Compassion Fatigue; The Struggle is Real

Oh no not again. Not another story of horrible abuse by the police force. Please no more news article on children screaming as they are torn from their mothers. I cant take another headline spreading information on how this once proud nation is being destroyed by its leaders and its citizens. Where is the compassion? What happened to empathy? Republicans are destroying the economy. Democrats are destroying morality. Or vice versa depending on which side you lean toward.

Turn it off. Just turn it off. Maybe if I restrict myself from my social media feeds I will feel better. Perhaps if I just don’t watch TV this will all go away. Maybe if I stay buried in my bed like I did when I was in my deepest depression it will feel better than this. It is scary to think like that but these days it is hard not to.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

It is the cost of caring for people facing emotional pain. Healthcare workers, caregivers for dependent people, partners to war veterans, people who are overly conscientious, empathic, and even those we may not consider to be those things, like lawyers are all more likely to face this. It is also called secondary traumatic stress and bystander effect. fMRI-rt utilized research suggests the idea of compassion without engaging in real-life trauma is not exhausting itself. According to these, when empathy was analyzed with compassion through neuroimaging, empathy showed brain region activations were previously identified to be related to pain whereas compassion showed warped neural activations. We are not imaging it, our brains are being warped by this world and its horrors.

Who is at risk?

While those who are in a profession of care, like therapists, nurses, mental health workers are trained to be aware of this potentially devastating condition what about the rest of the us? What should we be on the look out for? Here’s a check list from to help us figure it out.

  • Feeling burdened by the suffering of others
  • Blaming others for their suffering
  • Isolating yourself
  • Loss of pleasure in life
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Insomnia
  • Physical and mental fatigue
  • Bottling up your emotions
  • Increased nightmares
  • Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness
  • Frequent complaining about your work or your life
  • Overeating
  • Excessive use of drugs or alcohol
  • Poor self-care
  • Beginning to receive a lot of complaints about your work or attitude
  • Denial

Oh that last one though. Denial is a tricky little sucker. Making us think, ‘oh no not me. I am doing just fine’. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project states that “denial is one of the most detrimental symptoms of Compassion Fatigue and Life Stress. It can easily hinder your ability to assess the level of fatigue and stress in your life”.  Their website offers 3 self tests designed to help you recognize whether or not this might be an issue. I took the Life Stress test and scored 271 which equals medium susceptibility to stress-related illness. However that doesn’t take into consideration that I suffer from major depression. I have to be more aware. So what can we do about it?

How do we avoid or overcome this?

The two biggies are personal self care and social self care. Personal self care can be taking a break from work, breathing exercises, exercising, and other recreational activities. Social self care can be maintaining a diverse network of social support from colleagues to pets, limiting the amount of daily news you watch or read about, being grateful for what is good in your life and in the world, try to find some meaning in the suffering you see, and show compassion to yourself by being kind, soothing, and comforting to yourself.

For those like me, those “bleeding hearts” that care so deeply it physically hurts and who appreciate a direct suggestion of what to do to fix it. Here is a list of actions we might take:

  • Enhance your awareness with education
  • Accept where you are on your path at all times
  • Exchange information and feelings with people who can validate you
  • Clarify your personal boundaries—what works for you and what doesn’t
  • Be kind to yourself
  • Express what you need verbally, and
  • Take positive action to change your environment.

Starbucks and memes

This world can be cruel and hard and unrelenting. The media, society, family and friends may all contribute to our fatigue. However this world can also be gentle and caring and beautiful. The media, society and our family and friends may also help us to see that. Wherever you might be on the scale of compassion fatigue just remember its only temporary. This too shall pass. It’s okay to bury your head under the covers for a minute as long as you know that its only for a minute and when its time to find the strength you have a tribe that will peel back the comforter and bring you Starbucks and memes and if you feel like you don’t you can call on me. I am always available for Starbucks and memes.

Patriots, Pride, Prejudice: How did we get here?

Patriots and POW’s

When I was a kid I knew nothing of politics but a whole lot about being free. I had no knowledge of whether my family leaned left or right.  We obviously had pride, I was unaware of the prejudice. I knew that we were patriotic. We had a flag pole in the front yard that always held both an American flag and a POW flag.  My step-dad fought in Vietnam. First Calvary and damn proud.  I knew about Agent Orange, about those “gone but not forgotten” MIA’s and how the vets were treated when they returned from that conflict. I heard about “anchor babies” and “illegals”. My sister dated “those people”, the brown and black skinned gangsters who lived in the much lower than our lower middle class neighborhood.

My step-dad’s a strange dichotomy, a patriot disgruntled with his country.  Like most of the boys shipped off to that war he came home a different man: angry, confused, bitter and broken. A soldier who loved his military brothers and hated the leaders who put them there.  He could be brought to tears by the national anthem but railed against the government; an American who felt forgotten, shunned and discarded . I have seen him spit and cuss at cops, warning us to never let them in the house.Yet he proudly posts “Blue Lives Matter” memes. How someone could be torn and committed at the same time made little sense to me.

Where did they go?

