BY MELANIE FARRELL
When preparing for my year of service it was hard to know what challenges lay ahead. I researched the program, I asked friends about their similar experiences, and I read blog posts written by former Loretto Volunteers. However, I found that there were many ways that people interpret their experiences, so I took every piece of advice with a grain of salt. It was not until I began working at The MICA Project that I was able to identify my own obstacles.
Much of what I do at The MICA Project involves client support. I do this by assisting the attorneys on an administrative end, which requires me to read many client testimonials.
I still remember the first day that I had to read through a client’s case file.
It was an unsuccessful case for a woman who tried to claim asylum in the U.S. Even though it wasn’t necessarily required for me to read her entire story, I became invested. I pieced through documentation of countless tragedy, I read her affidavit, and I looked through pictures of her family members and loved ones, most of whom she’ll never see again.
After reading through her story, I sat in reflection. There were so many thoughts in my head that it felt like a circus. One thought chasing the other, spinning around in my head on a countless loop. How could someone force this woman to return to a place that is so dangerous? How can one person withstand this much trauma? What happens now? What am I supposed to do?
This was the first of many instances where I felt helpless. I saw the pain this client was going through, and I felt as though there was nothing that I could do to help her. This type of thinking led me to read even more stories and immerse myself further in my work.
I thought that this was the right thing to do. I told myself that in order to be the best support for our clients, I needed to embody perfection at all times. If I made the smallest error, or had the most miniscule lapse in judgement, I would allow that stress to overwhelm my mind for the rest of the day. In my mind, one error equaled failure. One error meant that I directly affected the success of our organization. One error meant that I affected the success of our clients.
It was not long before this method of thinking began to take a toll on me emotionally.
I wish I could say that this was the point where I identified the problem and made a change, but it was not. Unfortunately, in the fast-paced nature of social justice work, you forget to take care of your mental health. Your needs become secondary to those you are working with. I allowed months to pass before I was able to recognize that something was wrong.
I am fortunate to work in an office environment where discussions of mental health are encouraged. At our weekly meetings, we started to have conversations about self-compassion. In these moments, I see a new side to my co-workers—a side that I never knew existed.
Just like me, they feel overwhelmed, doubtful, and helpless at times. Even though my co-workers have been working in this line of work longer than I have, they still struggle with similar issues. Seeing my staff open up like this allowed me to see that I have so much support surrounding me, and I have people I can depend on. I am not alone. Below I have included some great advice that I received from my co-workers at MICA:
Forgive yourself for mistakes. Understand and acknowledge your limitations and don’t push yourself too far beyond those.
-Stephen, Bilingual Legal Assistant
Give yourself the same kind of treatment that you would give a client.
-Maria, Coordinator of Client Support Services
The lesson is in recognizing that I/we can’t do it all and being limited isn’t a flaw—it’s a reality.
We preach self-care, but many of us never learn how to practice it. We know it is harmful to be hypercritical, but, unfortunately, once something becomes a common practice it’s hard to stop. I saw myself falling into a vicious cycle and believed that the work that I was doing was more important than my own needs.
If I am to continue in this field of work, I need to continue striving to find a balance. My heart is what encouraged me to pursue social justice; however, it is imperative to devote that same sense of love to myself.
Know Thyself, Love Thyself.
I am on the road to discovering who I am and loving myself despite my imperfections. I am forever grateful towards Loretto and The MICA Project for teaching me to care for myself the same as I care for others.
Melanie Farrell is from Warrington, PA and graduated from James Madison University in 2017 with a B.S. in Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication. During her time in college, Melanie served alongside various communities, specifically working with survivors and victims of human trafficking. She is an avid coffee-drinker and lover of writing. She also enjoys reading mystery novels and playing with dogs. This year Melanie is working with M.I.C.A. Project, an organization committed to working with low-income immigrants to overcome barriers to justice in St. Louis, MO.
In Their Own Words
We invite you to get to know Loretto Volunteers and the program here. Volunteers introduce themselves and reflect on their experiences.