Three weeks after losing my only child in a swimming pool accident, I began working at a liquor store. It’s not where you’d expect a grieving mother to end up. I’d worked at a small Pennsylvania winery in my twenties, but there was a major difference between a gravel paved country winery and a highway liquor store in Northern New Jersey.
It was an attractive store filled with wooden wine racks. There was none of the fluorescent lighting normally seen in big liquor stores. This place felt different. Warm, friendly, and with great coworkers.
I felt safe to be “broken” there. I threw myself into studying regions, appellations, grape varietals, and all the stories behind the wines and whiskeys. The winemakers and distillers. Learning all this information kept my mind spinning with something other than the tortuous thoughts of my son’s death.
I quickly got to know the customers. I knew what they drank. And how quickly they drank it. As their visits became more frequent, my coworkers and I started to talk amongst ourselves about the downward spirals we were witnessing.
Customers would offer up unsolicited excuses for their frequent visits:
A sweet red-nosed grandmother would come in for her second pint of vodka within a few hours. It was always for penne in vodka sauce. She’d tell me her grandkids would always ask her to make it, practically every day. I’d jokingly tell her, “It’s ok. I get paid not to judge.”
There were lots of instances of “unexpected company” and forgotten needed “housewarming gifts” for those customers who made a second daily visit. I always kept my smile on my face. I always kept my words kind and comforting.
Along with the habitual drinkers, there were many who just loved wine. I greeted so many customers with hugs and kisses as I recommended new wines, getting to know their tastes and budgets. We got to know each other as people. I selectively shared the story of losing my son and they told me about their lives and families. It was a parade of human stories and I found most of them very interesting. And when I thankfully became pregnant two years after I began working there, my growing belly was a happy and humorous sight in a liquor store.
I began putting the pieces of my life back together slowly. Chasing pregnancy through multiple fertility treatments was finally successful. And when my daughter was born, healthy and perfect, small amounts of healing started to sneak into my brain, replacing the shock of losing it all in July of 2010.
Along with my husband, we felt like a family again. There were bittersweet smiles and hope slowly replaced fear and oppressive sadness. When my daughter was three months old, I went back to work in the liquor store that was my saving grace at my most broken time.
But things started to change. I spent more time on the cash register rather than on the sales floor. It was now a constant parade of hardcore alcoholics. Waiting outside the door for us to open and rushing in through the door a few minutes before we closed.
I gave them nicknames and turned them into amusing Facebook posts for my friends to read.
Fireball Guy came practically skipping into the store up to three times a day. He shouted an annoyingly joy filled HELLOOOOO as he put his cinnamon whiskey mini bottles and pints down on the counter.
Masturbation Pants Guy loaded up on cheap vodka and cranberry juice daily. Always breathing heavy, it looked like his drawstring pants fell off as soon as he walked in his front door.
Pocketful of Change Guy was always on an important phone call as he counted out his change in small piles for ninety-nine cent bottles of vodka. He’d be back in within an hour. He’d have more change and still be on an important phone call.
And there were moms. So many moms throwing little bottles into their purses or gym bags. The phrase of “There but for the grace of God, go I” ran through my head on a constant loop. Their drinking scared me. I developed a false sense of superiority while simultaneously wondering if all those little bottles actually had the answer to the undertones of sadness I felt daily. Because grief is non-linear and tricky as hell.
It was the same faces every day. And as much as I joked about getting paid not to judge, I judged. I judged hard. And that made me feel even worse.
I developed feelings I’m not proud of towards these customers. I became dismissive. I’d reached a limit as to what I could absorb. I wanted to just enjoy my second chance at motherhood while trying to come to terms with my own grief of losing my son. I didn’t want to be privy to this world of alcoholism. Or the sadness that came with it. I’d developed something called “compassion fatigue.”
I said to a coworker that this job has made me into a person I don’t like. She replied, “But you’re a very nice person in real life.”
I needed to change my mindset. After almost ten years at this job, I’d worked my way up to a good hourly wage. I still needed this job. How could I make it less toxic?
According to Psychology Today, compassion fatigue was mostly seen amongst health care workers and first responders. But with pictures and descriptions of the world’s traumas at the touch of our fingertips, compassion fatigue is spreading like an epidemic. I was feeling all the symptoms and going through all the stages before I even knew what the symptoms and stages actually were.
The defined stages of compassion fatigue in the workplace fit my experience to a tee.
1. Enthusiasm- I was committed and excited in the beginning. I felt like I made a difference
2. Irritability-Mocking, inappropriate humor, and avoiding customers
3. Withdrawal-No pride in my work. Unmotivated, full of complaints
4. Quitting-Depressed, frustrated, and even angry. Impatient and disgusted
This job had become an uncomfortable mix of painfully real life for others while dealing with the evolution of my own grief. Balancing my own emotions while seeing others in a daily downward spiral became hard work. Along with the actual job of stocking shelves and bagging bottles, I became a sponge for so much sadness and dysfunction.
Friends would tell me “it’s just a job” or “shut off the feelings when you’re there.” I know there are more intensely emotional jobs than working in a liquor store. My admiration for healthcare workers and first responders is monumental. But in the age of self-care and the importance of mental health awareness, we all have our limitations.
After recognizing compassion fatigue, I needed to start making some healthy decisions to help me cope, while still earning my paycheck. I never expected to be pondering my life’s balance at the cash register of a liquor store. And certainly not on the cashier side.
I took a month off. I put some distance between me and them. I surrounded myself with the people that mattered. Every day, I made sure I understood that I cannot save the world. I gave myself permission to be broken again.
Even though I had the happy ending of having my daughter, losing a child never leaves you whole. And my empty spots need to be guarded with all the energy I can gather.