Caregivers and Compassion Fatigue. What do we know, and what can we do?

Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project

My personal perspective of living with secondary post-traumatic stress…by Steve Sparks…

There were many years that the thought of my big brother getting hit in the head and knocked out by Dad triggered nightmares and uncontrolled emotions.  Although the nightmares rarely happen anymore, the events of that time stay with me.  The horrific nature of seeing my big brother almost killed by our father comes to me almost every day, sometimes more than once.  The never-ending toxic turmoil and dysfunction in our home left me feeling numb and without empathy and compassion for others.  The worst of post-trauma conditions is becoming self-absorbed, caring only about your own interests and survival.  There is no world larger than self in the worst case of emotional challenge in life after trauma.  My thoughts were mostly of self-defense and survival each and every day followed by self-medication at night.  Self-talk was filled with trauma from the past and fear and trepidation of the future.  I couldn’t talk to others about my feelings because no one else could possibly get it or understand.  Mental health was, and still is to a large extent, a risky topic to explore with others, especially family members and those you work with in your professional life.  Living in the moment and feeling safe is a life-long work in progress.

It was always challenging for me to trust others without some sort of escape plan and defensive position.  My feeling was that survival was an all-consuming occupation.  Even as kids we would avoid being visible or exposed for fear of being criticized and punished for being “bad, stupid, and sinful”.   For many years spirituality was something connected to religion, not my soul.  I didn’t know how to love until my mid-30s. I never trusted anyone completely and with unconditional love until later in life.

I have learned to live with and mostly mitigate the fear of failure and excessive insecurity in these later years.  For most of my life as a child, through adulthood and midlife years, my fear of failure served me well with intense hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal as a professional.  But these persistent and less than healthy post-trauma stress symptoms did not work well for me at home when free time should be used for peace of mind and relaxation…a mindfulness existence is a gift.

At home in a safe environment, I was always on the move and could not sit still.  When the pain creeped in during weekends, or holidays and sleep deprived nights, I became angry with outbursts and rage at times. The absolute worst part of my behavior is acknowledging how it hurt others close to me, especially my family.  What I know from research and awareness now is the larger tragedy of post-trauma stress on children and families. The transferred emotional pain often appears as a secondary post-trauma affliction in loved ones on the receiving end who become care givers and must try to live with the toxic behaviors of a parent, partner, or mentor. The generational consequences become a much bigger burden on others in your immediate family and society as a whole. 

I drank alcohol for self-medication until age 55.  I got addicted to narcotic pain and sleep medications in later years due to arthritic pain and joint replacements.  The combination of alcohol and prescription medications was a very bad cocktail and almost took me down.  The grace of God and my wonderful, loving, compassionate and caring spouse saved my life!

I believe now that healing from a painful and traumatic past is possible.  But it takes discipline, focus, and lots of love from family and friends.  Healing for me is fueled by my passion to make a difference for others who suffer from debilitating mental health conditions.

Steve Sparks, Author, Blogger, Child Advocate, and member, Lincoln County Oregon Mental Health Advisory Committee (MHAC) Click here for my author page…

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