Still

I didn’t sleep well. This will contribute to the tone of whatever it is I’m about to write -I don’t know myself yet.

As I just sort of exist for the time being, while I survive the difficulties I’m coping with at my unit, my mind but mostly my body occasionally remind me to feel. A nerve got jammed in between two of my ribs a month back, recently after I started working there, and that pain every now and then returns. Maybe it’s all in my head, but I’m almost certain that tight muscles in my neck and upper back were the cause of this nerve getting pushed where it shouldn’t be. In other words; I think it’s stress related.

stress_kills_by_zel_duh-d5irve3Stress happens to be something I’ve read a lot about. It’s become clear to me over the years that I am continuously stressed out, without feeling it as such. Research done on prisoners with antisocial behavior, showed that cortisol levels can be extremely high in some individuals, but the body doesn’t show the exterior signs of stress (sweating, shaking, feeling hot or nauseous, …). This same discrepancy occurs in children with attachment issues, which, obviously, is the case with me. However this doesn’t mean that the stress isn’t there; the cortisol levels are much, much higher than in other children. There is just no expression of it.
As a survival mechanism, it is likely that I learned to ignore signs of stress, because living stressfully is tiresome. It’s almost like I chose not to listen to my body. My mind is so preoccupied with functioning socially adequately, that there is no room for attention to my body. I do run a lot, but even then I’m thinking things through and barely focusing on my body at all. Which is often why I come home realizing I have entirely strained my muscles and need several days to recover.

If I try now to actually “feel” my body, I notice many, many things. My stomach is in a knot, because I have to go to work in a couple of hours. My job is awesome, but I have to interact while doing it and this is still a horrifying thing. As soon as I’m there and said hi to everyone, it subsides and I feel better. I think.
The nervous tics that inhabit me are subtle, but there. I bite my nails, I fiddle with my hair (in a very repetitive, compulsive manner, usually when I drop my guard for example when I’m reading something that absorbs me), I grit my teeth, I bite the inside of my mouth, … People often think that I am “tense”, but that’s not the word for it. I’m constantly on guard, there’s a difference to me. I’m not a simple victim of awfully stressful events around me, I’m a competent survivor because nothing escapes my attention.

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The head nurse of my unit has a problem with me. I’m pretty sure I knew this before he did. The effect that rigid authority has on me, is unmistakeable. It triggers me like a flag does a bull. Every ounce of flexibility I have is turned to stone. Maybe I panic and resort to primitive and “safe” levels of functioning, sticking to what I know. But panic doesn’t exactly characterize me.
It’s more like a vast, intricate and very rigid pattern of coping with oppression. There’s only one; stay calm, remain friendly, head down and wait for it to pass. But this also means that the oppressor is under the impression he’s not getting through to me, when in fact he is imprisoning me in a system that I developed in my childhood. This is a very annoying thing, but I must add that I’m slowly learning to deal with it better. No, I’m not being singled out. No, I’m not his main worry or aim. I’m just an employee like all the others, and yes he’s failing to see my strong points but that’s his loss and doesn’t say anything about me.

The only light during the day, are the psychologists. The most experienced one seems to have some idea of how I function and why. He always seems burdened though, but that may well be my completely parentificated mindset (any person of any kind of responsibility for me becomes one I want to look out for, it’s almost like I feel guilty that someone would worry about me at all). The psychology students who are on their internships are a very important part of my support there as well. I had a really good conversation with one of them yesterday. She couldn’t imagine me being in doubt about anything ever. But she also couldn’t imagine me being anything but nice to anyone. The last part struck me the hardest; I always used to think of myself as such a terrible, terrible person. I suppose my parents did give me that impression a lot. Don’t be so selfish, don’t ask for so much attention, just act normal for once. And now I’m learning to adjust that image of me. I’m actually an incredibly nice person. Wow.

At 27, I somehow managed to fail at growing up and shaping an accurate image of myself. I feel relieved, that I’m perceived as genuinely nice, but also busted and stupid for not having figured that out on my own. Better late than never, of course.

It may seem simple, but it is incredibly soothing to suddenly realize that yes, I am friendly. Always, always had I firmly believed I was inherently disregarding of others, short tempered or intolerant. This is the only reflection of me I ever saw within my family. A ferocious “bulldozer” (nickname my mom gave me!?) that nobody could really handle and that should be placed in an institution so everyone could rest from her terrorizing presence. Anywhere I go, I’m afraid I’ll dominate everyone.
But I don’t. I don’t dominate anyone. I’m really, really supportive to people around me. I’m nurturing. I’m positive. I can be a rock solid source of calm when needed. It’s an extremely cathartic experience to suddenly have your eyes opened.
It’s like I ate the forbidden fruit or suddenly leveled up in Counterstrike and found the most delicious and effective of weapons out there; love for myself.

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The maze

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Today, for some inexplicable reason, I went home with a heavier heart than this morning. Quite possibly, this is the rebound from the period I just had. Or maybe it’s the strange, ever-lingering depression that I carry with me like a coat I either take on or off. At any given moment, I seem to have the capacity to feel utterly in touch with all that my depression ever represented. I’m not actually depressed; I get up in the morning feeling ready for the day ahead of me, I take excellent care of my body and I still enjoy many things. But the hollow feeling I slowly learned to cope with, remains.

