Roaring into these ‘20s, more or less.

It’s the time of year when the lists are unavoidable. Best of. Worst of. Top 10. Bottom 10. The only things drowning out the lists are the gym and diet promotions. In the spirit of self-assessment, I like many of these lists. I’m a believer in setting intentions, so here goes. A list of 10 intentions, more or less, for my public defense work in 2020.

More of these list: To cultivate and grow with investment of time and energy.

  1. More time with my family. Real time without intrusion, distraction and preoccupation about work, aka renewed attention to work boundary management.
  2. More time for a rejuvenating, challenging, new/old outdoor #thirdthing: sailing.
  3. More gratitude and appreciation. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by kick ass people, I’m going to tell them more often.
  4. More genuine, helpful support. Looking for times to say and mean “I’ve got your back” to colleagues. Not waving it off with “it’s fine” when this type of real support comes my way.
  5. More clear communication, of the “clear is kind” variety, that avoids easy answers and saying what people want to hear, in favor of honest feedback and clarifying questions.
  6. Responding “I’ll think about it” to every single request of my time, rather than getting swept up in enthusiasm that leads to overcommitting and taking on too much. Choosing carefully the times I travel away from my family and the projects in which I invest my time. Less projects, more fully realized.

Less of these list: Unhelpful habits, stories and patterns, to release and reduce.

  1. Perseveration. Putting down the giant Santa Claus bag of regret about outcomes that were crushing, when I wish I’d somehow had the skill to accomplish something different. That shit is heavy and it’s time to put it down.
  2. Toxicity. Reducing the unhelpful complaining, judging, gossiping, and bellyaching that I contribute to workplace toxicity.
  3. Interrupting the imposter syndrome story in my head, that plays an endless track of never forgotten blunders and mistakes and humiliations, to assert that I really don’t know what I’m doing, I’ll make terrible mistakes, and they will have enormous consequences to people I represent who put their trust in me. Replacing that story with a story of growth and learning and being enough.
  4. IMG_0408A friend posted this “Today’s Practice: Release” for the new year,  and it caught my attention and got me thinking, just as I was writing this post. What’s the thing I am most motivated to leave behind? To rip up, burn, extinguish?

The SHAME of inevitably making mistakes, when you’re stuck in a story that you Should Have Already Mastered Everything. Burning that one.

 

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What does expanding self-care beyond the self look like? by Renate Lunn

We’re fortunate this week to have this post from Renate Lunn, the Training Supervisor at New York County Defenders Services in Manhattan. Previously, she was a staff attorney with The Legal Aid Society in New York City. In this post, Renate offers wonderful insights and wisdom about the importance of broadening self-care to include caring for others. This is especially important for leaders and supervisors.–Jenny

“How do they do it?” I ask myself trudging back to the office from court. As a supervisor, I’m fortunate enough to have a low caseload. Nonetheless, whenever I go to court for my own cases or someone else’s, something happens to a client that makes my heart pound, my teeth clench, and my mind swirl with angry rants.

If I feel these biological changes on the occasional times I’m in court, what is happening to the bodies of my colleagues? How do they manage every day? How did I manage life as a trial attorney before becoming a supervisor? Now that I’m a supervisor how can I support my team?

I’m grateful to Jenny Andrews and David Klaus for addressing these questions on their website BeSustained.org and blog posts. In our community, we talk about stress and burnout in spurts usually in response to a crisis— whether a trauma or the crisis of attrition in an office. Jenny and David are making sure we pardon the pun, sustain the conversation.

I first explored the effects of stress and trauma on me and my practices in a series of blog posts about 3 years ago, here, here, and here. Recent events, including a new role as a supervisor, have caused me to revisit my thoughts on how public defenders deal with trauma.

I’ve become more critical of the term self-care and propose that we expand self-care beyond the self. Implied in the phrase itself is the notion that the person experiencing the trauma, stress and fatigue bears the burden of responsibility for fixing it. Although trauma is caused by power structures that cause systemic injustices, “self-care” implies the solution is for the person crushed under the weight to push it off of herself. Or rather to create a magical, flexible bubble where her empathy can radiate out but the sorrows and rage only trickle in at a manageable rate.