Now I understand.  Now I am completely torn and committed at the same time.  The country I was raised to adore has some how become something I mostly abhor. My step-dad, the only dad I’ve had for 30 years, “unfriended” me and blocked me on Facebook as have several others who cant or wont get past their own opinions on the current state of the nation.  They aren’t up for civil debates and don’t care to understand. Instead they hurl insults like “bleeding heart” as if all of our hearts aren’t made up of blood.  They stay in their closed circles and re-post the same opinions with no interest in learning about the facts. While I don’t block or unfriend people, I can understand why they do. It’s easier to stay asleep, head buried in the sand.

However, I can and do attempt to understand their positions. Just as I am not Muslim yet I can empathize with their plight, misunderstood and just wanting a chance at the American Dream.  I can understand the desperate need to be free to pursue life and liberty without fear of death even though I am not a person of color.  I am not a veteran. However I can relate to a love of the flag and anthem for a country that is not everything it once claimed to be. Everything I once thought it was.  My question is why cant they?

Why can’t they?

“They” being the seeming majority of white people my parents age. (70+)  The veterans who were shunned, wrongfully accused of being baby killers and spit on.  Those who for so long they were and continue to be ignored by the VA and the government they gave so much for.  “They” are also many white people my older sisters ages. (50+) Angry about the new America and what it means for them. I am extremely confused by “they” that are younger than my 40+ years. These angry young white men and women with so much more opportunity than those below them and double the hatred of those who are truly underprivileged. I have so many questions for these folks yet they seem unwilling to answer.  So I will list them here and hope that someone can shed some light for me.

Questions for my countrymen….

  1.  If “All Lives Matter” then why cant you agree that Black Lives Matter and leave it at that?
  2. Why is kneeling for the National Anthem more important to you than listening to these individuals as they explain what they have witnessed and experienced in this nation of the “free” men?
  3. How do you explain women earning less than men for the same job to your daughters?
  4. What is so absolutely terrifying about gay marriage, trans rights, anything LGBTQ?
  5. Do you know what would really happen to us, to our economy, if all the “illegals” actually left?
  6. Have you ever even met a Muslim? *Follow up question: How would you know?
  7. Are you at all embarrassed by Trump’s lies and laziness?
  8. Does it not hurt you that children are being ripped from their parents, many of whom may never be reunited?
  9. How can you not see the NAZI in the White House? (Especially those of you who are children of WWII vets)
  10. Why is another woman’s abortion any of your business?
  11. What happened to the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, when did we become Land of Prisons for Profits and Home of the Morally Corrupt?
  12. Why do you hate brown skinned people yet eat in their restaurants and let them work in your homes and watch your kids?
  13. Are guns really more important than school children?
  14. When and how did you turn into this?
  15. When will it stop?


Far From Normal?

How do you help someone be normal?

Part of my job involves speaking to high school & college students about lived experience with mental health issues.  This is a responsibility I take seriously.  I am humbled by it and grateful for the opportunity to help be a part of these young lives even briefly.  I was asked ‘How do you help someone be normal?’ during one of the question and answer portions of the presentations. In the context of mental health perhaps the intended word was “healthy” or “stable” or “well balanced” or even more to the point “homogeneous” but the term normal struck a nerve with me.

Am I even close?

I have never felt normal, never known what that looks like. The idea of normal was something I saw on TV or at friends homes. My friends at school seemed normal and I pretended to be just like them. I am not what most think of as normal, I never will be. It took me years to understand this, even more to accept it.  Now I am finally at a place where I am at peace with it.

I am what is called a double winner.  Dual diagnosed.  I have Major Depression and I am an Alcoholic. That is normal for me.  My sister’s Bi-Polar is normal.  Asperger’s is normal for my son.  In my mind as a teenager and possibly in that teenagers question normal means fitting in.  It means being like the majority, especially in high school or college.

What does “normal” really mean?

I have the Merriam Webster dictionary app conveniently located at the end of my fingertips. I looked it up.  The first listed definition has something to do with math, perpendicular lines and tangents.  I have never been one for math although I do love a good tangent. (oh, look something shiny and distracting.)

The second definition is “according with constitution, not deviating from the rule”. I have learned that I am just like other Alcoholics in the way I think, feel and react to situations.  My experiences with Major Depression does not deviate from the rule. I am unmotivated to do anything in my daily life, I cry and sleep a lot and do not take joy in activities that are typically enjoyable like spending time with friends or showering.

The third definition is the one that brought it home. The third one says “occurring naturally” which is in direct contradiction to definition 4 which is the only one that mentions “mental illness”.

Normal is natural.

Whether they were brought on by nature or nurture my reactions to the events of my childhood my issues with depression and addiction occurred naturally.  They occurred as a defense mechanism, they were not forced, they were not coerced. This was the natural evolution of my spirit faced with the horrors I endured.  My sisters Bi-Polar occurred naturally as a result of chemicals in her brain and most likely events from our childhood as well. My sons Asperger’s occurred naturally, part of his genetic make up, his DNA and his life path.

