Vol. 84, No. 12, December 2011
Pictures of dead bodies. Autopsy photos, crime scene photos, stories of fear and pain inflicted or felt. Financial disaster that begets family tragedy. When does it get to be too much? When you can’t turn it off. When a drive down a street reminds you that a young person died at another’s hand. Compassion fatigue. It’s not that you don’t care; it’s that you can’t care. This month’s Wisconsin Lawyer describes the State Bar’s participation in a groundbreaking study on the impact of compassion fatigue on lawyers and provides a checklist of ways to help combat this problem before it traps you.
When I hear about compassion fatigue, I often think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a manifestation of compassion fatigue, and what my father may have gone through. My dad was not a lawyer; he owned a paint and wallpaper store in the days before Home Depot. A gentle soul, he was also a member of America’s greatest generation. He told few stories of his days aboard ship in the Pacific Theater, save for describing the times he and shipmates purloined a wheel of cheese and his gratitude for being able to eat K-rations as snacks while on watch, instead of as an entire meal.
My father died an alcoholic. Of course, he really wasn’t one because he only drank beer, and he always brought home a paycheck. But anyone who drinks eight quarts of beer a day.…
I remember one day when my brother and I were visiting our parents and my brother asked our father, “Dad, why do you drink so much?” The response, “I was in the war,” rolled off our backs. So were a lot of other guys, we thought in our naïve confidence. But the reality came out years later, when I asked my dad to go deer hunting with me (an adventure I learned after moving to Wisconsin from Chicago). He just looked at me, slowly shook his head, and said sadly, “No, son. I’ve washed too many parts of too many bodies off too many decks to ever want to do anything like that.”
As I write this on Veterans Day 2011, the day after what would have been my father’s 98th birthday, I wonder if PTSD was the cause.
So learn from my hubris, my youthful mistake. Read the article on compassion fatigue. Be aware of your own needs and of those around you. And if you have a problem, or know someone who does, reach out. Get them to read the article. Help them cope. And remember that WisLAP is here to help. To reach Linda Albert, the State Bar Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) coordinator, for confidential assistance, call (800) 543-2625. It may be the greatest gift you ever give.