Monday, January 20, 2014

Still, I Am One

Chessa watching the feeders.

Today, I sat in my living room watching the juncos and cardinals at the bird feeders, and I missed Chessa. Aside from work and sleep, we spent pretty much every minute of six straight days together, and we spent the majority of that time watching the birds outside. Chessa loved to see them flitting about, and as I stood there at the window without her today, I felt that familiar ache that comes with losing a friend.

And then I felt silly. After all, we'd only know each other for a few days, and really, that was two weeks ago, so shouldn't I be over this by now?

And isn't that a ridiculous thought? As if there's an expiration date on grief! I imagine I will grieve the loss of Chessa far into the future, even as I remember her fondly and with gratitude. That grief is mine to own, and in some ways, I treasure it - because it means that we touched each other's lives on a more than superficial level. We were friends. And it's okay to feel sad when you lose a friend.

A year or two ago, I sat down to write a blog about compassion fatigue, and I hit a wall. Compassion fatigue is an issue most, if not all, people active in animal rescue encounter. Caring too much can hurt. Compassion fatigue is the fancy name for that pain. It can cause apathy, depression, compulsive behaviors, anger, nightmares, stomach problems, difficulty concentrating, and physical and emotional exhaustion. The more empathy you have, the more you care, the more you hurt. But as I sat down to write about my own experiences with compassion fatigue, I came to the realization that - much like grief - compassion fatigue is a deeply individual and personal issue. So I stalled out writing about it, uncertain if my own journey with compassion fatigue would be useful to anyone else.

And then I remembered that this is my blog, and I can write what I want. I've worked in rescue for going on fifteen years, and I've learned a thing or two about compassion fatigue. I want to share what I've learned with you. So let's start with the basics.

I practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a bit of a buzz word in psychology today, but what it means to me is that I acknowledge and own my emotional state. My grief is my own, no matter that it is not pretty or socially graceful. Sometimes, I get mad at people. Sometimes, I am frustrated, hurt, petty, and irrationally nonobjective. It is okay that I am not a saint; no one is expecting me to be. It's not okay for me to ignore these harder feelings because they are unpleasant. Refusing to acknowledge my fatigue means that I lose the power to do anything about it until it overwhelms me. In order to relieve the pressure of difficult emotions, I first have to realize that they are there. Acceptance and acknowledgment are the first steps toward healing.

I fill up before I empty out. I'll give the folks at BAD RAP credit for that pretty phrase. What it means is that when I feel myself coming to the end of my emotional reserves, I find a way to soothe myself before I throw in the towel. How people fill up is going to be different for each person. For me, taking Chessa in was a way to fill up. I was feeling miserable and exhausted and angry about Marnie's case, so I did something that I knew would make me feel better about rescue and about myself. I may grieve Chessa, but that grief is minuscule compared to my pride in having stepped up for her, my gratitude in the opportunity to know her, and the glow of the friendship we shared. And I will be able to carry these positive emotions with me for the next several months at least. It was what I needed to fill myself up. What I need to fill up changes, though. Sometimes, I need a day away from all the dogs. Sometimes, I need to go hiking for a week. Sometimes, I need pancakes. And sometimes, I need to spend a quiet afternoon with my YDS box. What I need changes with how I feel, so I have many different ways to help me take care of myself.

I have a support network, and I use it. I am not an island. I can't do everything by myself. Sometimes, I box myself into a metaphorical corner, and I can't see how to get out. I don't know why it's so hard for people (myself included) to ask for help, but it is so very, very important to do. Having people who can help you get out of your own head when you've forgotten how is priceless. I don't have to do everything by myself. If I'm not sure how to deal with a behavior problem, I have people I can contact to bounce ideas off. If I can't get a dog to the vet or get out to the office to pick up dog food, there are people willing to make the trip for me. If I don't have the emotional stamina to work with a dog, there are people to help with that burden. We are in this together. Some days, just being able to say, "This sucks," and have someone agree with you can make a horrible situation a little easier to bear.

I get by with a little help from my friends . . .

I recognize and respect my limitations. In rescue, it's easy to fall into the trap of Just One More. Just one more foster, one more email, one more activity, one more rescue - until you run into Just One Breakdown and suddenly you can't stand this vicious, cruel beast that's taken over your life and you're out. No more. Nothing left to give. So I have boundaries to keep rescue from taking over my life and my mind. I'll do Dog Safety Programs, but please don't make me teach little kids by myself. If I'm doing rescue stuff after 7:00 pm, it had better be an emergency. And you will never find me playing ambassador at a Get Your Fix! event - I'll be at the third booth down hiding behind my vaccines where I can "accidentally" poke people I don't like with needles. Not only do I respect my boundaries, I expect other people to respect them as well. If I tell ARLP that I can't handle another case, and they say, "yeah, but look - puppy breath," we will have a come-to-Jesus conversation about the ethics of guilting people into taking on more than they're capable of (one of the reasons I stay with ARLP is that I know they wouldn't do this to me; this is just an example). Knowing my limits is a strength, not a weakness.

