In all my years in this field I have never had a person in my care who did not respond better when approached consistently with kindness. Never, not one single time. My most resistant residents have been more willing to be an active participant in their own care when they didn’t feel invisible. My most confused residents had less anxiety clouding their minds when I have been able to coax a laugh from them. Kindness doesn’t cost a thing. It takes no more time to be kind than it does to be resentful and impatient and it takes far less energy.
“You’re going to spoil them”.
“Now they’re going to expect that from everyone.”
“Don’t get that one going. She’ll talk your ear off if you let her”…To which I politely smile and go about doing my job exactly as I see fit. Treating my folks the way I’d want to be treated is not “spoiling” them. It’s being good at my job. I give my best effort regardless of what it causes other people to expect. Quite frankly, I don’t care if that raises the bar or not. My work ethic does not include doing less for those in my care so they don’t expect it from other workers. And I don’t mind having my ear talked off. Why should my night owls feel lonely? If they want to talk and I’m not in the middle of a task, I have no problem listening.
The idea that the people in our care are tasks to be minimized and tackled begrudgingly has to be changed. Not every caregiver treats the job with such apathy; not even most, but there are more than enough that do. Rightly or wrongly, the majority of hard working and dedicated caregivers are stigmatized by the behavior of those who are not right for this field.
We are the frontline of Long Term Care. We are the faces most seen. When something goes wrong, we are the easiest to blame. People see the bad behavior of the caregiver and not the broken system that spawned it.
There is grace, value and purpose in this field. We are needed and trusted by those in our care. There is something sacred about that. If the system has beaten you down to the point of resenting those in your care and basic human kindness is too much to ask, then maybe it’s time to consider another field. As workers we don’t like to feel disposable or invisible so why would we treat our residents as little more than a burden? We can do better. We HAVE to do better…any lasting change that matters will begin with those of us who work the floors. We are the closest to the residents and we have a deeper understanding of the world through their eyes. All improvement begins from within, though, and before we change the system we have to change our attitude toward those who live within it.
The alarm clock cut through my dreams, it’s deceptively cheery jingle jarring my consciousness awake. I groaned, fighting the urge to hit the snooze button just once more. I had to go in early. No more time to snooze.
As I ran about the apartment in my pre-work routine of craziness, grabbing coffee, hunting my keys and making sure that I was wearing the same shoes on my feet, I mentally reviewed the day ahead. It was going to be an uphill battle.
Uphill battles are nothing new to me in this field. Both my experience in facilities and in private care have come with their fair share of obstacles. Not being one to shy away from adversity, more often than not I relish the challenges. It’s when I begin to view life as NOTHING but uphill battles that the trouble begins.
As a caregiver, I deal with a lot of loss. We all do. Death is inevitably part of our job. I’ve learned to view it not as a tragic necessity but as an inevitable conclusion. There is joy and peace in knowing that I have a part in making the last chapter of someone’s life as pleasant as possible, making certain that those in my care never feel alone. It is why I do what I do and that part of the gig I consider sacred.
As a woman in recovery who volunteers at a behavioral health center, I deal with a lot of loss as well. That kind of loss is different somehow. That kind of loss comes with a sort of survivors guilt that makes me choke on my own powerlessness. Why do I get this when others don’t? What could I have said or done differently that may have prevented another’s death or insanity or consequences? The answer is nothing. I can’t force a moment of clarity on another person. I can only share my experience.
I tell you guys this because I know we all have our baggage and we work in a field that can skew our perspective. Because I have to be vigilant, I recognize that change as it’s happening. When I start obsessing over the two people I was unable to help rather than the ten that I was, I know I need to check myself.
I cashed in all my “give up” chips years ago. Now as long as there is a breath in me, I will…I MUST keep moving forward. There is so much I want to do in life; so many people I want to reach and help. My fellow caregivers, my residents, anyone and everyone who feels lost and alone…we all have those shared experiences. I was given a second chance. I do not have the luxury of wasting it.
As a caregiver, I have the privilege of seeing the face of courage every shift. People who have survived cataclysmic and life changing events. People living with dementia, addiction, AIDS, strokes, PTSD, cerebral palsy; people of all ages and I SEE them…the very essence of who they are as individuals shine through their disorders. Their personalities, sometimes difficult personalities, may have been informed by their challenges but they are not defined by them. They laugh and cry and occasionally rage but they face their uphill battles every single day. They have no choice. Neither do I.