Most people around me believe I used to be insecure, back when I was always sad. But I wasn’t. I’m not. It’s my faith in others’ willingness to see my beauty that is profoundly damaged, up to this day. When people around me oversee my strong points, or laugh about funny quirks in me that actually make me perfect, it’s like a part of me dies, drowned in the sound of their ignorance. Over time, I’ve learned to overcome the look of The Other, and to rely on my own conviction of what’s right and wrong. But I’m still a social being, caught in the web of a context I can’t quite escape.

The hollowness that firmly inhabits my heart is an incredibly heavy nothing. You’d think that nothing doesn’t have a mass, or weight to it, but it does. Coming to terms with the reality that I’m a separate being and that ultimately you are alone, is probably the hardest thing I’ll ever have to achieve. I’m actually not even to the point yet where I’m sure I want to be. One of my clearest childhood memories, is when I was still really small, like 6 or 7. I kept holding on with all my might to the idea of someone stronger, bigger than me, probably masculine, who would take care of me and I’d never have to feel misunderstood, lonely or sad again. When I actually started dating guys, they turned out to be remarkably callous as opposed to what they represented themselves to be. There was no interest in who I was or what I hoped to become, there was only their expectations of me, and my furious fight to live up to that.

I’m not technically lonely. There are many and good friends I can call. But I’m not sure if anyone truly can encompass who I am with their single mind, if anyone can entirely grasp my constitution. Sometimes, very rarely, some people seem to flirt with it. But it’s never quite it. Or maybe it is, but they in turn cannot really be encompassed by me, so I’ll never really know for sure. What a terrible, terrible maze. What a cruel thing human life is.

“I brought you the sun, Clementine.”

This is what a 63-year-old patient told me yesterday. He firmly believes he’s in direct communication with the universe and the planets, the stars. That’s why it was so incredibly nice of him to say that to me; he genuinely decided that he would bring me the most vital of stars, and set it in the sky to shine for me that day. I laughed, but was profoundly touched inside.

Working with chronic schizophrenics isn’t easy every day. On drab, cold days I literally feel the liveliness that characterizes me seeping out of me. This population often only possesses a fraction of the life energy they used to have. Overmedicated, understimulated and often ignored or bypassed as human beings. Which is an awful mistake, because they are so, so human. This is exactly what is so striking about them. The forgiveness they manage to muster towards us, the staff, who stand for social norms and society in general, is admirable. I doubt I could still even talk to the people who ever put me in an isolation room. They’re examples in that sense.

By being alive and energetic myself, I try to challenge them to a response. Often it works, but just as often it doesn’t. And I’m left having given balls of strength without getting a refill. Don’t get me wrong; my gestures are unconditional, and I don’t blame them for a second. But it does get harsh when day after day you give everything you’ve got, only to see no change whatsoever.
Or maybe I need to persevere, and be more determined. It does get easier when the sun is brought to me by that sweet man, because it gives me so much energy. They’re a chronic bunch, which means change is difficult for them and slow to express itself. I cannot give up. Determination is what they need, and deserve.Their stories are so amazing. Not only their life stories and pasts (they are too!), but the ones they tell. I could listen to them all day. Computers generating their emotions, telepathy, other people controlling their eyes and looking through them, ghosts, babies perpetually remaining in their wombs while talking to them and praising them for good things they do, strangers living in their apartments invisibly, God talking through them because they’re Jesus, elves and demons, … Their world is an incredible one! The more I try to crawl inside them and try to see things the way they see them, the more I’m absolutely amazed at their capacity to remotely function in today’s world. I hope they somehow feel my admiration and fascination, and my utter respect for them being alive.

By writing all this, I try to process all of it. I also try to get them more in the open, and understood. The ones that look like they couldn’t possibly be any good conversation, can sometimes open up and turn out to be the most nurturing and supportive people you’ve ever met. The ones who don’t seem to even notice your presence, can end up being the ones who tell you you look tired today, did you sleep well? The ones who don’t even speak your language, can suddenly stand in front of you, look you straight in the eyes and say, in the most genuine, fragile tone of voice; hi sister. And my heart sings every time that happens.

My name means “mercy”. Maybe there’s a reason.

 

From turn to Capetown

As I was working temporarily at an acute psychosis unit, my contract has now been prolonged in another unit. It’s still psychosis, but not acute, this time I’m working with a chronically ill population -the true, essential schizophrenics. People who have long forgotten, denied and ignored social norms. They are the most beautiful and honestly existent people I have ever met in my life. Since they have been rejected so profusely by society, they too have turned their backs on everything resembling social convention. They chew their clothes, eat paper or cough inelegantly and without shame. But they will also never fake appreciation. Ever. When they say ‘thank you’, they say it while looking you straight into the eye, with such intensity and sincerity that your heart fucking beats into overdrive. It’s amazing.

