Reflection

What am I taking with me from the #YourTurnChallenge?

Up until now I haven’t been following the challenge questions but today I am going to reflect. Self-reflection is an important part of life and I find that is a very useful way of consolidating lessons learned from experience. Having to have a finished piece of work to ‘ship’ every day for the past 6 days has been a challenge. It was probably easier for me than it was for most people as I am on leave at the moment and I have a lot of spare time but it was still no easy task. There are good and bad things about this exercise but I have found that it was a very rewarding and overall positive experience.

I wander around with a head full of ideas and often struggle to make myself sit down and actually write them out. This challenge worked well in giving me a good impetus to get started and allowed me to get those ideas out that have been going round in my head for ages. Emptying my mind in this way allowed room for new and fresh ideas to form and they have been coming in thick and fast. I don’t think I have ever felt creative energy quite like this before.

As well as being a great way to get started, the challenge was also really good for finishing. I am usually quite good at getting started but I am also liable to get halfway through a piece and then get another idea and start something else or wander off and have a nap. Having a deadline meant that when I started to get distracted I had to pull my self back on task and commit to finishing.

The community of like-minded people to share this challenge with was a mixed blessing. On the one hand it is encouraging to know that people are going through the same thing as me. It is great to know that other people are reading my work and enjoying it. Having the opportunity to be exposed to so much writing by other people was inspiring and I have connected with some really interesting people. It also, however, led to lots of time spent obsessively refreshing my word press and twitter feeds. Putting your work out there can be a little bit scary and I think that I put way too much stock in what other people think. Whilst I am at the stage where my work has a relatively small reach and the comments are all supportive and helpful this is not a problem. The problem will come when someone disagrees with me, says something discouraging, or I get trolled.

There are down sides to shipping every day. I have a lot of things that I want to write that are simply too long, too intricate or too difficult to manage to get into a state that is acceptable for presenting online. I also found that my efforts to produce something every single day meant that I didn’t have as much time, or at least as much energy to put into the longer and more involved things that I want to work on. This challenge sapped quite a bit of my creativity every day.

At the end of this week I find myself hooked into some useful writing networks and connected with some inspiring and interesting people. I am heartened by the kind words of other bloggers through comments and on twitter. I know now that if I need to I can produce higher quantities of work than I have before and I can do this on a daily basis. I am inspired and prepared to work hard to create exciting things in the future!

 

Our grandmothers guard a wealth of untold stories.

I went to lunch with my grandmother and two of her friends at the local RSL recently. We went to play the pokies and enjoy the $9.95 seniors menu. This is not an uncommon occurrence but for some reason the conversation on this day stayed with me long afterwards. We often think of old ladies in fairly simplistic terms. They stereotypically like their knitting, a cup of tea (lots of milk) and bake a great scone/tea cake/chocolate chip cookie. Perhaps on this occasion I actually listened to them or perhaps they were more candid then usual, but I came away with the acute realisation that they exist in a world that is completely alien to mine. These women have experienced so much. In between stories of incontinent late husbands, haemorrhoids and hernias they throw in casual references to recently dead friends or those still languishing in nursing homes. I discovered that between them they have nursed four dying husbands, two sisters, a brother and helped to nurse countless friends. Despite this all three had a wicked sense of humour. They joked about sex, how difficult it is to wipe up after a trip to the toilet when you have haemorrhoids and how they were trying out online dating (“I’m looking for a friend WITHOUT benefits”).

I was fascinated. How, having witnessed and suffered so much misery were they able to continue to face life, and their not so distant death with such humour and courage? The familiar Nana that I had grown up with started to take on new dimensions. Somehow I had never considered this before. Elderly women are invisible in Australian culture. I have never read a book by or about a woman of this age. I have never seen a movie or watched a TV show that has an elderly lady as the leading character. I have so few reference points. Then another thought struck me, with startling clarity – if I live long enough this is going to happen to me too. Statistically speaking women live longer than men and more often than not it is women who take time off work to care for elderly relatives.

