Sometimes I swear the nursing home is secretly a crucible—with myself as the bit of iron being refined and beaten into steel. Maybe I’ll come out of this stronger, or maybe I’ll shatter under pressure. Sometimes I wonder what is being purged from my being…I know something is gone from my soul, gone or altered so fundamentally that it might as well disappeared.
What is burning in that fire? Is it only weakness, my selfishness, naïveté and arrogance or am I also losing bits of my compassion, my patience, all the soft parts of me? I feel harder, more brittle. Anger comes quickly, if I let it. I’ve seen so much ugliness, so much injustice and been dismissed so many times; I’ve learned by example how you dull the voice of your conscience. I have an edge I never had before, a sharpness where I was once fluid. I am weary in a way I wasn’t before. Sometimes it feels as though my youth has been a sacrifice. I meant to lay it on the altar for God and the ones I care for, but those ruled by greed and apathy keep trying to snatch it away for themselves. I’m tired and never far from sorrow.
Sometimes I miss the person I was before. In my years as an aide, I’ve shed so much of my innocence. Also, the time and energy I give to my work have held back my own stories. Change may come to this broken system, but not soon enough to save me from the bitter taste of burnout. Some days I can’t help but resent that. I remember one time being so frustrated and raging to my mother about the unfairness of it all; I remember she told me being a CNA had changed me, that I had both lost and gained from the experience. I asked her to give me the bad.
I never asked her how it had made me better. It wasn’t what I needed at the time: I needed to feel the cold water of my own failings…needed to remember my own flawed nature, that I wasn’t perfect or passive.
And I needed to decide for myself what I had gained.
When there are worlds and words swirling endlessly inside your head, it’s easy to get lost inside yourself, to distance yourself from other people. I was absorbed in myself and my stories, before caregiving forced me out of my head and into the stories of others. If you can put yourself in another person’s place and feel what they are feeling, it makes care go so much better–especially if there is a barrier of communication like aphasia. I am a better storyteller now for having learned to put aside my own perspective. My stories have a depth they did not before, back when I still thought I was the center of the universe.
I used to be so afraid of my own mortality…terrified that one day I’d be gone from this world and would have done nothing to mark my existence. I was so scared to be forgotten, until I held the hand of a dying woman and recited the Lord’s Prayer with her. She took that fear with her when she left this world. I have a confidence I didn’t have been.
Before I was a CNA, I thought strength meant stature and a rigidity of will. I thought only the unbreakable and the bold were strong. I didn’t realize that true strength…that’s resilience, to have your heart broken and your dreams shattered and then get right back up to go again. Until I was surrounded by fellow caregivers, I did not appreciate that strength is a dance between confidence and humility: a willingness to bend when necessary and wisdom to know when to stand your ground.
I’m the kind of person who needs a crusade, something bigger than myself to feel satisfied with my life. I’m not content to let injustice go unchallenged or to allow the dignity of a person to be disregarded, no matter how much they “contribute” to society or how much of an “inconvenience” meeting their needs causes. Whatever other heartaches and frustrations come with it, being a caregiver has certainly given me a crusade to fill a lifetime or more.
In the end, it’s heart-breaking, life-affirming trade. Everything I am, I became…or rather I am only who I became. What I lost I surrendered, and what I gained I was given. What I have retained, that I earned.