Working in the field of psychology for as long as I have, I sometimes forget the effort it takes to build that emotional wall that separates me from the pain and suffering of my clients. It is necessary to insulate myself, so that I can be objective; and do what I can to help them. If I get pulled into that pain, I am no longer effective. A breakdown of that wall can result in risks to my own emotional well being as well as professional burn out. It sounds cold, but no one can work around human suffering day in and day out without that barrier.
Sometimes I worry that I have been doing it for so long that I may not be able to feel as much as I should. The wall becomes a habit that gets easier and easier to fortify until it doesn't seem to take any effort on my part to block off my feelings. I meet a new client, ask the right questions, take the appropriate data, write up the assessment, train the staff, monitor progress, blah, blah, blah. No emotion. Business as usual.
Then I meet a client who blasts through that barricade like a wrecking ball, reminding me that I am still human.
"Anne," was a single mother with a limited support system. She was caring for her daughter, "Gina," who was paraplegic and profoundly developmentally disabled. I was there to determine whether or not "Gina" would be an appropriate placement for a board and care home I provided consulting services for. I noted that "Gina" was in a wheelchair. She was nonverbal and had difficulty with motor control. She could not feed herself. She needed assistance with toileting and hygiene. I noted that she was going to be a total care client. I asked the appropriate questions and took notes. "Gina" had recently turned 18 and now qualified for adult services. "Anne" wanted to continue to care for her, but it was becoming more and more difficult, and she thought "Gina" might be better off with professionals.
After we finished the interview, "Anne" started to cry, so I put my bag back down and just listened. She told me that "Gina" had been completely normal until the age of 14. She was an active, vibrant child who was doing well in school and had many friends. On a school break, the family had taken a trip to an amusement park. They had a great day riding roller coasters and eating junk food. The next day, "Gina" came in complaining of a headache. "Anne" recommended she go rest until dinner. "Gina" didn't respond when she was called to come and eat, so "Anne" went to check on her. She found "Gina" unconscious. "Anne" called 911 and went with "Gina" to the hospital. The doctor's told "Anne", her beautiful child had had an aneurysm. There was so much brain damage, they told her she needed to prepare for the fact that her daughter would never return to her as she was before.
I stayed with "Anne" and talked to her for some time until she calmed down, and I felt comfortable leaving. I could see she was overcome by guilt for wanting to put "Gina" in a care home. I told her she was doing the right thing by getting help and not trying to do everything herself. I told her we would do everything we could to care for her daughter, and she could visit anytime.
When I left, she was smiling and looked hopeful. I barely made it around the corner before I had to pull over because I couldn't see through my tears. I thought about my own daughter at home and said a silent prayer of thanks. I couldn't imagine what that mother was going through. Couldn't. Even. Imagine. I recommended "Gina" for placement. How could I say no? The administrator at the board and care told me "Gina" would be admitted to the facility in two weeks, and then I would have to meet with her again. That gave me fourteen days to painfully rebuild my wall. Brick by brick.