How does it feel it be nearly 80? To not just outlive, but nurse one or even two dying husbands on your own. To lose a son, a best friend, a brother or sister and support your friends through their own losses. To have collections of equipment in your home for when the next person you love needs to be nursed. Bed poles, commodes, walking frames and boxes of medications to lower your blood pressure, raise your iron levels, lower your cholesterol, soften or harden your stools as the need arises. To visit friends and relatives in nursing homes and know that you too are getting older. To watch them waste away, looked after by staff who don’t seem to care in an organisation that seems to be more of a business than a care facility. To know that you are closer to death than birth and to know intimately what it means to die. To have lived with a partner for fifty years and lose him. To watch him slowly fade away as dementia steals all the particular special things that made him who he is, that you loved. To have had a busy loving family who needed you for such a long time and wake up one day to find yourself alone in your house. No one to care for and no one to care for you. To go to family dinners and events and feel like you and your opinions and experiences are no longer relevant. You are from a different era. To have your family start treating you like a child.

There are women like this everywhere. Mothers, sisters, wives, grandmothers. They have spent their lives doing all the unglamorous unpaid caring work that goes unnoticed. Raising a family, caring for relatives. They get up every morning, pull on their comfortable slacks, sensible non-slip shoes, white singlet and a blouse they got half price at Harris Scarf. They vacuum the floor that only three people have walked on this week and wash the two dishes from their dinner last night. They start giving away and donating the things they don’t need any more. “Can’t take anything with you where I’m going.” my Nana often says.

These women find the time and caring and the fucks to give about the countless, trivial problems of their children and grandchildren and then quietly go and have a mammogram, a mole scan, a blood test. Simultaneously preparing for death and doing their best to delay it. They unanimously agree over lunch that they want to go quickly. A nice stroke or a heart attack. They lament that voluntary euthanasia isn’t an option and then in the same breath tell me about how one of them took their terminally ill husband to a sex shop for the first time while he was still in a wheelchair. With the three of them cackling, the kettle is put on again as some more chocolate slice is retrieved from the fridge.

These women know how life starts and they know how it ends. They can reconcile the inevitability of death and illness whilst finding the motivation to get up every morning and face their lives with hope and love. I want to know how they think. I want to know what they think is important in life and what isn’t. What they would change and what they wouldn’t give up for the world.

I resolve to come back and start recording their stories.

Volume Verses Originality

I have realised in my attempt to complete the #YourTurnChallenge this week that I am quite hung up on originality, and I am sure that I am not alone in this. Once I see my opinion expressed somewhere else I hesitate to write about it. It feels pointless to articulate something I know someone else has already said. Recently, though, I am finding reason to change my mind and add my voice to the mix.

The Internet is a vast place. One person’s voice may get lost amongst the catacombs of porn and click bait. Even if that voice gets hosted on a popular news site or trends on twitter. When it comes to the kind of social change needed to stop misogyny, transphobia or racism we need to be hearing so many voices that change becomes inevitable. We need the right message to be everywhere, impossible to miss. This is what I mean by volume.

This goes for almost all issues of social change. One person saying something, regardless of how many people agree, doesn’t have the same impact as large numbers of people saying that thing. Mass consensus will cause people to look at an idea twice. If a message is popping up everywhere people who previously wouldn’t have considered it are more likely to investigate.

With that thought in mind I am going to raise my voice to join the clamour.

It is all about how you define success.

Over the past year I have read a lot of self-help, reinvention, how to be happy, simple living and lifestyle altering books. Unanimously they seem to be written by people who have a few things in common. Firstly they are successful. They are on top of their game and have the money or the power or the fame or whatever it is they were after. Then they worked themselves into the ground and prioritised the wrong things and this resulted in some sort of ‘event’. Perhaps a breakdown, relationship troubles or maybe just a sudden realisation that they were wasting their lives or missing out on seeing their family, but whatever it was something made the sit down and re-evaluate what was important to them. They do this, and then they write a book about it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love these books. I have been incredibly inspired by these stories and as a result have identified which things make me happy and started trying to focus more on what is important to me.