My keys were in hand, the same shoes were on my feet, my lid was tightly on my coffee cup and I was ready to face the day. I took a deep breath as I opened the door into the bright sunshine and reminded myself that it was uphill battles that made me who I am today. For that I am incredibly grateful.
I can’t make her smile. I can’t lift her spirits. She is lost in her thoughts; memories of what was and dreams of what might have been. I can’t reach her there. I don’t have the map or know the road.
The days that she allows herself to travel in that mindscape are few and for that I am grateful. It’s not a happy place and it seems to rob the present moment of all joy and the future of all potential. She doesn’t see the Christmas tree. She doesn’t see the joy she brings to others. She doesn’t see the courage she inspires in me…on those days she only sees her disability.
I can’t make her smile. And I know that I have to be okay with that. I know that we are all entitled to a tough day. It’s my job to meet people where they are at, not to force them to where I want them to be. So I bite back the questions with no answers that I instinctively want to ask. Are you ok? What’s wrong? Can I fix it? I bite back the assurances that I can solve a problem of which I have no real understanding. I do not know what it’s like for her. Not really. I can walk in her shoes only to the extent that my imagination will let me. To pretend that I have any idea of the pain she walks through every day is to dishonor the strength and courage she has within her to face it. I bite back the shallow but well intentioned platitudes that do little but make a person feel guilty for feeling bad. Let’s look at the bright side is a frothy emotional appeal that lacks the depth to be of any real help. It is condescending and dismissive. I will not rob her of her need to genuinely feel whatever she may be feeling.
I can’t lift her spirits. Today, my high energy and enthusiasm are not assets. So I do my best to tone it down as I walk her through the activities of daily living. I let it be known that I am here if she wishes to talk and it’s perfectly alright if she doesn’t. I try to focus on the tasks at hand. Check her blood sugar. Apply lotion to her legs. Separate her laundry. Defrost some chicken for dinner. I do my best to not take her husband’s occasional criticisms to heart. No, I didn’t water the Christmas tree yet. I will get to it when I get to it. No, I do not want to discuss the president-elect. I don’t say any of this out loud. On most days, such things roll off my back with an inward chuckle, but not today. My emotions, held tightly in check while on the clock, are often entwined with those in my care. If she has a tough day, I have a tough day. It’s my biggest challenge in this field. It’s also my greatest motivation. I am attached. Most days, I’m very good at compartmentalizing. Sometimes, though, the feelings alter my perspective enough to turn the day grey.
I can’t lift her spirits. Days like this make me long for my days in a facility. In facilities, if I couldn’t cheer up one resident, I always knew that the odds were I’d be able to cheer another. There was no shortage of people to help or ways to help them. In private care, there is nowhere to go. No one else to help. The powerlessness really takes an emotional toll. I work very long shifts and after several hours, I begin to feel owned by my shortcomings. Without co-workers or other residents with whom to interact, my thoughts go into a self-serving shame spiral as I revisit every decision I’ve ever made since age six, because clearly, my inability to improve this ONE day for this ONE person means that I am an utter and complete failure at life, should just crawl into a vat of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia and hang it up. But then that still small voice within my heart cuts through the chaotic noise in my head. Alice, get a grip. This is not about you. And in that moment, I recognized that truth. Everything that I value about this gig goes beyond the physical assisting with the ADL’s. It’s my ability to be a companion. It’s the way I see and value the friendship of those in my care. I would gladly share their pain if it would make it easier for them and when I am unable to ease their burden, I feel that I’m falling short. Private care allows enough downtime for my mind to grab ahold of that self doubt and run with it. Especially when my client needs a day to quietly contemplate her situation.
I can’t make her smile. I do not feel great about it and that’s okay. How I feel is nowhere near as important as what I do. Today, my job is not to lift her spirits. It is to walk with her and be supportive through her sad day, just as those closest to me walk with me and are supportive of mine. A very wise person once told me that courage is not always a shout. Sometimes it’s the small voice whispering
“We will try again tomorrow.”…that much I can do.
This is not the piece I had intended to post this week. I wrote another one comparing a job description for a CNA that I saw online to the reality of all our job entails. I spent the afternoon on it and put quite a bit of energy and heart into it. I was proud of that piece. So you can imagine my horror when I somehow accidentally deleted it.
