Subtitle: The vacation didn’t accomplish what I wanted.

I have a love/hate relationship with my job. A very big part of me derives a great deal of satisfaction working in an altruistic field. Day in and day out, I work to improve the lives of the homeless in my city, ease their burdens, and on occasion I even play a small part in helping people get “out of the system” and return to a normal life.

There’s a lot to be said for that kind of job satisfaction. There are lot’s of other reasons why I enjoy my work, but those are the big ones.

But there are some big downsides to my work, and it can be stressful on many levels. Day in and day out, I deal with people with serious depression and mental health issues. People who’s lives have been taken over by addiction. You see the same people coming in week after week, month after month, and in all too many cases, year after year. You get to know these people, and as much as you might try and keep a professional level of emotional distance, you get to like these people.

Watching people you like meet with constant failure takes a toll.

Then there are the people you don’t like. And there are plenty of these. But you can’t hold the fact that you may not like the person against them. It’s still your job to smile, be friendly, and help them in any way you can. This can wear on your conscience in odd ways. Some of the people I deal with are career criminals (of the mostly unsuccessful variety), sociopaths, and violent psychopaths.

It can be very difficult to maintain your sympathy for someone when they’re trying to bash your head in with a garbage can. Or when they bite you and brag about having AIDS.

When things like that happen, you tend to lose all sympathy for everyone you’re dealing with. At least for a time.

And after doing this work for several years, a well documented syndrome begins to kick in. It’s a syndrome that affects care givers, social workers, shelter workers, nurses, doctor’s… It can affect anyone who’s primary job is to take care of others.

It’s a syndrome known as “sympathy fatigue.” In essence, each person has a well of sympathy they can employ. The contents of that well vary from person to person. But eventually, most people’s well will run dry.

As much as the syndrome, and it’s varying effects, has been well documented, there really isn’t any known cure or treatment for it. You can’t just pull into the sympathy station and get a refill.

It’s why, nation wide, the average career span for a shelter worker is just under 6 months.

After two years of doing this, I think I might just be reaching that point. And seeing it coming and not knowing how to stop it saddens me. I took some time off over the past couple of weeks to recharge my batteries. Tonight I go back to work, and I feel ill. My stomach is churning, my ears are ringing, and I feel listless and tired, in spite of have nearly two weeks of solid rest.

I know from experience that I’ll be able to shake this as I get closer to going in. I’ll suck it up and do my job. But sucking it up gets harder and harder as each month goes by.

In the past two years:

Threats of violence against me/death threats: Constant. This is a standard response for many in our system when dealing with anyone who’s telling them they can’t do something, or can’t give them what they want right now. ie: “You can’t smoke crack in here,” “I’m sorry, but we’re out of food (or blankets, or shoes, etc.),” “Hey, put that back. Don’t steal from other guys in the same position as you.” Responses tend to run along the lines of “Fuck you, I’ll kill you you bastard.” “I’ll get you on the streets.” Yadd-yadda.

Actual assaults: This varies widely depending on where you’re working in our system. On average, over the past couple of years I’d say I’ve been assaulted roughly twice per month.

Serious assaults: 4 – This would be times I was actually injured, or something kinda “off the charts” happened. Biggest single standout incident: After about 7 months on the job, a client attacked one of our counselors. Trying to restrain the fellow, I ended up with a broken rib, and the fellow bit me and bragged about having AIDS. I’m married, and the thought of the possible implications of this… It rattled me pretty severely.

Clients I know who have died: Too many. I make a point of not counting. The worst of these was having to go to the morgue to identify a 21 year old kid who’d gotten drunk and fell in the river.

Success stories: A half dozen I know about for sure. One of the problems here is that you don’t get to see or hear about a lot of the success stories. You just stop seeing the guy. Mostly, this means they’re dead or in jail. But a fair number of the guys who disappear have just managed to find a way out. And when they find a way out, most don’t want to look back, so we never hear from them again.

Number of different people I’ve dealt with: Thousands. System wide, our shelter will house up to 1300 people per night.

Anyway. I’m gonna go cook myself a pot pie and try and settle my stomach. Once more into the breach.

Something to say?

%d bloggers like this: