Soul Searching

A recent study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals that animal rescue workers have a suicide rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers. This is the highest suicide rate among American workers; a rate shared only by firefighters and police officers. The national average suicide average for American workers is 1.5 per 1 million.

More than three decades of data shows that veterinarians are up to 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than members of the general population, according to new a study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.



These statistics have been a grim reality for me, in a very palpable way. The veterinarian who spayed and neutered most of @tarc’s rescued animals over a period of three years took his own life in 2016. It was a devastating loss for TARC and for the entire community. Before that, in 2014, renowned veterinarian and animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin died by her own hand, presumably as a consequence of compassion fatigue. She was 48.

I have a strong frame of reference for relating to this problem. I’ve worked in animal welfare and rescue full-time since 2013, and it has taken an incredible toll. Compassion fatigue is real. So is secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m experiencing both.

No, I’m not contemplating suicide. I’m risk-free in that regard; if I didn’t pull the trigger in 2004 when the worst thing that could happen to me happened, I certainly won’t pull it now. So don’t send me crisis hotline numbers. I’m stronger than that. I’ll get through this. Alive.

But I do have to make some tough choices about my lifestyle. I’ve written several poems lately just to get the anger out, the hurt, the pain. I’ve kept them carefully obscure, since my private life is exactly that—private—and I pick and choose who I share details with. Currently three people on the face of this earth know what’s been happening in my “real world.” Two of them are on Steem. One is not. They are trusted confidantes who weather the brunt of my hurricane emotions. And believe me, right now my emotions are a tempest.

None of those three people asked for the responsibility of keeping me grounded. But between them, it’s working. Two of them talk these matters through with me at length. One says very little but is such a source of positive energy in my universe that few words are required.

Everyone else gets to see the game face. Am I being fake? No—I think I’m just being practical. We have work to do, the Steemhouse publishing group and I. There’s no time for Rhonda to have a meltdown. So I do that in private. Even my three most trusted friends in the world don’t get to see me at my lowest points.

So how did I end up here? How does anyone end up wrung out, strung out, and empty-handed after an entire lifetime of trying to strike the Libra balance and do the right thing by everybody?

I’m not sure if there’s a good answer to that question. I’ve put my confidence in a lot of wrong people. I know that much. Have I learned anything from it? Je ne sais pas. But I certainly hope so. I have to surround myself with positivity, even if this means eliminating every source of negative energy in my life.

And that will be a complicated exorcism.

Since 2013, I’ve given everything I had to this rescue. Central Appalachia is such a horrid place for animals—the cruelties here are unspeakable. I often compare this region of the U.S. to a Third World country, and I don’t think I’m far off the mark. Lack of pride in the community or its appearance—almost every residential and commercial structure is run-down and gone to seed. Children are exposed to barbaric acts of neglect and abuse against animals and other people until they’re utterly desensitized. The entire culture here is unwilling to learn a better way of life because “this is how we done it forever.” To quote my latest novel High Kill, which is set in this region and based on many of my personal experiences: “…if your way of life is destroying your children, you don’t get to treasure it, and you don’t get to hang on to it. You figure out where the hell you went wrong, and you fix it.” Well, nobody has been interested in “fixing” anything in Central Appalachia for a long time. And I’m tired of fighting for a cause nobody here seems to believe in but me.

In five years, I’ve exhausted my savings. I’ve run the wheels off my personal vehicle hauling hundreds of dogs to safety in New England, dogs dumped on me by people too sorry to fulfill their obligations to lives they took responsibility for. Tempted to defend them? To imagine the pitiful circumstances that would cause these poor mountain folk to surrender a beloved pet?

Think again. Backyard breeders are Appalachia’s puppy mills. They crank out litter after litter to support their pill habit, selling unweaned, unvaccinated puppies in the classifieds of the local bargain paper who are typically too sick to survive more than a few days in their new homes. These are the same people who have consistently attacked me on Facebook, sent law enforcement to do “welfare checks” on my animals because I posted asking for help with a vet bill, who knifed my tires, shot dogs in the head that rescuers were on their way to rescue from the side of the road—and ooooh, just let me make a public appeal for donations and see how fast they line up to accuse me of fraud, thievery, and greed. Happens every time.

I’m tired, folks. This war has exhausted me. All give and no take—I’m empty. I can’t do this anymore. I will carry the scars from this for the rest of my life. It’s no secret that I want to leave this place. I want to move far, far away and never think about Southwest Virginia again. This is the most hostile, ungrateful, self-destructive community I have ever had the misfortune of discovering. More than a decade and a half of living here has nearly killed me.

Some of you know how long I’ve been asking people in Appalachia to help and support my 501c3 nonprofit rescue. But here in these mountains, most charitable efforts are looked upon with disdain and suspicion, to the point that the benefactor actually begins to feel and behave like someone guilty of a crime. I’ve gone without proper nutrition, heat in the winter, reliable brakes on my vehicle, and indoor plumbing for almost three years now. I keep the bills paid and the animals properly vetted. I need glasses with a prescription more recent than ten years ago. I need work done on this house. I need a working refrigerator. Stove. Washer and dryer. I need to start over. Just cut my losses and walk away.

Some of you know that during this last cold snap, the water lines in this very old house froze for the first time in more than seventy years. Upon thawing, they burst. I did have someone loan me the $140 it took to buy supplies to replumb. I didn’t mean to borrow the money—that’s just the way the universe worked it out. I’ll repay it. Soon.

But then what of the supplies that I bought? I ended up replumbing the whole house by myself. New water line, all the way from the feed coming into the house to the kitchen sink. Let’s hear it for self-sufficiency…but any sense of pride I have in the accomplishment is buried under resentment toward all the people who could have helped me and simply refused to do so. Only one person has bothered to congratulate me for successfully completing a project most women would never dream of undertaking. One person. Everyone else seems to take for granted that I should just do these things, because I deserve to be alone with no help ever no matter how urgent the emergency, because I somehow brought all of this on myself, because I’m endlessly expected to give and ask for nothing in return.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s not congratulations I need. It’s for someone to recognize—finally—that my ability to give and to survive is finite. It’s for somebody to give back into my life just a portion of the time and energy I’ve poured into others. It’s for me to wake up once—just one day—and not realize I’m facing the last half of my life alone, even though I’m surrounded by people who think they know me. They don’t. Because really—who has ever taken the time to ask what my favorite song is? Or why I don’t like freshwater fish, but can eat the hell out of anything pulled in from the ocean? Who has ever cared about these details? Anyone? These are the kinds of questions I ask other people all the time, because I’m truly interested in the answers and what they’ll tell me about that person. But I’m starting to realize nobody gives a shit what those answers would tell them about me. And let me tell ya—realizing this is one of the loneliest feelings I have ever experienced.

So I’m done. If I’m living life alone, then I will live it truly alone and unencumbered by anyone else’s baggage. I will pick my friends by the amount of time they invest back into me, and the takers and the emotional vampires and the endless sources of negativity will be banished from every corner of my life. If this means giving up the rescue, giving up the property I currently call home, giving up everything I’m still hanging on to in hopes it’ll get better someday, then so be it. I’m tired of turning black inside while everybody thinks I’m just fine to go another round. I’m not. I promise you, I’m not.

I had a long talk with myself about whether or not to publish this post. Every other time I write, I weigh the value other people might get from my words. Rest assured, at this point I no longer care. I wrote this one all for me. And I published it all for me, because I have something to say and I will say it to the wall if nobody else will listen. I’m tired. I’m angry. I’m damaged. And now I have to figure out how to climb out of this hole I’ve let myself get pushed into. Once I do, you will never see me back in this place ever again.