I am often asked how I manage the emotional toll that comes with researching what I do. A student in one of my courses once asked me, ‘Does all of this make you too terrified of having children?’.
Whenever I add a quote from one of my participants on my Facebook page, it usually follows with a bunch of comments along the lines of: ‘How can you bear to hear these stories over and over?’
I have recently been working on a quantitative study of young people accessing the 42 youth AOD services across Victoria (preliminary findings in 2min video form here). Last week my colleague, who is our statistician, text me an update on the progress of the draft report and at the end of it added, ‘I don’t know how you keep going with your qualitative data. I found the quantitative stuff hard enough’.
And sometimes it is hard. But mostly it is not. It’s not fun and certainly, you see an underbelly of the world that one wishes didn’t exist, but as Aldous Huxley said, ‘Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored’.
A few years ago, a young woman who was raised in state-care left this comment on my blog:
I hope that as researchers, you continue to wonder about those unrevealed stories. Not just because they are interesting, but because they are unjust.
I kept this quote. It’s a reminder. It also gives me perspective.
I have a lot going on in my life. A lot of very bad things have happened to me in a very short space of time. Many lament that trying to deal with the emotional fallout of my own life while researching young people’s histories of trauma and abuse seems a recipe for depression. But I was saying to my supervisor yesterday that I think the two provide a balance which protects me from getting too down.
I don’t get caught up in my PhD because I simply don’t have any spare emotional energy to have the luxury of being able to get stressed about it. Counter to this, while I have a personal life that in many ways reads like a slow motion train crash, I am far better off than the young people whose stories I have sought to uncover and knowing this keeps me grounded.
In conversation with my ex-boyfriend’s mum the other night, we were talking about the good parts of life that people often take for granted. I was saying that the past few years have given me some tough times, but they’ve also shown me the richness of humanity. That I was having a deep and meaningful with my ex-boyfriend’s mother years after we broke up is one example of this.
Similarly, on Friday night, my phone rang at about 6pm. I didn’t need to look at the screen to know it was my supervisor – nobody but Chris calls at dinner time on a Friday night. His voicemail message: ‘Hi Kat, not calling for anything really. Just wanted to check in and see how you’re going. Call me at home tomorrow’.
Last week, my boy best friend whose relationship with me emulates that of brother and sister (he insults me endlessly, teases me and just generally gives me a hard time but seeks to kill anyone else who’d treat me the way he does) sends me a text, ‘I know you’ve got your girlfriends, but just keep calling me okay? Thinking of you’.
‘Just do it, alright?’
The care demonstrated in these relationships keeps me afloat. These everyday exchanges with people who have come into my life, seemingly accidentally, years ago, and with whom I’ve built special bonds, are the threads that keep me together when my life seems like it’s trying to self-implode.
My research participants don’t have these threads. They don’t have anyone. One young man had stayed with his dad when his parents separated. His mother had re-partnered with an abusive man and she ended up living in a women’s refuge. The young man’s dad ended up terminally ill and moved into permanent care. The kid was homeless because there was no one else in his world. He was 17.
I wish that was rare, but it’s not.
I was recently contacted by a former client, he’d found me on my work's webpage and gave me a call to say hi. It was lovely. I had worked with him for years. My key goal for every one of his treatment plans was keeping him alive. We had an agreement that he had to leave a message on my phone every day. That way, if he went missing, I would know.
I was the only person in his world who would notice if he went missing -- I can’t imagine how that feels.
I used to give him a big hug every time I saw him. I wondered if anyone has hugged him since? How does it feel to go years between someone embracing you with care?
What is unfathomable to me is that despite all that these young people go through, they are all such beautiful people – so caring and kind and warm and honest. They have not let the world break them or make them hard. They have not let the bad guys win.
One young woman, particularly worn down by the world at the time I met her, seemed to find little comfort in my observation that she was a good person. She remarked something along the lines that being a good person obviously wasn’t getting her anywhere.
Homeless, without family, and in receipt of a lifetime of abuse and disadvantage, I could understand her despondence. She text me the next day to give me some clarification on something that she'd discussed in the interview. At the end of the text, she thanked me. She said I’d made her feel better. I thanked her and told her that I meant what I said—she really was a good person.
I’d thought about her remark on the long drive home the day earlier. So I also said to her,
‘I’ve been thinking about your despair. I want you to always remember that it’s better to be a good person who feels worn down by bad people than to be a bad person. Don’t let anyone take away your heart’.
She told me she was going to keep that message for the bad days.
So yes, carrying these stories is heavy. Last weekend I was working through the sections of my thesis about family violence, child abuse and state care. If someone had of complained to me on Monday about how hard Monday is I think I would have punched them. But I’d rather sit with the heaviness of life's underbelly than be a person who thinks it being Monday is something worth complaining about. Certainly, there’s sadness to what I hear, but there’s a lot of inspiration too. Uncovering darkness often gives way to a beautiful light.
(pic from: http://found-and-kept.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/LightnessinDark1400x900.jpg)