Empathy Extremities

Empathy is the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. True empathy means understanding a person’s pain and suffering because you have experienced something similar, you know what it feels like, and their situation has inspired those same feelings in you, on their behalf. If you haven’t had that same experience before, you can feel for the person, feel sympathy for them, but empathy may not be possible.  This is something that certain people have trouble with. I am one of those people, but not because I’m incapable of feeling empathy. No, I’m on the other end if the spectrum.  I feel too much empathy.  I physically ache when I’m in the presence of those who are suffering.  I literally cry when I see someone else crying.  I take in all their hurt and it radiates throughout my heart and soul, and I become that hurt.  I suffer with them.  Whomever it may be-the heartbroken, the sick, the losing team. I can relate to them all, and I feel just terrible, for them. I hurt because they hurt.  It’s very difficult for me to be inside a hospital, for I can sense all the rooms filled with people on their sick beds, many upon their death beds.  I can feel the physical pain as well as the sorrow, the desperation, the agony of fear and of loss.  My memories of all these things build and build until I can take no more. I feel as though I might explode from all the suffering, on so many different levels.  I try to avoid places like nursing homes and funeral homes because I simply cannot tolerate that much emotional and physical pain all at one time, coming right at me.  I’ve been spending a good deal of time at a hospital this past week, as my mother was admitted for pneumonia, among other things.  I’ve been going there every day, walking the halls, hearing the cries of physical torment coming from some of the rooms, seeing the tears of the frightened, and feeling every little agonizing detail as I walk past hallways and rooms. I am extremely sensitive to any type of emotional pain, and the over-the-top sensations coming from within the walls of a hospital are very nearly too much for me to bear.  I cry with strangers. I literally hear someone crying, and my eyes well up with tears, and I begin to cry for that person, even if I can’t see them.  I only need hear the crying, and I’m enveloped in emotions and unable to contain my tears.  This makes it especially difficult for me to visit my mother right now, for she has shingles, one of the most painful conditions a person can have.  Shingles is a nerve infection caused by the chicken pox virus and is common in older people or those with weakened immune systems.  It’s a nerve pain, a totally different kind of physical suffering.  She cries out suddenly and often, and each cry is like a dagger through my heart. My whole being aches for her, and with her.  I wish I could take the suffering for her, take it all inside of me and bear it for her. I’d give anything to make her pain go away.  But I am powerless to help her.  The doctors can barely do anything. She’s on some of the strongest pain medications available, and they make her talk crazy and go out of her head.  She hallucinates and talks to people who aren’t there. “Welcome to my world, Mom. Sorry you have to experience this.”  I don’t think I can adequately describe how much I ache for my mother and how much it kills me to see and hear her in that much pain.  It’s the worst form of torture for me.  This is creating flashbacks….  When my father was dying, he was in a tremendous amount of pain due to a rare neurological disease, and he would sometimes scream, and it ripped through me each and every time.  I had to witness my father’s suffering for two years before he finally died and was at peace.  Now I’m having to watch my mother suffer as well. I guess my complaining about it only succeeds in making me seem selfish, and for that I am sorry. I don’t want to be selfish, I just don’t want anyone to hurt so badly. Mom first developed the shingles rash in February, and while the rash is fading, she’s developed a complication called PHN (postherpetic neuralgia) so the pain is still excruciating for her and has the potential to last for years, possibly even for the rest of her life.  Add to that her pneumonia and asthmatic bronchitis and anemia and she’s a very sick woman.  And so I must go to the hospital every day and every evening and sit with her for hours at a time.  During those hours, I feel her pain.  Every jolt of nerve pain that courses through her body also courses through mine. I cry with her. In fact, it would be much easier for me to bear the pain if the pain were all my own.  I can tolerate great amounts of pain and I’d love to take over for my mom and let her be at peace.  I can’t imagine continuing this degree of physical torment for very much longer.  Every day when I get to the hospital I have to take an Alprazalam just to be able to walk in the front entrance.  Everywhere I look are sick people, dying people, people in agony either physical or emotional.  I absorb it all like a sponge until I am doused in suffering.  This physical and emotional and psychological pain will stay with me throughout my hospital visit, and lingers long after I’ve gone home.  When I try to sleep at night, I can hear the cries of pain, the moans of my mother, the screams coming from down the hall.  The doctor said Mom might get to come home in 3 days, and I’m banking on that.  I don’t think I can stand much more of this. Watching my mother suffer is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, second only to watching my father suffer and die.  Part of me wishes that I were incapable of feeling empathy. I don’t want to hurt for strangers who neither know nor care that I’m aching for them.  I don’t want to shed a tear every time I wander through the emergency room.  I don’t want to feel so much.  But I guess it’s better to feel than not.  Feeling empathy to any degree means I’m feeling, and that makes me human. At the very least, I have that. I may not be “normal” but I am still a human being.