It’s unrealistic to put all our individual selves in charge of protecting ourselves from this broken system. We need to support each other and management needs to support staff. Jenny has started referring to burnout as moral injury, “because it stops placing responsibility for solutions on the individual,,.and recognizes that systemic obstacles are the true causes of much of the chronic stress that we are experiencing.”

Also embedded in the concept of self-care is a certain privilege. The privilege of having everything else in your life in place to allow you to take care of yourself. In my conversations about the unique stress of public defense, I have often forgotten that not all public defenders have the same home lives and outside resources. Some have more economic worries than others. Some take care of loved ones outside of work hours and might not have the luxury of having family that can pick up the slack at home while they indulge in self-care. The exhaustion from dealing with mircroagressions that people of color encounter intersects with the stress of the job in ways that the bubbliest of baths and a scented candle can’t relieve.

As a supervisor, simply suggesting self-care is irresponsible, as it sounds like it absolves me of any responsibility for ensuring that my workplace supports its staff.

So what does expanding self-care beyond the self look like?

Group-Care

Supporting each other is vital. Or as @PrisonCulture succinctly points out on Twitter: “the only way to sustain the *self* is to collectivize care. #fin”  Group self-care includes: participating in a text chain that starts with someone saying, “my client just died and I don’t know what to do with my grief,” letting someone ugly cry in your office, or babysitting your officemate’s child. The Facebook group Public Defense Zen is a great place to connect with supportive defenders around the country.

Direct Supervisor-Care

As a supervisor, it is easy for me to forget what life is like with a full caseload. Without the reminders of the risk of moral injury in our jobs, I risk offering simplistic and unrealistic advice. It’s important for those in management to spend time in the courthouse and client meetings. In addition to fostering empathy with staff, management can see the structural challenges that leadership might be in a position to ameliorate.

In one-on-ones with the attorneys I supervise, I ask them how they are taking care of themselves to do the work in the long haul and how I can support them. It’s tough balancing keeping a professional distance and supporting what happens in the time away from the office that allows people to bring their A-game to the office. Usually people just tell me about their gym routines, which leads to more office small talk about the gym and some positive peer pressure. It also demonstrates that I care enough about my colleagues to want to work with them for many years to come.

As a supervisor, I also avoid sending emails and texts to colleagues during off hours. If I remember something I want to share in the evenings, I type up a draft, but don’t send it until the next morning. Jenny has exhorted the benefits of turning off the work phone on evenings and weekends.  

Public Defense Senior Management Care

We need to make sure folks running defender offices provide health insurance that covers therapy, and support making time to attend therapy on your lunch hour is supported.  Offices can provide when possible a space to decompress or meditate. My agency, New York County Defender Services, has a wellness room where mothers can pump and anyone who needs to can take a cat nap or meditate in a massage chair for a few minutes.

Achieving pay parity with prosecutors and making sure that staff earn enough money to thrive in this job without taking on second and third gigs is essential to fostering resilience. No one in a public defender office should stress about paying bills.

Eating healthy, having a #ThirdThing and taking bubble baths are great and all, but they are not enough. We need to expand our concept of self-care to include caring for each other.

–Renate Lunn

Please reach out to us if you would like to write a post on public defense wellness. We welcome your contributions.

Well Being as Part of Competence in Public Defense

I have come to believe that showing up strong and energized is one of the most important things we can do for the people we represent.

I didn’t always see it this way. In the first few years, when I showed up every Friday with a pile of misdemeanor cases on for trial, and tried a boatload of them, I also had a not insignificant number of late nights in the bars with my colleagues and naps on the therma-rest under my desk.

My about-to-be-fifty-year-old body doesn’t tolerate that sort of schedule anymore, just like it doesn’t tolerate trials fueled by vending machine lunches of picante corn nuts combined with peanut M&Ms (even though that’s a completely delicious and satisfying lunch, at least in the moment).

I now see my well being as central to my duty of competence. It is harder for me to stand tall and refuse to back down from an important legal fight when I’m so exhausted I fear my own knees might give out. I’m not as able to be open and receptive to the stories and needs of the people I represent when I am so stressed out that I feel like I can’t handle one more thing. I’m not able to hear communications about ways that I can learn, grow and improve if I’m anxious and irritated.