It is GONE! Nowhere to be found. As are the hours I spent writing it. It was more than the effort though. I write as I go. No rough drafts. Just an idea, a notion that I flesh out by putting pen to paper or,in this case, fingers to keyboard. I can’t go back and recapture the flow or directions of the words. It wouldn’t come out the same. And I was so upset.
Truth be told, it had been an emotional day anyway, but this was the proverbial straw that broke the overly sensitive-mildly-neurotic-camel-who-is-walking-through-some-challenging-life-circumstances back. And OH! The self indulgent weep fest that followed the moment I was alone was a sight to behold! For fifteen solid minutes I cried and felt sorry for myself; that deep cry that kids do, when the air escapes from the lungs in gasps and fluid flows freely from every orifice on your face and your nose gets all stuffy. I was not a pretty sight.
After I managed to pull myself together, the absurdity of my reaction sunk in. I deleted a blog post. I wasn’t diagnosed with cancer. For that matter, I have seen more than one person cope with such a diagnosis with more grace and dignity than I handled the loss of a bit of writing. My imaginary dog didn’t die…the fact that I have an imaginary dog is a topic for another post. My point is, it was an overreaction and caused me to pause and reflect.
I have found private care to be intensely personal. I work with one family and the shifts are long. A lot of the time in order to give care and enhance the quality of life for my client in the best possible way, I do what I can for the family unit as a whole. This can be overwhelming and often requires long periods of time in which my own emotions are compartmentalized. The pace and tone of my day is very much dependent on the mood of not only my client but also her husband. If there is conflict or frustration or anger, as there is bound to be in any relationship, I just have to work as if I don’t notice. There is nowhere to go and nothing I can say to alleviate it because it is not my place, though they treat me as one of the family. Some days, twelve hours feels like an eternity. Add to that the twenty-four hour news cycle that is constantly playing at work, a lack of sleep, a year full of major life changes and a fair amount of self doubt, its no wonder that I had my meltdown.
I am a woman who pushes through my feelings. I keep it moving and try not to let ’em see me sweat. There is work to be done in this life and I was lucky enough to get a second chance when so many do not. I don’t take that for granted. Not for a second. The flip side to that coin is that I often don’t pay attention to my own emotions. Being a caregiver feeds into the habit of putting myself on the back burner. There is a thin line between caring enough to be effective in this field and not practicing self care. After pondering this for a little while, I decided to cut myself some slack, take a deep breath and begin my post anew.
As caregivers, we work for people living with serious conditions. Every person for whom I’ve cared has taught me countless lessons in gratitude and courage and hope in the face of fear. My own petty problems seem so small and silly in comparison that I don’t even like to acknowledge them but the fact of the matter is that is unhealthy thinking. My feelings and thoughts are no less valid than anyone else’s.
Regardless of whether or not I admit it, those feelings and stresses exist and by stuffing them down, they only build up to the point where accidentally deleting a post is a disaster of cataclysmic proportions. By addressing these moments as they arise, I can better understand their underlying cause and take the appropriate actions to maintain a healthy perspective. I may never do that perfectly, but being aware of it is a good step in the right direction.
Some shifts, the world seems against me as if some dark cosmic force with an appreciation for irony is pulling the puppet strings of everyone with whom I come in contact. My residents lash out. My body aches. The weather doesn’t cooperate for my walk to work and I spend eight hours running around in wet shoes and scrubs. Management that cares only that there are bodies on the floor, trained or not. Not enough money to pay my bills, crossing my fingers each month that nothing gets shut off. On those days it just feels…impossible.
And I have my fair share of them. Days when I question why I stick with this. Days when my patience feels short and my humor is rusty; when I begin to wonder if I genuinely love what I do or if I’ve just convinced myself of that out of this desperate need of mine to see the bright side.
Some days I’m bitter and angry and frustrated and weary and sad; my insides as covered in “yuck” as my scrubs. Those are the days that make me wish I didn’t give a damn. They make me want to scream YOU WIN, REALITY! YOU WIN, DEFEATISM! This system is beyond hopeless. These people are screwed. I am only one person and I. Can’t. Do. This. Anymore…I give up.
But then I look at the poster above my front door, the one that says going in one more round when you don’t think you can, THAT’S what makes all the difference in your life, and I lace up my sneakers, grab my stuff and head to work. Because that poster is right. Time and time again it has proven true for me.
