When Compassion Casts a Shadow – The Dark Side of Caring (blog 3 of 3)

In the first blog of this series, I wrote about what compassion fatigue is and the factors that make caring industries at risk for compassion fatigue.  You can read that blog here: https://auraecoaching.ca/2017/11/13/when-compassion-casts-a-shadow-the-dark-side-of-caring-blog-1-of-3/

In the second blog of this series, I discussed how compassion fatigue can progress into abuse and cruelty, as well as briefly defined the difference between the two. You can read that blog here: https://auraecoaching.ca/2017/11/18/when-compassion-casts-a-shadow-the-dark-side-of-caring-blog-2-of-3/

This, the third and final blog of this series is about how my own personal and professional experiences helped erode my compassion to the point where I was capable of abuse and cruelty.

 ** YOU DO NOT need to read the articles below, as some of the information can be considered disturbing.  The articles are only to show a single example of the cruelty that can be found within various care industries.

June 1 2017 – Ontario Vet Caught on Video Faces 16 Criminal Charges of Animal Cruelty: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/rekhi-vet-charged-1.4141433

November 6 2017 – Animal Cruelty Charges Dropped for Ontario Veterinarian: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/veterinarian-animal-cruelty-1.4389080

I would like to be completely clear: I am not EXCUSING this type of behaviour. People who feel no remorse when they mistreat, abuse, neglect, violate or even kill (as in veterinary medicine) those they are professionally delegated to look after should not continue in their profession without seeking professional help. People who enjoy this type of behaviour should NEVER work in ANY care industry. EVER. If someone has broken the law, they should be held completely responsible under the law.

This is why I understand how some people are capable of cruelty in the caring industries

I love animals, I always have.  My entire life has centered around animals, from animal welfare and rescue to dreams of being a veterinary professional since elementary.  I was the child who would bring home injured mice to nurse back to health.

I went to college so I could become a registered veterinary technician (RVT) to help animals.  The college I attended used live animals to learn with.  The tasks were always performed under the legal usage of animals set out by law and were as humane as possible.  Some of our experiments ended with euthanasia.  I did what needed to be done to finish my studies.  Sometimes it was emotional, but more often the things we did were very interesting.  It was not for the faint of heart however.

I was able to get a permanent full-time job even before I was completed college, as the turnover for veterinary technicians is high.  This wasn’t surprising to us; we were told on the first day of college that most technicians leave the profession after 5 years.  As an RVT working with small animals (not livestock), I had to hold animals down while they screamed and flailed in panic.  I have injected them with drugs I knew “stung a little”.  Blood, feces, vomit, urine, pus – when is lunch?  I have had animals try to injure me because they were fighting for their life.  I was causing pain to animals in order to help them, but I couldn’t tell them that.  I have helped euthanize animals that could have been treated successfully.  I was someone who had to make the decision to have animals euthanized when I worked in animal welfare.

I have worked without breaks, food, vacations and adequate pay.  None of the companies I worked had a Human Resources department, or even a trained HR person.  I have never had access to an EAP, and some of the smaller companies didn’t even have medical benefits.  There was blatant workplace bullying, but no one addressed it.  No one openly admitted they actually HAD compassion fatigue.  I had one co-worker addicted to Rx drugs, and another co-worker try to end their life.

When I started my career I was very emotional. I was saddened by how I had to treat animals in order to help them. I started this career to help, but it felt like I was constantly causing harm. The end justifies the means though, right?  I was also frustrated and disgruntled and felt helpless at the seeming lack of employee welfare in the companies I worked for.

All of that has taken a toll on me. 

I am telling you from experience that people CAN AND DO dissociate from their emotions in emotionally distressing situations.  It is a coping mechanism to allow us to continue on and survive.  I honestly believe this is what enables many people in care industries (and military, police, animal food production) to continue their work long term.  I became good at dissociation myself, but over time I could no longer turn the emotions back on.

woman

As an emotionless person working in an emotional field, everything became irritating.  I had been diagnosed with depression.  I had no compassion for the client who was upset over their bill because they honestly didn’t have any money. I thought they just shouldn’t have animals if they didn’t have the money to take care of them to the standards I felt were acceptable.  I hated hearing the barking of dogs so much that I would throw small objects at their cages to scare them, which would interrupt their cries temporarily.  I didn’t care if that cat was completely terrified and didn’t want an injection, it had to be done.  I thought “Fear Free restraint” was unsafe and more importantly a waste of time.  I would actually be frustrated when animals behaved in a way that made my job more difficult and time consuming than it already was.  I had become cruel and I didn’t even notice. In fact, I don’t think anyone noticed.

I am not sure I can adequately explain how someone can continue to care FOR a person or animal without caring ABOUT them, but that is what compassion fatigue feels like in the end stages.  You provide care because it is your job.  You still know it’s the right thing to do, but you aren’t concerned about the level of care you are providing.  Does that make sense?

Thankfully, I experienced what I call “hyper compassion”.  Again, this is my own term and I am not sure if it is documented.  I believe it is the result of no longer being able to dissociate from the emotions and it is the last ditch effort to signal there is a real problem. You see, emotions have a purpose.  Emotions are the mind’s way to communicate to the body there is a potential safety issue.  Emotions actually help keep us safe, both physically and psychologically.

During hyper compassion, the procedure of euthanasia became unbearable.  I could “feel” the fear, pain and anguish of the animals I was working with.  I saw emotion in people’s faces, and it hurt me deeply.  I had horrible constant neck pain and was prescribed FOUR medications for my mental health and physical health issues.  I went on stress leave in March 2017.  After that, I stopped working in veterinary medicine.

Care industries are the MOST essential careers in society.  I am going out on a limb to say that without education, recognition and assistance on the topic of compassion fatigue, caregivers and those they care for are at risk.  Cruelty in the care industries is more common than anyone will ever admit, and it is more often the result of long term personal emotional distress and personal emotional neglect than true enjoyment of performing cruel acts on others.

I think back on my behaviour and feelings towards patients and clients feel immense guilt and shame.  I need to be clear, everything I did as a part of my job was LEGAL.  I did not break the law.  I NEVER found enjoyment from harming or killing animals.  I did not participate in torture, EVER.  That doesn’t mean I wasn’t cruel though.  I have done things that many people will never be able to stomach or understand for no other reason than because it was my job.

It took some time, but I have learned how to accept my past and how to care of myself emotionally.  I have learned to forgive my behaviour and have regained tremendous amounts of compassion for both animals and people.  I vow to never allow myself to become such a negative product of my environment again. 

 I also started a company, Aurae Wellness Coaching, to help others in the caring industries take care of themselves emotionally too.  I am proof that recovery from extreme compassion fatigue is possible, and I hope to enable others to remain in their careers long term, although that was not possible for myself.

Trust me, I understand.

If you are concerned about compassion fatigue or have questions about how to prolong a caring career in a healthy manner, please contact us.  Aurae Wellness Coaching also helps with bullying issues.  If you are aware of behaviour that is dangerous to yourself or others, please contact a mental health professional immediately.  If you have or know someone who may have broken the law, the first step to recovery is to contact law enforcement and accept there are legal consequences to those actions. 

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