The skill we need to develop and use the most in every aspect of our work as public defenders—listening—requires some reserve of energy and emotional balance.

We know our profession struggles with substance use, depression, anxiety and secondary traumatic stress. (I’ve written about this here and here.) The impacts of these struggles can include moral injury (the word I prefer to burnout, as explained here). The impacts also include diminished work performance and struggles with basic competence. 40 to 70 percent of disciplinary proceedings and malpractice claims against lawyers include substance use or depression, and often both. (D. B. Marlowe, Alcoholism, Symptoms, Causes & Treatments, in STRESS MANAGEMENT FOR LAWYERS 104-130 (Amiram Elwork ed., 2d ed., 1997).

While basic competence requires us to provide competent representation (ABA Model Rule 1.1) and requires diligence in client representation (ABA Model Rule 1.3), basic competence also requires more than just keeping up with training and casework. It requires well being.

The ABA includes well-being as an indispensable part of a lawyer’s ethical duty of competence. The 2017 ABA Well Being Report defines lawyer health not solely by absence of illness, but by a positive state of wellness. It includes lawyers’ ability to make healthy, positive work/life choices to assure not only a quality of life within their families and communities, but also to help them make responsible decisions for their clients. It includes a wonderfully broad definition of well being that encompasses emotional, occupational, intellectual, spiritual, physical and social thriving.

well being ABA chart

morning beach hike
Morning hike.

I love the ABA definition of well being as “a continuous process toward thriving across all life dimensions.” Time working often feels like it competes with time to do things like being with my family, exercising, or shopping for nutritious meals.

While there never seems to be enough time, it’s useful to me to stop seeing work and well being as in competition. And to remember that competence includes well being. The time I take to do yoga or go hiking isn’t just for me. It helps me show up strong, focused and ready for the challenging work of public defense.

 

You can always make a new groove. (My new groove is: no complaining.)

I’ve decided to accept a challenge and to try to rebuild a new habit. The challenge is to stop complaining.

The truth is I’ve been struggling a bit lately, feeling sad and angry more than I would like. I feel vulnerable to fire and hardship in Sonoma County (where we still have friends and community and our little apple farm, where we will retire and I will grow old happily pickling vegetables and making apple butter). I feel stressed and discouraged by pressures of juggling shifting management tasks and training programming, and suddenly picking up an additional full caseload to cover for staffing shortages. Once you start down the path of despair, there’s always climate change and politics and the cruelty of the criminal punishment bureaucracy to make things feel apocalyptic. It can seem like everyone is complaining and looking to find fault with me. Or perhaps I am complaining too much and looking to find fault with myself and others.

A source of optimism for me is the knowledge that I can always re-examine which of my habits are serving me and which are not. Then I can make a shift. It doesn’t need to be big or dramatic. Actually, I’ll accept it more and retain it longer if the new habit is something small but persistent.

Yoga has a useful term, samskara, that describes a pattern or habit as a groove. (Samskara is discussed nicely here.) I picture this like a small creek that can form a massive canyon over time. The water can flow easily, it’s the repetition that forms the groove.

creek pic                      canyon pic

The actions and thoughts we repeat form grooves of habits. As the grooves deepen, they become the defaults that we easily slide into, and it becomes more difficult to veer onto a different path. Of course these grooves can be positive or negative thoughts and behaviors.

There was a time years ago when I had a walking group in a public defense office where I used to work. After lunch we’d have a walk together to a local coffee shop and back to the office. We groused and complained most of the way, about judges, prosecutors, bosses and coworkers. I thought I’d really miss those walks when I got transferred to a different branch office. Instead, I realized the walking had been great exercise, and the company and comradery was good, but the complaining was a downer. I’d created a strong habit of collecting complaints and grudges to spout off each afternoon, as colorfully and profanity-filled as possible. Sometimes venting and processing can be constructive, this was not. This was filling my pockets with negative gunk, just to add to it and carry that stinky weight around. That was a crappy groove.

I don’t want to be in that groove, deepening it with repetition. new groove picI want to get a new groove.

