Compassion Fatigue

The first few months of my service at Casa Alitas was exhausting. But more than that, it was rewarding. In the same way that you run a race, struggling to breathe, willing your legs to keep going, and then cross the finish line, feeling exhausted, but uplifted by that runner’s high. So I would feel each time a family would leave me. I’d be exhausted from the chaos that is Alitas – running around town getting groceries, donations, money transfers, getting calls from ICE, family members, volunteers, comforting crying, sick kiddos, comforting crying, sick mothers, intake interviews, legal orientations, volunteer orientations, making travel bags, sitting at the Greyhound station, trying to do 10 of these things at the same time for 4 different families. But the moment I stood next to a mother about to board the bus, and I hugged her and wished her luck, and felt her fingers wrap tightly around my shoulder out of fear, knowing that as soon as she stepped on board, she’d be on her own for the next two days, and out of gratitude because she didn’t have to be on her own for the last two – at that moment I knew at least this race was over. And as I got back in the van and pulled out of the Greyhound parking lot, switching from the Mexican radio station to my Spotify playlist now that I was alone, I felt the runner’s high. The satisfaction that for that short time, we had been able to provide a place where she felt cared for and welcomed, where her children felt safe. I felt gratitude that my life choices had landed me in this house that looks so normal on the outside that you would never think anything of it, but that on the inside is what someone once referred to as the “ER of the border.”

But as the months went on, this started to change. The exhaustion stayed with me and the runner’s high got weaker and weaker.

I wrote a blog post about this 2 months ago, but I never published it. Because upon rereading it, I realized that it sounded a little concerning. The kind of thing that might make friends call me up to see if I needed a hug…or a therapist. I probably needed both.

The timeline of my downward slump went something like this.

October – During a particularly busy few days, where I had been working and sleeping at the Casa for 72 hours straight, I left the house, full of mothers and screaming children, got in the car to go to the grocery store, and burst into tears. I couldn’t take being needed anymore. The women at the house would literally line up and crowd around me, one needing me to talk to her uncle and explain how to buy tickets, another needing me to get medicine for her child who was crying and feverish, another needing me to help her make a call to Guatemala… As soon as I would start helping one, the other would come up and need something else. At that time, I had very little volunteer help, and even when the volunteers were there, it seemed like they always needed something from me, too – where do I find this? how do I do this? she asked me this – what should I tell her? After crying in the grocery store parking lot, and eventually gathering up the energy to walk back into that house, I stayed up til 1 a.m. after all the guests had gone to bed to see what jobs I could apply for when I quit this one. At the end of October, I took a trip to Colombia for a wedding. Before I left, I told my VISTA Leader that I still hadn’t decided whether I’d get on the plane back to the U.S. I was only kind of kidding. But I did get back on the plane. And I’m only kind of sure that was a good decision.

November – Things at the house were the busiest I’d ever seen them. There was a surge of migrants crossing from Central America and ICE began to drop more off to us instead of taking them to Phoenix. This actually worked in my favor, as a lot of the volunteers finally took me seriously when I said I needed help, and stepped up to start coming to the house. I finally got some time off, and for a while I thought my troubles were over.

December – I thought November was busy. We received double the families in December. Unfortunately, that coincided with finals at the U of A, and the holiday season, so my volunteer base dropped substantially. I was ready for it, though. November had given me some free time, and I was working only 60 hour weeks and actually getting to sleep in my own bed some nights. I was willing to power through December, knowing that in January things would get easier again. I overestimated myself.

The surge, plus the ICE Raids had everyone talking about immigration in December and we were soon receiving media requests, volunteer inquiries, and piles of donations coming in. Not to mention the high number of families we were welcoming. There were nights when we had 24 people that needed overnight accommodation (we have a capacity of 10 at Alitas so had to rely on volunteers to take in families in their homes as well). Buses weren’t running due to weather, things were shut down for the holidays.

At the same time, we had a family with us who had been unable to find a sponsor, and unlike most families who are with us for one night, they were with us for 2 months. The mother had experienced an enormous amount of abuse and trauma and was not stable or in a position to make good decisions for herself and her son. Her son was 9 years old, and you could tell that the crazy chaotic Alitas environment was the most stable thing he’d ever experienced. Having them in the house was an emotional roller coaster, and their story is a story for another day.

After 5 months of doing this job, I felt like a boxer. Not like a good one, but like the loser, that somehow stays on his feet and keeps taking the beating over and over. The emotional toll of growing close to this family and then watching the mother unravel her son’s life and her own was just one more blow. I felt like it was a matter of time before my knees gave out and I hit the ground.

The first time I really realized what a bad place I was in was when I came in to work to take over for a volunteer who was ending her shift. As soon as I walked in the door, the volunteer told the guest who had just been dropped off, “That’s Jamie. She’s the coordinator. She’ll know what to do.” And the guest, a woman from Mexico, immediately ran to me, crying, and started frantically explaining her situation. She had come with her husband and 2 daughters. She had been released with her youngest daughter to us, but her oldest daughter was 18, and like most adult women who aren’t pregnant and aren’t traveling with their children, she had been sent to a detention facility, as had the woman’s husband. The woman was distraught. She didn’t know what her daughter would do all by herself in detention (i.e. prison). She was only 18, she’d be terrified. She needed her mother.

The woman was telling me all this, grabbing my hand, and begging me to do something about it. But I was not listening. As soon as she approached me, all I could hear were the thoughts in my head saying, “I need to leave. I need to get out of here. I cannot breathe. I need to leave.”  It was the first time I noticed such a physical response to the stress. My heart rate increased. My muscles tensed. I felt like someone was stepping on my chest and sucking all the oxygen out of the room. And I knew I was not ok.

