My brain is working hard to protect me from my compassion fatigue
Yesterday, I was enjoying lunch out with my partner.
We were sipping our cocktails when news about the Highland Park Fourth of July Parade shooting flashed over our heads on the bar’s television.
Another one, my partner grumbled to me. Another shooting. When will they end?
Never, I said to him, taking another sip of my drink. Not ever.
I flagged down the bartender. Could I have another Bloody Mary? I asked her. Turning to my partner I said, this drink is so good.
He stared at me, waiting for my normal reaction to such news to kick in. It didn’t.
The reaction I did have to tell of another shooting shocked even me. I’m an empath; every time I see news about another murderous rampage, I feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach. I cry about each victim and their families for days. I donate money to Everytown; I call my senators (and others) asking for stricter gun legislation; I march.
In this particular case, I know Highland Park. I know it well; I've lived in Chicago and its surrounding areas for years. Still, my typical reaction never arrived.
I’ll be clear — I’m beyond upset that this happened — again. Too, I feel confident that by the end of this week, we’ll have heard about another shooting. I’m annoyed by how easy it is to obtain an assault rifle in this country; I’m tired of hearing about how there were “no signs” that the shooter had issues; I’m tired of seeing Republicans shrug their shoulders and say “welp sounds like a mental health issue” and then vote down any legislation that would help combat the woeful lack of mental health resources in this country; I’m especially tired of hearing the ‘ole, “the only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” adage since we’ve yet to see a “good guy” with a gun prevent the carnage.
I’m tired. And, it goes beyond mere exhaustion. I feel dead inside. I feel nothing.
On a cerebral level, I know that this numbness comes from a gross deluge of tragic news — not from a true lack of concern.
It’s been an especially challenging few years in this country, and I’m feeling beaten down.
If I Google “US headlines” right now, these are my top results:
Killing of NYC mother pushing a baby stroller was a ‘premeditated execution’
Video shows Ohio officers killed unarmed Black main in a hail of bullets
Homeland Security chief: ‘We are in a heightened threat environment’
Horror in Highland Park reignites Illnois’ gun debate
Biden predicts states will try to arrest women who travel for abortions
These headlines don’t include recent shootings in Texas and Philadelphia, or the Supreme Court’s agreement to hear an election case out of North Carolina that could turn our “democracy” into an autocracy real quickly, or the loss of EPA’s authority in regulations to combat climate change, or the recent news that a 10-year-old girl in Ohio was raped and denied an abortion, or, or, or…
There’s too much. There’s too much to care about, to feel sad about, to worry about. There’s too much, and my brain has decided to shut off the care valve. It’s driving me into self-preservation mode.
Compassion fatigue is fairly common in my profession as a counselor.
I spend my day troubleshooting other people’s problems. My clients suffer from all sorts of garden-variety anxieties, as well personal traumas — and my job is to help them cope.
Within the course of a couple of hours during my workday, I’ve likely heard tales of sexual assault, verbal abuse, and other experiences that are likely to cause mental and physical harm. This is my job, and I’m not complaining.
I’ve avoided compassion fatigue until this point, because the problems are listening to are things I can help do something about. I can point my clients toward coping mechanisms; I can help them come to realizations about their relationships; I can help them come up with plans toward personal healing.
But, when my clients are worried about the state of the world — their rights as women or as members of the LGBTQ community; their children growing up on a planet that is melting, or going to school and getting shot — I can’t help them in the same way.
I read that by 2030, America might have fallen under the control of a right-wing dictatorship, one of my clients told me the other day. That’s what I want to talk about today. Do you think it’s going to happen? It’s keeping me up at night.
I can promote similar coping mechanisms in these instances —I can give similar guidance. But, with more and more of my clients worrying about the fall of democracy, there’s a greater sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that comes with this anxiety. These are fears I share, but in this instance, I’m supposed to be the leader — the guiding hand — helping my client deal with it. I can’t help myself deal with it.
And so, I feel myself mentally shutting down.
I feel hopeless and helpless in the face of my clients’ suffering, but I also have fewer feelings of sensitivity. I’m simultaneously exhausted under the weight of their concerns and mine — while also feeling detached from these concerns entirely.
At the end of the day, I go home and decompress. This is necessary after listening to clients’ traumas all day. But, when “home” is a country that seems to be slipping further and further from our grasp, there’s no recharging station there. My remaining emotions are currently in use just to keep me afloat; I have none left to spare.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll be taking the first vacation I’ve taken in over two years, and I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping to get caught up with my family and friends, and spend some time at the beach; in the woods on hikes.
I’m hoping to get enough sleep to regenerate my energy; I’m hoping to have some good sessions with my own therapist; I’m hoping to find myself rejuvenated and ready to get back into it all.
I’m hoping to bring myself back from the living dead.