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Thursday, 9 October 2014

Compassion Fatigue

After my last post of post traumatic stress disorder, I started researching more. I came across this term used for professionals but it is something I felt I could definitely relate to, "Compassion Fatigue". It is a term giving to those professionals who suffer "emotional strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of a traumatic event".

According to Wikepedia it is described this way: "Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress (STS), is a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It is common among individuals that work directly with trauma victims such as nurses, psychologists, and first responders. It was first diagnosed in nurses in the 1950s. Sufferers can exhibit several symptoms including hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude. This can have detrimental effects on individuals, both professionally and personally, including a decrease in productivity, the inability to focus, and the development of new feelings of incompetency and self-doubt.[1]
Journalism analysts argue that the media has caused widespread compassion fatigue in society by saturating newspapers and news shows with often de contextualized images and stories of tragedy and suffering. This has caused the public to become cynical, or become resistant to helping people who are suffering"
It got me thinking about how this might also happen in families dealing with long term stress or illness or addiction. Though I have found a few articles about addiction practitioners and compassion fatigue, I have not been able to find many that speak of a similar sort of disorder or burnout amongst family members. I am thinking that if you live with an addict and especially if there are others in the family home, such as children, there is bound to be trauma and in my particular situation I was in essence my son's caregiver and I also watched the trauma his addiction had not only to himself, but also on my daughters.

I was and am the caregiver of my family, my children. For us in particular, our circumstances of being a lone parent with no extended family, I was the sole caregiver even when outside agencies tried to be involved, everything was on me. So when I read the symptoms of  Compassion Fatigue, of course I could relate and I would imagine that many people living with an addict can also identify with:

  • Excessive blaming
  • Bottled up emotions
  • Isolation from others
  • Receives an unusual amount of complaints from others
  • Compulsive behaviours
  • Poor self care
  • Legal problems, indebtedness
  • Recurrence of nightmares or flashbacks
  • Chronic physical ailments such as stomach problems and recurrent colds
  • Sadness or apathy and no longer finding pleasure in activities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mentally and physically tired
  • Preoccupied 
  • In denial about problems 
These symptoms were taken from Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project

I think that I could tick off most of those symptoms while my son lived here with me and his sisters in the family home, but there is still an element of it that I have not been able to move on from. Maybe it is because, even though the "stress" has been removed, the impact on us here and even the physical impact on the home itself, has not been fully recovered yet.

When I look at how to help yourself move forward from the effects of Compassion Fatigue, one of the most striking suggestions to me is "listen to others who are suffering". Perhaps this is the biggest tool we as humans have, to express and share our pain and experiences with others in order to not only gain insight for ourselves, but also to lessen the burden and most importantly to help others and give support, knowledge and understanding to others who may be feeling overwhelmed and isolated. This is when organisations with group support systems are very useful. If you do not have such support groups locally there are plenty on line support chat groups and even blogs and social media can help.


As much as some might like to think that we are invisible or that we like living a life of solitude, the fact remains that part of being human is the need for other human interaction and companionship. We need to have validation from others. That is why our relationships are so important to us and when you live in a dysfunctional environment plagued by addiction it is very easy to lose sight of this and to become masters of illusion to everyone outside our home that everything is ok. We are sucked into the vortex of the disease, but we become so good at living double lives that we often believe everything to be fine and forget about our own needs.

Of course it has been several months that I am not the sole caregiver for my son, he is now his own caregiver, but that does not mean that you start feeling the benefits immediately even when the addict leaves your home. My son is still part of my life and I still witness the damage he is doing to himself even though on a far lesser scale now since I no longer witness it 24/7. I had to live with the fallout of the damage he helped create and also his addiction left us damaged. I do not think I am feeling all the symptoms of this so called compassion fatigue any longer, but I certainly think I did when my son lived at home.

Whether you are a professional or not, living with someone like an addict does take it's toll and we need to remember we are not to blame and that we deserve and need to look after ourselves as well! So as hard as it is people in the throes of trying to make their life seem normal and then dealing with all the manipulation and fear the addict puts on us, we have to try to find some way to help ourselves. Take time out for yourself, go for a walk, take a nap go to a support group, find something that works for you. I have learned that, and I have learned that we all deserve happiness and peace and that we can not control the addict we love and their choices; however,  we can make our own choices to live a happier and healthier life. It is not easy, that I know, after years of my son's growing addiction I finally made the choice that the rest of the family was suffering too much and I had to think of the future of my daughters. I made the choice to tell my son to move out, that was nearly 10 months ago, and we are still adjusting and dealing and suffering to some extent, but it is slowly getting better. I refuse to give up on him though, and I will try my best to maintain a healthier home while still supporting my son in any positive choices towards recovery that he may one day make on his own.