I began my career in a cancer center. I worked in the Medical Oncology Unit, otherwise known as Med/Onc. Prior to working with individuals with a cancer diagnosis, I worked with seniors and had a great deal of experience with death and dying. At the end of the day, I was able to put my work aside and go home and not deal with any of the sadness and human suffering I encountered on a day to day basis. I thought that working with the elderly population would prepare me for my work with oncology patients.
As a young social worker, I thought I had it all together. I thought I knew how to juggle all of the balls that were being thrown my way. I would go to work on a daily basis, meet all of the demands of the day, and make sure all of my patient's needs were taken care of. I came face to face with real human suffering. I came face to face with mothers losing their children, children losing their parents and the unfairness called "cancer". Despite all that I encountered, I thought I was able to handle it as I did in the past, I thought I could come face to face with death and put it aside at the end of the day.
I was very proud of the work that I did and to be a part of such an amazing organization. As proud as I was and as much as I enjoyed the work that I did, I always carried with me an overwhelming feeling of dread. This was something that I could not shake. I did a pretty good job of masking my feelings, so good in fact, that I hid them from myself. My superwoman complex kept me from being truly real with myself. I was too proud to admit the truth...I was sinking into a depression. I did not realize it because it was insidious and I had lived with the symptoms for so long that I just thought this was the way I was supposed to feel when encountering human suffering. I never talked about it with anyone, because I could not put my feelings into words. No amount of education and past experience prepared me for what I was facing. It was not until one day that I went to see a movie with a close friend that I finally had some insight into my situation. We went to see a romantic comedy called "the rolling stone". I always avoided dramatic or sad movies because I did not want to feel sad when I was home. It was a defense mechanism I used in order to keep my wall of denial up and my defenses safe. (**spoiler alert**) There was a part in the movie where one of the main characters was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently dies. I immediately began sobbing uncontrollably. It was such an exaggerated response and as me and my friend sat alone in the movie theater, I was ashamed of myself and my emotional response. The following week I had a meeting with my immediate supervisor, where I informed her of what happened during the weekend. She was so supportive and gave me some invaluable insight...I was suffering from caregiver stress.
Caregiver Stress is stress caregivers experience when providing care to another person suffering from some type of illness. Caregiver stress is not limited to individuals caring for a loved one. This definition can also include medical professionals and others working in a medical field providing hands on care and counseling to individuals.
This was the first time where I put my pride to the side and really began to take a long, hard look in the mirror. For so long I thought that expressing my true feelings would make me appear weak or somehow undermine my clinical training. When I finally put my guard down, I was able to take active steps in addressing all of my symptoms. As a clinician it is so much easier to have empathy for others and to assess situations and provide good clinical counseling. In order for me to be a better clinician I had to be real with my own insecurities, inadequacies and emotional struggles. I had to be real in how jaded the job was making me. In my time alone, I would often time struggle with God and question why good people have to suffer and be honest with my own physical symptoms of depression.
I began my journey to healing. I began to really look at caregiver stress and its effects. I saw that I was experiencing classic symptoms.
As I understood some of my own personal feelings, I was better able to cope with all of the human suffering around me. I was kinder to myself and as a result, I was better able to provide good clinical interventions. As the feelings of caregiver stress multiplied I was exceedingly overwhelmed and not truly able to give the individuals I was working with the best of me. As I increased self care and made positive steps to address my own inadequacies and sadness about what I encountered on a daily basis, I was able to provide better patient care.
This new found awareness also continued in my personal life. While working I became pregnant with twin daughters. Of course my husband and I were delighted but no one could have prepared us for life after twins. Needless to say, the first 6 months were very difficult and I found myself overwhelmed, sleep deprived, anxious and so forth. Not to mention, I also experienced some postpartum depression. My past experience with caregiver stress gave me tremendous insight into my condition. I applied some of the same techniques and as a first time mother. It's hard when you are in the "thick of it" to put words to your feelings. We often times have more empathy to those around us and don't cut ourselves enough slack.
So often we may consider taking time for ourselves as being "selfish" and we do not make the time. I say to you, make the time. If you do not care for yourself, then you cannot care for others in the best way. Even the best intentioned people can "loose it" when they are overwhelmed and exhausted. Be just as kind to yourself as you are to others.