Sympathy vs. Empathy

The other day I witnessed something awful. I was working on the Fremont Bridge here in Seattle. It’s 30 feet off the water. Right next to it is the Aurora Bridge, which is 170 feet off the water. Before they put up the higher railing on the Aurora Bridge, the only bridge in the world more known for suicides was the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Fortunately the higher railing has reduced our statistics dramatically, but some people are extremely determined.

It had been a really good day at work. The end of my shift was fast approaching and I was looking forward to going home. Then I heard the sirens. I looked up, and there, standing on the thin, fragile railing, 170 feet above the canal, was a teenaged boy. He stood there, motionless, as the fire engines and police cars gathered around him. They didn’t get too close. Several officers were trying to talk to him, but he wasn’t acknowledging anyone, as far as I could tell. He just stood there, on the brink of death, gazing off to the horizon.

And I felt like a bug pinned to a display board. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look away. All I could do is quietly say, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, oh God, please don’t do it.” My heart was pounding. I felt sick. I have never felt so helpless in my entire life.

I’ve been a bridgetender since 2001. This isn’t my first rodeo. But in the past I’ve only experienced the aftermath. I’ve either heard them hit (which is a sound you’ll never forget), or I’ve heard the fire engine race up and them coax the guy down. This time I had a front row seat for the most pivotal moment in someone’s life, and I couldn’t do anything to help.

Then a woman came running up the sidewalk, her arms outstretched. An officer stopped her just short of the boy. He still didn’t move. He stood there for 30 minutes. It felt like an eternity.

Then, thankfully, he decided to climb down. But to do this he had to make a 180 degree turn on that railing and squat down. That was the scariest part for me. I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it suck if he changed his mind and now he accidentally fell?”

Eventually he got down and they were able to get him in the ambulance. They drove away and reopened the bridge to traffic and everything went back to normal. Sort of. But meanwhile I was nauseous from the adrenaline dump. I went home to an empty house and had no one to talk to about it. Oddly I was ravenously hungry, but was so sick I couldn’t eat until the next day, after having had several nightmares.

Post Traumatic Stress. That’s a problem. Because it won’t be the last jumper I witness when I work on this bridge. All my coworkers have seen several. And they say it’s worse when they actually jump, especially when they hit the ground or a building instead of the water. Clearly, I’m going to need some coping skills if I’m going to deal with this on a regular basis.

So I decided to take advantage of my Employee Assistance Program and see a counselor. I had my first appointment yesterday. We talked about suicide and what it means to me personally and what it means in general, and she gave me several things to think about.

She said that some people are in so much emotional pain and feel so out of control that they take the control of the one thing that everyone can potentially control—their death. It’s an awful choice to make, but some people may think it’s the only one they have. Others are under the influence of drugs and are making irrational choices in general and this is just another one of those irrational choices. She also said it was normal for me to feel sympathy for this person’s pain and confusion. That’s a very human reaction.

Then we discussed the difference between sympathy and empathy, because that’s what I clearly have to work on. Here are the definitions:

Sympathy [sim-puh-thee]

noun, plural sympathies.

  1. harmonyoforagreementinfeeling,asbetweenpersonsoronthepartofonepersonwithrespecttoanother.

Empathy [em-puh-thee]


  1. The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

I have always taken pride in the fact that I’m a fairly empathetic individual. I can put myself into other people’s emotional shoes and act toward them accordingly. This is a skill that not everyone possesses. I get frustrated by insensitive, oblivious people. But it never occurred to me that sometimes empathy is not the best thing to have.

Because, you see, I took that young man’s emotional pain into my body. I mean, I really felt it. And because of that I had to deal with it in the aftermath, kind of like having to expel poison. Not good.

So my homework, probably for the rest of my life, is to learn to not take people’s pain on board. It’s okay to feel sympathy, pity, sadness for that person and what they are going through, but I really need to not take it into my soul. It isn’t mine. It doesn’t belong to me, and I don’t have to take ownership of it. What a concept.

Wish me luck.


Sunrise, a boat race, and my view of the Aurora Bridge from work.


Bridge Nightmares

It happened again last night. I had the nightmare that never fails to make me sit straight up in bed, bathed in a cold sweat with tears flowing down my cheeks. Whew. That hasn’t happened in a while. Post Traumatic Stress is such a lovely experience.  In this case it‘s caused by an incident several years ago on one of the drawbridges where I work.

It was a nice summer day, and I was working as a flag person. It’s a big bridge and requires two flag people because it’s a vertical lift bridge, and conceivably cars could crash the gate and drive straight into the river. So two people flag, one on each end, while one person performs the lift.

We all communicate by hand held radio, and the driver waits for us to tell him that the span is clear of cars and pedestrians before proceeding with the opening. He has way too many blind spots to rely on his own vision.

Well, on this day we both told him that there was still someone walking across the bridge. Both of us. But a barge was bearing down on us, and I guess he got flustered. Before we knew it, the bridge started to rise. We both shouted, “Stop!!!“ but he continued with the lift. He said, “Oh well, I guess she’s going for a ride.“

We were horrified. But we were even more horrified when the lady, who looked to be in her 80’s, got frightened. She assumed all drawbridges are bascule bridges, and open sort of like the leaves of a book, and that she’d slip off. So she jumped off the rising part of the bridge down to the street level. It was a 5 foot drop and she sprained her ankle.

