Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Helper's Curse

This will not come as a shock to the many people I know who are also in “helping” professions, but I’m not sure the rest of the general public are as aware…There are times when you can become SO drained, SO exhausted, and SO unable to find the right words anymore that you literally feel as though you are a huge pitcher that once was brimming over with fresh water, but now has been sucked completely dry. Despite this, you keep shaking yourself upside down, yearning to find the last DROP you have left available, the last reserve.

In my family, I was the “fixer”. Any kind of conflict that I had any control over, (which in reality, was NONE), I would try to be the listener, the mediator, the peacemaker. The outcomes of these efforts were rarely what I was aiming for, yet I persisted. As a matter of fact, this trait has carried on with my family of origin, into my 40’s now. Evidently, I’m a very slow learner as the majority of these efforts have proven to be futile. However, this trait also carried over to my friendships, my major in college and grad school, and ultimately, my profession as a school psychologist.

So firstly…the profession. I love my job, and I am convinced that I am doing exactly what God wants me to do. Yet, in my 14th year, I find myself running out of steam. I have no idea if it’s the length of time I’ve done this, the economy, the dismal budget cuts to our school districts and our entire state, the stories becoming more horrifying, or the pitcher simply being empty. The demands are endless. I’d be lying if I said I was never thanked, as a matter of fact, I’ve been thanked quite a bit, by grateful teachers and parents. I’ve gotten thank you cards. I’ve even gotten GIFT cards. This year, I’m helping to mentor new psychologists, and truth be told, I am loving every minute of it. To know that I’m helping to reduce their stress, giving them perspective, and helping them to grow as professionals is incredibly rewarding. Plus, they’re just a group of fabulous people I feel honored to have gotten to know. One of them keeps sending me cards to thank me, the last one had a Hershey bar in it. It’s hard for me to accept thanks…in fact, I gave her hard time about the last card. I believe my words were, “Stop sending me cards, you dork!” (We’ve also become friends). But in those moments, every bit of my heart I pour into this job is worth it.

Then…there are the other times. There are times when kids tell me stories of life in their homes that are SO horrifying it would make your hair curl. Incredibly cruel, heartless words that parents (and some teachers, although thankfully rarely) say to children as young as 5. Children who are told they are worthless, children exposed to porn, children who are told they were mistakes and should have never been born. There’s only a certain amount of information we can report to CPS, and even when we do, action is rarely taken. This isn’t always their fault…they too are subject to insane budget cuts and are criminally understaffed. Then there’s the physical and sexual abuse. Even when the information doesn’t come directly from the child, and I’m simply reading someone else’s report, lately I’ve had to stop reading some of them. I can remember cases in which I was 100% positive abuse was happening, I had ample evidence. They visited the home, the child became scared, and recanted and said he made the whole thing up. The case was closed, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. Then there are the kids caught between their parents in dreadful divorces and custody battles, the ugliness of which can truly be astounding. What is worse than seeing a child in pain, any kind of pain? And it’s my job.

Then there are the times when I’m not thanked by the adults I work with, but am yelled at instead, or talked about behind my back, as in, “She doesn’t do ANYTHING.” As if the other days of the week when I’m at my other two schools, I’m actually at a spa. Teachers (again, thankfully few) have been downright hostile when results from an assessment didn’t turn out the way they wanted. Parents have stood up and left a meeting out of pure anger and frustration. I’ve had parents curse me out. I've had numerous parents, whose children's only problem is they drew the short straw and got crappy parents.  Yet it's always someone else's fault, the teacher's, the school's, the principal's, mine.  I've had a mother tell me regarding her unruly daughter's behavior, "She's your problem during the day, you deal with it." I’ve had to sit in meetings with my colleagues for hours upon hours, during which it becomes painfully clear that the parent is not playing with a full deck, yet holds all the cards legally. It’s like being held hostage.

Then there are the other parents, the ones who stayed together and did everything right.  It's my job to identify disabilities in order for children to receive special education.  So I am the one who gets to tell a parent for the first time that their child is Autistic, or Emotionally Disturbed, or Mentally Retarded.  I've gotten a lot of practice and I'm good at it.  I don't use a lot of technical language or jargon, and try to talk to them as a peer.  However, no matter how I spin it, I'm telling them something is wrong with their baby.  And to watch as my news makes a parent cry, as a parent, it hurts my soul every single time.  I've seen people in my profession become cold and apathetic and I understand why it happens. But I've told myself, the second this stops affecting me emotionally is the day I need to do something else for a living.

I come home to my own beautiful family at the end of the day, and the remainder of the day and evening are rejuvenating and relaxing. This is where the wine would come in, but I don’t drink. Ahhhhh, home!! Yeah, not quite. Our kids have after school activities, homework that needs correcting, laundry that needs to be folded, fights that need to be broken up. This is normal, I accept this. But when you’ve been virtually emptied during the day, there are times mustering up the energy to be fully present for my OWN children is an honest challenge. But I do it, and I do it because they deserve it, and I won’t cheat them out of my attention because a bunch of stranger’s children have received the lion’s share. I won’t do it. No one will ever be more important than they are.

Then there’s my personal life. Obviously it’s wise to spend some time with my spouse, lest he begin to feel neglected, and we’re the glue that holds our family together, and he’s my best friend. Then there are my other friends, and I’m blessed with many. But they also have major things going on in their lives, and as the fixer, I’m available again, to listen, to pray, to be there. I wouldn’t change that, I love them. It’s more time though, more out of the pitcher. I have so many people, friends from childhood and college, family members, and friends from my church rattling around in my head at any given time that it becomes dizzying. My prayers rarely stop…illnesses, divorces, deaths of parents, difficult relationships, joblessness, and foreclosures…good grief. I will continue my prayers and my care though, because it’s who I am. Do I care for myself in the same manner? Of course not! Everyone else comes first, I don’t eat as well as I should, I don’t exercise, I don’t have a lot of time to myself for yoga, or quiet prayer, or meditation. I have friends who wake up at 5am for this purpose and I admire them. It’ll never happen with me, sleep is the thing I savor the most these days. How sad is that??

So, am I spread thin? That’s putting it mildly. Am I alone? Absolutely not. To my friends who will be reading this, please remember those of us who pour our hearts out every single day in our professions. The pastors, the teachers, the counselors, the psychologists, the social workers, the doctors, the nurses, the list goes on and on. Our pitchers are often bone dry, and great weariness and fatigue can set in easily. Set aside some time to thank someone, or include them in your prayers. We need them!!