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


  1. You know, you're the first person I've seen write about this, and I couldn't be more grateful. Used to be, I networked half a dozen "death row dogs" every evening on my FB page. I was able to hang in there and get the job done, even when the outcome for the dog wasn't what we hoped for. But for the last few weeks? I just can't do it, and I couldn't put a label on it until I read your post. Thank you for the wonderful tips to help me get myself back on track. Much needed, and much appreciated.

  2. Good stuff as always Laura. Only thing your missing is to be conscious of your partner if you have one. While likely both compassionate people at any given time one person may be suffering for more or less fatigue than you and not taking that into account can just add to everyone's fatigue.

  3. What a great post. You hit home on so many points that are so very important. Thanks for sharing :)