I’ve focused quite a bit of attention in the last few years on developing appreciation through gratitude practices. I’ve thought less about the flip side. It’s been a while since I checked in on how much I’m venting, processing…and just complaining.

This is where the challenge comes in. My friend Stacy Sims described it to me recently, and then my daughter came home from school talking about her teacher doing something similar. Using information found here from Tim Ferriss and also summarized here (crediting Will Bowen, who wrote the book A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted), this is the version I’ve settled on:

  1. The goal is to go 21 days without complaining.
  2. A complaint is defined as “describing an event or person negatively without indicating next steps to fix the problem.”
  3. The marker is a bracelet that is moved from one wrist to the other when I find myself complaining. This will build awareness.

dissent bracelet croppedI picked a dissent bracelet gifted to me by two mentees, which I love. The word dissent will help me increase awareness that constructive, action-oriented problem solving is not a complaint and is something I aim to increase. Similarly, political protest and dissent are not complaints, and are valuable advocacy for systemic change. The bracelet is a little itchy and I might switch to a simple elastic band if needed, but I’m starting with this.

I’ve put on my bracelet. I might wear out my wrists moving it back and forth. I’m looking forward to what I will learn along the way.

Anyone want to try this out with me?

Don’t Text Me On The Weekend. The Importance of Reducing 24/7 Availability Expectations in Public Defense

A while ago, my work gave me a mobile phone, and said, as if it were great news, “now we can reach you anytime.”

No. Nope. Thank you, noooooo. I am working hard at minimizing that expectation of myself and others.

The increasing connectivity of phones and computers has upsides for public defense, like increasing our ability to work remotely, and to organize and access bulky files without carrying them around in boxes and binders. But this connectivity is not all positive.

The expansion of work into a 24/7 expectation of availability is not good for us. Research at Lehigh, on the personal impact of 24/7 availability expectations, found that email communications and expectation of response contributes to emotional exhaustion, poor work-life balance, anxiety and a strain on personal relationships. Even employees who didn’t respond to off-hours emails were negatively impacted by receiving them. These researchers suggest setting clear expectations of when employees are expected to monitor communications and limiting use of electronic communications outside those windows.

The 2017 ABA Wellness Report and the 2018 ABA Well-Being Toolkit (discussed here and in resources here) echo this advice. The 2018 Toolkit recognizes the connection between 24/7 availability expectations and work-life balance stress. “The stress of chronic work-life conflict can damage well-being and performance. Evidence indicates that it is a strong predictor of burnout and significantly increases the risk of poor physical health.”

24 6 coverI’ve been reading 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, by Tiffany Shlain.  She is reminding me of the important ways that religious traditions, secular organizations, and labor groups have fought for non-work time. I find myself feeling deceived that the very makers of the devices that monetize our attention with dopamine-fueled screen dependence limit or prohibit those habits within their own families. Shlain jokes of rewriting the beginning of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” as: “I saw the best minds of our generation distracted by texting, tweeting, emailing.” She is unquestionably right in advising us that down time is “a force field of protection that gives us strength, resilience, perspective and energy.”

My friend Stacy Sims gave me some great insights recently about digital dependence and her site The Well shares some here. The reality is that these tools that we think of as increasing connection and communication are making us feel isolated and anxious. There is trickery in the time savings they promised us and then gave instead to our employers. In the context of public defense work, tools that are said to free us to flex our time are instead being used to make us feel that we are at work every minute of every day.

As a person who has spent the last year with one foot in the role of being a courtroom line defender and one foot in the leadership role of being a training director, I feel responsibility to reduce this 24/7 expectation on both sides. It requires constant attention to unplug from work, by doing things like putting that work phone in a drawer for the weekend, and trying to communicate to colleagues when we should and shouldn’t make ourselves available to review and respond to work communications.

My favorite discovery of 2019 is the use of the delay delivery feature in Outlook. 2012-08_OutlookDelayDelivery2Even if I am catching up on work in off-hours, I can delay delivery of any email I send so that it is received during the next work day rather than interrupting the non-work time of my colleagues. This feels like a little gift we can give each other at work, the gift of uninterrupted down time. Increasingly, this is becoming a gift I value greatly.

