Taking a sabbatical from violence

When I first shared that I would be leaving my job, I was met with a lot of questions and some stunned silences. This felt a little isolating, to say the least. It had been a difficult decision to make, and it was even more difficult to communicate.

About a month after giving notice, I took part in a team retreat with several days devoted to staff care. It was facilitated by an amazing woman who had a long history of working with survivors of domestic violence, mostly within the U.S. At one of the breaks, I approached her to ask for advice about how to approach this next phase of my life. She told me how she’d run a support hotline for women in the 1980s. She carried a beeper and would receive pages in the middle of the night and run outside to the nearest payphone to respond to them.

She continued her work with survivors for many years, to a point where she felt that she needed some separation from it, some time to attend to herself and the vicarious trauma she experienced. So she took a year-long “sabbatical from violence” in which she even stopped reading the news, watching violent movies–everything and anything that included violent actions was placed outside of her sphere of awareness for that year. She returned to the work afterwards, with a different focus (supporting organizations who do this work rather than doing it directly) and with a renewed ability to be present and available to those with whom she worked.

When I told her about my decision to leave, and how difficult it had been to make it, the first thing she said was: “Congratulations on taking care of your health.” She didn’t ask why, or for how long, or what I would do instead. She just congratulated me. It was the first unconditionally positive response I had received.

The effect was both powerful and long-lasting. Even now, I regularly contemplate her words and share them with others making the same decision. I still feel grateful to her for supporting others, and for leading by example. Our work tends to be all-encompassing; taking a break from it can leave one feeling lost, disoriented, or longing to return to familiar (if claustrophobic) environments. So if you’ve made the difficult decision to take a break, I say:  “Congratulations on taking care of your health.”

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