Mother Teresa's life is a standard I try to live by without trying to "be her". I try daily to live to the best of my ability, with all of my character defects, like her and others who walk in compassion, in my service work. She is one of way-showers when it comes to service work. So is Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, my Beloved Teacher and others who have given their lives and hearts to the suffering who live amongst us. I can see why Mother Teresa became a saint. Yikes! I have a little more of a limited understanding of how hard it is to serve amongst those who are suffering, especially those who have no social nets holding them up.
I hit the proverbial wall of exhaustion again last Thursday. This is my second bout with exhaustion. I first noticed signs of it on Wednesday. I was in an area which I felt I wanted to photograph. And I could not do it. I got the camera out and I could not take any photo's. I felt as if there was no space within me to take in the suffering. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then my eyes as they look through the camera lens, are a direct portal into my heart, and then my soul. And my heart, my body, my soul, is saturated.
On Thursday evening I "lost" my cell phone. I knew as soon as it happened that at some level I had needed to lose that phone. First it was saturated with calls from someone I have been helping who suffers from what I believe to be onset Alzheimer's or senility. There are periods when this person goes into what I perceive to be consciousness "blackouts" and they become very cruel and then leave messages. At other times they just need to talk, as depression, overwhelm, loneliness, and fear are all a part of the stress relating to rebuilding. I have set the best boundaries I can in this situation and still find myself falling into co-dependent patterns. As I am not trained as a home health care worker, social worker, nor a psychiatrist that deals with geriatric care, I find that my skills are inadequate to the situation. (And for those of you who are wondering... Yes! I have tried numerous times to find others to help in this situation - especially mental health professionals, social workers, and case managers).
Then on the way home Thursday after a full day of volunteering, writing 2 postings for the blog and then finding a lovely couch and driving back down to the 9th Ward to give to to someone who I thought would really appreciate it, driving back I found a woman stuck in a ditch.
I found for a brief moment, that I wanted to drive by like everyone else was doing. I was so exhausted, a half hour before I had just lost my phone, I was within minutes of my home...
I couldn't leave who ever it was there in the ditch. (Could you?) It was dark, I could tell that whomever it was was alone, and they were stuck in a ditch on the outskirts of Audobon Park. So I pulled my car to face the car stuck in the ditch so that my headlights could highlight the situation. The face of the woman in the car was a mask of terror. Not only was she stuck in the ditch, I could perceive that she was terrified of being in the city. She told me later she was from Metarie and never came into the city. After judging I could be trusted, she opened her car window and we tried a few maneouvers. She was stuck in the mud and not moving. As I tried to push the car, a lovely Black New Orleanian man and woman came over to the car and immediately got involved in helping. Then a Caucasion man with his dog walked by watching, ready to move down the street away from the scene, knowing we needed more physical help - I called him over and "enlisted" his help. (Why am I making a point of identifying the races? Because uptown around Audobon Park I have found that Caucasion people in public, upon observation, tend to be gaurded and on personality shutdown, often avoiding eye contact or acting very entitled - especially when behind the wheel or the shopping cart in Whole Foods!- too rude!) We all tried to push the car out of the ditch. Then another Black New Orleanian young man pulled up in an old Chevy Blazer from the FEMA trailer park, jumped out of his truck, assessed the situation, asked politely if he could get into her car to try to get her out and then told us when that did not work, that he had a chain with a hook. I put the chain on the back of my car and we all pulled her out. She was so grateful and I watched her change, her body language and her face, and what I perceived to be her fear of the city (it seems like the message this suburbian had gotten that they need to fear Black New Orleanians), was gone. And in her gratitude and relief, she followed suit as she saw me hugging those who came to help her get out of the situation. She said, "you know in Metairie, people would have passed me by and not helped me." Leaving, I responded, "that is why I am here in New Orleans" and as I looked around me I continued, "it is the people that make this city, I never met kinder people anywhere in the US."
As uplifting as that situation was, and for me it was deeply uplifiting, because I find that I rarely have a support system when helping others, it was wonderful to be a part of those loving moments of kindness - sharing the expereince of "helping" with others - doing it together.
So with the exception of when I interact with people through my volunteering or the writing of this blog, I pretty much exist in isolation. Sometimes it is helpful and enjoyable after a long emotionally and mentally trying day to be with myself and to rest. At other times, I really miss having friends and a social life... I miss having someone to process what I am going through with, to cry with, to hug - so thanks dear readers for hanging in with me for this post. I just needed to share how very hard it is for me sometimes. Being a wanderer I am used to being with myself. ("All who wander are not lost" - Tolkien). I feel that this experience, followed up by my experiences in Massachusetts before coming to New Orleans, are beginning to take a toll on me. And if you have been following this blog for sometime you will notice that I have a high tolerance for enduring intensity.
A few months ago I met someone at a Contemplatives in Action gathering who told me after I shared about the various stressful situations I was dealing with that he felt I was dealing with secondary trauma.
At that time, I really didn't comprehend what he meant at the time. Now months later and 2 periods where I found myself suffering from extreme exhaustion -I am getting it.
Without training I am going to say that I have learned that there are two forms of trauma. Primary trauma experienced by those going through the traumatic experience - like our planetary brothers and sisters in Jamaica right now as hurricane Dean is passing over them - prayers for the suffering. Then there are those who volunteer or work for non-profits helping those who suffered from the trauma.
I am beginning to realize that secondary trauma can occur through being a "witness" to the suffering of others. It can occur when you help directly. It can occur when you are dealing with people who are suffering from PTSD and severe stress related behavioural deviations as a result of their trauma. It can occur when you are volunteering and become "tired".
Yes. Mother Teresa was very wise. In a few succinct words, she has described what has been happening to me through my volunteering experiences. She has given me the wisdom and teaching, and now I need to follow her guidance. Who more than she and others like her can teach us how to "be with" our brothers and sisters who are suffering?
(The only part of this test I disagreed with is having to score a (1) if the answer is never. Never should = 0. Rarely = 1 in my opinion to reflect actual experience.)
Exercising - eating clean, being "quiet", practicing spiritual rituals, watching vegetative t.v., lying out in the sun and writing this posting. Also the universe "gifted " me a bike - I just need to fix the flat - I love bike riding at night when it is cooler!