I believe that supervisors and leaders have the responsibility of creating culture that reduces these 24/7 availability expectations. If you are in one of these roles, ask yourself if you’re prioritizing time for the people you supervise to rejuvenate.

In thinking about what you can do to support the well-being of those you lead or supervise, by minimizing 24/7 work expectations, the chart below may be a helpful guide.

What are you doing to support sufficient rejuvenation time and to minimize expectations of 24/7 availability for work?

Supportive of well being. Not supportive of well being.
Prioritize giving all employees time for sufficient rejuvenation during non-work and vacation hours. Actively discouraging work-related calls and emails during evenings, weekends, and vacations. Intrude upon non-work hours with work assignments and communications.

 

Only sending email, text or other communications during non-work hours in urgent situations, in which immediate notification to or action of the recipient is required. Sending non-urgent messages during non-work hours.
Building in systems with sufficient time for reasonable response-time expectations. Sending “drop everything and respond right now” or “drop everything and do this task right now” communications and assignments, particularly if they reflect poor planning or organization on the part of the sender and unnecessarily shift last-minute work to others.
Giving sufficient time for assignments to be completed during work hours. Giving assignments with insufficient time to complete during work hours, such as late afternoon case assignments for court appearance the following morning.
Supporting flexible time use for everyone, especially to support well being activities (time for gym, yoga, recreation, therapy, medical appointments, etc.). Inequitable availability of flex time, such as making it available to some employees while others are restricted by court schedules, office hours or other expectations. This is exacerbated if those flexing their time create expectations of responsiveness during times they elect to work in off hours, as it expands the expected workday of others into those hours.
Have robust coverage systems so that people can take leave and vacation. Complain about vacation/leave increasing work for others rather than having robust coverage systems.

Providing high quality representation to poor people accused of crimes is a high stress endeavor that regularly consumes early morning, late evening, and weekend hours. We can all look for ways to recognize and support true down time and off hours for rejuvenation.

2032944-Anne-Lamott-Quote-Almost-everything-will-work-again-if-you-unplug.jpg

 

Should We Stop Saying Burnout and Start Saying Moral Injury?

I have called my experience of leaving public defense work after the first seven years burnout for many years. My experience followed the three classic symptoms of burnout:

  1. Physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. I went from energized by the work to barely dragging myself through each day. Some weekends I would sleep 14 hours straight and still feel exhausted, like I just could not recharge.
  2. Feelings of self-doubt, loss of personal confidence. I started to wonder if I had what it took to actually be effective, not just in new and complex challenges (like learning about DNA), but in things I’d done many times (like writing and arguing search motions) that began to feel pointless.
  3. Doubt for the value of one’s work. I felt like a cog in the machine of processing people through courtrooms to prison as efficiently as possible. At times it seemed like my presence even helped this machine run, by pretending the grossly unfair process complied with minimum constitutional requirements by having a lawyer present.

In May of 2019, the World Health Organization added burnout as an occupational phenomenon. My first reaction was to appreciate that more people might have access to leave from work or quality care for chronic workplace stress. My second reaction was irritation at the WHO’s definition of burnout: “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” This definition places all the responsibility on the individual and frames the questions in terms of individual strength or weakness.

moral injury video pic Last year, Dave showed me a YouTube video of Dr. Zubin Damania arguing that the term burnout and should be replaced with the term moral injury. I became convinced that the moral injury framework is a necessary shift to a more useful way of conceptualizing chronic workplace stress and trauma. This shift is important because it stops placing responsibility for solutions on the individual (do yoga! be more mindful!) and recognizes that systemic obstacles are the true causes of much of the chronic stress that we are experiencing. While we can mitigate some individual impacts with self-care, systemic solutions are needed to correct systemic causes.

Surgeon Simon Talbot and psychiatrist Wendy Dean wrote an article on the application of the term moral injury to physicians. They argued that “without understanding the critical difference between burnout and moral injury, the wounds will never heal and physicians and patients alike will continue to suffer the consequences.” They assert that the concept of burnout “suggests a failure of resourcefulness and resilience, traits that most physicians have finely honed during decades of intense training and demanding work.” They wrote that the “moral injury of health care is not the offense of killing another human in the context of war. It is being unable to provide high-quality care and healing in the context of health care.”

