it was implied. They were bad men. Dangerous. They shouldn’t be roaming the countryside. Someone was going to get hurt. Someone innocent.
It was an instantaneous gut response, a categorical abandonment of my understanding of people as complex beings who turn to criminal behavior as a result of many forces at play. When fear centers are activated in the brain, critical thinking skills get short-circuited, and it took my brain just milliseconds to subtly and unconsciously switch to survival mode, dividing people up into good guys and bad guys, the innocent and the guilty. That’s not the person I want to be. But it’s the person I was in that moment.
Sometimes, Google Maps takes you on a trip to nowhere. I often suspect that some poor sap, sick of his cubicle and about to quit, threw in some directional twists simply to leave his mark on the world in some small way. Just a few miles down the road from that gas station, for instance, the directions told us to take a right off the highway, and then take another right, and then another, and then one more and get back on the highway. We didn’t realize that Google Maps was taking us in a giant, pointless loop. So we hung that first right. But just as the odometer told us we should be approaching our second right, we came upon a scene we didn’t expect to encounter on such a remote country road.
We noticed the white vans first, their satellite dishes raised, some pulled over on the right shoulder, some on the left, and then three police cars, lights flashing. A number of officers milled about, and a man we could only deduce was a reporter stood in the doorway of the house on the corner taking notes on a little pad of paper. We had stumbled upon the site of the capture.
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I didn’t grab my camera quickly enough to photograph the police cars or the officer who was about to tell us we couldn’t take a right where Google Maps wanted us to take a right. Instead, I snapped a picture of three news station vans and a number of cars pulled over on the side of the road, our windshield wet from the rain that had only recently stopped coming down. Just a couple of hours earlier, Sergeant Jay Cook, a state trooper, had spotted a man walking down Coveytown Road there in Constable, New York, stopped to question him, and realized it was indeed David Sweat, the man that 1300 law enforcement officers had been pursuing for twenty-three days. When Sweat ran, Cook chased him into an alfalfa field, then shot him twice, hitting him in the back and upper torso. Then the trooper handcuffed the fugitive, and an ambulance came and took David Sweat to the hospital. He lived to boast to investigators that he was the mastermind behind the escape. And then he was sent right back to prison.
When the officer wouldn’t let us pass, we checked our directions and realized Google Maps had just been messing with us. We drove back to the highway and kept on going.
I liked that there was a little wooden bookshelf on the wall above the desk in our room at the Best Western in Cornwall, Ontario — and on it four old hardcover books, the kind that might have been picked up in the free bin at a used bookstore. But the book in front was called The History and Values of Social Work Practice, and I wondered why the travel gods had deemed it right to remind me of my profession on the first day of my vacation. I called my father to let him know what time to expect us the next day, and I told him about happening upon the site of the capture. He couldn’t believe we hadn’t heard about the manhunt. “Don’t you watch the news?” he said. “That’s a close call…You shouldn’t have gone that way. You should have come through Montreal. What if those two guys had been hitchhiking?”
“Dad, we wouldn’t have picked them up.”
“Well, you should read the paper. You need to stay informed.”
Sweat had been serving a life sentence for killing a sheriff’s deputy in 2002. He and two friends had plundered a store that sold guns and fireworks and were transferring their haul into another vehicle in a town park when Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Tarsia, on night patrol, happened upon them. Sweat shot Tarsia a number of times with an assault rifle, but when the felled deputy continued to struggle, Sweat jumped into his car and ran over the wounded man, dragging him across the parking lot. One of Sweat’s accomplices finished Tarsia off with two shots fired point-blank into his face. The men pillaged Tarsia’s patrol car, taking traffic flares and arrest forms in addition to the officer’s 40-caliber Glock. Then they took off.
Three days later, after a 16-year-old girl tipped off the police, Sweat was arrested. He later confessed to the crime and, in a bid to save himself from the chair, pled guilty. He was sent to the Clinton Correctional Facility, where he would one day meet Richard Matt.
