Tuesday 15 February 2011

Self Care

I’ve felt quite tearful and fragile today spending much of it wobbling around ineffectively trying to get some work done. My morning began with two counts of bad news: one in five children have experienced severe abuse and (as if we didn’t know) the elderly are routinely being abused in the NHS

A round of hand-wringing, more reports, outraged defense of nurses, the usual nonsense will ensue. I left nursing partly because I didn’t like nurses too many of whom had unresolved personal issues and no sense of personal power which led to them using patients to abuse that power rather than defending patients as a matter of basic humanity, never mind professional ethics. They wouldn’t strike on behalf of patient care because they couldn’t be bothered to think about complex issues and because taking action worked against their view of themselves as angelic martyrs.

I used to be a Royal College of Nursing steward, gods help me, and it was simply impossible to get any of our colleagues interested in the issues that faced the NHS at the height of Thatcherism. There was one glorious march of 6,000 nurses – out of a total of 70,000. I see little change now, other than that the majority of carers on wards are no longer nurses and are less able and less willing to think for themselves. A streak of intentional cruelty has entered the profession, and not just in elder care.

So that’s the NHS. Everyone knows patient care (as opposed to generally good medical work) on anything other than acute and high tech wards is pretty rubbish and getting much worse. But to discover that one in five children has been abused left me reeling. If we can’t care for our own children then it’s a given that we can’t care for needy strangers.

Happily, a good friend came round, she too was delicate calling the news a ‘pyrrhic vindication’ of her stance against the flood of crap that she’d endured as she complained about the disgraceful lack of care her mother had suffered to indifferent and defensive nursing home, hospital and administrative drones. She too felt hopeless, that our entire population had apparently become brutish, futile and terminally isolated from ourselves and each other.

So we ate pancakes with Iberico ham, mozzarella, pesto and rocket, and more pancakes with strawberries, banana, lemon juice and sugar, and a large amount of tea. We moaned at each other and listened, and cared for each other and empathized and felt somewhat better.

Self care and self respect are ethical priorities for carers, not by any means a luxury. This is not to wallow in a vision of oneself as a martyr that no one must question - if the job's so awful, don't do it. Neither is it to attack reports and people who question whether some people could do a better job, as if you are uniquely perfect in the world. 

Almost every time I come into a hospital in a Chaplaincy role I begin to get burned out. I find myself wanting to cut corners or feeling guiltily grateful if a patient isn’t available, yet working with patients is fulfilling, interesting, pleasurable. Some of that is the stress of not knowing where this ward is or how that policy works. Becoming trusted and part of the team alleviates some of that stress and makes my life easier which makes my work with patients more fulfilling – I’m not having to work at putting distracting feelings and thoughts aside.

When I first began doing this work regularly I was, frankly, freaked out. Being confined in airlocks, having endless locked doors between me and fresh air made me frantic with claustrophobia, which I had to work bloody hard at disguising so that I could spend time with patients who spent months in that environment. The naked suffering and anguish that many patients were experiencing, the knowledge that many of them would never be free of it, a growing, horrified understanding of deeply shocking pasts, blew my mind. I would come home staggering, leap straight into the shower and pray, sometimes flat on my belly, for strength.

In time I became more resilient but not in denial of all those things that  distressed me. My experience of overwhelming panic and anguish offered me a brush of empathy with patients – this is how some of them feel, sometimes. So it was a useful and fruitful experience and one I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I wouldn’t suggest it as a way that hospital chaplains should learn their trade.

But there was nowhere Pagan to go for wisdom, understanding, even sympathy. Getting support in a form that suited me rather than suited people who wanted to impose their reiki or crystals or chanting or other stuff that they desperately wanted to do at me and that drove me berserk, was impossible. My non-Pagan friends gave me very, very welcome tea and sympathy, a non-Pagan counselling supervisor gave me non-Pagan supervision, my Gods felt far away and I felt absolutely useless.

Where I found support was with Christian religious, nuns and monks who listened in a detached kind of way, accepted and felt no need to stop my weeping jags or make me feel better. Just suggesting the obvious, that my Gods were very close to me as they’re close to everybody, was a great relief, and that was offered so tentatively, so respectfully that I spent some more time weeping again at their graceful humanity.

Support is something that’s best done in community, allowing others to genuinely care for us because they love us rather than because our job title renders us automatically worthy of respect, to lovingly say, 'You're not working at your best. What do you need to address that?' I know this viscerally and yet can’t seem to access it within Paganism and after years in this game I don’t believe it exists. Just as I don’t care about the excuses that nurses will have for not washing a patient for 13 days or routinely dehydrating and starving patients to death, so I don’t care about the excuses Pagan communities have for not materially supporting the people who are doing important work on their behalf, whether that’s chaplaincy or childcare or interfaith work. If you know of a good, existing model of ongoing Pagan support then let us know about it here. I would be absolutely delighted and not a little relieved to be proved wrong.


Adam said...

Yes, yes and yes... pagan community my fucking arse... handful of loosely knit pagan individuals struggling to provide a pastoral context with none of their own, yes... the pagan world is derived from a new age business model, with the various Druid orders (for example) one level of "going concern" or another.

And nursing... I cannot bear to nurse any more... I let my registration lapse last year

I also recognise your feelings of working within that toxic psychic ambience... we all found ways of coping with it, some personally damaging, some hopefully less so...

Hope you are feeling more resourceful within yourself

Clare Slaney said...

Thank you Adam, your anger makes me feel less like a psychotic freak!

I was a dreadful ward nurse, I wanted to yak too much and there really wasn't the time. But I was a great technician threading wires into people in theatres, and a good midwife - more time to yak, totally different from nursing. Would I go back? hahahahahahahahahaha.


I do feel more resourceful, thanks, but feel as if the entire country is reaping the results of a devastated education ethos. We've learned to do what we're told rather than to think for ourselves. Doomed, we're all doomed!