The term moral injury was first used to describe soldiers’ responses to their actions in war. Doctor and clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay describes moral injury as perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. Journalist Diane Silver describes moral injury as “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality, and relationship to society.”

Dr. Shay’s version of moral injury is “derived from patients’ narratives and from Homer’s narrative of Achilles in the Illiad,” and is:

  1. A betrayal of what’s right
  2. by someone who holds legitimate authority (or by one’s self)
  3. in a high stakes situation.

Public defense is filled with betrayals of what is right by people with authority in high stakes situations. Deep soul wound is a perfect description of the impact of a criminal punishment bureaucracy that processes people—disproportionately people of color– into cages. Deep soul wounds result from a system in which: women are handcuffed to metal beds during childbirth in custody; money bail and mandatory minimums extort pleas for daylight; and fines, fees and forfeiture are used to line pockets and destroy communities.

If you substitute public defender wherever Talbot and Dean  reference physicians, it’s a perfect fit. The concept of burnout…suggests a failure of resourcefulness and resilience, traits that most [public defenders] have finely honed during decades of intense training and demanding work. The moral injury… is being unable to provide high-quality representation in the context of [public defense].

Talbot and Dean describe a career progression of physicians that suffer from moral injury: following a calling rather than a career path; desire to help people; almost religious zeal, enduring lost sleep, lost years of young adulthood, family strain, financial instability, disregard for personal health; each hurdle offers a lesson in endurance in the service of one’s goal; failing to consistently meet needs of clients has a profound impact on wellbeing. Many public defenders recognize ourselves in this same career progression.

Public defense leaders who have spoken publicly about impact of systemic obstacles like underfunding echo the language of moral injury. “I’ve had people come to my office and need immediate mental health leave, some considering self-harm. We come here with a goal to help people no one else is helping. When we can’t do it, it’s crushing.” (‘My Attorneys Are Ticking Time Bombs’ Kansas City Star May 31, 2019.) Public defense offices are filled with determined and dedicated people. Unfortunately, many offices are struggling to retain people. (Just a few of the many examples are Thin Ranks, High Risks (describing Kentucky), and One In Four Kansas Public Defenders Quit Last Year, Leaving Agency ‘In Crisis.’ Apr 8, 2019.)

The value of shifting from the framework of burnout to the framework of moral injury is in the discussion of causes and the solutions. Burnout focuses on individual inability to manage stress, and suggests individual responsibility to develop skills and strength to handle chronic stress—self-care practices like yoga, meditation, and therapy. Moral injury looks at systemic obstacles, abuses and transgressions, and suggests systemic solutions—such as reduced caseloads, supportive leadership, sufficient training, and mentorship support.

I speak and write frequently about things we can each do in our own lives to improve our well being—things like yoga, meditation, recreation, boundaries, and contemplative time away from work. I believe these practices are useful because (1) they aren’t dependent on a funder or office leader for support and can be started and maintained by each of us individually, which gives us ownership, control and autonomy in our own well-being, and (2) even with systemic solutions, secondary traumatic impacts will occur from working with people who have experienced profound trauma, and we will need personal practices to mitigate those impacts. This is not to suggest that self-care is the best or only needed response to moral injury.

Jonathan Shay outlined a definition of moral injury that comes with a solution. Moral injury deteriorates trust, ideals and ambitions; it creates an expectation of harm, exploitation and humiliation from others. He writes that the solution is within our control, and is “the need for leadership to be expert, ethical, and properly supported.”

In the context of public defense, self-care shouldn’t be used as a tool to shift responsibility to the individual where systemic solutions are needed. No amount of self-care can overcome the systemic obstacles and failings of the criminal legal system. Self-care can help us get through the day and keep fighting as public defenders, but it isn’t a replacement for the true systemic change that is needed.

The Sunday Scaries. Secondary Traumatic Stress in Public Defense.

It’s Sunday. So Monday is closing in on us.

When I first heard a public defender use the term Sunday Scaries, I didn’t need any further explanation. That feeling of bracing yourself for the next work week. That feeling of prep and motions I’d hoped to have finished already, but have not. That feeling of wishing I had better news to give clients about negotiations or investigations. The mountain of recordings that just came in and need reviewed.

