“If I thought I could help you,” Dumbledore said gently, “by putting you into an enchanted sleep and allowing you to postpone the moment when you would have to think about what has happened tonight, I would do it. But I know better. Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it. You have shown bravery beyond anything I could have expected of you. I ask you to demonstrate your courage one more time. I ask you to tell us what happened.” – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, at 695 (Arthur A. Levine Books 2000).
Coming Full Circle
Months ago, one of my former colleagues at the public defender office asked if I’d be willing to give a presentation on compassion fatigue and burnout for the annual seminar in June 2018. I happily said yes. It felt like coming full circle – speaking about what had driven me from the career I loved and being of service to people I once worked with. I’d given a webinar on the same material earlier this year, so I revised it for my in-person presentation and submitted my materials in advance. I practiced what I was going to say. I looked forward to seeing my old coworkers and teaching a yoga class after the presentation. It was going to be amazing!
Then I got sick. I woke up Monday morning feeling a little dizzy. Later, the dizziness worsened, and I felt nauseous and sweaty. I kneeled in the bathroom with my head in the toilet as my dog Charlotte stuck her head in too, to make sure I was alright. Such a sweetheart!
I rarely get sick, by the way. The last time I vomited was over a decade ago in the throes of a wretched case of food poisoning. I kept telling myself on Monday, “This can’t be happening. I will feel better tomorrow for sure!”
I didn’t get better in time to give my presentation. Tuesday morning I was no longer nauseous but still dizzy and broke out in a sweat when I stood for very long. I contacted the seminar organizer to ask, “How weird would it be for me to give this presentation while lying on a yoga mat?? I feel just fine when I’m lying down.” As a wee bit more rational alternative, I asked if she could replay the webinar I gave in February instead. Just in case. But I was still hopeful I could make it. We agreed I’d let her know by noon.
Around 11:00 I took a shower, all the while talking myself into going to the presentation. It was only an hour, I could do it. No problem! Maybe just lean on the podium. Or have a chair nearby.
Meanwhile, the small voice inside was reminding me of the promise I made to myself when I left my job two and a half years ago: I will not sacrifice my own well-being for my work ever again. My presentation was all about how to take care of yourself to avoid compassion fatigue and burnout. Would my message really land if I stood up there in poor health to tell it?
I got out of the shower and the thought of putting on makeup, decent clothing, and driving there were too much. I sent my deepest apologies. The replay went fine and they found another yoga teacher.
I was so disappointed, but I busied myself with a nap and eating the excellent Vietnamese version of chicken and noodle soup my friend Jill delivered. Then I watched another movie – man, I was sick of movies and naps by this point – because reading made me dizzy. On Wednesday I felt much better and busied myself with work that I hadn’t been able to do for two days.
Stop Numbing Yourself
I took a little break late Wednesday morning and told myself it was time to stop numbing. It was time to feel the disappointment I had been avoiding. I cried bitterly for a few minutes as my dog Finnigan licked my face and Charlotte looked on worriedly. Then I felt better.
All this leads up to my point: stop numbing. This is one of the suggestions in my presentation, but it goes for all of us, not just those working with traumatized people and traumatic material.
We numb ourselves in a variety of ways, such as through work (still an acceptable addiction in the U.S.!), shopping, food, alcohol, social media, binge watching TV, sex. You name it. Allow yourself to feel your feelings now or face the dis-ease and illness your unfelt feelings will morph into. Some feelings may be too much to experience on your own, so I advise you to seek out a professional.
For years I had no idea I was numbing myself, mostly with food and fiction, my two favs. I had patterns I wasn’t even aware of. When I was a public defender I came back to the office for lunch one day while I was in trial; one of my coworkers said, “Rach must be in trial, she’s got Burger King!” I was in trial. I often took my lunch to work, but the stress and demands of trial always made me crave salty fast food. Sometimes when I’m stressed I still choose junk food, but now that I’m aware of the pattern it has become a choice, though not a wise one. Awareness is the first step.
I have no idea what’s next. I felt like so many things were building up to the point of this presentation, only to feel let down. But the two important things, as I write this post the day after my disappointment, is that I made a different choice by choosing self-care over self-sacrifice, and that I’m allowing myself to feel the pain. I hope you’ll make a different choice, too.
Questions for reflection: What do you do to avoid feeling a strong emotion? How could you make a different choice?
©2018 Rachel Regenold