Matt was also in prison for murder. One night in 1997, just a few months after completing a term for attempted burglary and parole violation, he drove with an accomplice to the home of his former boss, 76-year-old William Rickerson, and demanded the location of the $100,000 the man once bragged he kept buried in the basement. Although Rickerson did have $5000 stashed in a hollowed-out book, as investigators later discovered, he denied the existence of any hidden cash and Matt beat him, then sat down and helped himself to pizza and wine. When Rickerson continued to insist that he had no money, Matt poured the remainder of the wine on the man, tore off his toupee, then bound him with duct tape and locked him in the trunk of their car. It was winter, and Rickerson was wearing only his pajamas. Matt and his accomplice then drove from New York to Ohio and back again, trying to coax Rickerson to reveal the location of the money. At one point, they stopped, and Matt opened the trunk and bent Rickerson’s fingers back until they broke. Later, when it was clear they would not be extracting any money from Rickerson, Matt reached in and snapped Rickerson’s neck with his bare hands. Then the two men drove to Tonawanda Island, New York, where Matt dismembered Rickerson’s body with a hacksaw and dumped the parts into the Niagara River.
When the parts started washing ashore a few weeks later, Matt stole his half-brother’s car and fled to Mexico, where he fatally stabbed a man in a strip-club men’s room in an attempted robbery and spent nine years in a Mexican prison before being extradited to the US to face trial for William Rickerson’s murder. Sentenced to 25 years to life, he eventually wound up in a cell adjoining the one belonging to David Sweat.
Matt was an escape artist with one previous prison break under his belt; Sweat was a mapper and a meticulous planner. With good behavior, each had earned a place on the prison’s honor block, where they were granted greater freedom. From there, they planned their escape.
My father and his wife, my stepmother Linda, lived in a 1970s-era yellow brick ranch in a suburb plunked down in the middle of farmland one mile’s walk from the nearest bus stop. They knew many of their neighbors, some of whom had lived in that suburb since we moved there in 1980 when I was 13. It was a quiet neighborhood. People barbequed steaks on their back patios, walked their dogs off-leash in the middle of the road, and made subtle comments to each other about who wasn’t keeping their yard up. Even as a teen, I had railed against this insulated life — I felt sheltered and numbed. I knew there was more to the world than this and as soon as I could, I went looking for it.
After Frank and I unloaded the car, I considered that it was probably overkill to lock it in this neighborhood, but I did anyway. Later, Dad and Linda told me that someone once broke into my stepsister’s car in the driveway and stole a bag of baseball bats. The houses on both sides of them had been broken into, but so far theirs had been left untouched. They had a nighttime security system, but decided to leave it off while we were there, for fear we would accidentally trip it.
Frank and I lived in the most densely populated neighborhood in Maine. Our duplex was shadowed by the multi-unit buildings that surrounded us on all sides. After five years there, the majority of our neighbors were still strangers to us. For the most part, they lived their quiet lives. For the most part, we all kept to ourselves. But sometimes, especially on hot summer nights, fights broke out in the street. Just yelling, usually. Cursing. Posturing and threats. Once, our dog awoke us barking in the wee hours. Frank crept to the front door and pulled back the curtain to find a man bleeding on our porch as two police officers tried to sort out the altercation he’d had with the people next door. By morning, the man and the officers were gone, but the bloodstain remained.
Two days after we left for Canada, Annie sent us a link to an article that said an arrest had been made in the series of burglaries in our neighborhood.
“This should make you feel a bit better,” she wrote. And it did.
But only a little a bit.
Thirty-four percent of white males are born with a gene variant that predisposes them to antisocial behavior. The MAOA-3R variant is more popularly known as the “warrior gene,” and researchers have connected it to psychopathy. How is it that the majority of these men do not wind up like Matt and Sweat?
