Saturday, September 25, 2010

Caring for Ourselves First...Our Emotional Well Being

Whether you have been volunteering for a long time or just began your journey, you have undoubtedly been told at some point, "If you don't take care of yourself, you're not going to be any good to anyone." As parents, we are often scolded by our peers because we spend so much time taking care of our children's needs that we often neglect our own. We accept that as part of the deal, right? However, when it's another person's child, a missing one at that who is undoubtedly in danger, we tend to feel an incredible sense of urgency. "This child needs me- now! If I don't devote every possible second to searching...something horrible is going to happen!" Then the next thought is, "My child is safe...what about this poor woman? Her child is gone and she doesn't know when or if she will see her again...I've got to do something!" We recognize the guilt we feel that our children are safe and someone else's child is not. We have all felt that deep worry and sometimes guilt, time and time again. This emotional roller coaster that we got on some time ago never stops, it's just like the mail.

We often talk to each other about how we need to take better care of our physical health. Our chat rooms and facebook pages are riddled with accounts of getting fit, eating right, trying to get better sleep. What about our mental and emotional well being? Even among our tightest knit groups-and there are some really good ones out there-there is a reluctancy to talk about our biggest challenge of all...depression and anxiety.

We have to learn new ways to deal with the anxiety that our worrying tends to breed. We must learn to face our worry over the possible outcome of each case, to deal with it, compartmentalize it. If not, we run the risk of becoming obsessed with anxiety and unable to function, unable to help that missing child or the next one that is sure to follow.

Recognizing when we are giving in to anxiety and becoming fatigued is key. We must watch for the signs of depression and withdrawal among our colleagues and in ourselves. This is not simply a matter of being "a little down" as is normal in the course of our daily activities. I'm referring to actively withdrawing from our daily routines, becoming so depressed that what began as a sincere concern for a stranger has turned into an overwhelming sense of doom that consumes your thoughts regularly. I'm talking about not being able to function in your normal routines, no longer caring about your appearance, your job, your family and friends. I'm referring to no longer enjoying hobbies and interests that use to occupy at least a moderate amount of your time.

If you notice signs of depression and fatigue in yourself or your colleagues, tell someone and get help. Many times, we think of ourselves as the ones out there helping others, but there is NO shame in saying that we need help sometimes, too.

If you notice a colleague hasn't been acting like her "normal, cheery self" or isn't calling, texting, chatting, emailing you like usual; if you think she may be turning to alcohol or drugs to "numb" the emotions she is facing; if you don't see her on the regular facebook, twitter and blogs that she normally visits...say something, ask the question, "Can we talk about this?" Be proactive and don't dismiss it if initially she seems fine. Use humor, your close friendship, your concern for her, whatever you can. Be tactful, but be persuasive.

We all know how difficult it is for us to talk with outsiders about what we do. Consequently, you may be the only line of defense for a friend or colleague who is suffering from depression and anxiety. As we are there for strangers, we must be there for each other.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dealing with Personal Tragedy While Helping Others

Most of us are maintaining very busy schedules and yet make time to assist on multiple missing person cases, and many of us have done so for years. Consequently, it is only natural that we have encountered our own personal setbacks and low points over these time periods. Likewise, we have also witnessed the heartache of family members and fellow searchers over many tragic endings to the searches we have been involved in.

It's important to note that we must recognize we are human, we will have personal issues that must be dealt with, and that is normal. Learning how to bounce back from such setbacks so that we can get back to searching is not so obvious. It can also help us to better support the families of those who face such heartache.

I recall a very critical moment in my life many years ago when I learned that my boyfriend at the time had been killed in a car accident. It felt as though someone had literally punched me in the chest, knocking the wind out of me. I felt as though I was still, in the middle of the eye of a hurricane, while everyone and everything continued around me as if nothing had happened. I remember thinking, "What is wrong with everyone? Don't they understand that everything is different now? Why is everything going on like normal?" I did not know how to deal with my grief, but I NEEDED and WANTED to talk about it. Unfortunately for me, no one else did. He was young and no one wanted to think about his death, to talk about it, or be reminded of it. It was a very lonely place to be.

It is the same for any of us when tragedy strikes, even if it is a missing child that we never met but have come to know over weeks, months or even years of searching. We get to know the families many times. We feel a part of what is happening, and that is normal. When the outcome is a particularly horrific one, it is even more brutal. It is senseless, and we often feel we could have done more. What we forget sometimes is how we can continue to support the family when the outcome is horrible. They need our support at that terrible time, more than ever.

It's important that we learn the skills to assist each other through these difficult times, and it is equally important that we are there for the families, in joy and sorrow.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Resilience...We need to be strong for one another, now more than ever...

