Compassion Fatigue

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The Question

Why yes, hello? This is Cathy Lee; I was just looking for someone to talk to tonight. Can I talk to you for a little bit while my sleeping pills kick in?

Brian sighed, but this time a sigh of relief. He knew Cathy, and he knew Cathy well. He spoke to her just last night, and in fact, he’d expected her to call sooner or later. She always did, the poor old thing. As old as she was, she never went to bed before midnight. Her anxiety riddled mind kept her awake often in her old age. She was a dream to talk to for any hotline operator, never being disrespectful and always expressing her gratitude that someone had answered the phone at all, no matter how long she had to wait. Cathy’s calls only ever lasted ten minutes and always arrived right on time.

“Yes, hey there Cathy,” Brian said, “I’m happy to hear your voice, how has your day been?”

Brian looked back at the thing in the window again, starting to become slightly more comfortable with its presence. He certainly didn’t like that the thing was there, and, of course, he still had no idea what it was, but he was starting to understand at least, how it functioned. At no point had it moved from that spot, and it never tried to knock down the door, even if it definitely had the power to do so. It hadn’t even touched the doorknob.

Oh, you know, the same old garbage. My neighbor was making a ruckus again. I don’t know what he does over there that’s so darn loud! I don’t think he even realizes I’m right on the other side of the wall!

“Guy sounds like a real jerk,” Brian acknowledged.

It wasn’t as if Brian really had to say anything to Cathy, and if he didn’t, she would talk herself right to sleep. He’d muted his headset on a call with her before and watched a movie on his phone. However, he probably appreciated her company right now almost as much as she appreciated his.

You have no idea! Cathy laughed. Oh, and my son didn’t call me again today. Not that that’s anything new. I don’t see why it’s so hard for him just to reach out and say hi to me. I’m his mother after all; he’s all I ever think about. Do I not cross his mind every now and again?

“I hope that you do,” Brian said. “He’s lucky to have a mother so invested in his life and wellbeing. Not everyone I talk to on this line can say they have the same.”

He stood up from his chair. Every now and again, he’d like to exercise the Bluetooth feature of his headset to pace around the room while he was on calls. As he listened to Cathy ramble about whatever it was that she was rambling about tonight, he approached the door to look through the window.

Brian stared at the creature for a long moment, studying it. Its head moved with Brian’s motions, following him. Brian raised a hand so that the thing could see it through the window. For a while, the thing stared at his hand, as if longing for it. Then, slowly, the creature lifted its own elongated arm, copying Brian’s gesture.

Brian moved his hand to the right.

The creature moved its hand to the right.

Brian moved his hand to the left.

The creature moved its hand to the left.

It was like Brian was staring into a distorted mirror. Brian turned away from the thing and made his way to the corner of the room that housed the coffee machine. After pouring himself a cup, he went back to his chair.

What are you now, one of the college students they got volunteering there?

Cathy was asking him a direct question now, snapping his focus back into the call.

“I was once,” Brian answered her. “When I started, that was a few years ago, they hired me to answer the phones long term. Now this is just my job.”

Oh well that’s good to hear. You’re good at it, they need more people like you answering the phones.

Brian didn’t have the heart to tell her that she had told me that many times before over the years. He didn’t have the heart to tell her that she had cursed him out a time or two before when she wasn’t on her medications. Although it was always nice to hear her say something like that, he didn’t hear it enough. A small smile stretched across Brian’s face, feeling pride in his work for the first time in a very long time.

For a moment, he almost forgot that the creature was there at all. He didn’t feel compelled to look and check; he just embraced the moment in which he didn’t care about it anymore.

Can I ask you a personal question? It’s something I’ve always wanted to know from one of you hotline workers, but never felt appropriate to ask. But you seem so kind and honest. I’ll bet you have a ton of experience.

“Sure Cathy, what is it?” Brian said, sipping his coffee.

Are you sure it’s okay to ask?

“Tell you what, just ask,” Brian answered. “If I’m uncomfortable answering, I won’t, and there will be no hard feelings.”

Well, okay. I just was curious, has anyone that you’ve ever talked to actually killed themselves before? Like, on the phone with you?

Brian’s eyes widened and his heart sank. Suddenly, he choked on his coffee, frantically starting to cough and pat his chest.

Before Brian could figure out exactly how he was going to approach that question, something happened.




The creature had started knocking on the door. It was loud, distracting, and nearly scared Brian enough to fall out of his chair. Brian turned around and looked at the window when his heart sank yet again.

It was waving at him and jiggling the doorknob. It wanted to come in.

I’m sorry, was that too personal to ask?

Brian’s heart was thumping so fast, he couldn’t catch his breath. He felt like he was choking just trying to breathe in the air.

“It’s okay,” Brian struggled to say. “I just can’t answer that question because of HIPAA.”

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