QUESTION: I have spent the last 10 years caring for my mother and two aunts. All three have now passed on and I’m alone. I am completely exhausted, feeling depleted and maybe even a little depressed. While I was caring for them, I felt needed and that my life had purpose. Now, I feel nothing. I feel as if there is nothing worthwhile ahead of me. I have now gone back to work as a nurse, but I find I’m not getting any satisfaction from my work. I did for many years before I became a full-time caregiver. I would like to do something to help myself, but I look in the mirror and just feel so defeated. Do you have any suggestions for me? I don’t even know where to start.—Phyllis
ANSWER: It is not surprising you are feeling exhausted and depleted. Without a doubt, you are exhibiting the symptoms of compassion fatigue. By no means is your life over, and I feel positive that you have many years of happiness ahead. But you need to rebuild your life starting from Square One. There is a system that can help people suffering with compassion fatigue get started and motivated to find healing. It’s called “Do One Thing”—the DOT system. Studies have shown if we try to make too many changes too quickly, our success rate is around 53 percent. If we “Do One Thing,” our success rate jumps to 93 percent. It is your choice as to what you would like to tackle first. It won’t hurt to actually create a Self-Help Plan on a spreadsheet. This idea will allow you to focus on what you choose to work on, but then look ahead and dream of your successful future. If you need a roadmap to get you started, please check out the Standards of Self Care which can be found on the Green Cross Academy of Traumatology website. The Green Cross Academy of Traumatology was initially organized by Dr. Charles Figley, the world’s leading traumatologist, to serve a need in Oklahoma City following the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The Academy’s mission is to deploy helpers in times of crisis and trauma to aid “victims” become “survivors.” They offer the Standards of Self Care along with many excellent materials and services. The Academy believes every caregiver has a universal right to wellness. They list physical rest and nourishment at the top of their list, followed by emotional rest and spiritual renewal. This seems like the perfect place for you to begin your healing journey. Physical rest will relieve the depletion you are feeling. Once significant time has passed and you feel your energy level rising and your outlook improving, you can move on to Step Two—nourishment. Nutritious meals full of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains will help to restore your vitality and replace nutrients lost in your caregiving work and most likely your grieving process. The good news is there is so much help available to all of us as we strive to create healthy lifestyles. With the Internet, myriad apps, magazine articles and even community classes, we can reach out and secure the support we need to meet with success. In order to reach maximum health, we must integrate all three elements of our humanness: body, mind and spirit. So as you create your new lifestyle, be sure to include work in all three areas. If you continue to feel exhausted and depleted, visit your physician or a mental health professional. You may need additional help to move you forward – one step at a time.
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Patricia Smith is a certified Compassion Fatigue Specialist with 20 years of training experience. As founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project© (www.compassionfatigue.org), the outreach division of Healthy Caregiving, LLC, she writes, speaks and facilities workshops nationwide in service of those who care for others. She has authored several books including To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving, which is available at www.healthycaregiving.com or Amazon.com.