The Cost of Caring
Contributing Author: Mary Ashley, NDAA Well-being Task Force Vice Chair
There are things you have to see in this world that you don’t want to. We all know this. As a prosecutor, you submerge yourself inside the world of a victim and you do it repeatedly, for years and years. And you do it willingly. Often, for an entire career.
As a career prosecutor, I’ve seen my share and done my part to the best of my ability. Fortunately, at this juncture, I work in a specialized area of criminal law that is far less violent than the crimes I used to handle daily. So, it surprised no one more than me how deeply I was affected when I recently attended a state prosecution conference that covered a variety of legal topics.
It was a nice hotel with pleasant surroundings and hundreds of colleagues together. I sat with coffee in hand, bright and early, eager to hear the first presentation. It was a child abuse case. And not just any case. A very high profile, egregious case involving the “house of horrors” for 13 siblings that were abused and neglected for years by their parents. The videos, the interviews and the evidentiary photos were painful to look at. Not because they depicted a dead body or bloody crime scene, but they displayed the absolute cruelty of starvation and mental brutality imposed on these children by their parents. I struggled to fight back tears in the large, darkened room. But I lost the struggle. Tears streamed down my face while trying to process the inhumanity. I am a seasoned child abuse prosecutor. I have handled similar cases and those involving death. But it just never leaves you. One of the rescued victims, now an adult, spoke to us. He was amazing. Resilient. Brave. And I cried a little more, but with a smile for his recovery and triumph.
The next morning, I pulled myself together, fresh cup of coffee, and ready for the new presentation. This was a case of a young woman who disappeared after leaving a local casino with a man. He was later convicted of her murder, but her body had not yet been found. The parents of this young woman spent nearly fifteen years in agony, never knowing where their daughter was or what had happened to her. The district attorney investigators, prosecutors and law enforcement never gave up until her body was finally found — fifteen years after her murder. The parents of this young woman spoke as well. I fought, yet again, to keep the tears back. Alas, another loss. Listening to the pain and heartbreak was devastating.
There is tremendous value in sharing case stories and information — what went well, what didn’t, and how we can do better. But on the second day, I felt emotionally drained. After 24 years as a prosecutor, I still have a hard time comprehending how human beings can be so evil to one another. I also didn’t anticipate being so affected by the cases, as they were not mine and only constituted a portion of the training. I am learning about being triggered by certain events. And while it would be natural for anyone to be bothered by listening to these cases, they really stayed with me for several days. And while the word ‘triggered” often gets tossed around and used gratuitously at times, it turns out that our bodies like to remind us of prior trauma and cause some emotional discomfort.
In an article written by Stephanie A. Wright, RN, BSN, How to Identify and Overcome Trauma Triggers, PsychCentral, November 8,2021, the author describes a trigger as “anything that sparks a memory of a trauma or part of a trauma.” A trigger might make you feel helpless, panicked, unsafe or overwhelmed with emotion. The mind perceives triggers as a threat and causes a reaction like fear, panic or agitation. Think of the reaction to triggers as a defense mechanism: The memory of the traumatic event places you right back into the experience.”
I didn’t feel threatened, panicked, or unsafe. I absolutely was overwhelmed with emotion and felt agitated. No, I felt angry. I have written before about knowing how these cases still make me feel and must accept that they simply are triggers for me. Not because I suffered through the traumas personally, but because I remember the experience and emotions while later witnessing another event like it.
I have heard many times that the “cost of caring” means suffering through the sadness and misery of others. And to me, to try and do this work without “caring” would be next to impossible. It is worth the cost to see victims thrive after surviving such abuse; to see a family finally given the closure they deserve. The cost is worth it, but it is expensive.
Well-being Task Force Vice Chair, Mary Ashley, is a Deputy District Attorney with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. Along with being a Board member of NDAA, Mary is also a member of the California District Attorneys Association and NDAA’s Vice Chair of the Women Prosecutors Section.