I do not always love my job. Sometimes I resent the unending uphill battles and impossible situations that relentlessly whisper “You will fail in this”. And unless there are major changes from the top down, that is true. We will all fail because the system will eventually collapse upon itself. Still, every day I put on my scrubs and show up. I love my folks and that love has created in me a faith bigger than my resentment at my bosses, bigger than my fears of financial insecurity and bigger than the occasional despair during the rough stretches. From that faith a commitment to change the system and improve the lives of those who live and work within it has taken root. I don’t know where this commitment, this fire that oscillates between burning me and guiding me, will lead. I hope that we reach people. I hope we defy the odds. And I know that it begins with us.
Two glorious days off! IN A ROW! It had been over a month and a half since I’d had that luxury and I was counting down the minutes on Friday. I planned to have a creative, productive, friend filled weekend and intended to enjoy every moment of it. I gave myself a strict “no work talk” rule and actually managed to stick with it. I drew, wrote, went to a movie, rested, caught up with friends and volunteered. As much fun as I had, by Sunday night I knew I was ready to return to the hustle and bustle of the floor.
The idea of “career people” used to conjure up images of high powered entrepreneurs, doctors, nurses or lawyers rushing to and from important meetings; people very dedicated to their careers, sometimes to their own detriment. It never occurred to me that the term could apply every bit as much to those of us scraping by on an hourly wage in broken down facilities in a broken down system and yet, here I am, just as much of a career woman as those with advanced degrees.
Let’s look at the facts: I’m single, without children. When I’m not at work I’m writing about work, or attempting ways to improve work. I’m incredibly dedicated to my residents and have the lofty long-term goal of doing whatever I can for as long as I can to greatly improve the system in which they are forced to live from the bottom up. That is the very definition of a career woman.
The SYSTEM may think we are disposable, our pay, bosses, and the ethic of those who have been so burned out that they can no longer care the way they should may reinforce that idea, but it isn’t true. Ask the residents who they count on, who they trust, who knows them the best, who SEES them, and their answer will be us; the caregivers. We cannot allow anything else to dictate our self-worth or the value in what we do. I wish I could burn into the heart of every caregiver the knowledge that they are uniquely gifted and desperately needed in the lives of those who have so little. Our skills are different, not less. We are not diet nurses. We are not “ass wipers”. We are the frontline.
I will learn and forget countless bits of knowledge as I go through my life. I don’t know if I will always be a caregiver, but I do know that whatever path I may end up on in the future will be richly informed by the career that I hold right now. As I punched in early Monday morning, I was met with smiles from my residents and fellow workers on the floor. I missed them while I was gone and though I don’t know what my future may bring, in that moment I felt like I was coming home.
Taken for granted. THAT’S what I’ve been feeling. I’d been trying to put my finger on what exactly has been causing this nagging malaise for a few days now.
It’s nice to be able to finally put a name to it, though it’s not a feeling that I like admitting. It feels so very self-serving. Poor me. I work so hard for so little. People don’t understand the nature of our work. Blah blah blah blah. That is not who I am. That’s not who I WANT to be.
How can I feel SORRY for myself when I’m surrounded by people living with sometimes unimaginable hardships? Who LIVE in the environment that I can leave at the end of my shifts? How can I feel such exasperation, frustration and occasionally even anger towards my residents who I really do love very much? How can I hate and love what I do in such equal measures? Is such a juxtaposition of emotions normal? Is it the facility? Is it me? What’s going ON here?
It took some time for me to work it out, but I did find my answer. My facility is toxic. It is all excuses and no accountability. It is impossible situations piled on top of undertrained staff. It is equal parts challenging, which I love, and frustrating, which I don’t love. This is not new. This is how it’s always been. I’ve learned to compartmentalize very effectively, but every so often the doors will open and all of a sudden, I’m feeling everything at once. So far, thanks to the hectic pace of first shift, those fall apart moments happen off the clock; they happen in the quiet of my own apartment (or on break in a linen closet) when I’m alone with no one depending on me.
I’ve been in the same facility for seven years. The bonds I’ve formed with my residents have been an incredible gift in my life. It is through working with them that I’ve learned to trust, not only others, but also myself. They have taught me how to value the moment, to not take life for granted, to look beyond the obvious. They have greatly enriched my life, and I will always be grateful for that.
They are WONDERFUL people; that doesn’t mean that they are EASY people.
