Saturday, September 9, 2017

Compassion Fatigue

“Compassion fatigue is the price you pay for empathy.”

Compassion fatigue wasn’t something I'd paid much attention to throughout my 25-year career in long-term care. But looking back now, I can certainly attest to experiencing it, to some degree, especially the last few years while suffering from back pain and trying to cope with an ever-changing work environment.  

Empathy, first of all, is about feelings; it's about being able to slip into the shoes of the sufferer and see the world from their perspective. 

Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, affects the quality of care we give, because something has interfered with our ability to radiate the compassion and empathy we once felt. 

When I began my career in long-term care, empathy and compassion were something that came naturally to me. I didn't have a problem slipping into the client's shoes, to help them transition through whatever emotions they were feeling. It was empowering and energizing to uplift the face of a dear elderly, to say the least, and it still is!

During the last few years of my career, however, I began to feel exhausted, both physically and emotionally, which, in turn, had affected my zeal on the job. It wasn't that I’d stopped trying to provide the best possible care for the elderly, by no means, but there was a decrease in my empathy and compassion, nevertheless.

In retrospect, I was witnessing firsthand how the health care system—in an attempt for more oversight—had refocused its efforts at the administrative level. The organizational shift was meant to streamline the workforce. But it had indirectly dealt cuts to what I’d term as CARE (Companionship Always Restores Empathy) hours out on the floor, leaving less time for client/caregiver interaction, which left me frustrated and dissatisfied because it had hindered my ability to provide the same level of care to the clients.

For our compassionate heart to continue beating an empathetic rhythm, in sync, with those in our care, we must first maintain a sense of well-being for ourselves. And to preserve this wellness state, it may require stepping back to rejuvenate and replenish both body and spirit, or setting emotional boundaries, or whatever personal means works best.

It's been three years since I've retired from my career in long-term care. And while I believe that compassion fatigue can be the price we pay for empathy, the rewards of being a caregiver (for me) far outweighed the cost of caring.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Postive Change and Relationships

“When you stop trying to change others and work on changing yourself, your world changes for the better." Author Unknown 

Sometimes life calls us to do a self-analysis, to "right the ship" (so to speak), and cut ties with the things that are dragging us down. 

For years I felt trapped in a “woe is me" attitude. I blamed my past and others for my erratic emotional state. And even in my marriage, I thought it was somehow Derick's responsibility to make me happy. 

But my happiness came as a result of marching to the beat of my own drum. Mind you it took a lot of years swimming upstream—through a multitude of changes— to do the deep, inner work of building a better relationship with myself.

It takes courage and strength to continue swimming against the current, to let go of the familiar, and create the life we so desire. For one, fear shows up, as a barrier, to try and keep us in stagnate waters. And two, the upstream journey always accompanies some form of loss, whether it's a sense of self, a relationship, a career, or by some other means. Why? Because we have to let go of something to move forward, to swim out of the old and dive into a life of new perspective. 

For example, when I became a Christian in 2004, I lost friendships. Many now saw me as a boring churchgoer, and so we drifted apart. Then when I retired from my career in 2014 (on account of back issues), I lost a big part of my identity. I lost my salary. And I lost co-worker acquaintances. These changes were both frightening and uncomfortable, at first. But both have benefited my overall well-being today. Both have redefined me as a person. In short: My faith has given me inner peace. And my retirement has afforded me the means and time to write. 

Once we change our lives for the better, we need to be mindful of any unhealthy changes that try to creep back in, especially with regards to relationships. Because it's so easy to take on the negative characteristics of those whom we hang with, and by allowing their negativity to seep into our lives, it could damage our core being.

But having said that, we cannot make this journey alone, either. Just as negative influences can be harmful, an inner circle of trusted family and friends can be the gifts that keep us grounded, giving us the feedback we need to stay on the straight and narrow. 

I guess the key to anything in life is to have a balance, right? 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Public Speaking

I've had my share of embarrassing moments with regards to public speaking over the years. One that vividly stands out occurred in my early thirties.

