The Cost of Empathy: Embodying Suffering

I haven’t been depressed in years. Typically, my depression shows up situationally, as it did six years ago when I had to leave Oregon and return to my family home in Maryland, just as I was about to secure an excellent — and highly sought after — position with the Oregon State Park Service. I took a seasonal position with the local park service upon returning home, but, like all the other women that worked there, was treated terribly and expected to have much looser boundaries than I’m comfortable having with colleagues. I left, and decided that tolerating that kind of abuse wasn’t worth the pay or time I’d have to dedicate to the job to “prove myself” to an administration of pretentious, entitled man-children who would never respect me anyway. It was time for something new, but that wasn’t a simple decision.

There’s no way to describe how much I loved being in parks every day and spending my time teaching people about nature. The sheer amount of wildlife I got to see first hand, explore, and interpret filled my soul in a way that nothing else on this earth can. Choosing to let go of that — even if only temporarily — was terrifying and heart-breaking. But my desire to be respected and appreciated for what I bring to the table was stronger than my need to be outside. The process of starting from square one, as it were, spun me into a devastating depression for more than a year. (Thanks a lot, Saturn return.) I survived, but only because of my dog, some meds, and a spectacular therapist.

As I sit here typing this, six years to the month after driving through the dry eastern hills of Oregon towards the Atlantic, I am again in a state of depression. It’s an unfamiliar territory each time, as I’m much more acquainted with anxiety, having two diagnosed anxiety disorders. I know what to do with anxiety. After all, it gives you energy; depression, however, takes your energy away, along with your motivation, and your ability to experience pleasure.

This depression is different though. It hasn’t been triggered by any huge life change, by a loss of purpose. If anything, I have more purpose right now than I perhaps ever have had in my entire life: I’m 10 months away from graduating with a masters degree in social work, I’ve banded together with two dear souls to produce this online magazine, I’ve been exploring my passion for art in new and exciting ways, and I’m in a beautiful new relationship where I am treated like gold.

I also experience a sort of chronic fatigue, chronic pain, and a few other symptoms that doctors can’t seem to pinpoint with their myriad blood tests, questions, and skeptical looks. These symptoms aren’t exactly new, but they are significantly worse than they’ve ever been. I know several other women (and at least one man) experiencing very similar symptoms, and each has had to take a different route in coping with them. Some have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, some with PCOS, some are taking medications, and some have found relief through eliminating certain things from their diets.

Two things are true for all of us, however: the physical symptoms can’t be pinpointed or efficiently treated by western medicine, and every one of us is a deeply feeling, sensitive human.

By that I do not mean that we are apt to take things personally or be easily “offended,” but that we each experience emotions in deep way, both happy ones and sorrowful ones. We are each as apt to cry at something beautiful or joyful as we are at something heart-breaking. Three of them are therapists, like me.

This has me thinking a lot about the boundary between our emotional selves and our physical bodies. I hesitate to use words like “wellness” or “health,” because me at my healthiest will look different than you at your healthiest. There is no single gauge for health, and even suggesting casually through a Medium story that there is contributes to the oversimplified idea that we can keep lying about and selling “health” to people.

To feel deeply and to be able to empathize deeply with the experiences of others, to be able to hold those experiences for people who yet are unable, and to hold the thousands of those stories in our hearts (because you never forget them, really) — whether they are news stories of unarmed black children being murdered by police without recompense, or the stories of our clients in the other chair — is a gift. I truly believe that it is a gift, because I have experienced the firsthand healing of having someone that could do it for me, and I’ve watched someone heal by having the experience themselves. Sensitive people are containers for emotions we struggle to hold, and they are validation for our humanity. It is a heavy charge; and I sit here pondering the cost of such a charge.

What is the cost of such deep, emotional sensitivity on the physical body?