Having worked as a poster partner and volunteer for national missing children organizations, as well as individual groups and cases, I have seen my share of heartbreaking and horrific outcomes to missing children cases. The scars left behind are deep and maintaining a level of optimism over the long term cases can be overwhelming and both physically and mentally exhausting. Holding on to hope in the face of no real evidence to support it requires a persistent determination that is as demanding as it is daunting. However, it is something that we must do...because the only other option- giving up - is one that is no viable option at all. Many people have asked me over the years, "Why do you do this? How can you invest so much of yourself into the lives of people you don't even know?" My response has always been, "How can I not?" Every moment that I am not doing something to help, is a moment that I have lost and cannot get back.If I keep trying, keep searching, keep thinking of new ways to get the word out of a missing child, that one tip-that one person who sees that poster or reads that Amber Alert...that could make all the difference. One moment to me can change a lifetime for someone else. That's why we all do it...we simply cannot afford not to...

Trying to juggle a full time job and family while trying to find missing children is not an easy task. When I get worn down from the stress of it all, trying to talk about the situation to people outside of the loop who do not see these cases and come to know these children can be almost as difficult. People don't want to talk about the horrible things that happen to missing children...They do not want to speak of the evil that men do. I have come to accept that reality but was many years in denial. I use to think that I wasn't wording it right, or was not articulating the facts properly, or was too blunt. The cold hard truth of it is that engaging people in conversation about the horrific outcomes of child exploitation, trafficking, abduction and murder is almost too much for the average person to bear.

So where do we go for support? Who do we go to when we NEED to just talk about a frustrating case or our fears for a child, or more often than not, our sorrow and anguish over the discovery of another abducted and murdered child? We need to learn to REALLY be a strong support group for each other. We NEED the kind of resilience skills that can lift us up and carry us over the depths of despair in these cases so we can carry on, because carry on we must.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Public is Often Misinformed About the Missing

Often times, the public has a misguided view of not only the volunteers, but the missing children we are trying to find.

Many people misunderstand the real danger faced by children who are abducted from a noncustodial parent. It's a parent, after all, so how could we devote our resources that are already stretched too thin to concern ourselves with these cases? Anyone who has worked in this field for longer than 2 months can verify that there is a reason the abductor is a noncustodial parent, and all missing children are endangered.

People tend to categorize all runaways the same...some spoiled brat who didn't appreciate his or her parents and took off. That is not always the case. True, many missing children are runaways, but not all runaways have left voluntarily and not all runaways can easily get home. Many runaways are funneled into the sex trade industry and exploited. We must constantly work to bring awareness of this issue to the public.

Public Misconceptions About Volunteers Looking for the Missing

We all know how critical volunteer efforts are- including physical searches, poster distribution and amber alert notifications- in the search for abducted children and apprehension of the perpetrators. However, the general public has often misunderstood the very nature of what we do and who we are.

The public often erroneously assumes that there is a massive enforcement group out there of highly trained individuals skilled in law enforcement techniques and practices and working on salary who distribute the posters and hunt down the predators/abductors. While many if not all of us have acquired some investigation skills and finely tuned our attention to detail techniques, we do not have the same skill sets as trained, law enforcement personnel. While we work many times hand-in-hand with law enforcement, our roles are very distinctive. Most of us are not formally trained in the practices we employ and we do not get paid for what we do. We maintain other full-time jobs, families, and continuing education while volunteering on the side. When the average person learns of this, he is simply baffled. If you have so little free time, why would you spend it doing something like this? Shouldn't you be golfing? And for no compensation? What positive thing could you possibly get out of this? For volunteers, this line of thinking is entirely foreign to us.

Many outsiders who become distraught over the highly publicized cases they see  periodically on their nightly news programs are under the misconception that this does not happen that often. After all, if it did, wouldn't it be in the news more? The fact is that there is a non family/endangered missing abduction every 3 days in the United States. That's over 100 each year, and of those typically 3 or 4 make the evening news over the entire year. Our volunteers know all the cases, all the faces, and the posters never stop. This takes a toll on a person especially when that person has been volunteering for a long period of time. We need to learn to watch for signs of fatigue and stress from each other.

Our society has literally become so entrenched in the fast-food train of thought that the public assumes we should be able to find a missing child, apprehend the abductor and "close the case" in about the same span of time as a Law & Order Special Victims Unit episode.

We are out there searching, constantly, until days sometimes turn into weeks, months or even years. The longer it goes on, the more weary we all become. That is when we need each other the most. Unfortunately, an hour-long episode of CSI Miami might play well on prime time but it is not case in the real world. I am working on a half-dozen cases right now that involve children that were abducted over 2 years ago, and I am not alone.

The public often cannot appreciate the wide variety of volunteers from all walks of life, from many different backgrounds, who hold many different religious and political affiliations. We are scattered all of the country and even all over the world on many international cases we work on. We may not share the same ideals or even philosophies, but we come together to find missing children. We put our personal differences aside and work in an organized, professional manner to achieve this common goal. Our struggle is not without occasional differences in how a case should be managed or approached; we are human. However, at the end of the day, I would defy you to find any other group in the world that is more dedicated and more devoted than the group of individuals I am proud to work with.

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