How daily exposure to trauma, pain and the despair of others can leave us emotionally exhausted.

My story of compassion fatigue

Milton Erickson used to say to his patients, “My voice will go with you.” His voice did. What he did not say was that our clients’ voices can also go with us. Their stories become part of us – part of our daily lives and our nightly dreams. Not all stories are negative – indeed, a good many are inspiring. The point is that they change us. (Mahoney, 2003).

There is something that happens, something beyond this time and place when we get to enter into someone elses story. Every story has a face, and those faces can change us. What if they were full of pain and despair? What if you couldn’t stop listening to them? What if you couldn’t stop seeing those faces? Anyone working with pain, despair, suffering and violence knows that you can’t leave the stories outside the door. You take them with you, and you let them go deep inside your heart, you let them enter your house, be part of your family and shatter your dreams.

My name is Zuzana and this is the story of how I let those faces change my life.

After graduating from Presov University in Slovakia in 1998 with a Masters degree in Psychology, I thought the world belonged to me. I thought I would find a challenging job as a psychologist where I could dig inside people’s heads, work with their deepest fears and heal their wounded souls.
I started studying for a PhD at the same university, and as every recent graduate, dreamed of a career as a successful and accepted psychologist.

The first job opportunity came shortly after the summer, a psychologist position in a Juvenile Justice Centre for girls aged fourteen to eighteen. Having been interested in Clinical and Health psychology for many years I didn’t hesitate for a moment! The centre was located in an old castle, nearly two hundred kilometres away from my home. I embraced it as a challenge, willing myself to live my own life and work in the profession I had always wanted to.

Eighty girls with a criminal past and me as the only psychologist, it was all I had ever wanted; although, I have to admit I was having a few sleepless nights. Unfortunately I wasn’t prepared to manage such a difficult position without any experience, support or supervision, but my ‘save the world’ attitude overrided my fear.

My first day at work finally came. I will never forget those terrifying feelings. After an introduction to my new colleagues; teachers, carers, a social worker and nurse, I desperately searched for my office, a safe place to breath, before I meet all those eighty “criminals”. But there weren’t any. I was given a key to a cellar to search through some books, files and psychodiagnostic tests, that had been left by the previous psychologist like unwanted scrap.

I simply didn’t understand anything. How could she not have a therapy room? Where was she providing the girls with all the consultations, counselling and testing? The answer came quickly when one of my new colleagues disclosed the psychologists’ alcohol addiction and burnout. She was suspended and left the profession to seek psychiatric care.

Well, that wasn’t a very good start; and then Pandoras’ Box opened. I was exposed to many other stories about previous psychologists leaving the place completely emotionally and physically exhausted. I heard the stories about their personal and professional failures, divorces, addictions or suicide attempts. I should have felt afraid, threatened or hopeless but I didn’t. Somewhere inside I felt the need to prove to the world that I am the brave one, the exception, ‘the hero’.

So the story continued. My first contact with the girls wasn’t very positive. I was just a few years older than the majority of them, slim built, looking just like one of them. They couldn’t help but see the fear in my eyes as they were constantly approaching me saying I wouldn’t last there more than a week, like so many others before me. I tried not to listen to their threats and cynicism and sunk deeply into creating my consulting room. Within two weeks my consultation hours were hanging on the doors. I felt full of energy, commitment and enthusiasm. I set up a regular testing system, diaries, group therapy sessions, art therapy, anger and addiction workshops.

I felt proud and satisfied, and my hard work paid off with words of respect and appreciation. Everything looked promising, my colleagues suddenly stopped whispering whenever I raised my hand at committee meetings and I finally became a real and accepted member of their community.

Although I was seeing girls at our regular group sessions, the time finally came for my first individual consultation. I was frightened but excited at the same time.

Gaby (names are changed for confidentiality purposes) was a sixteen year old girl. She committed small crimes such as theft and vandalism at the age fifteen. Her aggression and violence often caused her problems with the teachers and carers in the centre. Well, nothing unusual I thought, until I read her family history. Gaby was constantly raped by her brothers and uncles, her real father abandoned the family and her step-father led her mother into alcohol addiction. She often slept on the street and once broke into a shop to steal some food. The police arrested her and she was charged and sent to the centre.

I was petrified. I took the remaining files of the other girls and started to read their stories. They were full of pain, trauma, violence, sexual and physical assaults, sexual exploitation, neglect, murder, and abduction. Their assailants were frequently their parents or family members, friends, or carers.

After an hour of reading I broke down in tears, and wasn’t ready for so much pain. I came to work with ‘criminals’ but wasn’t prepared to work with the victims. I was confused and all I wanted was to run away. I felt incompetent and inexperienced to work with such serious trauma. Part of my mind was pushing me to go but I couldn’t, there was a power which made me stay. I don’t know what it was or where it came from but I remember how I suddenly stood up, my knees still shaking, took all the files and went to their rooms. I had to connect the story to the face.