I had enrolled in an evening course (at a nearby college) to obtain my certificate as a Personal Support Worker (PSW); a newly enacted requirement that was essential to maintain my job in long-term-care.

On day one, while discussing the course overview, our instructor casually announced that one of the demands would be a 20-minute in-class presentation. I was panic-stricken: I can’t do this. I will embarrass myself. Maybe I'll find a way to opt out of it.

I know most people—if not all—feel some degree of anxiousness when it comes to public speaking. It’s a typical reaction to stress, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But it was much more than the universal feelings of anxiousness for me. Although my social anxiety disorder didn't have face years ago, it was what intensified my fear of public speaking.

Social anxiety is performance based and differs for everyone. For example, some may suffer from social awkwardness. I am a very sociable person. However, up until a few years ago, if I were in a situation where I had to read aloud or speak in front of a group, it'd send my body into a reactional state, resulting in sweaty palms, a racing heart, and shakiness. The thing was, I knew there was no imminent danger, and that my fear was unreasonable, but what I believed and what my body felt were two different things.

I had gone to class on the evening of my presentation prepared, and when my name was called to speak, I gripped my sweaty palms around my project and reluctantly walked up to the podium. I began with a personal background introduction and a brief statement on my chosen topic of discussion. But what kicked my anxiety into overdrive was when I took a few seconds to gaze out at my classmates: I saw eyes fixed on me. I saw smiles on faces that I mistook to be judgemental smirks, and, then, the worst-case scenario happened. I bolted from the classroom.

It was an experience that not only left me embarrassed, but it also plunged me back into the shadows, deepening my fear of public speaking, and I'd spend years avoiding it, or anything else that'd triggered intense anxiety, for that matter.

But this “avoiding” mindset was crippling. It held me back from reaching my full potential, which is why I have been doing a lot of soul-searching in the last decade. And—amongst other things—I've learned that the onset of my social anxiety disorder manifested itself in elementary school.

As a child, I was shy. I lacked confidence. It was painfully hard when I was called upon to read in front of the class. I'd stumble over my words, and it provoked some of my classmates to ridicule me. But I had no idea how much it'd impact my life as an adult.

And my college experience, many, many years later, would prove this to be true. That night wasn't so much about the fear of speaking in public; it was more about a sense of déjà vu; an overwhelming feeling, a flashback, to the ridiculed little school girl, which, ironically, became the core resolution to understanding my intense fear of public speaking, in the first place.

For years my social anxiety felt like a fight that I could never win. For years it fed the voices (the lies) inside my head, which lurked in the shadows, waiting to defeat me. I am happy to say that it no longer has a stronghold over my life today. Mind you; I don’t, by any means, jump at the chance to speak in public. But through more self-awareness and diligence, as well as a belief that with God all things are possible, I'm learning about my fears, and how to triumph over them. And it has helped me move out of the shadows and offer encouragement to those who are struggling with anxiety.

P.S. I did eventually go back to class and complete my presentation that evening. And the instructor awarded me a B for my efforts. Phew!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Pit of Comparison

Falling into the pit of comparison began at a very young age for me. Having grown up in a low-income family, I’d envy those who were popular at school, who wore the latest name-brand clothes, and who appeared to have a fairytale home life.

The lingering insecurities from my youth—that dreaded feeling of not being good enough or smart enough or talented enough, left me feeling like I always had to prove myself to the world. And no matter how hard I tried, I never felt like I measured up. I now know it was why I spent so many wasted years falling into the pit of comparison.

Whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, we all from time to time fall into this pit. And if we aren't careful, it can generate a notion that if we had more money or a better home or better marriage or a better body, we'd, somehow, be happier or more content.

But comparing oneself to others doesn't bring happiness or contentment. What it does is breed a philosophy that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence—one that can promote an envious, resentful attitude toward others successes. Or, on the flip side, a fixation of pride on our own.

The thing is, the greener grass view only allows us to see what's directly in front of us, which is merely a perception of someone's life. Because how can we possibly know their story from the other side of the fence? And, more often than not, when we do get to know another person's story, either face-to-face or through social media, we realize their challenges are, or somewhat, similar to ours.

