Wednesday, May 21, 2014
The Trauma of Knowing: A Cracked Vessel Will Eventually Run Dry
“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” Benjamin Franklin
About a year after I went vegan and became an activist, I watched a film that took me to my emotional brink. It was a collection of short undercover videos taken of elephants being trained for circuses and as rides for tourists eager to cross items off their bucket lists throughout Asia. The word “trained” is a euphemism for “broken.” The process of breaking an elephant is devastating to see; babies and adolescents, stolen from their mothers or orphaned, are tied up or held captive in tight cages and beaten again and again until they stop resisting and become submissive. As adults, many are routinely smacked with bullhooks to get the elephants to move and keep them tractable. The practice of putting these sensitive beings through sustained beatings and abuse is called “elephant crushing,” and appropriately so: their spirits are indeed crushed in the process of making them docile and compliant enough to be safe among the public. As they are crushed, they cry just like human babies do and they cower just as anyone who has been beaten around the clock would cower. At the end, they are broken, just husks of who they could be, passively swaying in place and bobbing their heads in captivity.
I knew about the practice of breaking elephants and had been telling people about it but watching the footage made it a much more visceral and piercing experience. We can intellectually understand these things, and be genuinely upset, but seeing it with our own eyes further erodes the walls of detachment, making the violence both real and immediate. Watching the footage, merely 15 minutes altogether, made me shake uncontrollably and collapse to the floor in tears; even as it was happening, it was as though I could also see myself as a stranger, gutturally weeping and gathered in a fetal position, from a set of eyes separate from mine: Who was this person? Was this me? Yes, and I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I was dissociating. John tried to turn off the VCR but I insisted on watching the rest, curled up on the floor, raging through my tears. If the elephants had to go through this torture, the very least I could do was bear witness.
For two weeks afterward, I was in a state of emotional and physical shock from watching and viscerally feeling the abuse of those animals. I couldn’t sleep or eat. I felt like I was always partially absent, in a dream-like state, on the verge of being startled all the time. I couldn’t talk to anyone above a whisper, which made work difficult. When I wasn’t numb, I cried and cried and cried until I was worried that I’d burst a capillary. (Being numb was worse, though.) More than anything, I wanted to remove myself from society, from these horrible people, from those who didn’t give a damn about anything. As I sat awake in the dark every night, I fantasized about digging the world’s biggest moat around our house and never having to face the anyone else again outside of my husband and dogs. I was furious at humankind.
Slowly, bit by bit, I began to return to myself again. I made it through one hour, then two hours, then a whole afternoon, without flashing back on those images, without hearing their tormented cries, without crying in the bathroom stall. I was still at a crossroads, though: Do I immerse myself in bearing witness or do I concentrate on being effective? Because through this experience, I realized that I couldn’t do both.
It’s vital to know what we’re talking about, and in communication, it’s also important to not be robotic, to speak in a way that conveys in a way that resonates what the animals face as they are turned into entertainment, research subjects, what people eat. This is a conundrum, though, because, at least for me, I couldn’t expose myself to the horrors without breaking down and either becoming numb or overloaded with despair. If I am emotionally paralyzed or deluged, how can I be a compelling advocate on behalf of the animals? On the other hand, isn’t it cowardly to not even be able to watch what they have faced? Doesn’t seeing what they endure make me a more effective communicator, too?
Yes and no. The answer for me was to indeed bear witness but also respect my boundaries of when I’d reached that point of feeling it deep-down but not so much that I was flooded, drowning in a state of despondency. As advocates, we need to be in this for the long haul. The animals need us for this, too. We are their bridge to the public. We are serving no one - not the animals, not ourselves - if we become so emotionally devastated that we cannot communicate effectively.
I see activists succumb to burnout all the time because they don’t think they deserve a little consideration for their own wellness. It is something akin to survivor’s guilt: if the animals go through what they do, the least I can do is bear witness. They punish themselves with horrific videos, with immersing themselves in misery, with the mistaken notion that by doing so, they are at least doing something. A wise person told me something, though, that will always stick with me: There is no pain that I can inflict upon myself, no grief that I can grieve, that will lessen the pain and grief of another. We cannot be someone else’s emotional proxy. We can be empathetic. We can speak out against what is done to the animals. We can take action. We cannot lessen their suffering, though, by suffering ourselves; in fact, we can very much fail them if we quit due to being overwhelmed. I could have quit, too, right then all those years ago. There is nothing that animal abusers would love for us to do more than give up doing what we’re doing and remain silent and immobilized in our little corners of the world.
I am not going to give them that satisfaction, though. I am never going to bow out. I am here for the rest of my life and I will ensure that by taking care of myself. So here are some little things you can do to maintain your emotional and mental health: Laugh a little. Exercise. Garden. Cultivate other interests. Go for a bike ride. Play volleyball. Take the sweetest dog you know on a walk in the woods. Take a pottery class. Meet a friend for dinner. Take a mental health day. Hula hoop. I promise no animals will be harmed because you allowed yourself some enjoyment. I promise. I can also guarantee you that taking care of yourself means that you will have more to give others, too. Plus, you deserve happiness for your own reasons, just like any other being.
Respect your own boundaries the way that you would want someone else to respect them and trust yourself to know when you have seen enough. For me, a little goes a long way. I know this now. For others, watching the violent footage truly does fuel their activism and they don’t get too overloaded. There are benefits to seeing it and benefits to protecting your heart. Find a balance that works for you. Again, if you burn out due to emotional exhaustion, there is no benefit to anyone.
Be gentle with yourself because this is brutal stuff we’re excavating for others to see and we desperately need you here for the long haul.