Compassion Fatigue, otherwise known as Secondary-Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD), is a condition that provokes extreme states of tension in sufferers as they burden themselves with the stress of those they are working to help.
It’s the primary reason why, outside of the military, the animal care industry suffers the highest suicide rate in the United States.
That’s sure to come as a surprise to most. We see our relationship with pets as a wholly positive experience, one driven by companionship.
But some have come to rely on this companionship to a disturbing degree. In their subconscious minds, pet ownership is a shield, a way of dislocating themselves from the troubles that the world has brought upon them. Pets are there when nobody else is. Pets are safe when life seems anything but. Pets love, even when you feel useless and undeserving.
For those who carry this obsession into their career in animal care, the results are too often tragic.
Something needs to be done to eradicate this epidemic.
Grassroots Dog founder and coach Maggie Christina knows that too well. This kind of troubled relationship between animals and humans has defined her life, in one way or another, since she was born.
Growing up in Oregon, she didn’t have much else. Her family were emotionally abusive. They rarely had hot water, electricity, or any of the other essentials that make a house a home. And everything that went wrong in their lives always, somehow, became Maggie’s fault. So she spent most of her time at the local pet shop, desperate to prove to her mother that she was responsible enough to take care of an animal that would distract her from the hate and the pain heaped upon her.
This went on for many years until, at the age of 11, Maggie discovered something else that could free her from these hardships: an entrepreneurial spirit.
Having recently been turned down from a volunteer position at the pet store due to her age, and growing increasingly uninterested in school work, Maggie had been searching for a way to spend her time more practically, and with passion. She came up with a plan: during class time, she would run presentations on proper pet care for fellow students. The animals involved would be loaned from the store, with Maggie promising to direct her peers there when they wanted a pet of their own. After a period of negotiation, the school agreed, as did the owners of the store, and Maggie was set.
“It won’t amount to anything,” was Maggie’s father’s response upon hearing of her achievement. “You’ll never amount to anything.”
She tried to ignore him. Tried to tell herself that her father was wrong. But that is difficult for any child, and his words slowly began to corrode her will to live the life she desired.
Perhaps that would have been the end of it all for Maggie, if not for a fateful family reunion at which she met Gladys, her mother’s estranged sister. When the two were alone, Gladys pulled Maggie into the corner and spoke hurriedly, as if in fear of being caught.
She said “I see the way they treat you. I want you to know that they are wrong. You are capable. You can succeed. So never doubt yourself”.
Later that day, after Gladys had left, Maggie wondered aloud why she had never met her before.
“Don’t listen to anything she has to say.”
“She’s a loser.”
“She’s a drunk.”
“I’d be happy if I never saw her again”, cried her spiteful family members.
In that moment, realisation dawned. Gladys, at one point in her young life, must have been like Maggie; the scapegoat, the easy target. She was different. She had not given up on her potential. And, at some point, she’d escaped.
Now it was Maggie’s turn.
She left school at 12, started her first business (taking care of horses) at 14, and raised enough money to leave home at 18.
Maggie escaped to Southern California, where she established her first dog-training business. Now she was surrounded by happy animals on a daily basis. Now she was safe.
Maggie excelled not only as a trainer, but as a business owner, and was named the top trainer in her county within a year.
And that was just the beginning.
“You don’t train the dog, you train the owner!”
Every trainer gets told this at least once a week, but as Maggie first started to learn about Compassion Fatigue, she realised a hidden level of truth to it.
With the help of her mentors, she decided it was time to expand her horizons. Time to not only focus on helping clients get their animal’s issues under control, but on helping owners and other trainers alike with their issues as well. They were people like her. People in need of real support.
Maggie made the brave decision to shut down her business in order to study leadership development, and over the next four years ascended from high-wire instructor to Program Manager at California’s Camp Whittier.
It was a difficult time. Maggie struggled financially, faced increasingly difficult tests of resolve, but knew that when she was finished, she would be in a unique position to help the industry she loved.
Maggie met her husband shortly before completing her course. At its end, she moved to Alaska, where he lived, and started a new business training remotely. If not for the communication and program development skills she had acquired at Camp Whittier, it would have been all but impossible, but her training had paid off. She had the means to connect with her clients, the experience to recognise their problems, and the love to resolve them.
A few years later, illness in the extended family forced Maggie, her husband, and their young child back to North Carolina. With what little money they had left, the family bought a patch of land, used chainsaws to clear a section by hand, and set up an army tent which they would call home for the next year.
It was in this tent that Maggie founded the business she runs today: Grassroots Dog.
Offering a unique blend of animal training techniques and personal development, Grassroots Dog’s focus is on making a difference by providing trainers with the mindset and strategy needed to triple their revenue. It’s also a support network for those looking to combat Compassion Fatigue through innovative leadership techniques and healthy, sustainable business models.
Grassroots Dog is also about saving lives, including Maggie’s.
She never thought Compassion Fatigue would ensnare her. She thought she understood it so well that it could never creep up on her. So when it did, it was devastating.
As thoughts of suicide swam through her head, Maggie turned to the one group of people she knew could stop her from drowning – the Grassroots Dog tribe she had established throughout North America and Australia in order to help them fight through their own crises.
Through the power of community, and the leadership skills she had instilled in them, Maggie survived. And so will many others.
Shockingly, the revolutionary and necessary changes Grassroots Dog represents have been met with brutal, hateful opposition from industry figureheads who value the size of their wallets over the well-being of their colleagues.
Only last year, Maggie attended an interstate industry conference, where she was confronted by a group of men who had somehow learnt she’d hired a nanny to look after her child, who she’d brought to town with her.
“Next time”, they said, “stay at home with your kid and watch the conference online”.
The ‘suggestion’ was an attack. An attempt to isolate Maggie, destroy her career, and make her feel like she was failing in her maternal responsibility.
Like her family before them, these base, vicious, jealous people were trying to make Maggie feel worthless.
But for all the criticism, all the pain, Maggie knows she is proving them wrong.
20 years into her career, Maggie admits what she does isn’t about the animals anymore. It can’t be.
Today, her goal is to defend the mental health of her entire industry. It’s not safe. It’s not easy. But it matters.
Will you join her cause?