What I saw surprised me; happy girls, laughing whilst watching Friends on TV, dancing in the corridors or just waving and screaming at every boy passing the centre. How could they smile, dance, plan a future, dream about having their own families with a caring husband and many children? They experienced so much pain, humiliation and betrayal from their loved and trusted ones, yet still had their dreams and faith. I started to feel more admiration and compassion towards them. The reasons why they were stealing, prostituting themselves, taking drugs or running away from their families and schools became clearer to me. Did they really have a choice? They tended to blame themselves, particularly when they had a close bond with the abuser. They were constantly intimidated and threatened.

I will never forget the story of a girl named Sara. She was a quiet girl who never looked into others’ eyes. I knew some girls weren’t ready to talk and open themselves up so I encouraged them to write their feelings in a diary. Sara’s story was full of pain and intimidation from her stepfather. Her mother was thrown onto the streets by her partner when eight months pregnant. She was very young and wanted to kill herself, when an old man approached her and took her to his flat. After a month, she gave birth to a daughter, Sara, and felt thankful to the man who took her from the streets and gave her and her daughter a home. However, it wasn’t a happy home. Sara was mentally and physically abused by her stepfather, she spent whole days and nights shut in a dark cupboard, and when she cried he threatened them both with the streets again. Sara, despite being an intelligent girl, started to run away from home and school and take drugs. She spent whole nights on the street with gangs, became drug addicted and by the age of sixteen the judge sent her to the centre. Sara never had a problem, she behaved well until she turned eighteen, the age all girls were released from the centre. She became violent and didn’t want to go back home. She fell into deep despair and described her story in the diary. She didn’t want to hurt her mother by disclosing her feelings, knowing that she was so thankful to the old man for being alive, so she suffered in silence.

I decided to send a letter to her mother. I described her suffering and pain, and everything she had been through. Sara waited every day for a letter from her mother. The letter suddenly came, written on a dirty piece of paper, full of spelling mistakes and marks from her mother’s falling tears. She wrote that she hadn’t seen Saras’ suffering and had never helped her, but that she loved her more than anything, and would leave her aggressive partner and seek help just to get her daughter back. We exchanged a few letters. Every letter was more and more emotional and I felt the power and commitment that this woman found deep inside her heart, to change her life and give her daughter a real home. Saras’ stay in the centre came to an end, and on her last day she brought me a rose, finally looked into my eyes, and said: “Thank you, now I can go home”.

Sara’s story was just the beginning of the end. My work became my life. I was going to sleep and waking up with the same thoughts; how can I help them, what else can I do, which court should I approach, which charity or social support group to connect with. I couldn’t talk about anything else, I offloaded my thoughts to everyone, my partner, family and friends, but never asked them if they were ready to listen. Others problems didn’t seem as important, how could they worry about dresses or the silly argument with their partner, if there were so many people crying and suffering. I thought them shallow and slowly started to avoid their company. I ignored every comment from my friends and family pointing at how much I had changed, and how I had become cold and detached. I didn’t realise how much this work was affecting me. I just wrapped myself in a protective shield; like a magic robe, it covered me from all the pain and trauma I had to deal with.

I was constantly deprecating my colleagues’ decisions, sending letters to the government and judges complaining about unfairness, lack of professionalism and the inability of judges to differentiate victims and criminals.
Nothing had changed, the girls were coming and going, and my ‘save the world’ attitude had become an obsession. Every day I dealt with trauma, suicide attempts and aggression until I realized that I was tired and empty. I had no more to give. The stories turned into numbers, every case I couldn’t solve just deepened the feeling of incompetence, self-doubt and despair. Every time I had to send girls back to their violent or abusive families, I was reminded that I was sending them onto the streets as there was nowhere else for them to go. Every time I saw a pimp grabbing them as they were released from the centre, every time I saw fear and doubt in their eyes as they were leaving without hope for the future, I felt I had failed. Successful stories weren’t important anymore, I felt only a failure who had lost all hope.

Now I wish I could say I suddenly found a new therapy that helped me rediscover my purpose, but NO, there wasn’t a happy ending. I left the job and didn’t feel I wanted to work as a psychologist anymore. It was too painful, every story had a face and I saw those faces every night when falling asleep. I doubted my profession, I doubted my competence, I felt emotionally drained and exhausted.
I had to change my life so I decided to move to England. I learnt the language and worked in many different jobs. I started to study tourism but didn’t find it exciting at all. I lost my way, and didn’t know where I was heading.

But as someone clever said, “home is where the heart is”. Somewhere deep inside I felt that the only profession which could ever fulfill me was supporting and enabling others. It took me seven years to realise what I really want to do in life. I took a long journey and worked hard to build my private practice. I feel so much power inside of me and now I know I am ready to support. To support people to overcome their problems, achieve better health and well-being and to live the life they have always dreamed of.

Everyone who works in care and support or the emergency services knows that this isn’t a job, it is a mission. You can only experience the pain of others if your heart and soul are ready. Don’t undermine the importance of self-care. You can’t give if you have nothing left to give.

Don’t let your heart freeze, there are many crying souls waiting to be restored.








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