Compassion Fatigue- It's An Epidemic
It crept in slowly. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Why was I feeling this way? I didn’t want to do anything. Especially not anything that had to do with dogs. I just didn’t feel right. And then my foster dog passed away. I knew it would come someday, I took her in through Old Dog Haven, so she was already a senior when I got her. But the day it happened was a shock, and I wasn’t ready. Whatever I was feeling before was now compounded with grief.
I would get anxiety when a new client would contact me. I would get anxiety when a client I already had contacted me. I would lay awake at night. Then I would sleep during the day. It’s when I found myself looking into running away from everything and taking some job that would require nothing of me mentally or emotionally that I started realizing what was going on.
When people would ask me what I do, I would say I’m a dog trainer. People’s faces always light up with “Oh that must be so fun!” And then I would take the wind out of their sails and explain that I don’t do what you would consider the fun training. Many of my clients call me in crisis. I work with some tough dogs. You go into a home and the situation can be so emotionally charged, and we as trainers take it all in. The family could be arguing, fingers can be pointed as to who’s fault it is the dog is behaving this way. There have been tears cried, swear words thrown out, people at the end of their rope. And they want you to fix it.
The pressure can be intense. That’s why when I started this career, I knew I would never want to be a full-time trainer. I balance my time with other things I enjoy such as pet sitting. Staying at someone’s home with their dog and spoiling it while they are away is a nice break. It was when I was on one of my pet sitting trips that I had time to reflect. I was up in the San Juans caring for 2 lovely dogs and doing what I do when I need some time for self-care. Listen to music, be alone, and write.
A song started playing and I started crying. Out of nowhere, this rush of emotions hit me.
“Bless your soul, so precious, so delicate
Powerfully compassionate, your friendship
Held me together when the threat of unraveling
Had me at the brink, feeling inadequate
When the sky got dreary, my eyes got teary
My heart got weary, you were right there near me
Only reason I ain’t laid up in some cemetery
Is when I was in fear, somebody cared enough to hear me
Anything that I do in this life of mine
From this point, is part you, for the gifts you provide
Only way to repay you is live right and shine
Trust me when I tell you, you’re still on my mind”
Brother Ali. “My Beloved.” Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color. 2012
Dogs saved my life. I know this sounds melodramatic, but it’s the absolute truth. I remember looking at my foster dog, Gramma Rose, on my worst day and thinking that I promised this dog I would take care of her. That day I asked for help. I suffer from anxiety and depression and it’s taken me to some very bad places. And through the depths of my despair and suffering, dogs kept me going. I also suffer from some debilitating health conditions and sometimes it takes over your life. The only way I can get out of myself, is to give. So I would spend the night throwing up and I would go to the animal shelter the next day. I needed it. I needed to focus on something that was greater than myself.
So when I stopped enjoying dogs, who have saved my life, I knew I was in trouble. I knew it had something to do with how hard my job is. I had come across the term “compassion fatigue” online defined by Merriam-Webster as: “the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time”, and I thought “AHA!” This was exactly what was going on with me. And I have watched others around me go through some really tough times because of compassion fatigue. When you do any professional where you give so much of yourself, it can happen.
I’ve worked with animals for so many years and have witnessed some truly devastating and heartbreaking things. Some of the images still haunt me. Unfortunately, when you are so passionate about something, and that something is alive and feeling, you can get jaded. You can get angry.
I have gone through my own issues with anger but now, most of the time, you will find me in the opposite attitude. I am very kind and peaceful. I believe that’s what makes me a good trainer. I can say in all honesty that I have suffered with many of the same problems that your dog may be feeling. I have suffered through many of the same problems that my client may be feeling. I had to do a lot of work to be the person I am today. And it makes me extremely empathetic and non-judgmental. And it makes me susceptible to compassion fatigue. I can FEEL what my clients and their dogs feel.
Just because I can get compassion fatigue, I don’t want to quit my job. I love my job. I love helping dogs and I love helping people. I just need to make sure I care for myself. I need to take breaks. I need to listen to music. I need time to heal from all the things I go through each time I help someone with their dog. I’m a very strong person, but even the strong need help sometimes. That’s ok.
As I looked more into this issue in my industry, I was not surprised, but saddened to find that this is an epidemic. We care for our clients and their pets. Otherwise we wouldn’t do this. This career takes a strong, smart, compassionate, empathetic person. It can also take a toll on us. One of the greats in our field died of suicide, Dr. Sophia Yin, and I think it does her and anyone else struggling a disservice not to talk about it.
So when that song played, it touched my heart, it touched my soul. It reminded me why I do this work. And it is really hard work. And I love it. I would never be able to do anything else. Just like Brother Ali says, “Only way to repay you is to live right and shine.” I owe my life to dogs. The only way to repay them is to be here, so I can.
If you or anyone you know is struggling, please reach out for help.