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What the Animals at the Gentle Barn Taught Me About Self-Care

An Excerpt from Cow Hug Therapy

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Photo: Shutterstock

I was raised to study and work as hard as I could, watching my dad sacrifice time with his family, relaxation, and self-care to be the best at what he did. My father was indeed at the top of his field, becoming the chief of cardiac surgery at UCLA and saving thousands of lives over the course of his career. At the Gentle Barn, I had the same work ethic, working as hard as I could and sacrificing everything to help as many animals and people as possible.

Without an understanding and a practice of self-care, my work ethic (or my overwork ethic) became a problem for me. I used to think that compassion fatigue was just extreme sadness, stress, or overwhelm, and I didn’t realize how profound its effects could be. When I experienced it myself for the first time, I was so affected and surprised by it that it took months to overcome. Still, it wasn’t until I was 51 years old that I recognized the need for true self-care.

The foothills in Southern California are prone to wildfires, especially in times of drought. The dry grasses and bushes of the hillsides are brittle tinder for fast-spreading fires. In 2019 a nearby fire spread quickly until, within just 40 minutes, it was dangerously close to at The Gentle Barn, our organization that rescues and rehabilitates unwanted animals and heals people with histories of trauma. We were faced with a wall of fire that could leap across the street at any moment and trap us on our own property. Calling on the kindness of volunteers and staff, even strangers, we somehow managed to evacuate the animals while my partner, Jay, and some of the other staff held the fire at bay with hoses, shovels, and fire extinguishers. Once the animals were safe and the fire department had put out the flames, we spent six days awake and on alert, watching to make sure there were no sparks left to reignite.

Gentle Barn

With the exhaustion and strain on my body, I came down with an illness that I now think was Covid, even before it was recognized as being present in the United States. I was severely ill for four grueling days, unable to do anything but groan in bed. Once I had recovered from the throbbing headache and high fever, I became extremely anemic and started passing out. I went back to work, expecting to bounce back soon. But over the next several days I grew so weak that I could not even stand up to get dressed, much less work.

Ignoring the severity of my physical condition, I decided to work sitting down. It wasn’t until I was completely yellow, out of breath, and passing out constantly that Jay insisted I go to the hospital. Even then, I fought the idea, wanting to stay home to continue working.

At the emergency room, the front desk person took one look at me and admitted me right away, recognizing that I could lose my life without intervention. I spent the next week getting three blood transfusions and stern lectures from the doctor and everyone in my family about taking better care of myself.

This near-death experience made me step back to look at the larger mosaic of my own being. By focusing on the high-priority day-to-day needs of others, I had allowed myself to go into deep denial about my need for self-care. It’s not that I was on the bottom of my list of those I loved and cared for—I wasn’t on my list at all!

Since then, I have come to understand compassion fatigue as way more than just stress. I now recognize its symptoms and know how to pull myself out of it, faster and faster each time. I have come to accept that compassion fatigue is and will always be part of my work. Those of us who are empaths, warriors, caregivers, lightworkers, and healers, those of us who self-sacrifice, feel the pain of others, and give all that we have away, are going to see the suffering and cruelty of this world, and eventually we will feel hopeless and defeated. It is futile to resist or avoid it, but we all must know how to survive it.

I have watched as other gifted rescuers and caregivers, suffering the effects of compassion fatigue, eventually quit and walk away from their work of good. This isn’t the solution. The environment, the animals, and all the world’s innocents need us now more than ever. If we know how to get through compassion fatigue, we can keep going to help even more.

Like most people, I had no option to walk away. My children, animals, employees, volunteers, and followers were counting on my strength. So, I came up with a five-part plan to minimize the effects of compassion fatigue and prevent my work from zapping the life from me.

First, I decided to share my message more gently, so that I would live in harmony all the time. I would not indulge my feelings of upset at the state of the world because that only hurt me and didn’t have a positive effect on anyone else. I worked on staying gentle and calm, taking responsibility for my reactions.

Second, after sharing my message gently, I had to lose attachment to the outcome. What people did with their experience at the Gentle Barn or the knowledge they gained there was their concern, not mine. Their journey was none of my business. I could control only my choices.

Third, I had to surround myself with people, experiences, and news that uplifted, inspired, and encouraged me. I pledged to stop watching and listening to the news. I began to follow only uplifting pages on social media. I became extremely picky about what shows and movies I watched, and I created an inner circle of friends who would always leave me feeling encouraged.

