Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress (STS), is a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It is common among individuals that work directly with trauma victims such as nurses, psychologists, and first responders. It was first diagnosed in nurses in the 1950s. Sufferers can exhibit several symptoms including hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude. This can have detrimental effects on individuals, both professionally and personally, including a decrease in productivity, the inability to focus, and the development of new feelings of incompetency and self-doubt.[1][dead link]

Journalism analysts argue that the media has caused widespread compassion fatigue in society by saturating newspapers and news shows with often decontextualized images and stories of tragedy and suffering. This has caused the public to become cynical, or become resistant to helping people who are suffering.[2]

When I worked as a crisis counselor, I had this amazing ability to be really present with families and clients, while somehow maintaining a strong boundary emotinally. I was compassionate in the moment, and when the students were no longer on my caseload (betwen 3-6 weeks) I was done with them, emotionally. I saw my position as a part of the greater whole, a watering hole for the thirsty, but didn’t consider myself necessary to their overall lifetime of happiness. I was an in-the-moment bandaid and often saw immediate results, though I couldn’t take away years of chronic stress or drug use or neglect. I provided concrete skills in the immediate, much like a life preserver. I didn’t stick around to see if they became Olympic swimmers.

My job, now, though, is much harder than I expected. I see students for 1 quarter as a teacher and then they get funneled to me for advising in the rest of their time in our program. A student spent an hour crying in my office last week and I noticed that I cared quite deeply about their life story and realized that I was still holding a presence in their life since last year. And that’s when I realized that I’m pretty exhausted by my work. Because short term caring is easy for me. Long term caring is hard. And it gets harder every day, though I think my awareness of my caring is the first step. Because as a crisis counselor I didn’t think I was saving people, I was merely giving them a drink on a hot summer day. But with these students, sometimes I feel like I’m plunging into the murky waters to try and rescue them, repeatedly, and it’s both rewarding and exhausting. It’s hard staring into the face of a hungry teenager and tell them abou the wonders of study skills when I know that they aren’t getting fed, and most likely are sleeping on their friend’s couch and bumming cigarettes to take away the gnawing pains in their stomachs. I want to DO, because just being with the pain of their life is hard.

I don’t have compassion fatigue, but I see how I very well could develop it. I’m tired, certainly, but aren’t we all? Just this afternoon I see that yet another school gunman killed a teacher, and if I let it, my mind will go a thousand directions with that type of news. I am an educator working with students with records and access to guns and histories of mental illness. And I am a mom, with a son, who could be bullied or be a bully, who could have mental illness (like his mom) or a host of issues, or could be in class with a kid who brings a gun. If I start thinking I start panicking and in turn I just shut everything off. Because feeling the fear of losing my baby, because feeling the fear of leaving my baby motherless in this cruel world, is too much for my poor heart to begin to comprehend.

I’m trying to focus on self-care…therapy and yoga and talking with friends. But sometimes I feel like I need self-care from my self-care, does that make sense? Like the burden of weekly therapy and yoga and phone dates come stacking up and it’s one more thing I have to be present and aware and compassionate in, and I just don’t know if I have the resources. Because it’s exhausting being for others, my students and my child, what I can’t often be for myself (though I’m trying). Giving to others what I don’t feel like I have received, or am receiving, is taking a toll on my mind and my heart.

Have you experienced burnout or compassion fatigue? What did you do to get through that?

Maxed Out…this American mom is on the brink…

“We were all living the lives we’d chosen. We had what we thought we wanted- wonderful children and a level of financial independence that our mothers never knew. And yet, most days, it felt as if our lives were being held together by Band-Aids and Elmer’s glue. None of us could make sense of the wretched state we found ourselves in. What were we doing wrong?”

After forwarding a powerful  article  on burned out mothers to a friend, we decided to buy the book mentioned in the article (Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink), and have been sending rapid fire texts and quotes to each other ever since. Because this book has spoken to us. It speaks to my greatest fear, and how I’ve actually been feeling for a few weeks now. That everything is held together by Band-Aids and Elmer’s glue.

Katrina goes on to explain, “The last few months had been a carnival ride of constant motion that left me dizzy and sick to my stomach. I wanted off. I wanted someone to pull the brake. I wanted to make it stop, but I didn’t know how to make it stop. I  ddn’t even know what stopping meant.”

Um, who can relate? Whoa.

Her book is so honest and real in chronicling the trials and tribulations of working motherhood. It left me feeling validated, but most of the time I read it and vacillated between being completely freaked out about the future with a potential 2nd child and feeling like ‘I got this,’ because part of what she talked about what the magical aspect of working part-time. She called them “Magic Fridays” when she had a 4 day work week, which is a phrase I think I’m going to borrow. But…there was one piece that I’m still chewing on.

Because, when I take a step back, which is like a layman’s term for almost depersonalizing, I realize that there is actually nothing in my life right now that should be making me feel this crazy-carnival way. My husband and I have been in a really good place. Potamus is teething, but sleeping much more, and we’re down to one time nursing. My class is going pretty well and my advising schedule isn’t too crammed. Flexible job. Yoga class. Therapy. From the outside of my own mind, looking at my life, I’m actually in a really calm content place. And yet…..and yet…I’m not.

I know that everyone has different thresholds, but I’m actually not okay. I feel like I might start crying at any moment over any little thing. So I’m back on my meds. I got the prescription filled yesterday, and hopefully they’ll kick in next week. I felt like I was heading toward this cliff and I didn’t want to go there again. Because even my coworkers and students have noticed a change in my mood this last week especially. My irritation with things being out of place in the classroom is an all time high.

And part of me worries that if I am like this with one kid, what will happen if I have another? I know that’s a long way off from needing to think about, that I get to just enjoy the next several months and don’t even have to talk about it, and trying to project how I’m going to feel into the future isn’t really that great anyway, because it’s rarely true. Though, if I’m totally honest, thinking about it too much might send me into a panic attack.

Where is the line between intuition and anxiety? Because, in my mind’s eye, I can see us having another child. Feeling that completion feeling that I really do want. And I can also see myself having a nervous breakdown in the same picture. That just the stress of two kids, even a part-time job, and doing all the parenting things that are never ending, will kill me. That’s how it feels. I know the reality is one step at a time, but I do get terrified. Because:

“The line between ‘Everything’s okay’ and ‘I’m on the verge of total collapse’ is so thin.”

So true. And yet, when I finished the book, I felt really hopeful. Because, while I might feel on the edge a lot, I’m not alone. And I have supportive friends, partner, and am taking all the really good steps to beat back the anxiety and depression. And I’m learning more about myself, like going back on meds when I see the train-wreck coming, or choose to NOT go to yoga because I had been gone every night of the week and just wanted to relax (which feels different than just not going because I’m anxious/depressed), and taking sweet advantage of my Magic Friday today to rest while Potamus was resting.

Moms, I recommend this book. Working moms, I definitely recommend this book. Mom with anxiety, read this book. It’s so good.

What have you read lately that’s spoken to you? Inspired you? Made you feel less alone?