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Compassion fatigue: how far can you go without burning out?

On May 28, 2018

Compassion fatigue is defined as a deep emotional and physical erosion that takes place when people providing care are no longer able to reinvigorate and refresh themselves. Madeleine Fortier the author, tells us her story.


This month, Madeleine Fortier tells us her story and explains what led her to write her book and develop workshops to raise the awareness of caregivers and support workers about compassion fatigue and to help them protect themselves. 

In 25 years of sharing my life with my spouse, I had been a caregiver for nearly 12 of them. My husband was first diagnosed with cardiomyopathy the same year our second child was born; four years later, he had to undergo a heart transplant. And then he was diagnosed with lung cancer and deteriorated quickly until he died in 2003.

Throughout this time, I was looking after our two children and the business we had started, in addition to going to multiple doctor’s appointments and being there through hospital stays. And then there is all the daily life stuff that needs to be organized, and you don’t have time to think about yourself!

Once the cancer diagnosis was made, everything was fast, suspended in time and very intense at the same time.

When my 12-year-old son asked me: “Mom, is dad going to die?” I didn’t know what to say. Or how to respond. Death was not something I was considering, that I wanted to think about. I was hiding from it. I was in the action, so I didn't have to think. Running everywhere, looking after everything. I was running on adrenaline, full steam ahead.

At the time, I didn't know that I was a caregiver, I didn’t even know that word. I was content to live day to day, without knowing much about what was ahead of me, without thinking about tomorrow.

 
I took on my role as a caregiver without knowing it, in a completely natural way. It was clear to me that I had to support my husband through his illness. I had to look after him, period. Never did I ask myself whether or not I was capable of getting through it! 

But, it is an extremely exhausting role. And when the other person needs us less or is simply no longer there, that's when it becomes dangerous. It was after my husband’s death that I fell to pieces, literally, in every sense of the word. There was simply nothing that could sooth my pain. That lasted a long time. I was worn out from years and years as a caregiver.

Afterwards, I slowly rebuilt myself. I took my life back, I started a new business. I even worked in an employability agency.       

I took on my role as a caregiver without knowing it, in a completely natural way. It was clear to me that I had to support my husband through his illness. I had to look after him, period. Never did I ask myself whether or not I was capable of getting through it!  

There, however, for the first time in my life, I found myself with a client base that was very far from the job market. I was working hard, but not achieving the desired results. I wanted more than my clients! I started to develop a strong feeling of helplessness and experience behaviour changes - irritability, anger, sadness and various physical ailments.

At the same time, I had taken training in mental health, to better understand and help some of my clients. When conducting research on the connections between work and mental health, I discovered articles on compassion fatigue. And that's when I understood what I was experiencing and what I had experienced before, as a caregiver.

I understood that compassion fatigue is this extreme exhaustion, psychological, physical and emotional that I had experienced as a caregiver and that I was in the process of re-experiencing as a counsellor. Compassion fatigue comes from the desire to take someone else’s suffering on yourself; it is a sympathy, an identification that can occur when we are very committed to our caregiving role.

I also realized that very little was being said about compassion fatigue at the time. So, I created specific workshops for caregivers, volunteers and support workers, to raise their awareness about compassion fatigue and to help them protect themselves.

The people I trained, as well as 19 support workers, caregivers and volunteers that I interviewed, provided me with very interesting stories that I wanted to share with as many people as possible.

I believe that compassion fatigue is something that plagues us all, from the moment we help others, whether personally or professionally, and we are totally committed.

 
 

For more information on the book [in French] and how to get your copy, visit https://www.accent-carriere.com/usure-de-compassion-jusqu-ou-aller-sans-se-bruler.html

The book was launched in Sherbrooke (May 8) and Montréal (May 26). It will also be launched in Saint-Jérôme (June 9) and Saint-Hubert (June 13).  

To find out more about talks and workshops on compassion fatigue for caregivers, volunteers and support workers [in French], visit https://www.accent-carriere.com/formations-sur-mesure-pour-entreprises-et-organismes/usure-de-compassion-jusqu-ou-aller-sans-se-bruler.html