Now she was on street level, but she was outside of the sidewalk gates, clinging to them on what had turned into, in essence, a 40 foot cliff above the river. She was hysterical. This was bad. This was really, really bad. I knew she’d be okay if she didn’t panic, but she was already agitated, and if she stepped one foot backward, she could plunge to her death.

My heart was pounding, but I had to do something, so I climbed over the railing and walked up to the sidewalk gate and grabbed her by the shoulders. I said, “Look at me. Don’t worry. I’ve got you. You’re going to be all right. Just stay right there. I’ve got you.“ I didn’t want her to look behind her, or look down, or move. I needed her to stay calm, and the last thing I need was for her to see that I was freaking out inside.

I kept talking to her during the 5 minute opening, which I’m sure felt like an eternity to her. God knows it did to me.

Finally, the bridge closed, the sidewalk gate opened, and she threw herself into my arms while she cried, that chest-heaving kind of cry most of us don’t do very often. That nearly destroyed me. She was about 90 pounds soaking wet, so her body felt like my mother’s, who had passed away 16 years previously. It felt very, very personal to me.

I asked her if she wanted an ambulance. She said no, she just wanted to get off the bridge. But to do that she had to go back the way she came, limping the whole time, and she was afraid the bridge would open up on her again, so I said I would walk with her.

Meanwhile, the bridgetender who was driving was already trying to cover his butt. So he was screaming profanity at me on the radio, trying to claim I hadn’t told him anyone was there. I had to tell him to shut up, as the lady could hear him.

I finally sent her on her way and returned to the tenderhouse to face my coworker’s wrath. But fortunately the other flag person was my witness. The guy was eventually fired, but not before screaming at me, and getting inches from my face, while 5 coworkers and a supervisor looked down at their shoes and said nothing.

And he sued the company saying he was wrongfully terminated, so I had to appear in court and relive the whole sordid mess over again about 8 months later. We won, of course. He didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Even so, I’m left with a legacy of nightmares. They’re not as frequent as they used to be, but they still sneak up on me every now and then. That woman could have been my mother, and she could have died right before my very eyes. It was a very near thing. Even 6 years later, it makes me nauseous just thinking about it.

Bridge with arrow(Here’s the bridge at full open, with a red arrow indicating where she was perched. It doesn’t look like much from here, but that’s a 40 foot drop down to some concrete pilings and the river.)

A Passing Relationship with the Great Scareball in the Sky

Unless you’ve worked the graveyard shift like I have for the past 12 years, you are probably unaware that there is a whole other civilization out there, right under your nose. If you are even remotely cognizant of our existence, you probably think we make big money, but I’m here to tell you that most of us don’t. We’re the people who come out after you’re long asleep and do the things you don’t want to do. Without me opening that drawbridge on the intercoastal waterway, though, interstate maritime commerce would come to a grinding halt. You wouldn’t want that, now, would you?

And then while you are awake and going about your daily business, we’re most likely at home, behind blackout curtains, desperately trying to sleep, and cursing the fact that your daily business seems to make so much freakin’ noise.

There are approximately 15 million of us in America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We tend to be loners, because social butterflies don’t last long in our world, as friends who want to spend time with us soon realize that it’s a logistics nightmare, and the odds of meeting new people are slim at best. Dating? Forget that. Who’d put up with our schedule?

There are all sorts of statistics about graveyard shifters. I read somewhere that we tend to have 42 percent more traffic accidents than the general population. I can believe that. I’ve woken up at stop lights on too many occasions to deny the possibility. Our health is severely affected as well, in the form of restlessness, fatigue, decreased attention and disruption of the body’s metabolic process.

Studies have been done about the disruption in circadian rhythms, and how it impacts cognition and makes us more vulnerable to disease. I know for a fact that my brain function is impacted because when I take a vacation and switch back to a normal schedule, it’s as if my mind comes out of a fog.

I’m quite sure I accomplish much less at home than the average person, because my whole reason for being has become the desperate pursuit of sleep. I can’t remember the last time I got more than 5 hours of sleep at a stretch. Something always disrupts my efforts. If it’s not the phone, it’s garbage pickup. If it’s not garbage pickup, it’s a lawnmower. If it’s not a lawnmower, it’s the Jehovah’s freakin’ Witnesses, who tend to get a reaction that they haven’t counted upon. Dogs barking. Construction work. And at my last address, I swear to God, the local high school marching band used to practice in the park across the street. That was when I began to understand why people become so attached to their assault weapons.


Working the graveyard shift has changed me. I’m afraid I’m going to turn into one of those cranky old women who refuse to let the neighborhood kids retrieve their basketballs from the back yard. But at least I have come by it honestly. So if you see me, looking pale and unhealthy, squinting at the big scareball in the sky, please be kind. I’m just a tourist in your world, and I barely speak the language anymore. I’m just happy to have a job.