“alice. Alice. ALICE. ALLLICCEEEE!!!!”…all day every day. The down side to having been in the same facility for so long is that they are used to me. In a world where faces change as fast as underwear, mine is the familiar one. Twenty-eight residents, a brand new trainee and a call out. Alice can handle it. Before I even hit the clock, Ms.___throws up a massive lake of stewed beef and peaches. I got it! Nobody panic! Mr.___ doesn’t like his feet to touch the floor. Ms.___ is claustrophobic. Ms.___ isolates when she’s feeling depressed. Mr.__ lashes out in anger when he’s scared…hundreds of pieces of knowledge that are now like muscle memory for me. What residents need boundaries and what residents need coddling. So I run. All day every day, from resident to resident, task to task determined to do whatever needs doing…but that’s not fair. It’s not fair to my residents, my co-workers or to myself.
I learned all I know by working consistently with my folks. What I NEED to do, instead of running whenever a co-worker says they are calling for me, is to encourage her to try for herself and encourage the residents to allow her to do her work. Otherwise I am enabling all of us, myself included. Make no mistake, there is a part of me that has become as dependent on filling the role of “Wonder Woman” as they are at putting me in it.
The inner need to “fix” impossible situations is an old song and dance for me, as if somehow solving a problem guarantees that I wasn’t the cause of it. It is an issue of mine that I am working through, but MAN does it fit in well within the world of Long Term Care.
The truth of it is this: it is not my job to be the solution to every problem, inside of work or out. It is setting myself up for failure and OF COURSE it leads to feelings of being taken for granted. I have choices. I could leave and find another job. I CHOOSE to stay, at least for now. That means I have to gain a measure of acceptance about the facility as a whole while doing my best to improve my corner of it. I don’t want to be Wonder Woman. Take away the magic lasso and invisible plane and she is just a regular person dealing with issues of co-dependency.
“I thought this would be a productive conversation. I really did.”, I said to myself as I sat across the desk from the fifth administrator that I’ve worked for in seven years. Rookie mistake. I should have known better.
I asked to speak to her because there is a distinct lack of communication between the office and the floor. What little interaction we have comes in the form of snappy demands, as if we are incapable of comprehending sentences containing words with more than two syllables. It is seriously affecting morale and when morale goes down, so does quality of care.
I wanted to tell her that when a person in authority such as a resident care coordinator speaks negatively of staff members in front of their peers, it breeds dissent. I had hoped to explain that there has never been “light duty” in our facility because there IS no light duty. We don’t have enough staff to allow for such luxuries. The rule has always been that you can come back when a doctor signs off on it. Otherwise, you have one caregiver doing the work of two, while the other is getting paid to sit down and watch. It’s different than in the bigger facilities, where perhaps they have areas that don’t involve lifting, running and transfers. I wanted to point out that this naturally causes resentment for those of us who end up carrying the load when it happens every other week.
I had hoped to discuss the incredible frustration I feel when the powers that be freak out over someone forgetting to put away a package of briefs but don’t blink an eye when every single month, a resident runs out of his colostomy supplies, leaving the staff on the floor scrambling for solutions with no help from the office, or only having small or extra large gloves, or not being informed that we would need to work over until after our shift ends.
I wanted to tell her that the woman who does our inservices is passionate and full of fantastic information and ideas that we aren’t being given the opportunity to utilize. I had hoped to explain that the uneven application of consequences suck the motivation out of caregivers who feel like the end results are the same regardless of whether or not they give their best.
I thought she should know that it was a bad idea to put a resident who has maintained sobriety after a number of years of being drunk and violent in the same room as an active alcoholic who sneaks in bottles of Canadian Mist any chance he gets, or a resident living with severe mental illness in a room with a resident who doesn’t speak a word of English.
I though she should know that it’s both dismissive and unfair to paint all the caregivers in the facility with one brush; as if we aren’t individuals, each with our own work ethic and points of view.
We choose to stay there, whatever our reasons, knowing that there will be no raises, no bonuses, very little leadership, hell, the shower room doesn’t even have a dip in the floor. The water just pools around so we have to work in wet sneakers. Still, we STAY. Despite the fact that it’s the lowest paying facility in this town, our folks deserve the best possible care and we deserve open and two-sided communication that would benefit everyone; to be talked WITH rather than talked AT.
I WANTED to tell her all of that, but after about two minutes of discussing the need for better communication, I realized I would be wasting my breath.