Multiple studies show that men with this variant who were mistreated as boys are more likely to engage in delinquent or criminal activities and are more prone to violence, particularly when feeling provoked or isolated. They’re more likely to be risk-takers, more likely to seek revenge and to use greater force, they’re more impulsive and more aggressive. The problems are even greater when the mistreatment happens to boys under the age of five.
Translation: If we protect children better, we can also protect ourselves.
The MAOA-3R variant has been linked to heightened reaction in the amygdala — the part of the brain that regulates emotions and stress response — and to decreased activity in the prefrontal regions of the brain that protect against anxiety. Men with the MAOA-3R variant who also grew up poor are even more inclined to develop antisocial behaviors.
Even my 8-year-old nephew Reed had heard about the manhunt. When we arrived, my father told me Reed had been asking questions about it even before he learned that we had stumbled on the site of the capture. The next day, when Reed came to visit, I overheard him in the kitchen with Linda. He wanted to know why Richard Matt and David Sweat had killed people. I listened for Linda’s reply.
“There are some bad people in the world,” she said. And then, “But luckily, there are a lot more good people.”
The social worker in me silently objected to this dividing of people into one or the other. What would happen if we stopped talking to children in terms of good guys and bad guys? What if we allowed more room for the complex nuances of character? I pondered what I might have said if Reed had asked me. I did not come up with a good answer.
Before Frank and I bought our house together, I lived alone in a brick and clapboard twelve-unit building less than a block from my city’s main drag. Over those 10 years, my neighbors came and went. The man who lived in the basement apartment below mine for some of that time — a white man with chestnut hair and dark, brooding eyes — had a face chronically shadowed with anger. Often I heard him raging alone in the apartment below. One night when his tirade was particularly ferocious, I put my ear to the floor, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. His rage seemed boundless and deep. Whenever we crossed paths I averted my eyes for fear of becoming the target of one of those rages.
One day, my doorbell buzzed, and when I opened my door, there stood this same neighbor holding my cat in his arms. “This yours?” he said gruffly, and handed her over. He had found her in front of the building. Apparently, she had squeezed through a cracked window and made a secret escape.
He was surly, but also he was cradling my soft cat in his arms. It was impossible, in that moment, not to see the tenderness. He had recognized her as mine. Perhaps the sight of her every day at my window had tugged on a small, soft place in his heart. He had picked her up. He had rung my bell to return her to me.
David Sweat was raised with his two sisters by a single mother in a small town in New York State. A family friend told a reporter, “He really wasn’t raised in the best society. We drank a lot, we partied a lot. His life was turmoil.”
It speaks to something disturbed in a small boy that he smashed his toy cars with rocks and lit them on fire. At 9, he carried a butcher’s knife to school in his backpack to vanquish the bullies who tormented him. That was the same year he started hurling knives at his mother. She sent him to Florida to live with his aunt and uncle, but after he stole and crashed his aunt’s car he was sent to foster care. He finished his growing up in group homes.
As for Richard Matt, his 23-year-old son told a reporter that his father was abandoned as an infant in a car. “Everybody is born innocent, but he was raised around crime.” Matt’s own father was a career criminal whose long rap sheet included burglary, assault, writing bad checks, and possession of stolen property. Matt grew up in a series of foster homes, and then graduated to a group home. Locked in a juvenile detention facility at age 14, he stole a horse and rode away to freedom. At least once in his youth, he attempted suicide, slashing his arms and wrists multiple times with a knife.
Both men entered the criminal justice system in their mid-teens.
Almost two-and-a-half-million people live behind bars in the United States. Per capita, that is the highest prison population in the world — an increase of 500% since 1973, when the government-sponsored National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals declared that US prisons had “achieved only a shocking record of failure.”
Factoring in all the people who are also on probation or parole, a stunning one out of every 31 adults is somehow mired in the US correctional system. Most of them are childhood trauma survivors. Most of them grew up in or around poverty. And unlike Matt and Sweat, most of them are people of color.
