Thursday, June 19, 2014

Caregiver, Love Thyself

Self is a stranger to many people who never met a stranger in their life -- people who sense another's needs across the airport, but have no understanding of their own inner struggles.

These people are experts in the Other. They bore secrets, tended wounds, and ran to rescue starting in childhood. They gravitate toward helping professions like nursing, teaching, pastoring, counseling, mothering etc. So, obviously, I'm one of the people I'm talking about.

I coached a group of nurses on self-care yesterday. I always open the session asking "Why nursing?" so we hear why each chose this profession. Invariably, someone tells how they started caring for others as a kid. This time, to make the group aware of that common bond, I asked them to raise their hands if they had been secret-bearer, soother, bandage-applier, or other caregiver in childhood. Twenty-three nurses in the room -- 18 hands raised (mine too).

When you start doing something as early as childhood, your identity gets all wrapped up in it. Many caregivers don't know themselves without other people to care for. I didn't know who I was, because I built my identity to suit the needs of others.  It seemed natural to go into a profession where my daily work turns on expressions of compassion.

Not knowing myself, I couldn't create boundaries around my identity, capacity, and responsibilities. I never responded "no." I never turned off.

It still hurts to look back at how deeply this type of living wounded me and impacted my family. 

I entered healthcare at 21, and became a registered nurse at 23. On my one year anniversary as a nurse my dad had to drive me home from the hospital -- distraught with grief because I could not celebrate my profession and accomplishment. I was exhausted. Angry. Incapable of meeting the demands of work to my standards. And perhaps most dangerously, crippled with guilt. No one prepared me for the difficulty of that first year of nursing. So, when I experienced it, without anyone to normalize and guide me through the hurdles, I added the dead weight of guilt on to the despair of losing my dream of nursing.

I did things that seemed so antithetical to my desire to help people:

Cursed under my breath when patients called for pain medicines.

Got angry doing the hard, intimate work of nursing -- wiping bottoms, cleaning up incontinent moments, turning patients, doing oral care.

Resented having the same patients all the time (but called to check on them after my shift).

Made mistakes -- one time doubling a patient's heart medication (he was fine).

Fantasized about skipping work (all the while, signing up for extra shifts).

Experienced physical changes -- headaches, stomach illness, back pains.

Overall, I had a life-wide exhaustion. And a burning, intense anger with myself for what I interpreted as inadequacy. I assumed I'd become a terrible person.


In this moment, many nurses -- and I imagine other helpers -- turn to dysfunctional coping strategies. Ever wonder why a nurse or physician is obese? Some of us eat too much. Or engage in unhealthy relationships. Abuse substances. Or, silently self-destruct with anger turned inward. This is just what we do to self. With Others, we protect self by shutting off compassion.

Rarely do we see these signs and begin to search the self for its needs.

We behave as if the constant demands of mingling with other people's problems and heart aches don't drain us dry. I was never given a paradigm for understanding the toll of Other care on the self.

But it turns out, humans aren't made for repeated, unrelieved trauma, or trauma-bearing. I can no longer tolerate an unenjoyable life. Or live in the shadows of self-loathing. Or cut off my gift for loving, just to protect myself. Or self-medicate to destruction.

In the next posts, I want to speak to you lovely persons who chose your work because of your deep love for people. Especially, if like me, you spent so much time becoming an expert on Others you forgot to know yourself.

I learned the key to loving Others starts with loving me. I have to relearn this everyday. Even today. Especially today.

Series Posts Links:
Thick Line in the Sand (learning boundaries) Part 1; Part 2
But, the Lord Told Me to (how religion can reinforce unhealthy views of self)
Tapped Out (Compassion Fatigue)
Hello You. You're Lovely (seeing & caring for yourself in a new light)

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