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5 Women Speak Of How Their Constant Compassion During The Pandemic Can Cause Burn Out

Posted: October 16, 2020

With everything that’s happening in 2020, all of us are bound to feel compassion fatigue. These 5 women tell us how they deal with it!

It’s been six months and we’re still under lockdown due to COVID-19. Add to this, our own unique set of challenges and the constant stream of negative news that is bombarding our senses nonstop. A lot of us are bound to feel compassion fatigue or the feeling of ‘meh’ where news is losing its ability to shock or hurt us as intensely as before.

When we suffer from compassion fatigue, we generally feel physically or mentally exhausted. This leads to a decline in our abilities to empathise or feel compassion for others. It is also known as the negative cost of caring.

In this interview, I speak to five women who share their unique experiences during COVID and about witnessing compassion fatigue within and around them. They also speak about the ways they’re dealing with their struggles and rising to tackle this difficult period. These stories of a doctor, a doctor’s spouse, a psychiatrist, a working woman, and a recovered COVID patient are bound to motivate and inspire you.

Shalini Mullick

Specialist (Pathology) at the National Instt. Of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases

“Why aren’t the pain and the uncertainty bringing us together?”

As a doctor, I see economically disadvantaged patients at our hospital often disregarding social distancing norms and wearing their masks incorrectly. I tend to dismiss this as a result of ignorance and education.

Then I see educated people in markets, in our neighbourhood, doing similar things. And I wonder if they feel that they have become immune to the possibility of contracting the disease.

“It is a disease like any other,” I hear them say. Perhaps, but this is a disease that they can take home, infect the vulnerable among them. They shrug, “Whatever has to happen will happen. Kitna number dekhenge TV par?” 

Not sure if this is compassion fatigue, the apathy of the average Indian, or the fatalistic attitude in us reinforced for generations? But whatever it is, as a doctor, it hurts that people don’t realize the risks being faced by frontline workers every day during the pandemic.

So many doctors and other healthcare workers have lost their lives caring for patients. So many elderly people have suffered by being infected by healthy youth who didn’t take appropriate precautions.

Why aren’t we in this together? This denial of reality, and defiance are because people are tired of caring, of doing, of making the effort.

I return home, to our world of privilege, where both my children have access to high speed internet, good computers, and smart phones. While I feel humbled that we can afford these, I also wonder if they will ever empathise with the students who have lost opportunities in education.

We had already created bubbles of safety and privilege in our condominiums. And insulated ourselves from the world we were relieved not to belong to. At least, the children saw that a different reality existed when they stepped out. Now, with everyone’s individual reality flashing onto their screens, will they remember that?

The bonhomie of doing things together six months ago, after the stay at home orders, seems to have been replaced by an individual loneliness. And the initial efforts at charity seem to have given way to a more self-centred approach.

Our parents huddled around radios to listen to news, we watched it on TV together in the living room. Today, everyone is consuming their own versions of news in isolation. They are processing developments with peers who only see things their way, constructing their own realities. These bubbles of thoughts and emotions in our minds may become difficult to break out of…

As a parent who always wanted to instil empathy and kindness in children, I wonder how this compassion fatigue will eventually impact these qualities. It seems that all of us are experiencing the pandemic at individual levels. Why aren’t the pain and the uncertainty bringing us together?

Sonia Chatterjee

Writer

“…nothing prepared us for the most difficult phase of our lives.”

I have a doctor for a husband. As batchmates from school, becoming the best of friends to eventually getting married, we have explored the joys and sorrows of life for more than two decades now. Yet, nothing prepared us for the most difficult phase of our lives that began in March 2020.

After the pandemic hit, his posting took him to one of the hospitals in a faraway district of Bengal. My father, who travelled to our hometown just before the pandemic struck, couldn’t return because of the lockdown. And my in-laws, who had come for a month’s visit to Kolkata, had no option but to stay back.

It was a tough time being the primary caregiver to a five-year-old son and ageing in-laws while trying to stay connected with my father. And not losing my sleep over the fact that my husband was heavily exposed to the risk of the deadly virus.

Last November, I had signed up for my third post-graduate course, an MFA in creative writing. In between all the chaos that occupied my life, I started the last trimester of the MFA course in September.

Since April, my life was so filled with handling personal responsibilities that I could barely blog or write actively on any digital platform. I was mostly finishing up my MFA assignments.

For months, I felt stuck, frustrated, and annoyed. Almost everyone around me moved ahead, upgraded their skills, progressed in their careers, and did a great job of balancing their roles. Meanwhile, I was struggling to stay afloat amidst this chaos. It was overwhelming.

I decided to log out of social media, uninstall all mobile apps, quit 20+ groups on WhatsApp, block people I didn’t wish to stay in touch with anymore. And to focus on the optimisation of restrained circumstances for a couple of months.

I spent two months nurturing the relationships I genuinely care about. I worked steadily for the MFA course. And read books in genres I could never appreciate before.

It is still difficult to explain to my son why he gets to meet his father just for a couple of days every month. He is too young to understand how his father and the entire fraternity of doctors, nurses and primary healthcare workers are fighting like frontline warriors round the clock.

It breaks my heart to see him crying for his father over video calls. I hear the panic in my in-law’s voice whenever they call me to check on their son’s schedule. And I see the concern in my father’s eyes every time he hears about my husband skipping meals to attend to his duties.

I have been trying to push away every negative thought from my mind as I grapple to hold the family together. And I am just one of the many families who have lent their unrelenting support to a doctor/doctors in the family.

We might not be the frontline warriors in this race against time. But the families of frontline warriors have acted as facilitators in this crisis period. Shouldering responsibilities, making sacrifices, and pushing our limits, some of us, including me, feel emotionally burnt out these days.

As a doctor’s wife, I am proud of the way my husband and his fraternity have been holding the fort during this crisis period. But there are days when I want to scream out loud that none of us signed up for this level of unnecessary tension and stress.

Thankfully, my writing and my love for my five-year-old have kept me away from reaching the breaking point.

Sakshi Agarwal

Psychologist, Special Educator, Asst. Professor (Psychology), Runs the YouTube Channel, Mending Beliefs

“Men need to understand how helping their spouse is important at this juncture.”

Mental health is being adversely impacted due to COVID-19. We human beings are not used to being caged like this and that is adding stress to our lives as a result of which anxiety is showing up easily.

Women taking care of households are among the worst affected during this pandemic. Self-care is even lesser in a woman who now has to manage work as well as household and family responsibilities.

She has the burden of the whole day’s work and she’s hardly sleeping. Sleep deprivation leads to increased food intake, resulting in increased obesity. Lack of sleep and exercise also impacts emotional balance and leads to depression and suicidal thoughts.

I’ve witnessed working women wanting to give up on their jobs because managing households, children, husband, ageing parents-in-law, and taking care of professional responsibilities becomes too much to handle alone.

Work was their one outlet of being in contact with the outside world. The work that they enjoyed before is now turning into a burden.

She’s working all the time, either attending to her family or attending a work conference call. Now with the advent of Diwali, the work burden on the home front will increase for women even further.

Even a twenty minutes chat over coffee with a girlfriend or going to the parlour might immensely help during these times.

Men need to understand how helping your spouse is important at this juncture. Many women seem to think of taking time out for themselves as selfish. But self-care is essential, and the rest of the household needs to understand that.

There has been growing lethargy and lack of motivation as the days keep going by. My advice would be to change the belief pattern.

Take time out for yourself. Sleep well. Write a gratitude list every day. Try to meditate a little every day. My channel, Mending Beliefs, has some excellent guided meditations.

Try to blame yourself and others less, try reducing the tendency of self-criticism and self-sabotaging, get out of the guilt if everything isn’t perfect. You’re not responsible for everything. Sometimes, contemplating on your thoughts really helps, like, ‘Why am I irritated?’

Think about your thought patterns and belief cycles. You’re more than your thoughts and actions. Try accepting the uncomfortable feeling.

Try living in the moment. Thoughts and emotions have a chain, try breaking that chain by creating a pause. Give yourself some time for inner calm.

Anjali Gurmukhani Sharma

Writer, North India Lead-Education, Charter for Compassion

“…very soon I realised that losing focus towards self as well as letting the compassion fatigue set in, was not an option.”

Past few months have been hard on everyone. As I reflect, as a family, we started feeling the pandemic tremors much before.

With my mom-in-law undergoing cancer treatment since the beginning of this year, we have had the realisation of what was coming much earlier. And since then, it has been like being paranoid about the precautions.

Towards the end of March, as a response to the pandemic, everything moved to online and virtual. On the personal front, while I have had years of experience working from home for my US-based employer, this was vastly different and way more difficult.

We now have no boundaries across home, workplace, and schools—everything became fluid with absolutely no support system in place. The rising anxiety and an uncertain future with growing COVID numbers did add to a lot of stress.

So, it took time to streamline the complex matrix which had the dimensions of professional work, household chores, children’s online classes to be managed, Along with the screen time, gadget availability, and overall mental sanity.

Additionally, with my mom in law undergoing cancer treatment throughout the lockdown period, there were hospital visits also to be managed.

As I reflect, I remember overwhelming moments of fatigue and not being compassionate especially towards self. I felt being completely zapped off of energy and mental space while constantly context switching among so many threads vying for my time and attention.

But soon I realised that losing focus towards self as well as letting the compassion fatigue set in, was not an option.  My work also brought more of listening to and witnessing some heart-wrenching grassroots stories of harsh effects of the pandemic.

There were so many people out there who were severely hit by the pandemic, much harder than what we were facing.  And I wanted to do as much as I can.

Losing focus at that time could just be so detrimental to self, family, and the help I could render to those who needed our support the most.

Few things which helped take care of fatigue as well as build upon the emotional endurance are:

  • Structuring the day and planning the granular details as much as possible. Pushing everyone including children also to follow the same
  • Focusing on work by switching off regularly from news/social media, Practising meditation and mindfulness. In fact, I have joined a structured program for the same
  • Using the principles: Prioritise the tasks in hand. Delegate, and oversee what you can, and forget the rest
  • Following the mantra~ There is no point trying to be a perfectionist and getting burdened by a bag of guilt especially during these crisis times.

Note: Anjali is involved in the drive, “Donate a device for Education”, a collaborative campaign of Charter for Compassion, Sajha, and Cashify which aims at empowering underprivileged girls from Delhi government schools whose education has been impacted due to the pandemic. You can read more here in case you want to help.

Gayatri Manchanda

Artiste

“I talked about my experiences on Twitter to educate people…”

Well, I contracted COVID early on in June when the pandemic had just set in in India. It was difficult to get tests done. There wasn’t much information available for the public and there were a lot of fear and confusion about the disease. Lots of people stigmatised the COVID infected at that point.

I talked about my experiences on Twitter to educate people and to make them aware about the realities of being a Covid patient. And I spoke about the medicines (that worked for me) and the experience of being in isolation. Many people started reaching out to me for advice.

I was in hospital for a week and then quarantined at my house. We had moved houses recently. My twelve-year-old son, eighteen-year-old daughter, and my husband managed the household chores by themselves.

It was a turmoil in my family in the beginning. My daughter fell and needed stitches, my husband learned different recipes through YouTube. That was a time when they sustained on a lot of pizzas.

It was tough dealing with people with no experience with the disease sending messages asking me to be strong. I’d have rather preferred people asking what they could do to help, if possible.

My elderly mother contracted COVID a few days after I did, and some people in my parents’ housing community acted in an insensitive way. However, there were also others who rose to the occasion and helped my parents.

Though the awareness regarding the disease has increased by now, people seem to have become jaded. I’ve witnessed kids developing anxiety after being stuck at home for so long.

It is also the media’s responsibility to keep the public aware of the reality instead of continuously showing TRP generating sensational stories. People are not getting enough warning about the reality of the situation.

For some people, it is important to step outside because it’s a matter of their livelihood. But people who can avoid going out need to understand the risk that they are putting themselves and others in by unnecessarily socialising.

Picture credit: Edward Jenner on Pexels

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