“I would LOVE to just have to give someone a shower. You have NO idea what it’s like for us in the office!”, she snapped. I sighed, as I left the office, strangling on all that was left unsaid. She’s right. I don’t know what it’s like in the office, but if she thinks that showering people is the basis of what we do, she has no idea what it is to be caregiver and very little interest in learning anything that would make life run more smoothly for all involved. I will never understand why people in authority continually fail to grasp the simple notion that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
I went in to my old work to volunteer with activities this afternoon before work. My last day at this place, but I’ll spare the choked-up emotion for later. Maybe cry into a cup of Americone Dream. Anyway one of our residents was sent to skilled a month ago after he broke his hip, and he looks so different since I saw him I didn’t even recognize him until he started grumbling angrily at the door to the living room. It was the pomp British voice, and the way he called the door a “f____ wanker” that clued me in.
The difference was, in a word, shocking. Disturbing, really. He was a lawyer in his past; not in the best of shape when he moved to Personal Care from Independent Living, but he was walking, talking, and speaking his mind confidently to us. Sometimes he didn’t make much sense, but I took it as part of his charm; the way he vigorously and skillfully defended his own nonsense perception was admirable in its own way, as well as frustrating. Today he’s wheelchair bound, kicking and pulling on already opened doors, grabbing feebly at the air, at the sleeves of his woolly sweater, even at his own hands, like they’re alien things at the ends of his arms. Mumbling incoherently the whole time. He grabbed at a cooler of ice at the nurse’s station and shook it violently until an exasperated aide came to steer him away, then scooted aimlessly around with his eyes barely open. He’s so delusional right now they may as well be closed.
Seeing him in that state shocked me further to the core than almost any other experience I’ve had on the job. He went from a gentlemanly annoyance to a maniacal monster in less than four weeks. The sharp decline is horrifying to see, a fate worse than death. It almost makes me not want to go back.
I know I can handle future residents like him thanks to this experience. Clinical and months of work have shown me that if the shock doesn’t kill you, it’s a recoverable one. There comes a time when you start to question how many more shocks you’re willing to take, though. You start to slowly turn a corner then, if you’re like me. I’m confident I could work almost any aspect of this job after a little adjustment, but is it worth it? Am I so needed that I should sacrifice my comfort and drive to come back and keep being horrified and saddened? Or do you just hold on the good and keep going?
Fran had a mini victory tonight when she was able to put both her arms in her shirtsleeves and take off her pants and briefs before sitting on the toilet without me urging her or showing her how. Little moments like that keep me here. Tomorrow she may be different. She might break her hip as soon as I leave the unit, and maybe an ambulance will zoom into the parking lot while I’m driving away around the other side. It’s pointless to ponder like that in this work, though. In that moment she was exemplary, and I was so proud of her.
“Breathe, Alice. Just breathe,” I told myself. I could hear my name being shouted. It was Mr.__, waiting not so patiently to be laid down. I knew I had to get back out there, but I had told him ten minutes and I still had five of them left.
I was in the linen closet. Hiding. Breathing in the subtle scent of cheap detergent and being embraced by the cool comforting darkness.
It’s safe in the linen closet. The solutions are simple in there. Shadows and worn out towels cannot be disappointed in you. You cannot let a bedspread down. A fitted sheet is in the flat sheet spot? Easy fix. No fear of missing something, no getting sucked into the toxic drama of the wash cloths. Pillow cases don’t die.
So how did such a ray of freaking sunshine end up cowering under a blanket of her own neurotic fears in a linen closet? Well, it all started with a hole in my sock.
The first thing I noticed as I was punching the clock was that Mr.___ was already up, dressed and in his wheelchair, a rare and pleasant surprise. As I walked down the hall and greeted my folks, I saw that three of my residents already had their TED hose on. I smiled to myself and made a mental note to say thank you to third shift. It had all the makings for a remarkably smooth day and I gathered my supplies, blissfully unaware of the impending shit storm of inner crazy that was headed my way.
Because third shift was on top of their game, I was able to knock out two showers before breakfast. It was in the middle of the second shower that I noticed it; the beginning of a hole in the big toe of my left sock. I could barely feel it. A minor inconvenience in an otherwise good start to the shift. I shrugged it off, finished the shower and gathered my folks down to the dining room.
