Anyone who accepts a big role in an animal shelter knows that the work is hard, and most of us know that the work can also be more than a little sad from time to time. But for some of us, especially those of us who aren't paying attention to key warning signs, the work can move from being *occasionally* upsetting into full-blown *always* upsetting.
It's called compassion fatigue, and I ended up with a nasty case this summer. In hindsight, there were some things I should have noticed, but I didn't. I thought working up what the experience feels like might help some of you to protect yourselves, as I know many of my readers also do rescue work.
What is compassion fatigue?
An inability to see the wins
- Drinking too much
- Sleeping too little
- Fighting with loved ones
- Compulsive behaviors
For example. This sweet and very old cat came into the shelter with severe arthritis. She struggles to walk well, so she doesn't walk very much at all. And she is very old, so she probably won't mark her remaining time on Earth in decades.
And yet. Someone walked into the shelter, and out of all of the kittens this person could have picked and brought home, this person brought this little broken girl home to love and call his own. It's a huge and wonderful win.
And yet. When I heard about it, all I could think about was my foster cat Panda (who is tapping at my camera in the top picture on this post, taken when he was happier). He didn't get a happy ending. No one chose him. While I should have been celebrating the happy adoption, my mind was flooded with thoughts of him in his kennel, waiting for people to find him. I remained blind to the success right in front of me because I couldn't get over the loss that was looming.
Another example. This is Liebe, who was in the shelter for months and months waiting for a home (and who I wrote about a few weeks ago on this blog). She also got the forever home she deserved, after waiting for so very long.
But when she went home, my thoughts went back to this sweet and very old all-black cat that has been at the shelter as long as Liebe, with no adopter in sight. I would like to think that she has someone out there waiting for her. I want that to happen for her, as she really is a wonderful and feisty little thing. But my brain just can't form the energy to be hopeful like that.
Instead, I feel a little angry that no one has taken her home. I wonder how long she'll have to wait, and why she lost her home in the first place. I can't celebrate the happy parts, because my mind is fixated on the sad parts.
My concrete symptoms were simple sadness, especially when I was walking into or out of the shelter. When I worked up posts about these cats and I read them over later, I saw a lot of trigger words like "please" and "forgotten" and "worried" and "sad." I started to dread going online to look at the adoption pages, as I worried no one would have chosen cats yet. And I started to use words like "mine" and "my" when I described these cats. I felt responsible for all of the sad stories, without feeling even slightly responsible for the good stuff.
What to do about it?Here comes the hard part: What should you do when this sets in? For me, it means taking a step or two back from the shelter, at least for the time being. If I can't be positive and happy for cats, I am not doing either them or my community good. Guilt-ridden social posts are hard to read, and they're rarely motivating. And my presence in the shelter could be viral. If I'm frustrated, I could pass that on to my colleagues. And I need them to keep doing good work.
Stepping back for awhile allows me to make time for more yoga. More tea. More purrs with Fergus. More walks with the dogs. More bird-watching with Popoki. More reading with Lucy. Healing stuff.
I hope I'll be able to come back to shelter work rested and in a good place. And I hope I'll be able to set limits for myself when I do re-engage, so I keep this from happening a second time.
Has this ever happened to any of you readers out there? I'd love to know what YOU did to make it better. Leave me a note in the comments, okay?