Bellhops carry people’s baggage for them. They put that weight on their shoulders the full day they work. When their time is up, they make sure each bag is where it needs to be, then they leave unencumbered. I have a lot to learn from bellhops. Anyone working with survivors of trauma stands at serious risk of developing second-hand trauma or compassion fatigue. These psychological phenomena elicit many of the same symptoms that trauma causes. Difficulty sleeping, fatigue, short temper, depression, and anxiety are not uncommon amongst lawyers working with victims. In our profession, it can be hard to put down people’s baggage at the end of the day. Luckily, I switch between light and heavy bags.
While I have the freedom to say I will only do one type of task on a given day, that would mean serving for myself. I’m at the courthouse working with the Durham Crisis Response Center in the hopes of helping victims as best I can. Sometimes that means answer the phone. Other times it means processing intake forms and entering clients into our system. It can involve listening to clients’ stories and helping them transfer that onto legal documents requesting a restraining order. Often, it involves preparing and accompanying clients to court or watching their kids while they go. Most days, doing my best to support the Family Justice Center means doing all of the above in one.
Having lots of tasks to do usually gives me the opportunity to complete a lot of tasks. I get a sense of satisfaction each time I get to check off another box in my head. Where clients often deal with situations far beyond my ability to improve, it’s really nice to have a sense of agency. I can’t guarantee that a client will get the protective order they are requesting, but I can help them submit the paperwork and get them some water while they wait. The little tasks that can feel tedious actually go a long way to empower workers who feel powerless.
Maybe the best part about having a job devoted to dealing with little things that come up in the office is that my only jobs are in the office. My work never extends beyond my hours there. For a kid well accustomed to having hours of homework after finishing classes, a nine to five job feels like a blessing. When I come home, I have to deal with the tedium of adult chores, but I don’t have the looming stress of work uncompleted. That peace of mind is valuable. At least during the summer, I like having a chunk of time when I know I do not have to work.
Being able to leave my work at the office is essential. It takes some effort not to bring the saddest stories home with me. If I had to work on paperwork for those cases while at home, I’d have no opportunity to recharge. As it is, some days can feel pretty long. An hour with a toddler in his “terrible two’s” phase will exhaust me for an hour before I listen to a woman describe in detail the physical abuse she experienced. Because doing my job well involves filling needs whenever they arise, I often am occupied from an hour before I would have eaten lunch until two or three hours later. All of us employees are very conscious about keeping a water bottle with us and staying hydrated even as we’re busily moving all around. I would very quickly burn out if this job were nay longer than 9 to 5.
My demanding workday has taught me the importance of self-care, and understanding my limits. I am less productive and less able to help clients when I haven’t taken a couple minutes to eat lunch or snack throughout the day. Doing the little things to keep myself running at one hundred percent is essential. If my future career involves working beyond my hours in the office, the work needs to be less emotionally taxing. Working as a public defender would be very difficult, but conducting research or reading academic articles before bed is more within my wheelhouse. The type of job I will do will probably involve working on projects outside of the office, so I’m grateful to be discovering what sort of baggage I can and can’t carry home from work.
David Frisch is a rising junior majoring in Political Science from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is one of seven 2018 Kenan Purpose Program Summer Fellows. David is fascinated by the ethics of law, especially as they intersect with family decisions. This summer, he will be working as a court advocate at the Durham Crisis Response Center in Durham, NC.