I Volunteered At the Border, And It Became an Addiction.
My first time across the border to see the refugees felt like I was about to go SCUBA diving risks were everywhere: fear of cartels, not knowing what I’d do when I got there, or getting stuck petrified me. So when I finally got the nerve to go on March 24th, I did it with a friend who was a veteran.
We met up at a grocery store on the border where she purchased two carts full of food within 15 minutes and then drove across waving hello to the border guards. We at first went South past Rosarito to bring a stranded young Russian girl some food and water and then went back to the encampment at the border.
At the time, the encampment was very manageable. They had a food popup, and maybe a dozen tents. There were maybe a half dozen volunteers who ran the kitchen and managed the list of those who would cross the border. People would wait about a day there while the wait at Otay could be as long as two days. Families with kids were prioritized. A police officer named Aaron was always nearby to make sure all was good security wise.
Most of the families slept inside the large bus stop which has walls of glass and a bathroom. A single outlet powered dozens of phones and a tea kettle. Cars drove back and forth from the camp bringing new arrivals to the camp who had to find a spot while those who had were on the list were taken to the border where they sat in chairs next to the long line of people with passports, waiting their turn to get Humanitarian Parole.
I quickly learned the names of people who were leaders and two days later when I came back I walked across on my own and dove into learning the needs of the camp and the leadership structure.
That day I already was able to start helping and as the days wore on and my involvement increased and moved from advocacy to on-the-ground implementation of systems. Once people learned my name and new to come to me for help and coordination, I got busy.
When I say busy it was not in the sense of doing a lot, but a busy that is all-encompassing. It was more like a drug, and not a drug that you take a little once but more like opium with the effect of cocaine: a drug that you take from morning to sleep. The effects of helping were intense: I didn’t need to eat or drink, I was on all the time, my mind was racing and the phone was constantly ringing or pinging.
The effects on personal life were profound. I would do the bare minimum at home. I’d wake up to WhatsAp and Telegram chats and fall asleep to data sheets and emails. As our impact increased and we began to interact with government officials, the dopamine began to go through the roof. The feeling of self-importance would rise every day and the need to perform and be on top of everything and solve everything increased even more.
Suddenly people from around the world would call and message me for my help and advice. The list of people who needed my help included refugees and their families, volunteers, officials. I was becoming “famous” and it was a high that I didn’t have to chase, it was just there. The world ceased to exist, my friends would call and I wouldn’t pick up. My wife stopped asking for help or time when I’d get home because I would always be late and besides walking the dog in the morning and night and maybe washing some pump parts, I was useless. My clients stopped hearing from me and I stopped hearing from them.
I wasn’t realizing what was happening but after a week, burnout began to happen, I just didn’t know it. I had seen that burnout in others. It was seen as being emotional, defensive, and clingy to the roles and power. All the dopamine came from that position of power and giving it up even at night meant someone else would become more necessary than me. I didn’t know yet what I was seeing but I saw it in others, in more advanced cases, but assumed it was simply fatigue or poor character.
The more advanced cases had a larger mania to it. This mania can be exhibited in tunnel vision on things one can see in their literal field of vision and ignoring things one cannot, defensiveness of their turf, inability to listen, inability to communicate, trying to do too much, trying to solve too much, failing at it and when others tried to help or suggest resting or taking a break, the response was met with swift rebuke and rationalization. The moral hazard was strong as well: as long as you did some good, the bad you did didn’t matter.
Then there was the deep sense of paranoia. Because of the spontaneous nature of the crisis, none of us knew each other. Because of the dangerous element of working at the border, because of the strange and random people coming through, and awareness of child and sex trafficking our sense of paranoia began to take over. Every new person trying to help had to be checked and any inconsistency in their story and any blemish took the mind into the dark and nefarious. A wealthy socialite was checked and asked for references. A foster father trying to bring kids was assumed to be a child trafficker. Everything that had an innocent explanation would suddenly take on the worst possibility and it felt like a certainty. The mania and emotions ran to their peak and life began to take on a movie-like feeling. Everything there was important and nothing outside of the life there had meaning or importance.
As I edged closer and closer to extreme burnout of what I saw in others, my safety switch began to activate; my wife.
My wife never said anything negative about what I did, she simply wanted me to be accountable, responsible, and do my duties at home. I couldn’t. I was on my phone non-stop even on a date and outing to a zoo with my daughter. There was always a good explanation and excuse and comparison: all the other people don’t go home, they are there non-stop, but I come home for you every night. I can’t stop, we are looking for an organization to take over but we are all there is for all these people.
This guilt trip worked until it didn’t. With the added responsibilities, work, and our seven-month child, my wife began to burn out as well. She became less able to deal with the responsibilities at home and work and unlike me she felt guilt with her self and anger with me. Important items began to fall through and finally one day she in tears said: “I don’t feel loved.” I tried to say that “others are there all the time, I come home for you. ” To which my wife said, “maybe it would be better if you were there, then I would know you’re there instead of feeling like you’re here but don’t see me. I feel alone.”
I heard her but I didn’t feel her. I was like a zombie. I felt bad but I was still trapped in the dopamine rush. I felt bad and yet I felt like I couldn’t stop.
