Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Support Systems...

I'm just back from a week's writing at The House of Bread, a Benedictine Community on Westwood Lake outside Nanaimo, BC. The Sisters of this Community provide many services to the folk of Vancouver Island including the Bethlehem Retreat Center, a wonderful place of peace and stillness on the Lake and within the shadow of Mt Benson.

During my week with the Community, where I always feel lovingly supported and nurtured, I reread an old book, - thank you, Pat! - written in 1980 by Judy Tatelbaum called, The Courage to Grieve. While much of the content is now outdated, Judy's writing about effective support systems is still well worth sharing.

As we all know by now, an effective support system is crucial to Compassion Fatigue recovery and resilience. But what is an effective support system, exactly?

Judy Tatelbaum says that a good support system is composed of three parts:

1. Self Support:

Because few of us consciously count ourselves as part of our own support system, we can fail to attend to expanding our inner resources. It often takes a crisis like Compassion Fatigue to make us recognize our need for our own self-love, concern and support. The more we neglect ourselves, the more we deepen our depletion and impede our recovery.

Self support involves comforting and bolstering ourselves, listening to and accepting our feelings, paying attention to our physical needs, and making sure that all our needs are met rather than ignored. (This may sound impossible if you are early in CF recovery. If this is the case, you may need to draw on environmental and belief-based supports until you have "filled-up" enough to begin meeting more of your own needs.)

Recovery from CF and learning to stay well may require us to develop different self supports from those we're used to using - becoming more active or more quiet, learning to talk more or to be more contemplative, expressing feelings out loud or writing them in a journal, becoming more responsible to increase self esteem or taking a rest from responsibility for a while.

Honouring ourselves, (our needs and feelings), means showing concern for ourselves in all the simple things we do to make ourselves feel better. These needs are as variable and unique as we are.

2. Environmental Support:

Environmental supports are the network of people and activities that give our lives meaning. This network was once readily available through extended families living close together and in stable neighbourhoods or communities where people were known from birth until death. Now, in times of scattered families and greater transience, we must put effort into creating our environmental supports. If we don't, we can find ourselves unsupported and in great need when trouble arrives.

Many people have told me of the importance of their friendships during times of distress. We would certainly have been in difficulty had we not had friends to call upon during my husband's long illness. When I finally realized that I couldn't do it alone and needed respite, I sat down with my address book and phoned everyone we knew or had ever known - his friends, my friends, our friends, people from his work and my work, folks from organizations to which we'd belonged - and, after explaining our situation, I asked if they would sign up for a Wednesday or Saturday morning with my husband so that I could get some time away. The response was overwhelming. People cried on the phone because they had known of Derrick's illness and wanted to help but hadn't know how. The years we'd spent developing and nurturing relationships meant that we had the support we needed when self support wasn't enough.

Even if we have few friends, our environmental support system is larger than we might think. It comprises a wide range of people - intimates, family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, family physicians, health care professionals, psychotherapists or counsellors, clergy, lawyers, insurance agents, financial advisors, funeral directors, volunteers, local business people - and activities - adult education, work, volunteer work, clubs, travel, art, music, dance, support groups, sports, faith-based organizations, meditation, stress reduction activities, environmental work. Even if we haven't worked to strengthen this part of our support system, there is probably more there then we might imagine.

Philosophical or Belief System Support:

Tatelbaum says that whether our beliefs actually sustain us in a crisis is an individual matter but that our philosophy of life very much affects how well we cope with pain or problems. The meanings we ascribe to life, suffering and death can be key to how we survive the pain. For example, people who can accept sorrow and crisis as part of their own growth and development can find their beliefs deeply supportive.

So, much can be gained by consciously assessing the state of our support systems. What part of my support system is strong right now? What part could use a tune up? What is one thing I could do this week to increase my self, environmental or philosophical/ belief support system?

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