I do wonder though, where are all the self-help books written by people that discovered these principals at a young age? People who dedicated their time and energy to the things that make them happy, eschewing our cultures standard measures of success, and are currently living their dreams? Can you be a CEO whilst maintaining work life balance? Can a highly respected journalist have achieved their success whilst insisting on decent holiday time, family leave, actually taking lunch breaks and not replying to emails after 9pm?

Perhaps the lack of literature produced by people with work-life balance and people who know what is really important is a direct result of their different priorities. They don’t want to be CEO. They know that happiness is not found in money and power. They don’t want to be a famous journalist because they feel that the cost of that kind of success isn’t worth it in the long run. They don’t write a book about their lives because they are too busy actually living their lives, playing with their kids or going on weekends away with friends.

For these magic people the whole definition of success may be different. Success might be the ability to take their kids on regular camping trips. It might be to cultivate a beautiful and thriving garden. It might be to create a supportive community around them. Success could be knitting a scarf for a friend, perfecting a bolognese recipe or harvesting a bountiful vegetable crop.

It follows on then that using the generic societal definition of success isn’t going to make everyone happy. Some people may enjoy nothing more than being responsible for hundreds or even thousands of employees, maintaining the entire image of a news network or being in possession of enough money to have holiday houses all over Europe. I have no doubt that there are people who get a real buzz out of the responsibility, importance and decision-making power involved in this and if this is you then fantastic. Pursue it with everything you have. The reality is though that most people don’t need this to find happiness.

What we need to do is create our own definition of success.

The straw that broke the camel’s back.

This metaphor has been coming up a lot for me recently. I am a paramedic and have recently suffered a breakdown. I am currently being treated for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

This metaphor is so relevant. For me, depression crept up, one piece of straw at a time, until it became such a huge burden that I could barely get myself out of bed. When I broke it was not as the result of a big traumatic incident, it was something small. I was already carrying so much weight to begin with that one small incident was all it took to push me over the edge.

I want to dig a bit deeper into what this metaphor means and represents and how this can help us to understand things like depression a bit better.

The metaphor talks about a camel carrying straw. The camel can carry a limited amount of straw. If you keep adding tiny little pieces of straw one at a time the camel isn’t going to notice each tiny addition. However eventually you will exceed the camel’s strength and endurance and it will fail. One minute the camel will be able to support the weight of the straw. Then you will add a tiny bit more straw and you will exceed its maximum endurance and it will collapse. All you’ve done is add an insignificant amount of weight but that was all it needed. The last straw, so to speak.

People are like this. I have been told that ‘you can handle it until you can’t any more’ several times over my journey this year and this is what they mean. Each little increase in your burden is tiny; it’s insignificant on its own. But when you combine all the little insignificant additions they become too much to bear.

This is particularly relevant to health care professionals and mental health. You hear lots of different advice as a student. Experienced people tell you that for each sad/traumatic/painful thing you see you lose a piece of your soul. They advise you that if you can avoid seeing something particularly distressing, just don’t look because once you get images like that in your head you can’t erase them. I understand where they are coming from but I picture it slightly differently. Unconsciously, and without realising what was happening I took on a small portion of each of my patient’s suffering. I collected these pieces of grief one by one throughout my too short career in an effort to lessen their pain.

I picture myself as a glass. I started off mostly empty, but as I met and treated patients the glass started filling up. The glass empties somewhat when you go on holidays or take time out for yourself and fills up again in proportion to the trauma you are exposed to. Importantly this isn’t just physical trauma and gory scenes, this is mental trauma too, loneliness, hopelessness and grief. Horrific scenes may leave you feeling fine if there was room in your glass, but if you have had a run of bad cases or simply haven’t had enough time to unwind the glass may fill quicker until you end up in my situation.

