The Dry Well

I am having a period of being filled with goodwill towards the human race in general. I am feeling generally happy and gentle towards others and it’s almost a bit disconcerting.

I know this pronouncement sounds weird and bizarre and paints me a bit like a serial killer, but there it is. It might be because, at least in North America, it is Giftmas season and, while I despise this time of year, I do not live in a vacuum and sometimes it rubs off on me. It might be because things are going as well as can be expected for me at the moment. It might just be because I’ve had a good night’s sleep. Who knows. Regardless, I’m going with it.

This is strange for me personally because compassion can be very, very hard for me. I know that a lack of compassion for others can be a sign of burnout and, though there are some aspects of burnout that are present in my life, that’s not the total answer for me.

The long and short of it is that, for me, it is hard to be compassionate when I am consistently faced with people who either do awful, horrible things or who have had awful, horrible things done to them. I mean, in my day job, I work with people who do unethical things as a matter of course. It’s actually part of the diagnostic criteria for substance abuse—is the individual doing things that are illegal, immoral, or unethical to support their substance use? Part of the disease of addiction is the absolute destruction of an individual’s own moral compass in that it becomes okay and justifiable to do things that they might not do otherwise, regardless of the consequences that may get assigned to them or how it affects other people. The road to and through addiction is it’s own form of specialized madness and walking with people in that has definitely taken it’s toll on me in the form of me having a diminished capacity for compassion.

It’s not that I think the people I work with are bad people—they aren’t, and part of my belief system is that there are very few truly bad people. Instead, there are people who make bad choices as a result of a skewed reality. That doesn’t mean, however, that dealing with their bad choices and poor behavior doesn’t have an affect on me. I know logically that a client’s poor choices and behavior has little to do with me, but I would be a liar if I said what folks in my care do doesn’t make me roll my eyes, sigh, get bitchy, or rant at my coworkers in frustration. Every time the claws of what my clients say or do dig into me, what compassion I have mustered crawls away into a corner and mumbles to itself.

This has become especially evident in the last few weeks at my day job. Residential care around the holidays is always a minefield and doubly so with children and teenagers. None of them really and truly want to be there and many of them want to be with their families, if they have one. Unfortunately, many of these families are incredibly dysfunctional and broken and those that aren’t are stretched to the breaking point from dealing with an out of control child. Sure, there are special holiday activities and passes home on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it’s not the same and it pushes children who are already sick to their limits which, in turn, pushes the staff [me] to their limits.

Lately, it’s been one thing after another. A few weeks ago, I spent most of my shift dealing with a client who expressed that she wanted to end her life. Regardless of my personal beliefs, I have professional duties and those duties translated navigating her narrative of abuse at the hands of her parents which in turn translates to a lot of paperwork and phone calls and a 2AM trip to the local emergency mental health clinic for an evaluation. Several nights later, I had to remain present and stick with a client who spent at least a half an hour detailing how much of an ugly, fat, useless, and creepy lesbian they thought I was while she threw things around her bedroom, attempted to leave the program, and woke up every other client with her screaming. The catalyst? It was past lights out, her light was on, and I asked her to turn I off. Another client has such mental health challenges that she often cannot answer questions because she struggles to sort out what reality is—is her psychosis real or am I real? I had to deal with a client who refused to put on appropriate clothing and was walking around in her underwear, which is a MASSIVE liability issue, and another client who was behaving in sexually aggressive ways towards another client, which is another huge liability issue.

It’s stressful and can be really, really trying. I mean, I started working third shift to get away from some of that. I had been working at the program for awhile prior to my schedule shift and I started having a lot of trouble dealing with the behavior of the clients, which I knew was only going to lead to actual trouble for me and stress for clients. However, there is no shift or position in residential care which leaves you free of client issues and I knew that. But, still.

I don’t often know what to do in the above situations or, at least, I don’t feel that way. I have a lot of training and schooling to draw on and often find myself on autopilot, but that doesn’t assist with the internal process. My boss has been telling me that I’ve been doing an excellent job, but I often feel like I’m failing because, in the moment, I cannot draw on any compassion for what they are going through. I mean, a child doesn’t have a meltdown for absolutely no reason and they aren’t sexually inappropriate without cause. These reasons and causes are usually horrible, but accessing that knowledge and headspace while you’re in the middle of it. It’s like I can manage to get the process right, but on the interior is a nuclear landscape.

