Part 2- The 3 Things I Did To Survive.
This article is the second part on Compassion Fatigue. Last week I talked on what compassion fatigue is and about how I found myself affected by it. You can read it here.
In this part I want to concentrate on the 3 things that I did to to cope with compassion fatigue and come out the other side.
Did you get any help?
Short answer is…. No. The long answer is that I don’t think they knew how to help, but I was very fortunate to find a way to help myself.
On the surface fostering services have the boxes ticked for opportunities to connect with other carers but usually they are just venting sessions. When in conversations with other carers it was like watching tennis. One person shares their story and then another shares theirs and it goes back and forth and usually turns in to a battle of whose life is worse. You don’t often hear the words, ‘try this.’
These events or meets often left me more stressed and annoyed so in the end I felt it caused more damage than it helped. I have heard that fostering agencies are doing a lot to combat this! I have a lot of respect for that.
When the yearly fostering training manual arrived I saw ‘Compassion Fatigue Training’ across the page and I was relieved. I was determined to get there and I thought to myself, ‘Finally help has arrived.’
Unfortunately the training wasn’t fostering focused and instead of a day of revelations, it was a day’s worth of training about how important it was to have time by yourself, spend money in fancy hotels, get out with the girls and have that long bath.
This was not helpful for the following reasons;
> I was a person who had kids all the time and who couldn’t get respite because foster carers were as rare as a dry day in rainy season.
> I was almost friendless because my friends said the kids personalities where too ‘energetic’ which meant I didn’t meet up often with the relationships I had remaining to protect the little I had.
> I wondered if I had forgotten how to spell hotel seeing as it had been so long since having to use the word and looked at the price of rooms and then counted how many pairs of shoes I could get with that money.
> I was a person who was lucky to get a shower let alone a bath.
It was laughable! Foster carers don’t get the time or have the resources to do all that!
I remember sitting in my chair feeling my face getting hotter and hotter as panic filled my body. I would have to return home with no plan. I can tell you, car-e-oke took a sad song turn on the drive home.
When I arrived at my house and opened my front door and I immediately had little arms thrown around me. I also was greeted by my teenager with a, let’s say, ‘loving grunt.’ I knew then that I had to figure out a way to make it through. I was committed to the kids. I knew the long term plans for them and I was determined to make it to the finish line.
So what did you do?
I knew asking other carers wouldn’t get me the answers I needed. Even asking to be put in touch with someone specifically that I could ask for advice wasn't practical for data protection reasons. Plus I couldn’t ask social services because they organised the pointless training and everything about my relationship with them was about not annoying them.
Therefore I researched trauma amongst carers and decided to become aware of my triggers and look at ways I could better my environment.
It turned out my needs were basic.
1. Eating Dinner
When it came to meal times I was faced with the reality that my food would be cold by the time I got round to it. I would also tend to hurry my meals and I ended up not enjoying food so I would rely on junk food which brought a little bit of joy.
What I did to help was extremely unconventional. I chose not to eat at family meal times. Now that doesn’t mean I was sitting under the stairs nibbling chocolate. I sat with the family, still dealing with the ‘I can’t get that on the fork’ issues and the odd food fight that would break out because someone eyeballed the other. I would choose to wait until I found a time that would give me a bit of space.
It turned out having a warm meal after everyone else was taken care of made a difference for me. Each time I would develop this habit, by body would feel satisfied and my mood would shift. Did the snacking stop? No, come on! I love chocolate too much. But having that time uninterrupted without someone else’s fingers in my food was nice.
2. The House
My house was clean but there was loads of stuff. Turns out not having your drawers full and your counters and work surfaces covered in things, all of which of course you need, can help reduce stress and anxiety!
The house did take time to organise but once I got started I gained momentum. It took about 7 months to get through the entire home. My possessions would often have ‘babies’ where drawers would fill up again and over flow on to the counters, so I took action and made time for clearing consistently. Sometimes I was more consistent than others but we do what we can with the time we have available.
There are loads of systems out there but it was too much pressure when your plans could be changed last minute by fostering, therefore I would do a drawer at a time or, when I got a chance, a sideboard. It made the difference to my mood and it shortened my cleaning time which was a major win.
I remember being around groups of other mums and I would be jealous. I am not proud of this but it’s the truth. It wasn’t because of their nice cars, or there nice clothes. It was because they were clean. That might sound a bit strange but, I don’t think I am the only one who would get emotional when they see women that have the time to prioritise getting presentable. As I always had a stain on my clothes, I used to make the joke that if I wasn’t covered in something then I had obviously lost the kids. But all joking aside, it really upset me.
Back then I struggled to recall when my last shower was or when in public I would be distracted wondering if I had gotten all the cereal out of my hair from this morning’s wrestle mania at breakfast.
Reality was that I was going to have messy hands, messy faces, food and suspicious fluids flying at me in all directions so I had to decide to concentrate on what I could control. I wore multiple layers so I could remove one when something happened and I guaranteed myself a shower. Every night, no matter what time, I would force myself to get a shower even if it sacrificed sleep.
Sleep was pretty high up on the list too but I found when I had my shower I slept better, I felt better and my mood lightened so getting washed won.
My hairstyle was still not perfect, my makeup was still smeared from the hugs and kisses and my dressing style still had people questioning if I was wearing pyjamas but giving myself priority to get showered made the difference.
What I have learnt…
Sometimes when we are looking after our families whether they are fostered, adopted or you grew them yourself; we can forget that we are part of the family too and set aside what you need to thrive. Therefore the same commitment we have to meeting our family's needs, we should also have to ourselves.
I learnt that when I was doing well the kids did well and although the things I did for myself were basic they made a difference. I learnt to keep things simple and not put pressure on myself to do it all.
Compassion fatigue is a heavy experience but like everything, when you take the right actions, it can last for just a season and then leave you a little wiser.
If you are someone who thinks they are suffering from compassion fatigue and are struggling to find a way to better your situation I would recommend professional support through counselling or a trusted individual.
If you can’t afford counselling or it isn’t accessible to you, there are groups on social media platforms where foster carers link in with each other. Fostering Network also have a helpline for those that foster in the UK and you can find out about that here.
The helplines are regional so they can be clued in to your cultural and societal structures. I know this has become significantly important for those in Northern Ireland. There is also a stress helpline which has good reviews.
I am also happy for you to share your story with me if that’s an option you would like to consider, although I am not a counsellor, but I am a friendly ear.
Please note that this is my story and is personal to me and the contents is my own opinion based on my experiences. I am happy to answer any of your questions and I hope my story brings encouragement.
If you would like to share your story or contact me please feel free to private message me on our Facebook page, or on Instagram. You can also email me using email@example.com address. Be sure to check out our next article here on 'The Encouragers Life.'
Article written by Jacqueline Bingham