Who hugs the Hugger? Thank you very much. I’m just fine! I’m just fine.

Can you feel the tension of my opening remarks: Who hugs the Hugger? Thank you very much. I’m just fine. Just fine!” I call this the Dance of Caregiving, a dance between one’s soul screaming for attention, and the cultural and social taboos of American rugged individualism. No attachments just have to kiss my horse and ride off into the sunset, alone.

Just fine. I’m just fine, something I heard recently repeated by a group of medical first responders. Fine, just fine they said: F. I. N. E. FINE which really means “F”ed up, Insecure, Needy, and Emotional. Thank you very much, I’m just fine.

Caregivers are notorious to move from one situation to another, ever vigilant to another’s needs, always on the alert, and too busy to stop for a moment, just for a moment to debrief, to reflect, and to listen to what is buried within. Just doing my job, Mame. Just doing my job.

Why is it so hard for caregivers to stop and to pause, and to listen to their normal human responses to traumatic events? Caregivers are human too, people with feelings, feelings that need to be addressed and heard. So we go back to F. I. N. E. It’s not that caregivers don’t feel, rather who will listen to what they have experienced. Who will stop long enough, that is create the space and the time, so the caregiver experience being heard? Caregivers often ask “Who will be there for me? Who is there to hug the hugger?

I know this feeling of desperation and abandonment. I had learned early, growing up in an alcoholic dependent family, three rules that were seared into my consciousness. Rule # 1. Don’t talk, for if I did, I would talk about my experiences at home and, God forbid, keep these secrets so as not to rock the boat. Rule #2. Don’t feel. I learned from early childhood that children were to be seen and not heard. Anyway my feelings were so mixed up because of my lack of expressing them. I wondered if they could they ever be unraveled? If I was able to sort them out, I guess it would be like a time bomb, filled with a variety of emotions, ready to explode. Feelings buried to such an extent that one may feel numb. Numb because like a ball of woven yard, where does one begin to unravel. Which leads us to Rule #3. Don’t trust. Trusting is dangerous, hurt too many times in being let down, always vigilant waiting for another shoe to drop. So it’s difficult to trust and I have learned what’s the use. Will there ever be a constant in my life? So I, along with many caregivers I know, learn not to trust. I’m just fine. F.I.N.E. F’ed up, Insure, Needy, and Emotional.

Tears for Spaghetti Sauce

I was just fine, until that morning while making spaghetti sauce for a group of caregivers, I broke down. Tears streamed down my cheeks to such an extent that is seemed I was adding extra water into the sauce. I call it “Tears for Spaghetti Sauce.” I bent over in anguish. Here I was the co-director of this retreat day. I had had enough. I could not go on. I had to leave, and I did. I informed my co-director to take over. Soul has its way of being heard whether we allow it or not. The inner being of who we are is stronger than the pain or emotions we are feeling. I call this our soul. Caregivers experience compassion fatigue because we care. That simple. And because we care, who hugs the hugger?

It’s not that our soul remains silent. There are warning signs. I knew I needed help, I felt the ache of my soul pain but it was buried under patterns of denial, fears, and unfilled dreams. If only I could try harder. How often do caregiver chant this mantra? Just get on with it. But I couldn’t.

While the first step in seeking recovery is acknowledging one’s pain, the second step in building what Erick Gantry calls “compassion resilience” is to find some one you can share your story. Someone who is compassionate, someone who will listen. Not give advice, just listen. And I did find someone. His name was Leo, a psychotherapist, a man of integrity, one I had known and one that I could trust. He gave me a name to what I was experiencing, Burnout! Burnout, a new word, yet it captured exactly what I was feeling. I was exhausted, had been extremely dedicated to a cause of a non-profit, was a workaholic whose way of life no longer made sense, felt betrayed by those leaders who were my partners, and what I expected to happen, just did not. My experience sums up the classical definition of burnout as described by Christina Maslach in Burnout the Cost of Caring: “Burnout is a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, or way of life, or to a particular relationship that fails to produce expected outcomes.”

Leo, listened, and after a month of visiting him three times a week, imagine such a luxury as he knew I needed to hold onto something bigger than myself. I asked him, “on a scale between one and ten, where do you place me on this continuum of burnout.” His response “between 8 and 9, and I consider 10 to be irreversible.” I remember feeling both the freedom of his response as well as the horror of what this meant. For too long, I did not listen to the warning signs that affected me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Reflecting, I responded “I just want to do what the Holy Spirit wants me to do” Leo smiled and said. “The Holy Spirit wants you to do what is the easiest thing to do.” When you feel overwhelmed with choices, do what is the easiest thing to do. When you can’t make a decision, do what is the easiest thing to do. And so I did, moved out of a difficult work situation, and changed careers. Leo reassured me that the healing would be gradual and take time and said, one day you will wake up and know you have crossed over the bridge. And I did. He gave me the opportunity to hope.

The third step of recovery is to build skills that foster self-care and relaxation. Imagine, taking that long delayed vacation, creating a routine to go to the gym, or walk your dog leisurely in your favorite park. How about a guys or girls night out? Or contacting that best friend that you were too busy to call. Or about having normal debriefing sessions after traumatic events where you work? I remember a physician tell me that if he shared his experiences in dealing with traumatic events in the intensive care unit with his peers, they would think he was not a good physician. Can you imagine how ingrained we have become to deny what we are feeling?

Building the skills of compassion resilience are counter cultural. No wonder why it’s so hard. We have inherited from our fore mothers and fathers the shadow side of individualism. We are just fine. We can do it ourselves as we don’t want to be a burden to our families or friends. Yet, at the heart of being human is to care for another, and to be cared for. Who are the caregivers? We all are, for at the heart of being human is the capacity to care, to reach out to others, and to explore the relationships that we build.

Who hugs the Hugger? We all do. And when we do, we renew our original calling to serve. We discover the strengths of our soul.

Includes excerpts taken from my book The Soul of Caregiving, A Caregiver’s Guide to Healing and Transformation.