So I made a point to focus on self-care. I spent as much time working away from Casa Alitas as possible. I stopped reading news about immigration and started reading silly novels. I downloaded a meditation app on my phone. I tried to get out in nature as much as possible.

Flash forward to March. I was sitting in a conference room at Catholic Community Services with a group of Princeton students who had come to the border for an alternative spring break. They had visited with a lot of other organizations working for migrants’ rights, and after I talked a bit about our program, we got to the Q&A. While visiting with No More Deaths, they had learned about the Culture of Cruelty report and the abuses that migrants have suffered at the hands of Border Patrol agents. They asked what kinds of stories I had heard, and I told them of what women had told me of the verbal abuse they suffered, and the conditions they had endured in Border Patrol detention. I also told them how they’re not all bad. Like the CBP agents who had dropped off a family to us, and when the family got out of the car, the agent patted the little boy on the head and said in Spanish, “Remember what I told you. You’ve got to start going to school and learning English really well so that you can get a good job and take care of your mother.” The boy’s mom had tears in her eyes as she shook the officer’s hands and sincerely thanked them for being so kind to them.

After a few other questions, one of the students directed the conversation back to the culture of cruelty. She said she couldn’t wrap her head around the BP agents that abuse these families. What’s the point of grabbing their possessions just to throw them in the dirt and kick them around? Why spend the energy mocking and insulting these women who are just trying to flee for their lives and keep their children out of danger? What kind of a person do you have to be to treat a vulnerable human being that way?

And that’s how I found myself defending Border Patrol. I think I was just as surprised as they were. I have no doubt that 6 months prior to that, my simple answer would have been, “Good question. It’s beyond me how someone could treat another human being that way.” But now, my answer started with, “I think there’s a few things you have to understand that might help explain some of their behavior. Not justify it, but explain it…”

I told them that one thing I learned by doing this job is that compassion fatigue is a very real thing. You reach a point where you cannot continue to take on other people’s pain and trauma, because in this line of work, it’s never-ending. And BP are talking to the same people I’m talking to, seeing the same kiddos, hearing the same stories. But they see more, too. They see the kids coming here on their own, who get sent to the shelters, not Alitas. The see the dead bodies. And we expect them to do this day in and day out, and do it with love and compassion?

The agency doesn’t expect them to. That’s why they train them to refer to border-crossers as bodies instead of people. Every time an agent calls me and says “We’ll be bringing you 3 bodies in about half an hour, ma’am,” I feel a little shocked at the coldness of the term. But they probably don’t even realize they’re saying it anymore. This is not an arbitrary term that the agency decided on. It has a purpose, and that purpose is to dehumanize the people that the agents come into contact with every day, so that the agents can do their job without “compassion” getting in the way of it. I’m sure they employ plenty more techniques that have the same intention.

Another thing that I think should be noted, is that it was reported in 2015 that men made up 95% of BP agents. When you have a male-dominated force like that you have to take into account the pressure that societal views on masculinity place on the agents, coupled with the stigma that surrounds mental health in this country. Take me, for example. When I started feeling compassion fatigue, I talked with my VISTA Leader about what I was going through, and she suggested seeing a mental health provider. For two women, working in an organization like AmeriCorps, that was a relatively easy conversation to have and a natural solution to come up with.

But imagine a male BP agent in his early 20’s, struggling with the fact that in his job he regularly comes in contact with people on the verge of death (some past it), who are coming from situations so horrible, that the thought of abandoning their home and their culture, taking a dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico, crossing the desert and hoping they make it out alive is the best option they have. They see women and girls who have been raped and beaten. They see feet raw and bleeding. They see lips cracked and peeling with dehydration and desert heat. Can you imagine this agent turning to a peer or going to his superior and sharing his feelings about how the things he encounters on the job every day are slowly eating away at his soul? Of course not.

So what happens if you don’t? What happens if you internalize all of that and just keep on doing what you’re doing?

I am definitely not proud to admit this, but at a certain point, I literally just stopped caring. I didn’t have it in me anymore. Remember the woman whose daughter and husband were detained and who rushed to me to see what I could do to help them? She was completely distraught, and crying to me, and I did not feel empathy. I felt resentment, even anger. I was angry that she was making it hard for me to breathe. I was angry that she was here needing things from me. It’s hard to come up with reasons that I was angry because my anger was irrational and I knew it. She had done nothing to deserve my hostility, and yet I felt it. Which is why I knew at that point I had to make a change.

But BP agents aren’t in the position to make a change, and so they keep feeling angry. And they get angry enough to grab a migrant’s belongings and stomp them in the dirt for no reason at all. They get angry enough to insult them and shout profanities at them, and to do a lot worse.

It seems, at least from the anecdotal evidence I get from the women at Alitas, that a lot of times, the female agents can be especially vicious. For only making up 5% of the force, I hear a lot of stories about the awful things they say to migrants. Who knows, maybe it’s just one woman in particular and all the stories are about her, but I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with the fact that the women take it harder. They see all the suffering and watch what these mothers are going through with their kids, and it hits them deeper than it does the male officers. So they lash out even harder.

Again, I’m not justifying any of the abuse that the Border Patrol commits. And I think a lot of what they do goes above and beyond what can be attributed to compassion fatigue. But I don’t think we can chalk it all up to them being evil people. They’re just people. We’re all cut from the same cloth, and even though their mission is very different from mine, the blows we sustain in carrying our missions out might be more similar than we expect.


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