*****TRIGGER WARNING***** This post references violence so if you’re a survivor of violence or a mom gestating in peace (GIP!) then please proceed with caution.
This morning I had an early prenatal visit and I woke up late due to self entertaining kids being strangely quiet and not waking me up earlier. I hit the ground running and was out the door in minutes (and I only forgot one thing, go me!) But as I was doing the super speed shower and brushing my teeth it made me reflect on some of my prior work.
During my college years I began volunteering at the domestic abuse shelter for my area, and I’ve written before about how that impacts my work as a doula. Once a week I would ride the bus across town and spend four hours answering their crisis hotlines and helping with the office and shelter between calls. After about nine months there was an opening for a night manager, and I got the job. I would be at the shelter from evening through early morning, after office hours. I would supervise the last shift of hotline volunteers then lock up the shelter and settle in with the clients for the night. Any intakes during the night I would handle, and I answer the business and hotline calls during the night. There was an office/bedroom inside the shelter so if it was really quiet I would get some sleep, as the phone generally didn’t ring all night long. But sometimes I would get those 2am calls and I would snatch that phone on the first ring and rattle off the greeting before even opening my eyes. It was years before I could get a call during the night and not answer it with the shelter greeting.
About a year later I got my first car and immediately signed up for the sexual assault crisis team. I would carry a pager (back in the days before everyone had a cell phone!) for a 48 hour shift and carry a special bag of supplies. If the pager went off I would have to call the shelter to get the contact info and would be put in touch with someone who had been sexually assaulted. Sometimes it was years past and something was triggering a current crisis, other times (most of the time) it was the hospital calling asking us to send the team over for someone currently in the ER. Because I was also working in the shelter if there was an uncovered shift for the sexual assault team I would almost always volunteer, so I was covering a couple shifts a month – on the nights I wasn’t at the shelter working.
So safe to say, I was having a bit of an unusual college experience as I was also working other jobs at the same time and going to school full time. But the crisis work was where my passion was – I could see the difference it made to these women to be experiencing the worst moments of their lives and to have someone there just for them – to support and encourage and listen and love them. It was HARD, hard work with crazy hours and emotional exhaustion and so many tears – theirs and mine. But at the end of the long night I knew that what I was doing was helping in some tiny way to ease their suffering.
But when that phone rang it was an instant adrenaline rush – I was up, my heart was racing, and my brain had to very quickly spin into gear. I didn’t know what kind of crisis I would be hearing on the other end of the line but I needed to be calm and reassuring and go through the checklist (Are you in a safe place? Do you need me to send a police escort? Are you alone?) I had to think fast and clearly all while processing key points of safety and trying to be a soothing voice. It was humbling!
But I was good at it. I learned to get by on little sleep, to be levelheaded in crisis, to prioritize needs, to smile gently and speak gently, to hold hands and wipe tears and decipher when they needed a hug and when touch wasn’t okay. I had to read body language in so many ways… and I had to learn how to hold it together when I wanted to fall apart, because seeing another person in pain and being unable to stop it is HARD. I couldn’t fix these situations, and I couldn’t carry the burden for them – but I could be there. I could make sure they felt heard, I could advocate for them, I could let them know they had options and we would respect their choice. I could help them feel they had some control in an out of control situation.
I realized, as I raced out the door this morning for a very fun and happy reason (a prenatal visit!) that I am a better doula because of my past work. I get by on little sleep, I can be alert quickly, I work to read body language and anticipate needs, I listen, I encourage. Obviously my prior work is on the opposite end of the spectrum from birth work – one horror and trauma, one joy and excitement! But in both situations these women need someone there to support and love and empower them, and in both situations I get the chance to remind women that they are stronger and more amazing than they realize.