Even though I am free from the pit of comparison today, it still beckons me to fall prey to it. For instance, it will often creep into my writing, causing me to doubt my abilities as a writer. But unlike before, I refuse to allow myself to linger in self-doubt; I refuse to fall prey to the lies that I am not good enough or smart enough or talented enough to achieve my goals. Instead, I strive to approach life with a positive attitude. I accept my flaws and embrace the uniqueness of Me. Because if there's anything that age, wisdom, and faith have taught me, it's that life has enough humbling experiences for us all.

How about you? Do you spend too much time comparing your life with others?

As the wise Dr. Seuss once said, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

Embrace your uniqueness.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Approaching Thirty Years-Forever Connected

August 25th will be thirty years since Mom’s death. She died one week after her 56th birthday. I was only 28 years old at the time.

During my younger adult years, Mom and I didn’t have a great mother/daughter relationship. But when I became a mother to our first child, Heather, in 1983, my desire to build a closer bond with her was rekindled. However, given the fact I now lived in Ontario, and she was still in Newfoundland, the face-to-face conversations weren't always possible. Skype and FaceTime were unheard of back then, but through frequent phone calls, we had managed to build a great rapport.

I was pregnant with my second child when Mom and I had a conversation about my deceased brother, Patrick. In a matter-of-fact tone, which had caught me off guard, she'd mentioned how she would love to, someday, have a grandson named after my brother. Needless to say, this revelation must have tugged at mine and Derick’s heartstrings because Mom would get her wish. And four months after Patrick was born, she'd get to hold her grandson for the first time.

Patrick turned thirty this year, on March 11th. Each year his birthday is a reminder of the significant role his namesake had played in his grandmother's life before she died. And it all stems back to our last vacation we had spent with her.

I grew up in a little coastal town along the southern shores of Newfoundland. Our two-story home was situated forty feet from the ocean’s edge. The prevailing summer winds always left a smell of salty sea water in the air, and I distinctly remember its scent when our family arrived in my hometown on July of 1987.

I vividly remember Mom standing in the doorway that day. Her beautiful smile and outstretched arms would send our four-year-old daughter running toward her. And her smile would only double as I placed Patrick into her arms. But how could we have possibly known it’d be the last week we would see her alive?

One month after our wonderful trip home, one week after Mom's 56th birthday, I'd receive the dreaded phone call that she had died suddenly of a massive heart attack.

I would now board a plane to, once again, head back to my hometown. This time, it'd be without my immediate family. This time, shock and numbness would accompany me. And this time, I'd have to say goodbye to Mom in a way that would rip my heart open.

Entering our home with some of my siblings that day was the worst day of my life. Mom’s birthday cards were still upright on the living room table. Her blueberries that she had picked a few days prior were still on the kitchen counter. I remember how I walked down the hallway to her bedroom, where I climbed into bed and sobbed into her pillow. I could still smell her scent. Oh, how I wanted her back, but I couldn't turn back the clock. I now had to find a way to live in a world without her, which hasn’t been easy. Grief forever changes us, and it changes the way we view the world around us as well.

I've been learning and writing about grief in the last decade. And it has brought much healing; it has taught me to let go of the things that aren't in my control; it has given me the wisdom to know what is normal grief and what isn't. But more important, it has taught me to embrace those I love, more deeply.

The trivialities of life can hinder our relationships. Don't leave things unsaid, because tomorrow may never come. I know all too well that it isn’t easy to ensure the cycle of life is one of love and forgiveness and not one of regret. But it’s a cycle that, in time, will lessen the burden of grief’s grip, and forever keep us connected.

Heather and Patrick with grandma in 1987
Heather and Patrick today. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Blooming Where I Didn’t Want To Be Planted

The Christian mountaintop experience. That's where I lived out the first few years of my faith journey.

As a new Christian, I was on fire for the Lord. I volunteered on two mission trips. I was involved in Church ministry. I worked hard to flourish and strive in the church that I regularly attended.

But I became an “attention junky" and wanted my works to be noticed by others. After all, I was a people pleaser by nature, and people pleasers don't know how to say no. They just know how to please, right?

