I am a newspaper reporter. In the 30 years I’ve been doing it, I’ve seen some horrific stuff – crimes and atrocities that grab headlines and break hearts. Last week I covered a case that knocked the emotional wind out of me.
I am hoping that my editors don’t read this. If they do, I’m afraid they will say I’m too weak to cover these kinds of stories – which I am not. Just the opposite.
Anyone who is regularly exposed to grisly violence and depravity and tells you it doesn’t affect them is either a liar or a sociopath. Yes, you can train yourself to disregard emotions and focus on your responsibilities – your job. You can wear emotional oven mitts when you have to reach in and touch the searing reality of what has happened.
But you cannot stuff your feelings or bury them forever. They are there, waiting to be acknowledged. If you ignore and deny them long enough, they will haunt you and stalk you until you either give in or become a mean, nasty, sarcastic and heartless son-of-a bitch.
It’s your choice – and it is a choice. I learned that lesson the hard way. Some people will drink or take drugs to take the edge off what they have seen or heard or smelled or touched. Some will become violent themselves. Many will become depressed.
I covered criminal courts for 12 years, which meant I hunted down the by-product of rage, terror and inexplicable tragedy every day. I trolled the hallways of the courthouse every morning in search of the saddest, most horrific, bizarre and violent stories on display that day.
In south Florida, where I have worked for most of my career, that’s saying something.
My mother, who lived her life in the midwest, would read my stories and say, “Things like this just don’t happen in Grand Rapids.” In my head I responded, “No shit.”
I am not saying that my job pushed me over the edge. I was an alcoholic and had depression long before I picked up a notebook and pen. But my inability to deal with my feelings about what I immersed myself in every day certainly helped push me into my black hole.
As part of my recovery from alcoholism and depression I had to learn how to “feel my feelings” – an expression that made me roll my eyes. Puh-leez. But when I started to do it, I realized I had stuffed a lot of feelings over the years. A whole lot. I eventually found myself in a muddy junkyard on a rainy weekday with a metal bat in my hands, beating the shit out of truck.
Boy, did that feel good.
I eventually got off the criminal court beat and began doing investigative reporting, especially with data. Today I cover the environment, focusing on restoration of the Everglades. Not a lot of blood and gore, unless you consider what those damn pythons can do to a labrador.
But last week I found myself volunteering for this particular story. A mother – an alcoholic with depression who had just come out of an ugly divorce – had allegedly killed her 10-year-old daughter, with a knife. Then killed herself. The little girl attended the same school as my daughter and even had some of the same teachers.
The father was there when the bodies were found.
I, too, am an alcoholic mother with depression. I divorced my daughter’s father when she was in the same grade as this little girl. I had a lot in common with this woman and begged my editors to let me cover the case. They agreed.
For four days I immersed myself in the case. I read every pleading in the divorce file. I studied the timeline. I did terribly sad interviews and attended the little girl’s memorial service, held in the school gymnasium where I watched my daughter’s Christmas pageants and school plays.
I wrote several stories. On the fifth day, after hearing unconfirmed details of the crime scene, I bonked. I told my editor I was taking the day off. I didn’t ask. I told him I was taking the day off.
Now, there was a time when I would have gone to work and looked for another angle to keep the tragic mojo going and my stories on the front page. But in all my therapy and recovery from my last major depression, I learned how to “set boundaries” – another eye-rolling exercise. I learned “self-care.”
After wrestling with my guilt and embarrassment, I gave myself permission to take the day off. I ran mindless errands and said a lot of prayers.
I don’t normally care what people think of me. My goal is to do the next right thing and let people react as they wish. But in my line of work – as with cops, ER doctors, paramedics, soldiers – you don’t want others to see your emotions as a weakness: Take her off the case. She just can’t handle it.
Not true. The fact that I am now capable of pulling back and taking care of myself means I am stronger now. I have emotional endurance and am capable of saying “no mas.” I’m like an athlete who can pace herself before hitting the red line.
I know when it is time to take it down a notch, catch my breath and then hit it again. But will my editors see it this way? Or, will they think I am too fragile to cover cases like this?
Personally, I believe my ability to do this enables me to go back and write those raw, visceral stories again and again. If you can’t do this, you and your stories become flat and emotionless. Your words have no power to move people and make them think.
I will go to work today and write about the Everglades, which is fine with me. However, I wonder what will happen when the autopsy and police reports are finally released. Will my editors all me back on the story or will they believe it is too much for me?
We will see.
Crime scene tape image available from Shutterstock.