I took a dry eraser and wiped the patient’s name off the whiteboard. I neatly filed their treatment sheet in their medical record. Moments before I heard the owners sobbing in the exam room down the hall. Hours before I had changed my patients bedding, pet them and kindly syringe-fed them. I knew they were bad off but now they were gone. I didn’t feel grief. In some way, I felt relief I wouldn’t see them suffer or struggle anymore. I just felt nothing. What had once been a life was now a black smudge on the treatment board. Another name would be written in their place. I finished my shift, got in my car and drove home and got my kid ready for bed.
This is an example of one of the many times in my career I have had to compartmentalize. It’s quite common to put our thoughts in boxes and think maybe we can just deal with that another day. Another day when there isn’t a lobby full of clients and wards full of patients to take care of. A night when we can’t afford to come home in shambles because there is laundry and homework to be done. But that day doesn’t happen, and we keep experiencing patients names and traumas that we put in boxes and shove to the recesses of our minds.
There are many reasons to rationalize compartmentalization. We can’t do our job and be there for the clients and pets we need to help when we are a puddle on the floor. We can’t be there for our family if we bring home the trauma and grief we see at work. There are some days we can’t do the job we need to do at work if we’re thinking of the argument that we had with our spouse the night before. Compartmentalization is our attempt to file our emotions, thoughts and rationalization of behavior into our minds. And it works. It allows us to survive some insanely crappy days in vet med.
But does it keep working? The more we stow away our emotions are we really protecting ourselves and allowing ourselves to be present and functional? Or are we finding that month after month, year after year, our brain has now become an episode of “Hoarders?” Compartmentalizing can be beneficial when done in moderation. Yes, we can shove that painful euthanasia or horrific HBC away and keep performing. But at some point, there is just too much and we are left with two options. We can emotionally shut down or we can be consumed by the overflow.
In order to successfully compartmentalize we must realize that not everything can go in a box. We must allow ourselves to feel pain, discomfort, anger and all the other horrible emotions we try and shove away. We can’t feel them all the time. But we can acknowledge them and let them pass. Unpack some of the boxes and talk to family, friends or coworkers who can support you. Compartmentalization has saved me from many experiences that I’ve seen and been a part of. It has also kept me from expressing feelings that I’m supposed to feel. Just remember that in our attempts to preserve our sanity we can’t lose our emotions. Keep emotional connections going, be present and allow yourself to feel things. You can be stoic, but don’t lose your heart trying to preserve your brain.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.