We were taught how to better empathise with others at university. To listen, put ourselves in their shoes, repeat their problems back to them to make sure we are on the right track and then offer observations based on what emotions they seem to be expressing; ‘that sounds exhausting’, ‘that must be very difficult to deal with’, ‘I can’t imagine what you are going through’, ‘that sounds frustrating’.

This is a great skill to learn and I have seen first hand the relief on a persons face when someone finally listens to them and takes their concerns seriously. The problem arises when you are continually exposed to difficult, negative emotions. Over the course of a day as a paramedic I may have put myself into the shoes of an elderly lady living alone with no relatives. She is lonely and has no stimulation. She is scared of dying alone. Next I might attend a child with a serious illness. At this job I become the parents. I watch their beautiful child suffering as though it is my own. Next up is a middle aged man with chest pain. First I am him, scared I am having a heart attack and worried about what will happen to my family if something happens to me. I also become his wife and children and feel their love and fear. After that we go to a person that has been self harming. I feel their hopelessness, their anger, their feeling of no way out.

I imagine that the health care professionals who last the longest are able to display empathy without actually taking on what people are feeling. They can keep their work and their personal life largely separate. If I had known that this task was near on impossible for me perhaps I would have chosen a different career path, however it is almost impossible to tell until you try it.

If you are a health care professional, whether you are a student just starting out or a seasoned expert, do not underestimate the power of little burdens to bear. What you could handle last week may not be as easy this week and often by the time you realise it is too late. Use your family and friends to gauge how you are going as when it comes to depression the sufferer may not be able to see the forest for the trees. If your organisation offers regular mental health check ups take them. If nothing else they will provide a trend that may pick up something you miss.

Most importantly you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else. Make sure that you prioritise the things that empty your glass. Be it exercise, spending time in nature, reading, creating art or just sitting on the couch watching a movie. These are not and should not be luxuries, they are essential to your longevity and your patients will benefit in the end.

Grief Sponge

Depression crept up on me slowly. Incrementally. So gradual that I didn’t notice as the colour slowly faded out of my world.

It started with tummy aches that would begin halfway through 10 and 14 hour shifts. Bending over to pick up bags and treat patients caused discomfort and the cause was elusive. They were fairly mild at first but over the course of 6 months they got so bad that I’d end up driving home from work with my belt and pants undone.

At the same time as this was happening I started to get sick. Every bug that went around had me feeling lethargic, coughing and sneezing for weeks. My previously robust immune system was failing. Multiple trips to my GP provided no answers with serial blood tests revealing that I was perfectly healthy.

I would lie in bed on my days off and try and coax myself to get up and do something, but all the sparks were gone from the world. I let my veggie garden succumb to the ceaseless spread of weeds. Shriveled chillies and capsicums rotting on the ground amongst unruly and now inedible baby spinach and coriander, a constant reminder of my neglect.

I no longer had enough energy to leave the house or entertain guests in the few hours between shifts and sleep. For five days in a row I would cook-eat-clean up, cook-eat-clean up, breakfasts, lunches and dinners alone. Getting my washing done is an accomplishment and a necessity. Its completion becomes the main focus of my days off.

Prior to this I would have been the kind of person described as ‘bubbly’, ‘confident’ or ‘outgoing’. I was always doing something, always full of energy and giving my all to whatever challenge was in front of me.

When I finally broke it was like a dam wall burst. I had been collecting tiny pieces of grief, loneliness and pain from each of my patients over the course of two and a half years and it all poured out of me in a torrent of tears and hopelessness.

The most prominent feeling was an overwhelming sense of failure. When you are a paramedic you are told over and over again that ‘it takes a special person to do what you do’. What happens when you can’t do it any more?