Are our constellation of symptoms, deemed vague, loose, and possibly even “in our heads” by western medicine, actually tied to the emotional work that we do as empathic people? And make no mistake: I’m not suggesting that empathic people can’t have good boundaries. All of the folks I’m speaking of in the mental health profession have excellent boundaries, and I would bet live money on the fact that we practice better self-care than the average person. This isn’t about us taking on more than we can handle, or not being fit for the job. We know this because we are kept under supervision not only by our actual supervisors, but our academic advisors, certification boards, and one another. This isn’t about being what American social standards would label “fragile;” fffuuuuck that noise. Doing this work takes strength and courage, and if you want to argue, I’ll give you three full days in my chair and we’ll see how you do. (Or how much damage you cause to others.)

Recently I saw a young man who took hallucinogens for the first time in his life. He had a reaction to the trip so traumatizing that he had to visit a hospital for an emergency psychiatric evaluation. An excellent student and hard worker, he was absolutely terrified that he had permanently damaged himself, and he may well have. A few days later, I sat with my supervisor while the police escorted someone to their cruiser under her orders for involuntary hostpitalization. Having to make that choice made her sick.

A while back, I worked with a thirteen year old that had recently given birth to a baby, and she was treated by most people in her life as though she was “fast.” The reality, of course, is that she had a long history of sexual trauma in her own short childhood, and had been taken advantage of by an adult man who denied that he’d gotten her pregnant. I’ve seen several young women over the course of just four weeks that had been sexually assaulted, and each one was terrified of hurting the perp’s life by reporting it — even though they had not consented to the sexual contact, and might be coping with that trauma indefinitely for the rest of their lives. This week yet another black trans woman has been murdered, and people continue to wonder why trans youth have an astronomical suicide rate. Did you know that suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students?

I still think of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Freddie Gray on the regular, along with every single kid I worked with that was institutionalized. Their names pop up when I’m thinking about other things. I can see their faces.

These are a fraction of the stories we hold as empathic people, and as mental health workers. (And maybe it isn’t that there are “empthathic people” and “not-really-empathic people,” perhaps it’s that some of us open the gates while others do or can not. But that’s a different article for another time.)

Where on earth can we store that kind of suffering?

I can do all the self care I want: long walks through the forest with my dog, mindfulness activities multiple times per day, gardening, art projects, laughing with friends, letting myself cry, engaging in my passions. I have an extremely active spiritual life. I try to eat well and I get plenty of sleep. I do all of those things and more. But these stories don’t go away just because I don’t think about them consciously: they are stored in my psyche somewhere, and, I think now, inside my physical body.

I don’t know how. Translating emotion into the material is less my jam than translating the material into the emotional experience is, and I’m fucking good at it. But there is a cost.

These physical symptoms that stymy and frustrate know-it-all doctors to the point that they can’t even say, “Hey, we’re gonna figure this out together,” rather than, “Well, nothing shows up on your tests so maybe eat better and get more exercise,” is a perhaps a part of the cost. (Which, incidentally, is precisely what depression and fatigue will prevent you from doing.) Medications help, but they certainly don’t cure what we call mental illness. And now I wonder, what if part of mental illness is the act of holding the suffering of the world because so few will do so? So few will act, so few will rearrange their lives in order to provide relief for others outside of themselves. So few have the resources or willingness to do so.

And that’s why I wouldn’t change this part of me for anything. It sure would be simpler to numb out, or to ask everyone on earth to just “toughen up” a little because somethingsomething about how hard life is. Of course it would be. But I don’t want to be that person. Literally ever. That person denies the suffering of everyone else and certainly their own suffering. They also therefore must deny deep joy — because it can’t be one or the other. We either experience both deeply, or we experience both superificially.

I want to experience both deeply. So the cost is not a thing to be eradicated. It can’t be, if empathy is the kind of thing I want to value. That cost often feels like a hateful, ugly little monster, but if I don’t find a way to befriend it or at least see it as a companion to be gently supported (not angrily executed), I’ll never survive it. How it will play out in my body is a journey that I’m willing to take because a challenging path is always worth exploring, and because I fucking love my job. It’s the height of human living, in my opinion, to experience the wide range of emotions and experiences in the way that I’m blessed to do so.

But just as love has a cost, so to does empathy.

Thanks for reading! Tell me in the comments what you think of this piece, and if there's anything you learned or want to challenge!