It was about twenty minutes into breakfast when I noticed it again; my big toe slowly, but with great determination trying to escape the confines of my sock. My sock, which was wet at this point from the showers. They invested all this money on renovations and couldn’t be bothered to find a crew who knew enough to leave a dip in the floor so that gravity pulls the water to the drain. When I mentioned it, they tossed us a squeegee, which did nothing solve the wet sneakers problem. And running around for eight hours in wet sneakers is exactly as gross as it sounds…
“What is WRONG with you, Alice?! For Godsake, you walk everywhere anyway. You’ve been handling the wet sneaker situation for years. Peppermint oil, hot water soak and lotion. Why are you stressing about it now?” I thought to myself as we finished clearing out the dining room.
After doing a round and checking the hall, I sat down and adjusted my sock so that I couldn’t feel the hole, willed myself not to wiggle my toes and got back to work. Mrs. __ was a little worried about her friend in the hospital. Mrs.__ is dead set against the idea of using her walker. Mr.__ needs clean sheets. It’s clear they weren’t changed. Honest to God. How hard is it to change a bed?!…all the while, I felt the hole growing; my toe rubbing rebelliously against the top of my still damp sneakers, mocking the other toes for obediently staying in their cotton cage.
As I went along with my day, I noticed that my thoughts darkened. I didn’t have easy access to my supplies. Every time I get used to one supervisor, they are replaced with another. No benefits. No money. No boyfriend. No 401 K. I found myself worrying about things that ordinarily do not weigh much on my mind. The world’s smallest violin grew louder in my head as the damned hole grew bigger in my sock.
By the time I found myself in the safe cocoon of the linen closet, I had worked myself into such an inner storm of nerves that my smile wasn’t fooling anyone. I didn’t understand why my emotions spiraled when the day started out with such promise; why I was choking on some weird, undefined panic. Why was I suddenly living in fear of tomorrow, convinced that the world around me would implode because of my endless list of shortcomings? It made NO SENSE! All over a hole in my sock? It was like drowning in a tea cup.
So I took a break. I sought refuge and in the safe confines of the linen closet, I quickly began to sort through my shit. As maddening as they can be, a hole in a sock has never driven someone to the brink of insanity. Clearly, I had some underlying issues going on. I had five minutes left to get a grip and put it back in perspective.
I tend to focus on my actions rather than my emotions. What I do matters more than what I feel. After all, feelings always pass and come what may, the show must go on. I have an incredible amount of gratitude and passion for the life recovery has given me and any sort of self-pity seems like spitting in the face of a second chance that many people don’t get. I do not take this for granted, but there is a thin line between working THROUGH your feelings and STUFFING them down. It took a hole in my sock to realize that I had been doing the latter for quite some time.
I wrote last week about this job being about perspective more than money. That is true, but it doesn’t mean that I am not affected by financial insecurity. As caregivers, most of us are a paycheck away from homelessness. It’s my normal. The money always seems to work out, but it is a stressful scary reality. I like to minimize that fear, to focus on the positives, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
I like to write about the beautiful raw, heartbreaking, humorous moments that I share with my folks on the floor and how they bring such depth of meaning to my life. Every bit of that is true. But it is also true that every shift, I face my own mortality. We deal with so much loss. I love my residents as individuals; as friends and I have days when I’m keenly aware that my very best effort is nowhere near enough to make their quality of life as good as they deserve. Some days, I feel like a failure because of that. Just because I don’t allow myself to sit in that feeling doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
The ability to adapt and persevere, the lessons learned from overcoming challenges, finding meaning in the mundane; all favorite themes of mine. That doesn’t mean that the challenges themselves don’t leave scars.
Focusing on the positive is a good thing. Focusing on the positive to the point of denying the negative, however, can be dangerous. It’s a tricky balancing act. I forget sometimes to leave room to grieve, to give myself permission to be human, to feel anger or fear, to not be “okay”.
It’s a subtle, unconscious drive to be superwoman. A need to be the solution because I feel like I was the problem for so very long. Though my intentions are good, the end result is me hiding in a linen closet because my world imploded over a hole in my sock.
Thankfully, life has a learning curve. Sometimes a mini meltdown in a linen closet just what the doctor (or shrink) ordered to force some much needed reflection. I took one last deep breath and left the safe confines of my “crazy” cave.
“HEY! What the hell is going ON with you today?” Mr.__ demanded, as I stepped out to the bright fluorescence of the hall.
“…I have a hole in my sock. It’s been nagging me all day.” I mumbled.
“You should have said something earlier. You could have borrowed a pair of mine”…Sometimes the toughest challenges we face are those we don’t show and sometimes the simplest solutions are the ones we don’t see.