Fourth, I committed to celebrating the victories. In every cause, the finish line seems so far away, and the problem so huge. Often, we are so overwhelmed by the problem that we don’t acknowledge that we are making strides every day. In my cause of peace, love, and joy for animals, there are new vegan products, restaurants, spokespeople, and other accomplishments every day. I gave myself permission to celebrate those victories, no matter how small.

Fifth and finally, I came up with a meditation to help create a peaceful planet. I based it on my vision for the Gentle Barn, which I had long manifested each night before I went to bed. After years of imagining what the Gentle Barn would be like, I could practically taste, smell, and touch it in my mind. And then it came to be! If that worked to create the Gentle Barn, then I could do the same thing to create a peaceful planet. Each morning, I set my alarm for five minutes, sat comfortably, closed my eyes, and visualized clean oceans, thriving marine life, tall ancient trees, safe animals, gardens and orchards that nourish humanity, horses running free, and people cradling chickens, cuddling turkeys, hugging cows, and holding hands peacefully with each other. Every conversation, experience, or ounce of work I did afterward was born out of that intention, that dream. I still do this every morning, and I will continue visualizing that peaceful, gentle world until we have it.

Along with my five-part plan, I set up a toolbox to help me recover from compassion fatigue. Inside I put the names of everyone who can help me in a crisis: energy healers, tarot card readers, mediums, therapists, and friends. Then I added a list of simple, easy, affordable things that bring me joy, like taking a bubble bath, walking in nature, spending time with my family, meditating, and of course being in my barnyard. Being aware of those things and writing them down reminded me to do them regularly, and to do them all to help me heal when I was in crisis. I then added a list of the things I had accomplished so far, to remind me of the importance of continuing, even when I felt broken. This little toolbox is stashed away somewhere safe, and when compassion fatigue hits next, I’ll reach inside and take out the tools to help me recover, heal, and keep going.

So often, self-care is associated with working to be perfect. It’s about losing weight or getting a manicure; it’s what we do to feel like we look good enough or have accomplished enough compared to other people. That type of self-care landed me in the hospital. My new self-care toolkit — the five-part plan and the toolbox—began with the premise that self-care must start with self-love. Slowly and steadily, for the first time in my life, I committed to love and nurture myself. Instead of picking myself apart in the mirror, I started appreciating my body for what it had been for me. My breasts had nursed, nourished, and fed two children, establishing their strong immune systems. My legs allowed me to do my work and walk among my animals. My arms allowed me to embrace the broken, lost, and sick rescues we bring in and give them safety. My wrinkles were trophies, memories of the many times I had smiled, laughed, frowned, and cried because I had loved so much and so many. My gray hairs were ribbons of honor for all that I have grown through, experienced, evolved, and learned.

I have never heard an animal complain about their bodies. They never say that they are too fat, too thin, too old, too young, too short, or too tall, like we tend to do. They accept themselves the way they are, are grateful for what their bodies can do, and thankful to be alive. They eat when they are hungry, drink when thirsty, sleep when tired, and spend most of their day doing what makes them happy. I realized that the way we talk to ourselves is vicious, and I would never speak to anyone else the way I spoke to myself. It was time to be kinder to myself. It was time to be more like my animals.

I pledged to feed my body fresh organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grain, and exercise my body so I could be stronger and have more energy. I added myself to the list of those I love and care for, treating myself like I would any of my kids or animals.

As empaths, lightworkers, caregivers, healers, nurses, firefighters, doctors, veterinarians, police officers, rescuers, animal lovers, moms, and dads, we have lives depending on us every day. We need to give more to ourselves so we can give more to others. We need to care for ourselves first, and then extend all the care, nurturing, and acceptance outward. Love is an inside job…and we deserve it.

Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com 

About The Author
Ellie Laks

Ellie Laks is the founder of the Gentle Barn Foundation, a national organization that rescues and rehabilitates unwanted animals and heals people with histories of trauma. She is an animal communicator, energy healer, TEDx speaker, educator, and the author of Cow Hug Therapy: How the Animals at the Gentle Barn Taught Me about Life, Death, and Everything in Between.

Ellie founded the Gentle Barn in 1999 and has since hosted hundreds of thousands of people who have come there seeking hope. She is the creator of Cow Hug Therapy as well as her Gentle Healing method, which allows old, sick, injured, and terrified animals to recover using a mixture of Western medicine, holistic healing modalities, holding therapy, and lots of love.

Ellie lives at the Gentle Barn’s California location with her partner, Jay Weiner, who runs the organization with her. They have three children, hundreds of animals, and much to be grateful for. Ellie wants to spend the rest of her life improving the lives of animals and opening the hearts of humanity toward them in any way she can. Learn more at GentleBarn.org and EllieLaks.com