I had to actively make a decision to spend two days with my wife, to make her feel like a priority. “Luckily” things began to relax at the camp however, the nature of this high is that it creates tunnel vision. Anyone who is not there is assumed to not exist. After just two days I was no longer invited to important meetings and I was no longer contacted for advice. It’s like I disappeared and ceased to exist. This is when my low began to appear. I became upset with the loss of my position and felt a sort of “withdrawal”. I was still helping people, I was still working hard, but I was also not as “important” and not on as many lists.
The positive thing is I was actually getting things done. I was not running from disaster to disaster without paying attention to the projects which I started. I was more active at home and with our organization. Things were falling through less. I was more communicative and more effective. I was able to find more balance at home and started to get back to work and other responsibilities, like taxes. And yet, the feeling of loss of control and loss of importance was profound. If I didn’t have a family I would have rushed back to get that high, to be in those meetings to get that feeling of self-importance back.
As my addiction began to wear off, so did my mania. I could see more clearly how I was and how others with this volunteer mania acted. I could see these people who were starting to ignore more and more work got sucked into the nonstop frenzy. I could see how less work never materialized, they found bigger and better challenges for themselves. The camp as a result began to take on a sense of a luxury church getaway with kids' areas and lawyer corners. There was a kids’ bounce house and a tent with a stage and keyboards and guitars with nightly karaoke concerts. There was Starlink and high-speed wifi, office tents, taco stands and borsht. Signs were printed, an office was organized with printers and a full clinic set up next to a boxing rink.
As we begged for professional refugee organizations and governments to come to take over, they took one look at the camp and they said no thanks, they realized that they probably would run a worse operation at a higher cost.
At the same time the stakes got higher as we spent more time in a dangerous area, more shady people showed up, more refugees showed up and more possibilities for big misses appeared.
This was all while the leadership was hitting higher and higher levels of volunteer burnout addiction. Communication ground to a halt with phone calls being unanswered and chats being ignored. We’d see calls for food at an airport go unanswered, requests for cars being ignored. Families appeared to be missing medical cases increasing.
As I noticed these symptoms in the staff increase I began to put together the similarities. Lucky for me, the doctor in charge, Dr. Eric Hargis is an addiction specialist from Orange County. Dr. Hargis not only works at a hospital but spent considerable time working with refugees in these kinds of environments. When I told him about what I saw, he said this was a classic case of high-intensity disaster relief burnout. The feeling of high from all of the demands and lack of negative feelings create an imbalance that isn’t at all unlike that of addiction. The lack of oversight from people who can put a stop to overwork and the inexperience of the people means that all volunteers work too long and have no way to stop and look at the bigger picture. The volunteers are not eating, not sleeping, and on constant alert which taxes the brain and creates this constant excitement that is hard to lose.
Dr. Hargis went on to say that volunteers who are not professionals in such situations being “equating their importance and self-worth to the value of their titles. Which means they’re not developing backups for themselves because that would threaten that sense of power and importance.” The way to fix this is for volunteer leaders to “be split into shifts which will also give you coordinator redundancy so they in coordinator PM coordinator same responsibilities same institutional knowledge but also program down time. I think this should be true of every position that requires a 24-hour presence. If there’s a leadership role that does not have this backup structure it should be one that can be operated in 12 hours a day or less.” Importantly he added that for this to work “if anybody in the leadership structure is not agreeable to sharing their sense of power for improvement of mission then they should be removed as is reasonably feasible but in a way that lets people know that paragraphs are not aligned with organizational philosophy.”
It was important to realize that we didn’t create new problems. Dr. Hargis said that “there’s countless examples in human history that suggest that if you leave this group with unchecked feeling of power eventually they’re going to start abusing it.”
What’s sad is that in spite of working with refugees, we the volunteers rarely talked to them. We became enclosed in the volunteer community, barely interacting with anyone else. We prided each other on how little we slept and how little we ate creating a terrible example to others. I once in a briefing to volunteers told them that if they can’t handle this intensity, they should go to San Diego Zoo. We felt anything less than three days was a waste of time, and sent engineers to do toilet duty. On a Zoom call, I even said that volunteers can’t expect us to feed and shelter them because we are doing everything for refugees and that they better be ready to work hard. I was right but I was also creating this expectation, this unattainable dangerous goal for the volunteers.
Today, I am out but I’m still in. As I work and watch people become worse and worse versions of themselves: insulting others and destroying the very thing they try to build, I think of how this is all because it is so difficult for us to seek mental help. I feel that a lot of people who are drawn to this kind of work are trying to fill a need. Whether it is for importance or excitement, we fill it with volunteering at a high disaster zone, and without proper controls by people who are experienced, we risk becoming a liability. I saw a volunteer taken to hospital for anxiety, I saw people cry and people be angry. And of course, I also saw people sing and show the ultimate highs in humanity, but that’s not to outshine the deep issues that unprepared people can find themselves in, without any expectation or warning.
In the end, volunteering at a disaster zone like a refugee camp on the border can become an addiction, but if managed well, it can be a wonderful way to meet new people and give something to those who need help the most. But like in SCUBA diving, you just need a buddy to help pull you out when you run out of air in waters too deep to stand.