Conditions at many US prisons are deplorable. Take the Clinton Correctional Facility, the prison that Matt and Sweat escaped. In 2014, the Correctional Association of New York, an independent nonprofit that monitors state prisons, released a scathing report on the conditions there. “Overall,” said the report, “the level of physical violence and staff abuse and intimidation, the pervasive environment of oppression…and the tensions derived from vast racial and cultural disparities between staff and incarcerated persons…epitomize the worst aspects of mass incarceration in New York State.”
The New York Times reported that some of Matt and Sweat’s fellow honor block prisoners were violently beaten when they denied knowing anything about the escape. Patrick Alexander, who was in a neighboring cell, was taken to a broom closet, where one officer lifted him out of his chair by his throat and slammed his head against a pipe on the wall, then started punching him in the face while two more punched him in the ribs and stomach. When Alexander continued to insist he had no information, the officer pointed to a plastic bag hanging on some pipes, asked if he knew what it was for, then said menacingly, “You know what waterboarding is?”
Then the officer put the bag over Alexander’s head and beat him some more.
Others, who had worked for years for the privilege of living on the honor block, were sent to solitary confinement in other prisons, punished for the failures of guards who had literally been asleep on the job.
It’s hard to imagine a place like the Clinton Correctional Facility being capable of correcting much of anything.
It’s easier to imagine how survivors of the US correctional system return to society just as disenfranchised as the day they were first convicted.
One day, while Frank, Linda, my father and I sat around the kitchen table, a tennis match on the TV in the background, my father reiterated his concern that Frank and I were out of touch with the news. How could we not have heard about the killers on the loose? We told him we got most of our news on Facebook, and none of our friends had passed this story around. My dad, who was in his early 70s and still played squash in winter and tennis in summer, proudly told us he usually kept two TVs on in the house, almost exclusively to watch sports or follow the news — and urged us to sign up for Google News so we could be kept abreast of the latest happenings around the world.
I told my father about the compassion fatigue. Other than the inescapable onslaught that flowed by as I scrolled my Facebook newsfeed, I said, I avoided the news. I didn’t feel like I could afford to hear one more bad thing.
He looked at me, mystified.
In my work as a therapist, what I told my clients with post-traumatic stress disorder was that people with PTSD know the truth: that bad things can happen. They know it in their bodies. Everyone else walks around in the happy (and desirable) delusion that they are safe, that nothing bad can happen to them.
Here are some things my clients knew in their bodies:
It’s really true that your father can molest you when you are a little girl.
It’s true that you can be denied home health care because your poverty-level income is “too high.”
It’s true that your friend can be stirred to enlist in the army under the false pretense of “weapons of mass destruction” and come back a broken man.
It’s true you can be sexually abused by your healthcare provider.
It’s true a bomb can go off.
Are you skimming over this list?
Try not to skim over this list.
I cannot skim over this list.
It’s true that your boyfriend can put a gun to your head and threaten to pull the trigger.
It’s true your mother can try to kill you.
It’s true that you can have custody of your child unjustly ripped away from you by your abusive, alcoholic ex-husband.
It’s true several men can drug you and rape you, one after another.
It’s true that people can know and not do anything to help.
Now, in some secondary but visceral way, I knew it, too.
The problem was compounded by exposure to media that reminded me again and again of everything that was wrong. So many bad things came up on my Facebook feed. School shootings. The slashing of funding for food stamps, housing assistance, and Head Start. Sexual abuse of children by priests and football coaches.
But the one that really put me over the edge happened one year before our trip to Canada: the Ferguson, Missouri police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed young Black man, and the subsequent decision by a grand jury not to indict. Or, to be more specific, what tipped the scale was the killing of yet another unarmed African American, this taking place on the heels of the choking death of Eric Garner a month earlier and a different grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who killed him. (In August 2019 that officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was fired and stripped of his pension after the deputy commissioner for the New York Police Department found him guilty of reckless assault.) And two years before that, the death of Trayvon Martin, the hoodie-clad Black teenager who was walking home from the store with a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea when he was shot by Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman…who was found not guilty.