When I have discussions with public defenders about what the Sunday Scaries actually feel like, we describe anxiety, sleeplessness, sadness, second guessing, emotional exhaustion, dreading work.

This work is just so very intrusive sometimes. It’s there all the time, imprinted on our minds and  bodies, reminders around every turn.

There’s a certain intersection I avoid, because driving through it, and past the flower memorial that has been continually refreshed there for a decade, causes my mind to revisit photos of a crash scene and child’s autopsy.

Every public defender I know has similar stories, but many of us fail to view these experiences through the lens of continually experiencing trauma at work.

Many of us learn about the impacts of trauma in an analytical way, through the preparation of our cases. We learn the importance of working with experts in PTSD or Adverse Childhood Experiences to understand and present the stories of the people we represent. We fail to turn this same insightful lens on ourselves, sometimes voicing the view that to do so would be unacceptably vulnerable, or even disloyal by taking our focus away from the traumatic experiences in the lives of the people we represent. Trauma impacts us, too, in ways we need to acknowledge and process if we are going to stay in this work.

There’s a case I think of often, and each time there is a dull ache in my hands and forearms. During the trial, as I questioned a child, I gripped the table behind me so tightly that eventually a weird, numb weight took over my hands and forearms. I loosened my grip and felt pins and needles in my hands. Jurors cried as the questions continued, about the night this child’s mother died on the other side of her bedroom wall. After a while, I felt the heavy, numb forearms again and realized that I was white knuckling the edge of the table again. The case had a good outcome, but every time I think of it my hands and forearms still ache.

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D, author of the beautiful book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, explains that trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and body manage perceptions. Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. Apparently it even gets stuck in our forearms sometimes.

In addition to primary or direct experiences of traumatic events, we in public defense also experience secondary traumatic stress, which is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another person. This definition is from Figley’s Compassion Fatigue: Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorders from Treating the Traumatized. Everyone who works with and/or assists traumatized or distressed children, adults or families is at risk for secondary traumatic stress—including therapists, nurses, teachers, hospice workers, social workers, journalists, firefighters, physicians. STS is sometimes also called Compassion Fatigue, and we know from Linda Albert’s study of Wisconsin Public Defenders that public defenders are impacted (as described in this prior post).

A colleague had a case that we discussed constantly as he prepared for trial. At one point I listened to the recording of the wailing cries of the mother whose child had just drowned in the bathtub. Those sounds went into my mind and stayed there, where they still replay sometimes.

There are constant opportunities to experience primary and secondary trauma in public defense work, including: seeing a person you represent being taken into custody; seeing a person you represent being sentenced; seeing the pain and struggle of the family and community of the person you represent; watching your colleagues struggle and face abusive treatment by judges, prosecutors and others; viewing injury, autopsy and scene photos; scene visits; reviewing records of trauma; hearing stories of trauma; hearing testimony of violent events; dealing with prejudice and abuse within the criminal sentencing bureaucracy; seeing the reality of the jail conditions experienced by the people we represent.

The symptoms of secondary traumatic stress have a striking similarity to the Sunday Scaries: anxiety, hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, chronic fatigue, sleeplessness, sadness, anger/irritability/impatience, poor concentration, second guessing, detachment, emotional exhaustion, fearfulness, shame, physical illness, lateness, absenteeism, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, stomachaches, headaches, strained relationships, disconnection from purpose, dreading work. Many of us experience some combination of these symptoms so frequently that we incorporate them into what we expect working in public defense to feel like.

IMG_8663
Morning hike and meditation.

 Bessel Van der Kolk talks about recovery from trauma through mind-body connection and body focused practices like yoga and meditation. He emphasizes that human memory is a sensory experience, and movement practices can restore a sense of goodness and safety. In my own experience, yoga and meditation practices are particularly well suited for processing our constant intake of public defense trauma, and can help cultivate resilience in the face of feeling overwhelmed by these traumatic impacts. Dr. Van der Kolk also explores the benefits of writing and journaling.

Do you practice yoga or meditation? Do you write or keep a journal? Let us know in the comments how these practices help you sustain your public defense work, or other practices or approaches that you find helpful in response to the challenges of secondary traumatic stress.