I celebrate what I can do. Rescue is hard; I am not an island; I cannot do everything - but you guys, I do a lot! And the fact that I do anything at all means that I do more than most. I am capable of activities that many are not, and I should be proud of my skills and abilities. I can take in compassion cases like Chessa. I can teach classes. I can help people manage their foster dogs.What I do may be only a small piece of the puzzle, but it is an important piece. I have a pretty awesome skill set, and combined with the skill sets of others, I'm pretty sure we can save the world - one dog at a time.

“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”
~Edward Everett Hale

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Saying Goodbye To Chessa

Photo by Paige.

Goodnight, dearest Chessa.

You are a Good Dog.
You have Done Well.
You are Brave and Strong and Beautiful.
Worthy of Love.

Peace be with you always. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Collar Me Cute

(This post was originally presented on the ARLP blog on July 8th, 2009, in an attempt to explain to the world my obsessive collar collecting tendencies. Before Chessa even came home with me, I had to stop and get her a brand new collar of her very own. This collar is hers; it will never be worn by another dog. It was important to me to do this for her. Here's why.)

Nommy cheeseburger for Chessa. Photo by Paige.

I've been told I have a problem.

I have a few dog collars. I have green collars, blue collars, and purple collars. I have one that glows in the dark. I have purple swirlies, pink circles, and a blaze orange collar with "bitch" written all over it. Camo patterns, tie dye, and hot pink with spikes. Collars with my dogs' names on them, with silk lining, and with brass hard wear. Buckle collars, no buckle collars, martingale, and elastic. Ribbon, satin, leather, and corduroy. Puppy collars, medium-sized dog collars, and something I think was probably intended for a moose. I have thirty-nine collars in total.

It's possible I have a slight problem.

But before you judge me (okay, before you judge me more), I demand my right to due process.

Every year in the United States alone, between five and seven million pets enter the shelter system. Three to four million will only make it out again in a black plastic bag. Of the dogs and cats entering the system, about half are strays. From personal experience, I'd say about ten percent of strays are wearing collars. Of those wearing collars, maybe two percent have tags. Do you want to know how many of those tags are up to date? The numbers aren't good.

The harsh reality is that most strays are never reunited with their families - assuming they had one, or that their "family" is even looking for them. Most strays get the black plastic bag express.

I have been doing rescue for the last ten years, give or take a few months. Baby that I am, that's almost half my life. I grew up in the culture, and it has left its mark on me. I was doing animal control for a small Wisconsin shelter as soon as I had my driver's license. There's a glimmer of hope that comes at seeing that tell-tale scrap of blue or red or heck, even chain 'round the neck of some poor lost soul. And what's that? A tag? The hope grows, though it's tempered with the pessimism of experience. And if, by some miracle, we can track down the owners - OH! the sweet relief! Thank God, it's gonna be okay, this one is going to make it out alive.

This scenario has been repeated often enough in my life that I can't help but think of a dog's collar as more than just a handy way of identifying an animal. It's taken on symbolic proportions. Upon arriving at the shelter, the first thing we did was put a collar and a tag with the dog's id numbers around its neck. The collar became a way for me to soothe my own soul, to tell the stray dog that now he or she belongs somewhere. From here on out, there's someone who'll go to bat for you, who'll care for you, who'll keep your best interests at heart. Kind of like a canine wedding ring.

Okay, so maybe that last part is a bit sappy.

I won't deny that having thirty-nine different collars for four dogs is all about me. The dogs certainly don't care what collar they wear on any given day. For all they care, they could go *gasp* naked and be perfectly happy. But I enjoy seeing them all tricked out in their beautiful collars. I like having tangible proof to show the world that these dogs are loved. In all the world, these canines are special - even if only to me.

I've been told that you can't take it with you when you die, but I'll let you in on a secret: I'm kind of hoping I get to take my little collar collection (oh, hush, fine - big collar collection). Because those dogs I could not save weigh heavy on my conscious - no matter how often I tell myself that it was necessary, it was for the best, it was okay because it never got easy. I want to give them each a collar. I want to show them in my own way that while they were here, someone cherished and respected them, cared for them in sickness and in health, for better - and ultimately for worse - until death did us part.