Why emotional armor is useful now

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story
Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the things that marks a hard news journalist is that, for better or worse,  we wear, and take pride in wearing, a sort of emotional armor.

I started my professional writing career at 19 and even then was assigned some emotionally difficult work — like a story for a national Canadian women’s magazine interviewing women much older than I who had survived harrowing experiences: one whose house burned down, one who had a double mastectomy and one whose husband died in front of her.

It was tough!

But I did it  — turning down offers of well-paid work is dicey when you work freelance.

The very nature of hard news journalism — whether you’re writing or editing or taking photos or video  — means you’ve chosen to cover the world and the many things that happen to other people, some of which are simply horrific and traumatic, for them and for us.

The biggest stories, the ones that make front page or gain millions of page views online, are often the ones that can also exact a heavy toll on the people producing them, no matter how calmly they appear on-camera or taking notes.

 

01- NM Prison Riot-J.R. LopezJose Lopez (my husband) at 23, on assignment, decades before we met

 

27- NM Prison Riot-J.R. Lopez

The interior of the prison after a riot and many murders

 

Jose covered the worst prison riot in New Mexico’s history as a news photographer.

I’ll spare you the details of what transpired, but they are the stuff of horror films.

It traumatized him, but he had chosen to become a news photographer, and it can come with the territory.

In later life, for The New York Times, he spent six weeks in the winter covering the end of the Bosnian war. His Christmas meal was a bowl of soup and one night he even slept in an unheated shipping container. When he finally left, initially flying into Frankfurt, he remained scared to be out after dark, his protective war instincts still functioning.

By definition, stories like this push us without warning or preparation into frightening, even horrifying situations, while demanding we  shove our personal reactions — fear, anxiety, grief, despair, confusion — into a sort of lead-lined box so we can pay full attention to our work. To witnessing and reporting what we have been sent to cover. To telling the story accurately and in detail.

The day before my driving test, age 30, I covered the aftermath of a head-on collision between a bus and a small car on a Montreal bridge. I’d like to forget what I saw decades ago, and cannot.

My editors told me I was the only reporter to have gotten close enough to the wreckage to get the make and model of the car.

 

Mine explosion on road
01/03/96–On Military Route “Arizona”– An anti-personnel mine explodes after it was safely detonated by members of the Croatian army. Soldiers from the Croatian army were clearing the mines along this route that the US Military will use when they take up the peace keeping duties. According to the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre, a report in 2015 stated, “Of the total number of affected communities 1,369 communities are contaminated by mines, while 60 communities are contaminated by cluster munition (of which 31 communities have combined contamination of landmines and cluster munition). “

Not really “another day at the office”…

 

I’ve cried maybe once while in public covering a story, (the funeral of a young girl who was raped and murdered in Toronto), and have since covered many stories that left me shaken and upset, sometimes as upset as the people I spoke to — like those I wrote after 9/11 and a Canadian national magazine story about women who had suffered a severe side effect from taking the drug Mirapex.

The larger challenge, and burnout and PTSD are very real in our industry, is if, when and how we do finally acknowledge and process those complex emotions.

I’ve never studied journalism and have never been trained in trauma reporting. which de facto means  you’re asking people who have faced trauma — rape, war, conflict, natural disaster, a shooting — to discuss it in detail with you, a stranger they have never met before.

But I’ve done a lot of it and I know it’s changed me. I don’t think for the worse, but it does stiffen the spine and harden your heart. I don’t mean you stop caring or don’t feel compassion for the people you are writing about.

It does mean, to stay sane and productive, especially on tight deadlines, having the ability and self-discipline to create and maintain a critical, detached distance from whatever is distressing — physically, emotionally and intellectually. No matter how terrible the details, we need to learn and share them.

So it’s one of the reasons I miss being around other career journalists, because we all know what the work requires and there’s an unspoken sort of code about it all.

It’s not really like most other jobs in this respect.

 

Jose and I were talking about this in regards to our unusually phlegmatic reaction to the endless death rate from COVID.

 

We sleep well at night.

We nap.

We don’t spend a lot of time discussing it, or listening to (in fact, actively avoiding)  Trump — because there’s nothing we can do right now to change any of it.

I see a lot of people complaining, daily, that they suffer insomnia, anxiety, grief.

If you’ve lost your job, income and housing, I get it!

If you’ve lost someone to this terrible disease, I get it!

But if you’re marinating in anxiety, I question the utility.

We can, unless we are in truly dire shape, control our moods and reactions.

I have since posting this been told that many people with chronic anxiety are managing this with much greater difficulty and this post seems unfeeling or uncaring about their issues.

We all handle things differently.

 

I leave this medical insight here as well, from The New York Times:

 

Underlying these stress-induced changes are hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that can cause trouble if they persist too long in our circulation. Sustained anxiety increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, clinical depression and, ironically, infectious diseases like Covid-19 by weakening the immune response to a viral infection.

“The stress of Covid-19 is now acute, but if it persists long after April, which it likely will, it will take an enormous toll on world health,” Mr. Ropeik said.

Thus, in addition to heeding the recommended personal precautions to avoid an infection, people feeling unduly stressed about the pandemic might try to minimize the damage caused by unmitigated anxiety.

A psychotherapist I know has advised his patients to limit their exposure to the news and discussions about Covid-19 to one hour a day and, if possible, in only one location, then use the rest of the day and other parts of the home for productive or pleasurable activities.

