January 17, 2007

Hearbreaking Work Means We Need Support

Posted in animal advocacy, recovery, therapy at 4:27 pm by nevavegan

Anyone who works long-term in helping animals gets more than his or her share of heartbreak.

Especially when we look at the bigger picture it’s very discouraging. Even as we rescue cats in our own neighborhoods, we read about the mass killings of cats elsewhere. We rescue individual fish only to see a scientific study that says the oceans will soon be empty of fish because of over-fishing, pollution, and other manmade factors.

There’s no doubt that we all need a safety net of social support, but many in animal work find it hard to reach out and even harder to actually get the support they need. How can we address this issue? How can we take care of ourselves while still taking care of animals?

The truth of it is that if we allow ourselves to really feel the complete awfulness of the situation, it’s overwhelming. So many of us pour our life’s blood and our complete hearts into our work, only to see years of progress undone by the selfish actions of a few unthinking people. My first tip is to pay attention to our own emotions and get back from things and take a break when we sense we’re going to a really dark place.

The animal rights/animal welfare/animal protection movement doesn’t really encourage this, but from my perspective it’s vital. So many times when I was first starting out I had someone in a position of authority say to me “So you need a break? The animals never get a break!” While this is factually true, I find it completely unhelpful. If it were a case where one animal were drowning and I had to wade in and save him, maybe in that case I shouldn’t stop and take a break. But the size of this problem of animal mistreatment is so huge; I could spend my whole life never taking a break and still not get very far. And back to the drowning metaphor again, how helpful can I be if I allow myself to get completely exhausted and then both of us wind up drowning?

Or I can refer back to my previous post: how many kittens can I rescue when I’m carrying a 90 pound weight on my back? I need to stop and put down that weight so I can be effective. I also need to reconsider and reflect on what I’m doing from time to time: are there better tools I could be using? Is this the best use of my abilities?

One little thought trick I find helpful is to think about a metaphor of a roller coaster. I didn’t pick the era into which I was born, I didn’t pick my culture, I’m just strapped in and along for the ride. I can do what’s in my power, and I can try to convince the ride operator to shut the ride down, but ultimately I don’t have the ability to change everything around me. I do what I can and I advocate, but I have to release the fear, obligation, and guilt that I feel about issues I can’t control. I can mourn it, but I can’t let it destroy me.

I’m not just whistling out my (unmentionable orifice) here either. I’ve been completely disabled by depression in the past. Unable to cope with the host of past events that haunted me and unable to cope with a tragic present, I was no good to anyone, not even myself. When depressed I always felt like I saw the world very clearly. In fact studies show that depressed people often do have a more realistic and informed view of the world than do non-depressed people. It’s easy when in that place to pat myself on the back for my keen mind, that I can see the injustice and cruelty all around me that others walk past. But the part I didn’t get was that others paid the price for this too. I don’t feel like I’m self deceptive now, but I do take more care to isolate myself from things I know I can’t handle. Because when I’m coping I can do something, however small. When I’m not coping then what good am I?

In talking to depressed friends I’ve encountered this same road block–they don’t want to be “stupid” and they don’t want to “lie to themselves.” I understand, but I also sometimes feel like if we need to lie to ourselves just a little to get through the day… Well, it’s better and less toxic than crack, I guess.

But sometimes it’s not about lying to ourselves, but about celebrating the small things. We can’t always save every stray rabbit out there, but if we saved one rabbit today, that’s a beautiful thing and we should honor it. Gratitude journaling is an incredible way to try to keep an even keel. I try to force myself to come up with a list of several good things that happen ever day. Seriously some days all I can muster is “I made soup and it was tasty, I cuddled with my cat, and my dog really loves me.” But it’s something still.

So far I’ve only spoken about ways we can support ourselves but as social creatures most of us need support from others too.

One complaint I hear over and over is that people need support, but don’t get the kind of support they need. A woman might say she needs her husband to listen, but he keeps offering advice. Someone else might feel that her friends are judging her when they mean to be supportive by saying things like “you need to stop being so angry.”

I honestly believe that the biggest gift we can give ourselves and our support system is to ask for what we need. We’re somehow conditioned against this. So many people are raised with the belief that if people care about us they’ll just guess what we need and provide it. I’ve really not found that to be true. Instead I’ve found that there are a lot of caring, sweet people in the world who are just waiting to help, if only they knew how. So, go ahead and say it “I need someone to just listen right now,” or “what I really want is to watch a silly movie with you and get my mind off of this.”

Without further commentary: Tips for getting the support you need

1. Ask for what you want/need in a direct way. Don’t expect people to always pick up on hints, especially not when you need some support right away. Let people know you need a shoulder to cry on/a sympathetic ear/whatever.

2. If someone gives a kind of support that isn’t helpful to you, try not to take it too personally. They might just be offering the kind of support they would want or they are having trouble understanding your situation. It’s fine to say something like “I just need someone to listen right now.” But if they keep saying things that make you feel worse, maybe they just aren’t the right support system for you.

3. Look for different ways to get support. You can have a reciprocal agreement with a friend to help each other through bad days. If you need support on a topic some people don’t understand, you can sign up for topic specific email list. You can also take the initiative and form a support group and invite others to join. Support groups are made up of people coming more or less from the same place, and can offer a kind of safety there you won’t find elsewhere.

4. Not everyone is a good support system. Some people are just too caught up in their own issues to offer support. Other people just aren’t naturally empathetic. Don’t obsess over why they can’t provide support, just move on. I’ve seen so many people go to someone they think “should” support them, over and over, only to leave hurting. When you’re already hurt, you’re vulnerable, so try not to set yourself up for further hurt.

5. It is very unwise for anyone to depend exclusively on one line of support. Your really bad day might be the very same day your best bud inexplicably decided to sign up for a bar crawl and so won’t be in speaking condition for 48 hours. Your mother might go away on vacation. It’s a very good idea to have a contingency plan.

6. If you feel your depression has crossed a line, is chronic, debilitating, or if you’re having suicidal thoughts, get professional help. No matter how well meaning your friends are, they don’t necessarily have the training to deal with this. Some people are ashamed of the idea of seeking professional help, but if you were having a heart attack you’d go to a doctor, right? So if your soul and very being are shutting down, isn’t that just as important?


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