Taking care of people can be draining at any time of year. But anyone in the caregiving field knows how particularly difficult the holidays can be. It is a time of year that brings back memories good and bad, it highlights the areas of our lives that we feel may be lacking, it digs up old grief wounds, and makes fresh ones more difficult to bear. Yet in our roles as caregivers we must put "our stuff" aside for the interest of our clients. And better yet, we aren't just asked to put our stuff to the side, but we are asked to take on our clients "stuff." We are asked to sit with them as they experience their own struggles, to be empathetic and genuine in our concern, to check our stuff at the door so that we can be emotionally regulated while we are caring for someone else.
Easier said than done, right? Especially when the difficulties we see our clients going through begins to weigh even heavier on us than our own lives. Anyone working with children in congregate care such as residential treatment centers, detention, foster care or group home settings are painfully aware of the difficulties that this time of year brings about for our kids. All of a sudden the most high functioning of your kids has a giant meltdown, or the girl that finally was going home for her first Christmas in years ends up in the hospital for a psych evaluation and can't go home. It can make you start to question your effectiveness as a caregiver, or the effectiveness of the program you work in. It can start to bring about the despair that comes from witnessing the hopelessness in our kids eyes during the holidays.
To sit with our kids through some of the most intense feelings they will experience takes a toll on us. And the better we are as caregivers, the more empathy and the deeper the connections we have with our clients, thus the greater the toll can be. This "toll" that I am talking about is called vicarious traumatization, and man the holidays are prime time for it!
As I witnessed the struggles that the group home kids were faced with over the past month, I began to feel a sense of something like survivor's guilt. I found myself feeling less enthusiastic about my own holiday plans. Why do I deserve to have a great holiday when these kids are stuck in detention or hospitals or residential treatment centers? I began dreading the fact that I would have to interact with over 50 of my closest family members on Christmas Eve, and the fact that my birthday is December 20th and people were going to give me presents. I had thoughts like, "Give me presents? When there are kids that don't even get to see their family on Christmas? I want nothing to do with presents!
Instead of focusing on how thankful I am to have such a wonderful family, and how much fun Christmas Eve always is, I began feeling guilty. I started dreading the parties and the interactions to come, because all I felt like talking about was how stressful work has been, and how terribly I am feeling for the kids. I couldn't handle the thought of one person coming up to me and talking about their problems with me.The thought of my cousin picking my brain for advice on raising teenage girls made my skin crawl. And most of all I dreaded answering the question "So, how's work going?"
But in hindsight I couldn't have been more off base with my assumptions about what I needed. My lesson of the 2010 holiday season was that ultimately the things that I was dreading because of my vicarious traumatization, were exactly what I needed to experience to pull myself out of this holiday funk. Being with family, laughing together, and making great new memories was rejuvenating and actually played a big part in my self care over these last couple of weeks.
To take time to spend with the family you are fortunate to have, the friends that will support you through difficult times, to share meals and laughs, these are the necessary things to surround ourselves with so that we can be rejuvenated, reminded of our roots and life's purpose, and to ultimately reinforce our decision to be caregivers. The major thing that I have noticed about vicarious traumatization in the past weeks is that often the very thing that I am dreading or avoiding, might be just the thing that I need to push myself to do in order to reignite compassion and emotional balance in my life.
So here's to all of the congregate care workers out there, especially the direct line staff who sit with the kids day in and day out through one of the most difficult and painful times of the year. Don't forget to nurture the connections in your life even if it means pushing yourself to do it, and to take some time for yourself when you need it. You couldn't be doing more thankless and important work!