It’s like everything falls to pieces on the inside. I often remind and implore my clients to use the coping skills we arm them with, but I can’t engage that way myself. That specifically came up in a reading for me not that long ago—that I don’t believe that I deserve the same care that I show my clients. It’s true and it’s something that I really wrestle with. If I’m lucky, I’m able to remind myself in a mantra-like way that whatever is going on is not about me and I am just the convenient target. I mean, I know that I am not ugly, useless, creepy, or a lesbian. I know that sexually aggressive behavior is not my fault, even if I am responsible for assuring the safety of the other clients.

This knowledge, though, doesn’t negate feelings. It’s fucking hard as hell not to think about how much of an asshole this 16 year old kid is being or give in to the spark of annoyance that often flames up before I have a handle on it. It’s hard when you’re being verbally assaulted to consider that the client before you was born addicted to a variety of chemicals and that her adoption is a source of pain and trauma for her. It’s hard to get past the gut response of ‘fuck, will you please stop making my night difficult?’.

That’s the Work, though, in more ways than one. I believe very firmly that the Powers kill as many birds with as few stones as They can and I know that I am not only there to help these people who are sick and hurting. I am there to help my own self, too. Getting past that gut punch emotional reaction is not just about fostering compassion for my client. It’s also about fostering compassion for myself, which I am truly awful at. I hold myself to standards that I can’t possibly meet and I don’t recognize my own suffering for what it is. Instead of suffering, I turn it into a personal weakness and clobber myself to death with it for being human and fallible and not Super Boy.

This swell of compassion has been interesting to manage in that way because it’s challenging me to examine my mechanical responses. Sometimes I think I get pissy because it seems like the right response to a particular situation, which is hardly ever true. Sometimes those robot responses take over before I have a chance to arrest the process. It’s been a fight lately to not give in to that mindless process and instead draw on that well of compassion.

The Powers see that and have challenged me to go even further with it, both towards other people and towards myself. Sekhmet has been after me for awhile to get back to working with women who are abused and/or otherwise marginalized and I submitted my volunteer application for the local women’s shelter today. Many women who access shelter services have, at some point in time, felt violence and abuse in a variety of forms, so it’s the perfect place to carry out the Work She would have me do.

Because it’s volunteer work, it takes away my ability to write off my presence as a necessity. I am choosing to be there, choosing to be present, and choosing to engage even if it challenges my ability to be compassionate. It’s as much for me as it is for them—I know that choosing to be there without the benefit of an hourly wage will test me, but my hope is that will crack my heart open a little bit and further my goal of continuing to grow in my compassion for others. I can’t compare myself to the Powers, but They have shown me such compassion—how can I deny others the same gift?

When I sit with Sekhmet on Thursday, I’ll thank Her for the opportunity to continue to grow as a human and as Her priest, and I’ll mean it. The blessing of opportunities for personal growth, though difficult at times, is something that I feel privileged to have. I continue to walk in a sort of grace that I never thought I would have. I am so lucky.

~ by Alex on December 17, 2013.

2 Responses to “The Dry Well”

  1. Alex:

    If you are anything like me- in which that you may not allow yourself to accept compliments from others – I’m going to say this anyway:

    Thank you for doing what you do for your clients.

    Having been in the system and having loved ones in the system, I cannot express to you my gratitude for what you do, despite any and every situation. Thank you for your patience and tolerance that you have, especially in dealing with the difficulties that your clients bring to you. You are doing great work – challenging and important work that makes a difference in this world.

    You can choose to ignore what I just wrote there, but I wanted you to know.

    Thank you. Thank you.


  2. I totally understand what you’re saying here, about how the work sticks with you and affects you even when you intellectually know it shouldn’t. I worked for almost 2 years full time on a phone sex line. What I heard and how I was treated stuck with me long past time time I clocked out, and I got to some very very bad places in my head. It was one of the reasons I was ordered to celibacy.

    I can’t imagine what you go through with your clients. It comes across less as a lack of compassion, though, and more like you have so MUCH compassion that you’ve found yourself hardening your heart so you don’t take things so personally.

    I sincerely hope that working with the women’s shelter helps you find a bit more peace within yourself around all of these topics.

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