The Origins of Empathy


by Maddy Omrod, LSW - I always wanted a career that would help people. As a child, my dream was to be a doctor. I wanted to learn how to eradicate ailment and increase joy. Suffering disturbed me at an age before I was exposed to an understanding of true pain. This naiveté shattered during my freshman year of college. After a tumultuous first term and a much needed holiday break, I headed back to school hoping things would get better. As days went by, my mental health began to decline. I stopped eating most meals and began to sleep nearly 12 hours every night. The seemingly simple task of attending class and completing assignments grew to be impossible. My day to day functioning decreased so rapidly I knew I needed help. But having never experienced these feelings before, I was unsure what to do. As I scrolled through Instagram, I felt ashamed and alone that I was struggling so much while everyone else appeared to be living out the “best days of their lives” in college.

This struggle with my mental health reached a breaking point when I realized I would not pass the semester if I stayed in school. In my gut I knew I needed to take some time to figure out these feelings of anxiety and sadness. Three weeks after the start of term, I made the decision to take a personal leave from my dream school. I packed up and moved home and faced the most humbling Winter of my life. During my unexpected off term, I worked as a barista and saw a therapist for the first time in my life. When I was in high school, I thought there was something embarrassing about going to therapy because it meant you could not handle life on your own. Now, I realize that no one goes through life without help and therapy (with the right therapist) is an amazing opportunity to learn about yourself and work through challenges with an experienced professional.

In therapy and working and spending time with my family and close friends, I began to get better and feel strong enough to return to school. But during this time, I was not the only person in my family who was struggling. We thought my little brother was a typical teenage boy - experimenting with substances, getting caught, and getting grounded only to get caught again. But the situation eventually took a turn for the worse. Midway through his junior year, my brother dropped out of high school and spun into a hole of depression and addiction.

Drug use is taboo and stigmatized in the eyes of some whose lives are untouched by addiction. But the moment substances entangle someone you care deeply for, judgment flies out the window. All that matters is keeping your loved one alive. Many naive to the world of addiction have the false perception that sobriety is linear. With my brother, I learned that the struggle to be clean never goes away completely. Survivors of substance abuse often share that the work of healing and rebuilding continues even after remaining sober for decades. Thankfully, after years of hard work, the support of caring loved ones and professionals and many moments of pain and fear, my brother is alive and healthy. Still, as many people impacted by addiction know, our family recovery continues - we take life one day at a time and focus on gratitude that our loved one is safe and well.

My family’s journey with addiction and my own mental health struggles have reshaped my view of the world. I now look on people walking through substance abuse and mental health journeys with understanding and empathy. My experiences have given me a heart for those who struggle to make it through each day. Watching my brother face demons and fight to remain on this earth, I stopped wanting to be a doctor. Instead, I wanted to be a therapist so I could support people who suffered in silence, to help those with struggles unknown to the rest of the world.

The field of substance use and mental health treatment attempts to intercede the pain of addiction and mental illness and presents the opportunity to heal in the face of hopelessness. As anyone who has struggled with addiction or mental illness knows, there are sufferings in this world that are too difficult to speak. But when a fellow human being looks at you and tells you they can understand your pain, that they have been through a similar experience, the suffering somehow becomes bearable. Honesty, empathy and human connection become the first steps to healing.