The things we do to each other. The things we allow.
Around that time I started a journal entitled “Things That Make Me Cry.” In its pages I wrote, “It feels like sadness is at the core of all happiness, just waiting to burst out.” The Gettysburg Address, for example, made me cry: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. A happy thing, the Gettysburg Address. So why was I crying? While I now know that Lincoln actually saw free Black people as a “troublesome presence,” at the time I loved how he took that moment to redefine the meaning and purpose of the Civil War: it was not being fought just to preserve the Union, but to uphold the principle of human equality. When I listened to Lincoln’s auspicious words, though, I wept.
In the last entry, written upon returning to work after a week off, I realized that I hadn’t cried or felt heavy-hearted all that week of vacation. “But I know it is lingering back there, and I pointedly avoid reading or watching anything described as ‘moving.’ I don’t want to be moved. I am already moved too much.” I made a point of renting comedies instead.
I didn’t want to be around people. I was too drained. If a friend or acquaintance mentioned some trouble in her life, I stiffened. I could not take another negative thing in. I didn’t have anything more to give.
I’d been depressed before, but this didn’t feel like depression. When I was depressed, I remembered, I had felt like the walking dead. I couldn’t even muster a smile. Every morning I awoke wondering, What is the purpose of life? Wondering, because it felt like there was none. It was a living despair every day. It was personal. It was my pain.
Now was different. There was just too much pain in the world, and I felt like I was in touch with all of it. What I did not realize when I became a social worker was that my career choice would insinuate itself into my worldview.
What my line of work has taught me: If you scratch the surface, you will find pain and trauma. It’s everywhere, lurking.
When the US Justice Department investigated the killing of Michael Brown, it upheld the grand jury’s decision not to indict, but delivered what US Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called a “searing” report on the constitutional violations and racial bias permeating the Ferguson Police Force.
Ferguson’s population is two-thirds black, but its police force is 97% white. As of December 2014, 16,000 people — more than 76% of the entire population — had outstanding arrest warrants issued by the Ferguson Municipal Court, most of them for minor violations such as parking and traffic infractions. In 2013, 92% of the city’s arrest warrants were issued against African Americans, and court cases were 68% less likely to be dismissed for blacks than for whites.
The US Department of Justice concluded that “Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias.”
In other words, the officer who shot Michael Brown did not act in a vacuum.
One review of several studies found that anywhere between 21% and 67% of mental health professionals suffer from burnout, a term that is often used interchangeably with vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Cops suffer from burnout too.
I can imagine how difficult it is to be a police officer, how stressful, knowing that at any moment someone could pull a gun on you — and how demoralizing to be so underappreciated when all you wanted to do when you signed up was protect and serve. And I can imagine how it would affect your worldview, how the criminal justice system combined with your experience in the field would make you see things in terms of good guys and bad guys. I can imagine it’s much harder for a police officer — or a prison warden, for that matter — to make room for nuance than for a middle-aged social worker, safe in her office, seeing one person at a time, witnessing people at their most vulnerable, hearing the stories of how they came to be so stuck, of how they have learned to survive.
A few years before our road trip, in 2011, Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, threatened to veto any bill to accept Affordable Care Act funds to expand healthcare for low-income Mainers, and his party was backing him. If a bill didn’t pass, 70,000 people would be cut from the Medicaid rolls. I couldn’t bear the thought of it. So I started a petition, emailed it to all of my Maine friends, and posted it on Facebook. Almost 10,000 people signed the petition, and I went to the State House to hand-deliver it to the Chair of the Appropriations Committee. I sent regular emails out to all the signers through SignOn.org, keeping them abreast of the latest news and encouraging them to reach out to their legislators.
In the midst of all this, I was getting a new mental health counseling agency off the ground; counseling clients, many of whom were trauma survivors steeped in poverty; and carving time out for exercise and other self-care in a valiant and only partially successful effort to keep my own mental health in balance.
