Compassion fatigue (the one about the woman with the spoons) – a throwback Thursday post (series part 3)

Note: I wrote the first draft of this piece in June 2013 at a Write around Portland drop-in workshop at HotLips Pizza. It was a ten-minute write with the prompt, “Through the glass…”  I am posting it here with few changes to the original.  I wrote this six months after my mother died, when I had my workforce development job where I partnered with five different social service agencies to train case managers and facilitate career mapping workshops with marginalized populations. I later used it as the intro to a workshop I led each year for my AmeriCorps teams on compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, and professional quality of life.

So I was in Old Town. For work. I’d parked on W. Burnside at Second for a Friday 9am meeting I was dreading. I was there to talk about how we could “move forward”* after the layoff of a program manager, a woman I liked very much with wild grey hair and kind eyes that crinkled at the corners. (*“Moving forward” is always how we phrase it, despite the fact that someone had lost her job because of “funding streams.” I will write another day about my views of “looking back” under circumstances like these.)


As I sat in the meeting, using words like “stakeholder” (jeeesus – ugh), on the other side of the glass was a woman probably younger than me, who was gesturing wildly about something. Then she took off her shirt. And her bra. Which was hot pink, and, therefore, all the more noticeable, particularly as it dangled from her still-gesturing hand, her rib cage visible all the way around.

Someone near her tried to shield her from traffic, but we were not on the traffic side.

Us. In this meeting. Talking about how we would continue to help “the homeless” – as if “the homeless” were a concept and not this woman.

I left the meeting and walked back to my car, regretting wearing sandals because who knew what human liquid, or solid, or needle, or razor blade I could step in. I passed the woman and she had emptied her entire bag out onto the sidewalk. The contents consisted of maybe 40 metal spoons. (?) (Is that the strange part of this event?)

I got into my car, worried about my expired parking meter.

As I drove away, back to my office, back to those politics and all-staff e-mails about “please don’t leave your salads in the refrigerator,” I felt so bad because I was supposed to be “The Help.” And I did not – do not – have what she needed.

Who could I have called? The Police? Hell no. Crisis intervention? (Seriously?)


What she needs is for the world, or at least Old Town, to be safe for a half-naked woman with a bag full of spoons.

She needs more than one person to shield her.

One thought on “Compassion fatigue (the one about the woman with the spoons) – a throwback Thursday post (series part 3)

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