Help, I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up!
All I can say is it hit me like a lead balloon. Maybe a ton of bricks. It hit hard. Really hard. I was jolted out of my comfort zone, blasted into reality. This is how it happens. It’s been going on in my own family, but I’ve been fortunate enough to be living at such a distance, I can easily pretend it isn’t real, well—except for constantly thanking my own stepdad for bearing the brunt of it all.
He’s been there, by choice, and quite lovingly, caring for my mother during her down times; helping cheer her up or encourage her to keep on living when things got so bad she started opting for euthanasia. Yep, my own mother wanted to die. She wanted to die gracefully. But she wanted to die because living was becoming too hard. And yes, her story was a sad one. But this is NOT my mother’s story.
This is an altogether different story. One that needs to be told. Needs to be heard and needs to be felt. My mother has referred to my stepdad as a Bodhisattva—a person who compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others (this is how Webster defines it, anyway). Suffice to say, he is following the path, patience and compassion of a Buddha. In real life, he is an exceptionally kind and caring human being. And my mother is a wonderfully strong and brilliant woman who went from being incredibly vibrant to a very frail woman due to debilitating osteoporosis and COPD. But again, this is not her story. And it is not even my stepdad’s story, for that I am truly grateful. But it could be…
This story IS about Compassion. More importantly and to the point, this blog is about COMPASSION FATIGUE. What is Compassion Fatigue you ask? Put simply, Compassion Fatigue is often referred to as the “cost of caring" for others in emotional and physical pain. (Figley, 1982) Individuals with Compassion Fatigue can experience intense physical and emotional exhaustion, and as a result, it typically affects their ability to feel empathy for the people they are caring for, or perhaps change the type and level of care they can or will provide. Compassion Fatigue can strike caregivers across multiple disciplines, such as nursing or child protective services, or as could be in the case with my stepdad, it can affect those of us providing long term care for a loved one—a spouse, parent or child with disabilities. Most cases are marked by a loss of enjoyment of the helping/healing career, increased cynicism at work or at home with the needy loved one, and eventually can transform into depression, secondary traumatic stress and stress-related illnesses. (Depression, Anxiety, Cutting, Substance Abuse, etc.)
Yup. It is a real phenomenon. And it is occurring in epidemic proportions. I’m not going to bore you with statistics. Nor am I really here to talk about those professionals suffering from Compassion Fatigue, it is indeed a recognized problem and the healthcare industry is beginning to wake up to the issue. My dear friend, Sharyn Fein has started a nonprofit organization called Ed-U-Care that is specifically working towards education, raising awareness and providing support for high risk individuals.
So, it is ironic to me that I am preparing to be participate with Life is Grand Power Penny Affirmation Jewelry at the upcoming 2015 Compassion Fatigue Symposium. A generous portion of all proceeds are going to EduCare in support of Compassion Fatigue Education and Awareness. What is ironic about this? Well, just last week, I saw first hand what Compassion Fatigue can do, and the havoc it can wreak—and let me tell you---it was a shocking awakening. Can you imagine how painful it is to see and witness a family member fall victim to CF while caring for another member of our family? Deep depression, stress related drug abuse, self -medicating, eventual intravenous drug abuse, and abusive behaviors toward our other loved one that was being cared for. I spent a few days there in the aftermath helping my family members find alternative caregivers and getting things turned around, while our other family member entered a rehab facility. We held a true family intervention, met with tremendous resistance, and something that was extremely difficult for everyone involved.
Still, we are the fortunate ones. We had the ability to rally together to protect both the loved one in need of long term care, as well as the family member in need of special psychiatric care and rehabilitation. (Out of respect and anonymity for all parties, I am keeping the personal prounouns out of this story, and protecting the identities of everyone involved).
But not all families have the resources or ability to step in and help. Some people, much like my stepdad (who is NOT the person in this story, by the way) are the only caregivers in close proximity. Now, my stepdad is not exhibiting signs of compassion fatigue, and I must say I am quite impressed. This is why we all call him a Bodhisattva. And since he and my mother both have PhDs in Psychology, likely they have the tools needed to protect themselves from this type of syndrome.
So how do we deal with situations like this? After even just a few days with my loved one needing care, I was ready to climb the walls. I began to feel trapped and isolated, and it was extremely frustrating to try and be everything to one person who is completely dependent on you for all aspects of their well-being: conversation, proper grooming, self care, meals and entertainment. There were two of us and we were both depended upon for every aspect of this person’s existence so-to-speak. Now, I consider myself a very loving and compassionate person, but after a few days, it begins to take a toll. My emotional cup was running on empty, and I felt tremendous guilt leaving.
What am I proposing? I am confident that we must learn to take care of ourselves so we can take care of others. We must go into these situations knowing that we have limits, and that while we love unconditionally, as humans we must protect ourselves from the stresses long term caregiving can bring about. We must make time for personal care, for meditation, centering ourselves, reading, watching television, exercise-- whatever keeps us sane in our normal routines. If that means getting a neighbor or friend to come by so we can go for a walk, then so be it. But it is not healthy for us or our loved one to try and handle this situation alone.
Before long, we could be the ones ending up needing long term care of our own if we do not take the necessary precautions. And when it gets to be too much, we need to examine all our alternatives and options. We must learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of CF, and again, I must stress self care, self-compassion and awareness.
Here are just a few of the most common symptoms and signs:
Reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy
Anger and irritability
Increased use of alcohol and drugs
Heightened anxiety or irrational fears
Intrusive imagery or dissociation
Hypersensitivity or Insensitivity to emotional material
Impaired ability to make decisions
Problems with intimacy and in personal relationships (Inappropriate or adulterous relationships)
We witnessed most all of these symptoms with my family member, and we all wish we had recognized the symptoms sooner. We cannot undo the past, but we can definitely be more prepared in the future. And my hope is that as your own family members age, or require long term care, you will be better prepared to recognize the warning signs. If you prepare, divide and conquer, share the responsibilities and pay attention to your own needs, chances are really great that you won’t have to discover a loved one has been at home alone screaming: “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” all because their caregiver couldn’t handle the stress anymore, and had “checked out!"