Monday, November 09, 2009

Loss of Empathy

"Do you have a doctor?" she asked quietly and I glanced up from the screen of my laptop to look at her.

"I do," I answered, returning my attention to the project she was supposed to do but didn't do so now I had to do. I was frustrated. Openly annoyed and brisk in any responses because of it. She's just impossible, I fumed. Never putting forth effort. Complaining about everything. Being generally slow and blank and just taking up space when she bothers to show up.

And as if I finally heard the thoughts for what they were, I stopped typing and looked up. I closed my laptop and took a breath before offering the name of my GP, watching as she slowly wrote the words on a clean sheet of notebook paper. "Would you like her number?" I asked gently and opened a drawer to search through my stack of business cards when she nodded wordlessly.

"There's something wrong," she said and I nodded, twisting my hands in horrified dismay that I'd let her suffer for so long. Not that I believe I control such things, of course, but letting someone fall deeper into a hole while I could have at least peeked down to make sure she was OK.

"Is it just work?" I asked gently.

"Yes," she replied. "Well, no," she revised her answer. "I guess it's everything. I think. I don't really know."

"I know," I said and opened my mouth to stop her when she walked from my office, saying she needed to go home.

"I'm sorry," she as she left and I shook my head.

"It's fine - you're fine," I assured her. "Go home. Take a bath. Read a book."

I sat still when she left, wincing when I remembered how I glared when she wouldn't pay attention. I complained when she didn't contribute. Sighed heavily when she showed up late, left early and skipped meetings completely.

"Hey," I greeted Adam when he answered. "I believe she's depressed. And I want you to lay off." I waited for him to respond and frowned when he didn't. I weighed my desire to have my colleagues remain ignorant of my medicated status and struggle with a mood disorder and took a deep breath before continuing.

"It doesn't turn on and off like that for me," I said, swallowing hard and glad this was a phone conversation and not one in person. "But the inability to engage is similar to how I am when I'm depressed. It's like everything is moving too fast. Everyone wants far too much. And I can't. I don't fully understand why, but there's this intense knowledge that I can't. And when I looked at her today, I realized she can't either."

"OK," he said after a moment.

"And the frustration is normal, too," I told him. "It's easy to get angry because you want to feel something - when you know the way you're reacting isn't how you always have. I got defensive because I knew I was sabotaging everything I cared about but I couldn't fix it. Every attempt that someone made to help felt like an attack. And all I could do was hope it passed. That tomorrow would be better. And when it wasn't, the effort of even seeing people was tortuously exhausting."

"I told her to see a doctor," he said. "A long time ago, actually."

"I gave her my doctor's name when she asked," I replied. I nodded when he said his hasn't been accepting new patients. "That was probably very discouraging," I told him. "When you reach out for help and someone refuses, it's easier to just slip into despair. Nobody cares enough. She needs to see someone - decide if medication might work or if talking it out would be better. And you need to give her time to figure this out."

He started to ask another question but I waved at the person waiting outside my closed door. "I need to go," I told Adam. "I'll call later, but do not scold her again right now. We need to help."

I called him later and he said he'd talked to her. I called her and was unsurprised when I was directed to voicemail, offering that I was around and available if she needed anything at all.

What she needed, I told myself, was someone to notice that she'd stopped wearing make-up. That she wasn't trying harder because it seemed impossible rather than she decided not to. And even as I feel awful about this, I'm struck by how shocked I am that I missed something so obvious. That in the absence of my own suffering, I was selfish enough to disregard obvious signs.

I wish there were a neat conclusion here. I hope that eventually there will be. But for tonight, I just feel sad. And guilty. But mostly sad.


hgg said...

I try to look out for signs of burn-out in the people around me since I've been there, but it's hard when the todo list gets two new items added for each one I delete

Maude Lebowski said...

you noticed. and that's more than anyone else has it sounds like.

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