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. 


  1. Brilliant as always. Thanks for your support :-)

  2. Well said, Marla. It can be so difficult sometimes to turn off the grief, the anger, and the outrage, but if we allow ourselves to become incapacitated by them, we reduce our ability to effect any actual positive change. Thanks for the timely reminder!

  3. Reading this could absolutely not have come at a better time.

    Today I have been going through the exact emotions you describe. I was considering checking myself into to a place for suicidal people, such was the sadness, despair, and hatred in me - and the loneliness of this reaction I was having to watching what i watched.

    I still feel the trauma, and I want something to take it all away, but it is a small relief to read another human being can understand this pain and has found a way to cope with the fight.

    So much love and gratitude to you.

    Thank you.

  4. Beautifully written. I can relate 100%. I constantly have to force myself to *not* watch new undercover investigation footage or attend the yearly Ringling Bros. protest or else I go into a 2 week depression. Over the years I've learned how to balance what I know in my heart is happening to those poor animals with my own well-being. It's a very fine balance, indeed. Great post, thank you.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I struggle with this too - your article really helped.

  6. Thanks for this post.

    I do not see any benefit in watching graphic images and graphic footage of animal torture. Nor do I see the point in sharing that footage with the public. I think it does two things. It often makes people default to welfare and to call for "better" ways of doing the wrong thing or it disempowers them and they turn away. Often these graphic images are never accompanied by a strong vegan message and these cruelty videos (and single issue campaigns) often reinforce the idea that one form of animal use is worse than another or one species is more important than another. They are also usually used to fundraise and this is also never accompanied by a strong vegan message.

    I think it's fine to describe the problems with the dairy industry or the egg industry on occasion since 99.99% of our animal use is for food, but it must be ALWAYS with a very strong vegan message. After all it's not HOW animals are used that is the issue, it's THAT they are used that is the problem. The most effective thing we can do is promote veganism to end the property status of animals, and steer away from anything which is going to reinforce welfare and speciesism. ALL use is abuse. I mean how many horrific videos does a person need to watch? It's obvious it's ALL wrong whether it's "free range" or industrialised farming.

    Here's an excellent blog on the problems with "cruelty" videos.

  7. Thank you, Rebecca, and thanks for all you do, friend. <3

  8. Thank you, Desdemona, so well said. We need to protect ourselves.

  9. Oh, Sam. Thank you so much for sharing. All of us have been there: we're compassionate, empathetic people and it's so hard to cope with the darkness sometimes, especially given its magnitude. There is no gain through burning ourselves out or reaching that level of despair, though I certainly understand it well. Give yourself the courtesy of maintaining your wellness. You deserve it. The animals will only benefit, too, from your wellness. Thanks again for sharing and remember that we've all been there.

  10. Thank you, Peacechicken (I love your name)! Protecting yourself enough to be a great advocate is the best gift you can give the animals. <3

  11. Thank you, Anonymous. It is all food for thought. I appreciate your words.

  12. Thanks so much for this Marla! For me, burnout also results from overexposure to mean-spirited backlash…not just the actual violence towards animals, but the denial of it, the complicity of others who go so far as to try and undermine our work through betrayal and alientation. I think anyone with PTS as a result of their work is extra vulnerable to emotional abuse and it's just not discussed nearly enough. I'm sure you don't mind me adding a link here to pattrice jones' excellent book…so very helpful for activists who far too often have no opportunity to even debrief with others who understand what they are going through. <3

  13. Timely. Relevant. Helpful.
    I am flooded. I have also retreated to the countryside with my husband and dogs. I also feel ineffectual.
    I can absolutely relate to what you say and reading it made me tearful but it also made me think. I am frozen, hopeless and so emotionally overwhelmed by relentless animal horror, I've stopped being useful.
    Thanks for this. Really meaningful to me.

  14. Brilliant. I think all who bear witness, and care, to thevatrocitiesvthatbanimals suffer go through all these emotions. I find it so hard dealing with people who don't care!

  15. Thanks for this objective look at some valid concerns regarding burn-out and what causes shutting down emotionally. I think it's true that one has to know themselves and pace accordingly... I could have used this essay six years ago when I refused to say "when" to the images. I'm sure it will help many now and in the future. <3

  16. Very wise words. Thanks so much for writing this :)

  17. I can't find any contact information for you guys, so everyone should do their best to get across this message, one of your ads has misinformation on it, claiming broccoli has more protein than cow flesh.A simple search proves that this is not true, it's this ad right here:

  18. Your writing is brilliant. Your wisdom off the chart. Thank you 1000 x's.

  19. What a beautifully written post!

    A few months ago I went to Romania and visited the public shelters where dogs are kept before being killed (a new law allows the euthanasia of dogs after just 2 weeks and the law has stirred up a mass killing of stray dogs in Romania) - after a week of bearing witness, taking pictures and notes so that I could share their suffering and plea with the world, I came back to my life, but found it so difficult to carry on. How do you continue when you know that innocent dogs are being beaten up, starved to death and die in agony?

    I wish I had read your post at that time, and am very grateful for your words - thank you xxx

  20. Thank you, Marla. You have described the inner world of those of us animal liberationists/activists who feel that "If the animals must live the horror, then the least I can do is to witness it."

    Having experienced all you describe for over 35 years, I believe this article is critically needed by many serious animal advocates and I know that, had I read this article many years ago, I might have come to a point of being easier on myself much earlier than I finally had.

    On the other hand, there are those giants among us who, in their undaunted quest to save the innocents, never stop immersing themselves in the horror, view it personally, subject themselves to arrest and harassment by powerful animal abusers (i.e., Florida State University), and come out better for it on the other side. (i.e., Camille Marino - To them I say "Thank you and BRAVO!!!"

    For the sake of the rest of us, I urge everyone to PLEASE SHARE THIS ARTICLE. Because, when you think deeply about it, you'll realize that it is really a matter of "life or death."

  21. I love reading your blog and I loved this entry in particular.
    Some of us were lucky enough to attend a Cost of Caring Workshop put on by Wishing Well Farm Animal Sanctuary and this exact topic was discussed at length. Compassion fatigue is a very real condition that everyone in the AR community should be aware of and do everything to avoid.
    Staying as effective as possible should be the main goal in order for us to be successful in the long run for the animals.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.