The governor vetoed the bill, the Republicans refused to override his veto, and 70,000 Mainers lost their healthcare coverage. Fewer poor people would have access to basic healthcare, fewer trauma survivors would receive mental health services, fewer people struggling with substance use disorder would be able to get treatment.
This single legislative action created 70,000 individual stories of economic abandonment. The reverberations would be impossible to quantify.
Despite the ultimate futility of my efforts, the Maine chapter of the National Association of Social Workers decided to name me Social Worker of the Year. I told my own therapist, Getty, about the award, and then I told her how tired I was, how overwhelmed. Then, even before I realized what I was saying, this slipped out:
“But hey, that’s a nice honor, Social Worker of the World….”
I caught myself and stopped short. Getty and I looked at each other and cracked up. Social Worker of the World. Ha. I had just made what might have been the most classic Freudian slip in the history of Freudian slips.
Getty was still smiling when she asked, “How does it feel to be Social Worker of the World?”
“It feels exhausting,” I said.
I suffered from too much empathy. I’d soaked up too much pain. I was fully saturated.
But while I was researching the warrior gene, I stumbled upon a 2012 study that gave me hope. The study found that compassion training protects against the vicarious pain that can accompany empathy. To start, the study distinguished between empathy (“feeling with someone, that is, sharing the other person’s emotion”) and compassion (“feeling concern for another’s suffering and desiring to enhance that individual’s welfare”). It noted that empathy actually triggers the same parts of the brain as firsthand experiences of pain, and that empathy can be “a distressing and aversive emotion that may ultimately result in withdrawal tendencies.”
It sounded like the researchers were describing me. Perhaps “compassion fatigue” would better be called “empathy fatigue.”
Subjects were shown documentary and news footage of people in distress, which lit up the pain networks in the subjects’ brains. Then they attended a one-day compassion training, where they learned the loving-kindness meditation the Buddhists call metta — focusing on sending feelings of loving-kindness first toward themselves, and then to a close person, then a neutral person, then a person in difficulty, and finally toward strangers and human beings in general. After compassion training, the subjects were shown another round of aversive footage. This time, their brains lit up in different ways. Instead of pain networks, the regions activated were those associated with happiness, love, and affiliation. These results supported the conclusions of a previous study that found that people who practice loving-kindness meditation report an increase in positive emotions and resilience.
When I read the study, I remembered the simple loving-kindness meditation Getty had once taught me.
May you feel safe.
May you feel loved.
May you live with ease.
For a time, I practiced the meditation each night as I lay in bed waiting for sleep, a kind of prayer.
On the long drive home from Canada, I thought about the fuchsia thief and the escapees. I thought about crime, about good guys and bad guys, about social neglect and social justice. Annie had bought a new pot of flowers for the front porch, and when we pulled into the driveway, it was still hanging.
Two-and-a-half years later, I closed my practice. I had been offered a job teaching social work, and leapt at the chance. I needed a break from the front lines. As a professor, I could teach the next generation of social workers some of what I learned in my 15 years of practice.
America’s bootstrap culture tells us that people suffer because of their own shortcomings, but I teach my students about contexts. We look at how problems in the culture get absorbed into people’s minds and bodies and affect their choices and their actions. We discuss how some people’s behaviors are expressions of the wider failings of a faulty system, and how those people get scapegoated for what they are showing us about ourselves. We talk about how resilience is formed through connection and relationship, and we consider how disconnected so many of us feel here in America, a country steeped in economic competition and the supremacy of the individual, where everyone’s scrambling to stay afloat.
Because I want to protect them from the world they will face as social workers, I teach my students — so fresh, so full of hope — how to put their hand on their heart to calm their nervous system, how to say, “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself.” And then I tell them to take what they are learning, go forth, and do their best to make this country better.
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Jennifer Lunden has written about health justice for Orion, environmental justice for Creative Nonfiction, and migrant concentration camps for The Progressive. She is working a book about the health effects of industrial capitalism, forthcoming from Harper Wave.
Editor: Sari Botton