Then, bang!  Life as I knew it came crashing down. My Christian daughter had come out gay. I now no longer wanted to be noticed by others; I wanted to, instead, run and hide from them.

So, I fell off the mountaintop and spiraled down into a dark, lonely valley, where I wandered aimlessly for a couple of years, engulfed in shame and guilt. I became envious of what other families had. I threw pity parties to God, about the soil He had now planted me on. I’d show up to church, and when others asked how I was doing, I’d put on my fake smile and say, "Oh, I am doing great!" All the while I felt spiritually barren inside.

But then, one day, something happened to change the course of my life. Maybe God had gotten tired of my whining. Because as I laid there on my bedroom floor, crying out to Him to change my daughter, a calm, still voice whispered into my spirit: "Maybe it's you who needs to change." I was startled by this revelation. I hadn't taken the time to look deep within, to reconnect with God, because I was too busy complaining about my circumstances. But this rekindling of spirit gave me the insight to not only reassess my path but to look at life from a new perspective, in which, I found myself at a spiritual crossroad.

"Don't take the road to the left. It's the wide path of destruction," some warned. "Take the road to the right. It's the narrow path to righteousness." What they were saying was that if I embraced the true identity of my daughter, I would lose the sanctity of God.

But God, surprisingly, led me straight through the crossroad, on a lesser-known path. A route that taught me about the humbleness of treating others as I would want to be treated. And in doing so, I began to bloom where I didn't want to be planted.

In this season of blooming, I experienced, what I call, a “spiritual growth spurt." You see, God couldn't teach me what I needed to know on the mountaintop. For two reasons: (1) I had become too proud of what I knew. (2) I cared more about what others thought of me than what God thought of me.

God's grace brought me through the valley, intact. He taught me that, in life, even if the road is lonely, we are never truly alone with Him.

Today I am less judgmental and more inclusive. I no longer moan and groan about my daughter's sexual orientation. In fact, I see my gay child as a gift, a gift that has taught me so much about life, about myself, and about others.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Beware the Stone Throwers Web

Since becoming a Christian in 2004, I have heard the message preached (several times) about how we should stay out of the world lest we become infected. I do agree with this on some level of conscience. But only in the sense where we need to be mindful of the allure the darker side of humanity can have on the flesh.

For example, if Mother Teresa hadn’t diligently pursued the Vatican to allow her mission in Calcutta, India, she might not have gone out into the world to help the impoverished people in the slums, embracing the people of different faiths that she found there. 

I have had many conversations with non-Christian friends and family members about their concept of God. Most of them confirmed their belief in God but perceived many in the church to be stone throwers rather than servants like Mother Teresa. 

And, as sad as it is, I do understand why the secular world could have this impression of the church. I have witnessed incidents of segregation in my earlier church life as well. But I still believe most Christians are fundamentally good at heart. However, as passive Christians, we cannot sit in silence and allow the aggressive personalities of a few stone throwers to be the loudest voice for the Christian faith. 

In Matthew 23, Jesus addressed the Pharisees about how on the outside they embodied the look of holiness while on the inside, their hearts, minds, and souls were filthy. They were the religious leaders of the day, who knew the ways of God, who selfishly stirred up the people, and who, at times, turned them into stone throwers. All in the name of religion.

Jesus analogy strikes a distinct contrast between religion and Christianity for us today. He reminds us to be more concerned with what is going on within, making sure our cup is clean on the inside because he knows that for us to live a life pleasing to Him, our outward life must match our inward life. Discernment should always be a virtue of the heart; a heart that’s in sync with God.

I'll be the first to admit that it isn’t easy to become less selfish and more selfless. It’s something I have to work on daily when dealing with the motives of my heart. However, to err is human. We can all be drawn into the "stone throwers web.” 

But it's up to us to resist this enticement. It's up to us to show the world the real heart of the Church, a heart where the majority of its members long to be more Christ-like. And if we can succeed at this, I believe the great works of the Church will stay in the forefront, opening doors for more people to join the fold.