On Social Media and Trauma Fatigue

Image: Kara Rodriguez

I have experienced what I think is a common feeling of late, in my dealings with social media. It’s an emotional exhaustion that makes one averse to clicking a link to read about one more act of horrendous violence. This aversion isn’t the compassion fatigue of a trauma center nurse, or the secondary trauma of those who work with abused children or survivors of the prison industrial complex. It’s clearly a more distant phenomenon than anything that places one in such immediate, empathetic proximity to the aftermath of harm, but as many of us have learned, it is no less real.

My work in journalism and in social media requires me to have at least a cursory understanding of most major news stories as they unfold, and often, a more in-depth analysis of those events. But I know that I am not alone in having found that some days, I just can’t click that link or take in the details of yet another tragedy.

But I know I can’t indulge that hesitation for long when it occurs, because one cannot fulfill their duty to fight without knowing what they are fighting, in real time. I won’t watch footage of police murders, as I know what state sanctioned death looks like, but I have to carry the stories of those who are taken. I need to know what both my people — Indigenous people — and Black people are up against. I need to be able to echo the names of the fallen.

But sometimes… it’s hard. Especially when you have your own pains and trauma to attend to. Honestly, if I didn’t live in a community that takes care if its own, I probably couldn’t handle the world. I had a great talk with a Black man who I had never met before recently, about what it means to live in resistance and in community. Not being involved with present movements, but having a sense of history, he wasn’t surprised to hear me describe what it was like, working in Chicago’s social justice community. As I explained that we don’t simply attend protests together, but also share laughter, break bread, and rally to get each other out of jail (regardless of how we wound up there), he seemed heartened. “It’s good you do,” he said. “No other way you’re gonna win.”

I think he’s right about what it takes to win. But I think for some of us, “what it takes” means something much more immediate than victory, or even resistance. For someone like myself, who has coped with various debilitations, both psychological and physical, and who continues to stare down traumas and challenges that seem almost impossible to process at times, community is survival. Because I truly don’t know if I could sustain myself in this world without the shelter, comfort and purpose my community brings to my own efforts to survive my life. Along with the love of my partner, it’s what gives me the strength to open my eyes and take in the things I’d like to look away from, for the sake of my own sanity.

So many people want to look away, and hesitate to take any action against the things they would rather not see. But I really believe that more people would rise up if they understood that living in resistance meant more than staring down what’s ugly, taking risks and incurring trauma.

And as a side note, if your resistance work isn’t more than those things, you may be building with the wrong people, because it really ought to be.

So to those feeling the same fatigue that I am, and who have certainly felt it before, I am grateful that we are in this together. I certainly couldn’t be limping through my current struggles — both figuratively and literally — without you. And when I remind you of your worth, I am also reminding myself that we are not simply individuals, trying to bring some light into dark places.

We are constellations of action and possibility.

We are peoples who not only struggle to tear down the things that harm us, but to live our aspirations for what could be.

We are dreamers who must absorb horror to build forward. And as a human being who, like everyone, may occasionally close my eyes, breathe deeply and not take in the noise of the world, I will open them again. I will stare down what we are up against, and I will get out of bed to fight the good fight. Because this is the moment in history we were handed, and we know what needs to be healed and built.

We know that as we do that work, we are not alone. And if you are, you shouldn’t be. Because you don’t just have to take in the horror. You can be part of a movement that nurtures its own. You can build that space if you have to. You can live the world we want in real time, and that too is an act of resistance.