 

 

 

 

 

On being (truly) honest about our feelings

By Caitlin Kelly

trust-torn

Here’s a recent post from Freshly Pressed, about the social dance of “How are you?” — and its expected, safe, reassuring antiphonal response of “Fine!”:

But there’s another problem – a more insidious problem – with lying. Every time you tell someone you are ‘fine’ – when you’re not – you buy into the belief that it’s not acceptable to be depressed. In other words, the act of concealing your true mood, sends a subconscious message that it needs concealing, that it’s something to be ashamed of.

It’s a very sad indictment of our emotionally-illiterate society that those or us who are suffering the most have to hide our feelings to protect the sensibilities of everyone else. One in four of the seven billion human beings on this earth will experience poor mental health at some point in their life. That’s 1.75 billion people. And over 10 billion in the history of humankind. The only shame would be if all those people lived their lives feeling ashamed of something that is clearly such a common part of the human experience.

And here’s an honest blog post about how messy real life really is:

I consider myself incredibly blessed and lucky. For nearly a quarter of a century Lisa has been the center of my universe … and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But we are people, with kids as well as all of the normal stresses and pressures.

Here are some of the things we have had a fight of some type or other about: money, sex, having children, buying a car, how to spend a work bonus, having more children, using credit cards, buying a house, our jobs, who is cooking, technology, raising our children, shopping for groceries, stopping having children before Lisa died (which was what the doctor more or less said after #2), moving after my layoff, my parents, her parents, my brother, her sister, my sister, my friends, her friends, the woman (my friend) who stood in line at our wedding and pretty much said she couldn’t believe I was getting married (apparently I was more than one person’s ‘back-up plan’), pretty much every one of our nieces and nephews, computer games, TV, sleep, running, the gym, the kids’ friends, our neighbors at every house, trash, dogs, cats, food … and pretty much anything else you can think of.

Except about whether or not we loved each other.

And from A Transformed Faith blog:

Our vulnerabilities are an essential part of our human experience. While our culture tends to want us to cover them up, to act like everything is fine and we are all doing “great,” Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to acknowledge our vulnerabilities, to enter into a vulnerable space with God at our side.

According to the Gospel of John, on the night of his arrest Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Foot washing was common in Jesus day, but it was the servants who washed the feet of guests, not the master of the house, or the master teacher.

For many of us the idea of letting someone touch our feet, let alone wash them, is uncomfortable. Why is that? Pause here and try to understand that in yourself.

For me, I think the discomfort comes from the radical vulnerability of letting a part of our body that we usually keep covered get uncovered. It’s hard to imagine letting someone touch and wash a part of our bodies that is less than perfect, possibly dirty and probably smelly. And I have one really messed up toenail, too.

I don’t want people to see that part of me that is messy and out of control. I don’t want to burden them with any discomfort they might feel about my feet. And I don’t want to feel the discomfort of my own shame.

Depending which culture you live in, some being far more discreet and emotionally buttoned-up than others, expressing your true feelings can create havoc, socially and professionally.

The United States values emotional self-expression and directness, (albeit with regional differences.) This can be quite unsettling if you come from a quieter and more discreet culture, where only your true intimates know how you really feel.

Being “honest” can outweigh being diplomatic or tactful.

They'll never tell!
They’ll never tell!

Even with friends, I hesitate to reveal a lot.

And yet, a candid Skype conversation with one Broadside’s followers, who lives overseas and is also a nervous flyer, led to a kind and comforting email to me — as I prepared for three flights in one direction to rural Nicaragua. (One of them was really bumpy. Shriek.)

A young friend, 23, came for lunch recently and we talked at length, discovering, to our mutual surprise, we had both been bullied  in high school, even as (because?) we assumed leadership roles there. We both blossomed, socially and professionally, while in college.

But many people see (only) who we are today — bright, attractive, super-confident women. They don’t know, (and nor would we be likely to discuss), the more painful and private backstory.

I’ve been told I’m intimidating in my self-confidence. My young friend sends off a similar vibe: assertive, comfortable in all sorts of new situations, willing and able to take charge…

No one would suspect, (and I had no idea about my friend’s experience until recently), that, when younger we’d both been so mistreated. We hide it well!

Not surprisingly, she’s also from a more reticent cultural background (British) , as am I (Canadian.)

But it felt good to discover that someone I admire and enjoy has endured, and thrived beyond, similar challenges.

Only if someone knows how we truly feel can intimacy and friendship root and blossom.

Over dinner with a young news photographer, he summed up a pathological issue for many news journalists:

“You can’t be a normal human being.”

By which he meant: for our work, we witness poverty and violence and death and listen to terrible tales of rape and incest and fiscal malfeasance. We cover fires and floods and the aftermath of landslides and car crashes and earthquakes.

Yet we can’t — at least in the moment — afford to feel much of anything, or we just can’t stay focused on doing our jobs. Nor can we cry or let our emotions show.

But then, to the people we meet and speak to and photograph, we often appear heartless and callous, because we’re not visibly reacting to what we hear and see. Some of us do have very deep feelings about our stories, but weeping at work is really not an option.

Then, later, maybe you sort out your feelings and process them.

Or not…

I’ve cried at my desk only a few times over the decades of my journalism career; once when interviewing a dead soldier’s father, once when listening to the most unbearable of all — 911 tapes from 9/11 and again after interviewing someone who volunteered to help in the morgue after 9/11.

How about you?

Do you tell the people in your life how you really feel about things?

Do you share your private feelings in your blog posts?