When Fighting for the Good Cause Can Hurt You



Last month I was in Budapest for an anti-human trafficking conference, the first time I had been to one in almost three years.

I was there to speak, and I was incredibly nervous. For a lot of people this is normal, but I don’t get nervous about speaking, or at least I never used to.

Working with cases of human trafficking had been my thing for so long and I was confident about what I had to say, but that was before—before I ended up anxious and traumatised and grief-stricken, having seen too much with too little safe spaces to process. It was before I left a work that I had been so deep into, I could no longer separate who I was as a person from who I was in my work.

Here is my confession: I can get addicted to working for a cause. That feeling, that this is my thing, the one that I had spent so many hours reading, thinking, writing and speaking about, the one I know so well and have seen so close. The one where everything is urgent and lives are on the line and you need to show up with your whole heart, all-the-time. I loved that feeling.

If you are reading this and thinking it sounds like a recipe for crashing and burning, you are so right. Cause-addicts can create chaos. So I had to stop. I had to take a step back and revaluate. I registered for law school, which probably becomes 120% less exciting when you come from having a job you had given your undivided attention to for years. It has also been unemotional, impersonal, and logical.

Law school has been a lifesaver.

But then, my dear friends asked me to come to Budapest, and it just felt right. Reopening that world was something I did not take lightly. The crowd was a safe one, many people I had known for a long time, and all of whom were working in the field or with the issue. But I know myself. I know the high of feeling like your work is important, I know how serious issues take over my thoughts and I become a person who doesn’t remember how to laugh. Thus I approached Budapest with great care.

It was so good to be in there. The weather was perfect, the city is cheap and beautiful and covered in bathhouses. The stories around me stirred up faith to see people truly transformed through love.

Walking into the conference, it felt like the first cup of really good coffee after a long night. It was so needed. Yet, it was also scary, like pulling back the sheets on a fear you have been desperate to keep hidden. I stood up and said out loud that I was nervous. I told them why. At this same conference three years before, my phone had rung and my friend was dead, and being able to stand in this sort of space again was painful. I felt in my heart how hard the road had been, and how far I still had to go. My mind revisited the many mistakes I had made.

The anti-human trafficking field is full of rhetoric which is bound to run you into the ground: end modern-slavery by fighting injustice. In Budapest, I had to name the reality that I can’t end it, and that to fight something is to struggle with it, and we are not meant to operate solely from a place of struggle. With that, I am left facing one of my hardest truths: the thing I love to do can also hurt me.

My hope was revived that week in Budapest. There is a reason for all these experiences and there is more to come in this space. I entered into my third year of law school the day after I landed back in Amsterdam. There is a reason for this too. It is not my time to struggle. It is a time for humility and learning and weaning off the high, so that when I go back, if I go back, it won’t look the same.