Sometimes the job can give you nightmares and for very real reasons. As is expected these reasons are often overlooked and ignored until they explode into a physical act, an outburst towards either a colleague or a client or worse. I've seen a few people have minor breakdowns and I've heard of others who were once great workers, top of the tree, who are now mere shades of what they once were. Knowing this I've become aware of my own personal nightmares and the anxiety increasing each time I do counter work. It can be very insidious and more often than not people will take a flex, or call in sick, when there's nothing wrong. In some departments they're called 'mental health days'. I used to laugh at that description, naturally that was born out of ignorance, but now I'll freely admit that I've taken the rare day off using that self-same excuse. Why? Because we're witness to some very disturbing material and very unusual situations.
Case in point. A little old lady wearing a head scarf came towards me, complete with application in hand. She wanted to submit the application - no problems there. She also had two documents with the application, both written in English, stating that support letters will follow. Again, all standard stuff. She then asked for a house. I explained, best as I could, the process. No...not good enough. She raised her voice and proceeded to tell me, in graphic detail, how the Taliban had tortured her back in her homeland. She then pulled her sleeves up to show me the scars of cuts and burns. She told me how there were scars all over her body. She told me, again in detail, how the Taliban had killed her husband, her seven brothers and her three male children. She told me how the Taliban had slit the throats of her children in front of her and beat her because she wept. All that to get a house? I was stunned and kept thinking, "I don't want to know because I don't want to care!" She unloaded this onto me for a good twenty minutes, stories of rape, slaughter and torture. I was at a loss - I had no idea what to do. I can't give her a house and she'd not leave. I promised I'd do what I could - which is pretty much nothing other than registering the application and making the appropriate case notes. Then she sat down for another half hour, quietly sobbing to herself, before she got up and left. My immediate peers wanted me to finish there and then for the day, management told me to 'just get back out there, it's alright'. That's the extent of the counseling.
We get information like that on a daily basis. We usually get it in the form of support letters for housing. We get letters that detail how an applicant was removed from their homeland due to oppression, torture, rape or murder. Occasionally we get some that really scare me and anyone who knows me knows I don't scare easily.
One that still sticks in my mind was a letter from a doctor detailing how the client was plagued with nightmares and physiological issues from their time in their homeland. It transpired that the client had been conscripted into the army and used as a black-ops type of a soldier. They were then part of an elite hit squad who'd go around dragging people out of their beds and killing them, silently (meaning knives, slit throats etc etc) and quickly. They'd kill anyone - men, women and children. Of course the client was an unwilling participant in all of this but, well, all I could think is that I'd not want that guy next door. The report stated how he was on the edge, naturally one of our houses would see him right.
We deal with them constantly. One of my fears is that I'll eventually breakdown or that I'll become an uncaring, unthinking machine. I've seen both things happen to people and I've worked with both. I don't want the former and I doubt I can be the latter, although they are out there - people who sit there, work and don't give a rats arse about anyone who might come in. They'll sit there and make fun of people's woes as it's their way of dealing with the bad stuff that comes along each and every day. Other ways of dealing with it is to just abuse the people right back - pick fights and create a confrontation. Again, that's not my style, but then I'm believing that a lot of things that happen within this job aren't reflections of the true self of a person.
I don't know what to do. It's not all fun and games, and although a large part of it can be turned into situations of comedy, these things just can't. I do know that if I keep dealing with that kind of material, with no support, or the proper training, then eventually I'll break like a cheap Ikea chipboard chair.