I am a trauma surgeon. However, I do not wear scrubs and the wounds that my colleagues and I address do not require an operating room or surgical instruments. No, our people come to us with wounds invisible to the eye. Frequently the true scar is buried so deep, the injured person is unaware of the real cause of their emotional distress.
One of the frustrations of mental health work is that we have no x-rays or diagnostic tests to guide us. Using instinct, empathy, and an insane amount of education that we will spend the rest of our lives paying back, we stumble through this darkness alongside our client.
Along the journey, we are unaware of the amount of transference that is occurring as we share space with client after client. No matter how much high-level training or experience you master, at the end of the day you are human.
You never get immune to the gut wrenching cries of a mother who did not get to bring her baby home, the innocent survivor of sexual abuse, or the soldier who still believes twenty years later he could have saved his best friend. In fact, I do not want to know the person who could get used to that level of exposure to raw human pain.
I have tried to abandon this ship more times than I can count. If Mr. Shakespeare is correct, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances…”, then I longed to read, “Melissa exits stage right” from this world of mental health.
After twelve years of helping guide others out of the darkness, my own inner light was slowly being extinguished. I remember lying in bed one night with tears flowing nonstop and just repeating over and over, “I’m so broken.” I was so angry at myself for allowing myself to be so weak and disappointed that I had not seen this coming. I mean after all I am a Type A super planner, and I did not write “Have a breakdown” on my calendar.
That is the scary thing with burnout it is a lot like beach erosion. You cannot see the way your work is changing you every day. All the empathy, hope, and compassion that is filling the life of others is slowly taking pieces of you away. Viewed in a time lapse, the changes that have occurred would appear so drastic. I was so afraid I would never be whole again.
By 2014, I was barely keeping my head above the water. I decided something had to change. I finally had to admit that I needed help which was a hard pill to swallow. In addition to counseling other people, I was a frequent speaker at many women’s groups where I advocated for them to practice better self-care. In essence, this felt like I was an epic failure at practicing what I preach and I was embarrassed.
I began therapy (yes people therapists need therapy) to address my compassion fatigue and explore new career outlets. Of course, just as nurses make the worst patients, God help the therapist who counsels another therapist! When my therapist asked me, “So, how does that make you feel?” My response, “Dead…Karen…dead.” I was completely numb inside. Good luck with this one lady.
To be perfectly honest, I just did not care how anyone felt anymore. I was just empty and void of any ability to experience feelings on any level even related to my children or family. I was not even sure I wanted to experience any feelings ever again.
Entering the therapist’s office for my initial session, I felt that this could be wrapped up in 8-12 solution focused sessions. Hand over the pad lady, just let me write out this treatment plan. A little cognitive behavioral for the depression, some career development, and some stress coping tools and we should be good to go. Of course, things on paper always look much easier than the true state of the human heart. As I stated earlier, the problems that bring a person into therapy are just symptoms but not the root of all their pain.
In my graduate counseling program, it was highly suggested that we should attend therapy before graduation but not a requirement. Well it was not required, and I was busy. So this was my first time on the other side of the therapy fence. What started out as a journey to address my compassion fatigue, emerging midlife identity crisis, and depression over being depressed began to unravel my deep trauma roots. I could no longer hide behind my tough “save the world’ exterior, I had met my match and she saw right through my BS!
I was finally forced to acknowledge myself as the little girl who had been allowed to assume responsibility for taking care of others way before her time. To shield myself from these overwhelming tasks, I had created core beliefs about myself. My motto had become “My pain and needs were secondary to the needs of others” and that I was in fact “the strong one”. I was the family rescuer and fixer. Mix that in with a heaping dose of the following labels, Southern, Christian, Female, to reinforce these roles and you have what we so affectionately refer to now as a “hot mess”.
What a relief to finally verbalize the annoyance, the rage, and the absolute unfairness I felt of having to take care of all the people in my family over the years who struggled with mental illness. Especially the burden of helping to caretake for others halfway across the state while being a working mom with three young children.
Oh, but yes, the lid flew off the entire Pandora’s box that I had fought to keep closed with a pretty bow on top. Every piece of grief I had never cried over was unleashed. It was like a time portal opened and all these images flooded me at once.
I was in a hospital room sharing Cheetos with my Dad while a bag of experimental chemo dripped into his body, locking tearful eyes with him on my wedding day because he made it, a few weeks later hugging his cancer ridden body for the last time on a Thanksgiving Day, and placing one last kiss on his forehead before his casket was closed.
I am having a conversation with my Mom and longing for the Mom who raised me not this mentally ill version that I no longer knew. My body is flooded with feelings of helplessness and guilt that haunted me every time I heard the click of the doors locking behind me as I walk out of a behavioral health unit while she begs me not to leave her. My hands tingle as I remember the simultaneous rush of pain and relief that came the night I found out she had died.
And just like that, the whole box of Kleenex was gone, I had no walls left and I had never felt more naked or vulnerable in my life. I look at my therapist and say, “Now, am I healed?”, to which she replied. “Now, you are ready to begin.”
During this time of healing, I decided to return to school and begin another chapter of my career. My life plan on my Pinterest vision board had me completing my PhD in counseling and spending the next half of my career teaching others how to help others. Yes, so noble, I will once again use my pain to help others.
Well, Mr. Shakespeare might have been a master playwright, but he has nothing on God the Master designer of my life who has crafted a much different script than I ever imagined.
Join me next time as I continue to share my professional burnout journey. If this inspired you to seek out therapy you can refer to an earlier blog Which Mental Health Therapist is Right for You to help you find the best fit for your situation. As always, may you be well, may you be loved, and may you know true peace.
The purpose of this blog is to offer educational information related to mental wellness. Resiliency Counseling & Consulting, PLLC and Melissa Harrell do not offer diagnosis or treatment through this medium. If you feel that you or a family member needs to access mental health services, first contact your primary care physician for assessment and direction in your area. If you need immediate help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.