On the plus side, when I finally cracked, it was in front of two mental health professionals.
They were at The News Tribune on Jan. 27, offering guidelines on how journalists can be precise and realistic in reporting on mental health.
Most people living with mental illness are not dangerous, they said. The disease does not define the person. We could write about the progress and the successes, they suggested. Treatment can work.
In what alternative universe, I asked, will there ever be the money, will and laws to confine and treat people who are a danger to themselves, their families, strangers and four Lakewood police officers?
The months of horrible events sloshed over me that day. Since Thanksgiving weekend, I had covered the massacre of those Lakewood officers, the hunt for their killer, their memorials, the murder of a Pierce County deputy, and his memorial, the search for a young local woman in quake-devastated Haiti, and her memorial, and the tragic deaths of children.
I started rambling to the mental health visitors about how the Western State campus reminds me of the mental hospital where, as a kid, I visited my grandmother.
I went back to my desk and cried.
“Go home,” my editor told me, in the nicest possible way. “Go home.”
I did, for the six weeks it has taken to rebuild myself from the inside out.
Turns out, over 30-plus years as a reporter, I’d allowed the news to erode my inner resources. My resilience has gotten stiff and creaky, and the fact that I have depression hasn’t helped.
The Greater Lakes Mental Healthcare counselor who gave me the tools to fix myself called it vicarious trauma, a form of post-traumatic stress. It’s a hazard in any occupation where witnessing other people’s pain is part of the job.
It’s been studied and documented. For example, The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma (dartcenter.org) trains reporters who cover violence to do so with compassion for the victims, and to care for their own mental health.
Still, I felt like a wimp.
I’d been afraid of coming to work, and had the urge to hide under my desk when I got there. I’d stopped smiling, my eyes started leaking, and I had headaches. I didn’t want to go anywhere or see anyone.
I must be a wimp.
Stop it, my counselor said. It’s not true, and it’s not helpful to slap yourself when you’re down.
It’s fine with me if you consider me a wimp, but I’m thinking of myself more as an object lesson. That’s why I’m writing this.
There are thousands of people feeling the same things, but who don’t have an insurance plan that covers five visits with a counselor.
They’re the merchants who knew the murdered police and deputies. They’re the employees left standing after half their colleagues have been laid off. They’re the teachers who’ve sympathized with families who have to move because they’ve lost their homes.
They’re losing sleep, or having bad dreams. They’re wondering why they ever smiled, and when they last had a spring in their step. They’re not calling their friends, not going to movies. They’re spacing out at work, at home, behind the wheel.
They might be self-medicating. They’re snappish. They’re replaying sorrowful encounters and blaming themselves because they can’t fix pain they’re seeing.
Sometimes, they just cry.
Personally, I spent three days in bed, sleeping and reading before I got the energy to start getting help.
My counselor noted on our first session that I looked gray.
Go to the gym, he advised. Get some endorphins on your side. Go to a funny movie. Call a friend and do something you love. Find a project around the house that makes you happy, and do it.
Later, find a project that’s been bugging you, and get it done.
Keep a journal. Write down your dreams. Get enough sleep. Eat properly.
Now, I’m back at my desk in the day, at the gym in the evening and the yard in the weekend.
Thank you for bearing with me.
Please take good care of yourself.
And remember, treatment can work.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677