Figen Murray’s article on self-care (May, 2017) made me smile. I bring similar knitted teddy bears to Cambodia, where I currently live and work as a volunteer. They are made by a team of wonderful knitters from churches in the UK, who have found new meaning, purpose and value in life through reaching out in this way to the children here in Cambodia. They call it their ‘knitting ministry’.

Therapeutic work in Cambodia, a post-genocide nation, is very demanding, and vicarious trauma certainly takes its toll. Part of my role is teaching self-awareness and self-care, but tending to my own needs is often the first thing I overlook when faced with the absolute poverty and enormous need around me. To me, the historical and current trauma in Cambodia is on a par with a metatastic growth or nuclear fallout.

Recently, one of my Cambodian trainees challenged me on this double standard in self-care. This wise young woman pointed out that, as an educated person, I should know better. She said that having such compassion was wonderful, but not if it caused burnout. She paraphrased my own words. I was indeed confusing my learners. The catalyst for change was her parting comment: ‘Anyway, sister, you cannot die until you finish teaching me. So please self-care!’

So, mindful of her warning, I have since actively improved my self-care strategies. A ‘camera day’, as I call them, helps me lose myself in nature and creativity. I thoroughly enjoy photography and use the photographs to complement my creative reflective writing – another love of mine. As my eye fixes on a subject through the lens, my stress just drifts away and I refocus on beauty. There is such a thrill in capturing those precious scenes and interactions, and in so doing, I refresh my focus on life.

Lynne Barnett is a counsellor and Director of the Centre for Health Counselling at the University of Puthisastra, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She has lived in Cambodia for three and a half years, and has been volunteering there on short-term visits since 2005.

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