I am struggling to know where boundaries should be drawn with my clients. Resounding praise stems from clients who know how much I truly care. I’m largely glued to technology and am available to clients via email, phone, and text. Military justice clients are particularly at risk for self-harm because their living and working communities know about the allegations against them and isolate them from any sense of normality. In most cases, their security clearances are suspended, they are moved from their responsibilities, and often are made to “check in” from remote locations. Presumed guilty.
My acute awareness of this risk, marred by experience with a client who committed suicide while I was on active duty, has made my boundaries all but non-existent. But at what cost?
I write from time to time about vicarious trauma. It is very real.
I am particularly pensive on the need for boundaries because I have been recently working through the trauma of losing a client who was very dear to me.
I didn’t see it coming. And I’ve felt undeniable guilt for not having saved him.
He was fully acquitted more than a year before he took his own life.
I was in the midst of a contested drug case when the judge put us on recess. I went out to my car to drive to the dry cleaners. As is my habitual practice, I paused to check email before engaging in drive. There was an email from the Chief of the Army’s Trial Judiciary.
You see, he had presided over this young man’s trial the year before. He was reaching out to pass along his condolences and indirectly to ensure that I knew that my client had taken his own life.
I broke down, sobbing at my steering wheel. I called my military co-counsel. I wanted to speak to someone who knew how special this young man had been, to engage with someone who might fathom the loss to the world, and to connect with someone who may share my grief. I left what must have been on reflection an unkind voicemail. I am not quite sure the best way to deliver such horrific news. On TV, it seems physicians give news of death or impending demise after assuring the loved one is seated. I was grateful I was not driving.
I walked back into the courtroom, located my client, and made him promise me that he understood that no matter the outcome of his trial, no matter how much time would pass, that he promised to call me if he ever got to a dark place and couldn’t see his way out. My blotchy face, trembling voice, and heaving chest were assuredly compelling reasons to make the pact.
I went to find the prosecutor to explain we needed to see the military judge. I needed time to steady myself before I could be at my best in my current trial.
The prosecutor’s initial reaction was to say she had heard about my client’s suicide but didn’t understand why he would do it since he had been fully acquitted. Her comments landed like a sucker punch to my soul.
“Because”, I explained, “the pain does not end at the words ‘not guilty.” It was as gracious as I could muster given my acute grieving.
I spoke with my client’s mother, and still feel nearly unbearable guilt that she was consoling me. She told me that I was there for her son at the very lowest time of his life; she thanked me for giving him new resolve on life. As I replay her kindness I weep, still enveloped in the warmth of grief knowing how well I truly loved him.
Do I care too much?
My question is not a rhetorical one.
Do I care too much?
Do I care so much that my judgment is skewed about the case itself? I don’t believe so. I am always vigilant of this possibility, so I check in with co-counsel, counsel from my firm, and with experts engaged in the case.
Do I care so much that I am frozen from acting in a case? Never.
Do I care so much that I cost myself in emotional currency? Yes, I believe so.
In behavioral health, whether it is relationships or roles that we play, I am often reminded of this concept of boundaries. I have not come to any definitive answers other than to recognize that I need to do a better job of discovering and maintaining boundaries. I need to be at my best for each client, but also for the long-term. For future clients but also for myself.