I think it is telling that this definition precedes the one that mentions mental illness. The definitions that follow go into chemistry and other examples that I would guess most of us would never even think to use in relation to “normal”. I think maybe they stuck that mental illness one in there as a distraction or to appease those masses who like to think they are normal.

Normal is whatever you want it to be.

I have a dear friend who works with me in mental health.  She is an amazing speaker. The work she does to help the homeless and those suffering from mental illness is nothing short of Mother Teresa type angelic-ness.  When she presents she likes to say “there are only two types of people”. (Then she waits for a dramatic pause, which if you are ever lucky enough to see her unbelievable eye lashes is quite dramatic. Oops. There’s that tangent.) During the pause the inference is that the two types of people are “normal and not normal”. At least that is what many lean toward, yet she follows her pause with “Diagnosed and Un-Diagnosed”.

If you haven’t yet been as lucky as we were to figure out what your “normal” is that doesn’t mean you aren’t normal.  It means keep looking.  Find your tribe, find your people. Figure out what occurs naturally for you, what is your constitution, your rule. Embrace it. Don’t seek to be normal, seek to be you and normal will follow.

Peach Hair, Don’t Go There

To dye for….

I dyed my hair again last week.  The color is amazing and I love it.  It’s peach and blonde and looks like Sherbert melted. It is shiny in pictures which is the only thing important these days. My hair has been nearly every color under the sun; Black, platinum blonde, red, pink, purple, green, brunette, ash blonde, streaked, ombre, even fluorescent yellow like a Hi-Liter marker.

When I showed it to Ollie, she didn’t like it.  She told me “I dont know what I think about your hair.” I thought her response a little odd but I didn’t pay too much attention as we were in the midst of a busy afternoon. I was saying good bye to our friends/hairdresser and getting ready to go out later that evening. As an experienced hair dyer I know color can take some getting used to so I didn’t visit it at that moment.  When Jeff brought it up again later, he said “Ollie doesnt like your hair” I was surprised that she had mentioned it to him, that fact alone meant that it was actually bothering her. I decided to talk to her about it again.

Hair triggered?

“What’s up with my hair? You don’t like it?” It was Saturday morning and I had crawled into bed with her for a heart to heart. My hair was no longer sleek and shiny but slept on, damp from sleep sweat and my bangs were smashed up on the side of my head like Carmen Diaz in “There’s Something About Mary”.

“I don’t know…..” She responded with the only thing 12-almost-13 year olds know how to say.

“New color can take some getting used to. Is there something more bothering you?”

“I don’t know…” her voice was softer, her head sinking further into her pillows, her blanket pulled tighter to her chin.

“Hmm, it sounds like you do know something.”

“Well, it’s just….it’s not like a normal mom.” I smiled perhaps even chuckled.

“When have I ever been a “normal mom”? I had flourescent yellow hair a year ago!  You were OK with that…What’s wrong with this?”

“Yeah I know but yellow is still kinda sorta like blonde.”

“You know this isn’t permanent right? It’s going to fade as soon as I shower.  It will fade out in a few weeks and I will be back to blonde again.”

“Yeah…but I still….I don’t know.” That’s when I notice that she is starting to tear up.  She’s got big round water tear drops welling up in those perfectly browed eyes of hers.

“Are you crying? About my hair?” I asked incredulously.

“I dont know…..” But I do know.  Mom always knows. This is only slightly about my hair. She is concerned about something that is represented in my hair.  My hair is the trigger. A hair trigger if you will… haha if only it were funny then.

“You know I am not going anywhere right?” This is where the tears spill. She cant hold them back any more.

Semi-permanent fears for the future

Ollie’s biggest fear in her life is that Jeff & I will get divorced. That I will leave, in the way that I left before. Her nightmare is that I will walk out and walk away from her as I did to Ethan and I will disappear like a ghost. She has never seen it but she knows what I am capable of.  Never known it intimately the way that Jeff & Ethan have.  Her biggest fear is that she will come to know this.

I know that she wont but I cant make her understand that. I cant promise to never fight with her Dad, never say things in anger, never make mistakes.  The next day she said that she liked my hair, that she was over it.  It’s been fourteen years since I came back and I don’t know if any of us are “over it”.  I don’t know if we ever will be.  Scars heal slowly and stitch closed painfully.

It all comes out in the rinse

I don’t know if my psychoanalysis of the situation is exactly 100% correct.  Perhaps only partly.  She did ask if I was “trying to hold on to my youth” to which I replied “I am still young and growing old gracefully if not maturing the way some would like me to”.  Maybe this time it wasn’t about my past the way my head always tells me it is.  Maybe this time it’s about the future.

Hopefully it’s about something completely normal like her wanting the attention and me learning to accept the fact that even being the cool mom with peach hair there is no way I can prevent that shift, at least not forever, but I will use every bottle of hair dye on the planet if it means slowing it down.  Not because I want the attention, trust me I’ve had enough. I am not trying to delay my own aging, no I want to slow it down because she deserves to grow up on her time and at her pace and when she’s ready I’ll be the first one to say “I love your hair! What color is next?”