Sleepwalking with Ghosts: Vicarious Trauma and the Importance of Self-Care


A view from the bottom of a hole in the ground shows a circular view of blue skies and clouds surrounded by walls.


We kick off 2018 with this piece that draws our attention to the psychological toll of  being part of certain academic disciplines that involve dealing with violence and trauma at its very core 


POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: Graphic imagery, violence, sexual abuse


I woke up standing in my socks on the fourth-floor fire escape of my apartment building at four in the morning. Winter had come early, and I was locked out in the cold.

I panicked.

My first instinct was to hurl a hunk of concrete through the reinforced glass of the emergency exit. I paused to consider the consequences: shredded skin from shards of glass, arrest for breaking and entering, eviction. I thought about asking the owners of the local liquor store to call the police, but it was too late.  Besides, I had no idea how I would explain my predicament.

Ten, twenty, maybe thirty minutes passed. It was beginning to snow when it finally occurred to me that my parents, quite fortuitously, were visiting for Thanksgiving and staying in a vacation rental just a few blocks away. I sprinted down the snowy sidewalk and mumbled an incoherent explanation for my presence when my they found me sleeping on the couch the next morning.

It was immediately evident to me what had happened that night, but I was too afraid or perhaps too embarrassed to admit that my volunteer work with torture survivors had taken a toll on my mental health. I was experiencing the symptoms of vicarious traumatization—an emotional disturbance resembling post-traumatic stress disorder that can arise in mental health care workers who bear witness to the pain, fear, and terror of trauma survivors. Symptoms mimic those of primary trauma, and often include changes in self-concept, interpersonal difficulties, affect disruption, somatic complaints, sleep disturbances, intrusive mental imagery, cynicism, heightened sensitivity to violence, and struggles to maintain appropriate boundaries with clients (Arvay & Uhlemann, 1996; Bober, Regehr,& Zhou, 2006; Brady, Guy, Poelstra, & Brokaw, 1999; Cunningham, 1999; Ghahramanlou & Brodbeck, 2000; Pearlman, 2003; Schauben & Frazier, 1995).

Earlier that year, in March 2015, I began volunteering as an interpreter at a rehabilitation center for survivors of torture seeking asylum in the United States. I wanted to integrate my intellectual interest in human rights with the concrete practice of advocacy work. But what was intended to be a diversion from the academic rigor of my graduate program in the humanities quickly became an all-consuming passion project.

The week before I found myself shivering on my fire escape, I had been interpreting for a regular therapy client who was experiencing symptoms of mild psychosis related to her trauma. She admitted during our therapy session that she had been following voices in her mind out into the cold without a jacket. She would wander for blocks before coming to her senses, freezing.

Standing on my snowy fire escape in my socks, I realized that I was quite literally sleepwalking with the ghosts of another person’s trauma, leading me blindly into the night. Prior to this incident, I did not have a history of sleep disorders.

Interpreting is an intimate and often disturbing experience. It creates an intense bond between client and interpreter, survivor and witness. In order to faithfully represent my clients’ stories, I would construct mental pathways in which I witnessed horrific acts of violence in vivid detail. My clients’ stories are not, have never been, and will never be my own to tell.  And yet, I heard the sound of my own voice as I repeatedly recounted them aloud in the first person: I, I, I.

Although I had attended an orientation session warning of the dangers of vicarious trauma, I was not and perhaps never could have been truly prepared for the traumatic experience of interpreting for torture survivors. My clients’ stories followed me everywhere. The prospect of going home alone after interpreting sessions filled me with dread, so instead I would take my seminar readings to the bar with a margarita. I did not have the tools to effectively communicate my traumatic experiences as an interpreter, and I felt alienated from my academic community. As my advocacy work occupied more and more of my time, I felt increasingly isolated, anxious, and cynical. Sometimes I would surprise myself by bursting into tears in yoga class.

And then that winter day, I endangered my own safety during the dissociative experience that mimicked my psychotic client’s trauma. It felt like a failure on my part.


.           .           .

When I first started volunteering, I was overwhelmed by the urgency of need that I encountered with my clients. By comparison, my graduate work in the humanities felt unfulfilling and unengaged. Torture and trauma became the primary focus of my research, but I found it difficult to reconcile the concrete struggles faced by torture survivors with the theoretical abstractions of my discipline. I was consumed by my research while growing increasingly skeptical of its practical import.

As my qualifying exams approached in the spring of 2016, I was on the verge, yet again, of an emotional precipice. It occurred to me late one snowy night in the library that I could quit graduate school and pursue advocacy work full time. I had to make a choice.

I chose, and not without some regret, to reorient my research to align more closely with the methodological conventions of my discipline. However, reframing my research also required disentangling my dissertation project from my advocacy work.

I was fortunate to volunteer for an organization that actively promotes self-care and encourages its staff and volunteers to seek counsel when needed. But self-care, I realized, is not just about developing a personal yoga practice or taking the time to debrief after a particularly grueling interpreting session. Self-care also means drawing boundaries and creating mental space for separate spheres of interest.

Perhaps most importantly, self-care requires a conscious assessment of values. My choice to remain in my graduate program represents my belief in the value of research in the humanities beyond the immediate policy concerns of my advocacy work.

I believe that as an academic in the humanities I have the responsibility to use my specialized skills to advance the rights of vulnerable populations. But my ability to advocate for others is only as effective as my capacity to care for myself.

My struggle with vicarious traumatization has served as a stark reminder that grit alone cannot compensate for the emotional and intellectual demands of my work. In learning to restore balance and recognize my limits, I have become more effective as an advocate and more productive as an academic. Serving others has become a source of strength.


Author bio: Rachel Mihuta Grimm is a PhD Candidate in French and Francophone Studies at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on trauma theory and the cultural memory of the Algerian War of Independence.


2 thoughts on “Sleepwalking with Ghosts: Vicarious Trauma and the Importance of Self-Care

  1. Reblogged this on Solitary City and commented:
    I recently had the opportunity to team up with the Academic Mental Health Collective (AMHC) to address the potential for vicarious traumatization in academic and advocacy work that deals with instances of extreme violence. In this post, I share my experience working as an interpreter for survivors of torture, as well as the self-care strategies that I adopted in my ongoing struggle to cope with my clients’ trauma. The AMHC was founded in 2016 by a group of socially engaged academics with the aim of providing materials and resources to promote mental health among graduate students.


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