The battle I’m up against isn’t trying to fix them -they are absolutely and irrevocably perfect. It’s the team. I’ve only been there for a week, so I cannot judge them truly. Nor do I want to, I’m absolutely convinced each and every one of them has an amazing potential burning inside their hearts. But they have forgotten what the core of working with schizophrenics entails, which is to love them. These are all people who’ve washed ashore from a sea who beat them up so badly that they are gasping for air. What they crave and what might soothe their suffering, is to be treated like equals instead of as sick individuals, is to be included instead of pushed out, is to be held in the palm of someone’s proverbial hand.
The team has fallen apart due to many changes (physical -they moved- and ethical -new psychologist- on top of which many left and new nurses started), mourning over what once was and no more resilience from within a safe team to affront the sometimes difficult to handle patients. They have lost the fundamental trust between nurses that makes for efficient care. Communication isn’t free, nor positive, and so the result is that briefings are gruff and thus ineffective.

How I’ll go about it, I don’t know, but I see what the problems are and I won’t stand there and do nothing. The only thing I care about, is the well being of our patients. This requirement is not being met as things are now, so I have a strong motivator to reach my goal. And I’m thoroughly convinced my colleagues want the same thing. They just don’t know how to change anything because they’ve been right smack in the middle of it for so long. My contract won’t end until May, but even after that I’ll stay if I can help it. I was born to do this, and there has to be some kind of reason I ended up in that unit.

Challenge accepted.

Coward

I am a piece of work. I was almost unsalvageable for years, even I had stopped believing anything good could come of me. The fight I put up with myself, the world and life itself is visible on my entire body. Tattoos of terrible creatures, mythical symbols, and scars. Everywhere. Legs, arms, shoulders, belly. A patient asked me what that was, on my arm. Stupidly, I looked at my watch, hoping she’d let it go or something would save me out of this situation. But she persisted; no, below, there.

I fell out of a tree.

It was out before I knew it. I lied to her face, because she’s sick and couldn’t handle the truth. Which is the wrongest, most hypocritical thing to say in the world. It’s what the psychiatric consensus in Europe is, though, and I got startled by how much of it seems to have seeped in for me to say that. Me. The ex-patient. How have I been so corrupted? How have I not felt this process happening?
I wish I could apologize to her. Tell her that the scars aren’t important anymore, and she shouldn’t worry about me; I’m here for you, there’s no need to elaborate on my past. But I’m afraid to lose my job if I “out” myself as an ex-patient, even though all I ever waddled through was a heavy, thick depression. I failed her, but I won’t do that again. Never.

Hiding such important parts of yourself, is a continuous struggle. It’s like lying to yourself, to make it less bad that you’re lying to everyone around you. Though I have no shame about my arms, and though I know it wouldn’t bother the patient population in the least. I know, because I’m them. I’m them, and I’m the nurses, I’m both sides. Who wouldn’t want a caregiver who’s been as low as them, when they feel small and humiliated? Who wouldn’t want the one beacon of hope they have, to have been in their shoes? Isn’t that the most beautiful promise laid out in front of them for their own future? You will survive this, and you will become someone elses rock.

But I’m a coward. I’m afraid for my job. So I silently went to the store and bought more long sleeved t-shirts.

I should be asleep

There are six more hours left for me to sleep. But these are hard times for the people under my care, and I’m struggling to enjoy the merry season. Thank goodness I have to work these days, and I have the immense opportunity to do something meaningful for them to the best of my ability.

Some of them (most of them, which makes me happy) get to go home, and be with family. As crappy a family as it often is, it is one. But a very small group, two or three people, have nowhere to go. They remain within the brick walls of the institution, nursed, looked after, but harshly rejected by society. I’ve had to cancel all Christmas invitations, because I’m working, but in doing so I realized what luxury I’m blessed with that I have a family who wanted me present. And what a privilege that really is.

Though I feel equally privileged to spend these times with the lonely ones, the ones that nobody sees fit to be loved. There is an amazing feel to making a difference, and they are the ones giving me that gift. How to thank them for that is a mystery to me, but I’m sure I’ll find a way. They deserve to know. They deserve to hear that even caregivers cannot live without them.
Psychiatric care is the strangest, weirdest symbiosis of people. The division between nurse and patient vanishes, the one-directional path of the exchange blends in with the mutual and purest form of respect for one another. There is no difference between you and I, you are a human being with hopes and dreams and I want to hear them (it remains unclear and irrelevant if nurse or patient is talking here).

I guess my Christmas will indeed be very, very merry.

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Boundaries

Click it. It’s the sound of crickets chirping, without any manipulation or enhancement. It’s just slowed down.

Which makes me wonder if there’s a biological component to beauty. And if there is, how much more is written in our DNA that we don’t know about? Is singing, dancing and loving one another something that is written in our very essence? Are they things that transcend the material world? Is there really a border, where material stops and spiritual starts?

When I was little, I would very often read (and re-read) a book called Faeries, by Brian Froud and Alan Lee. The drawings in it were my escape, I dreamed about the beautiful idea of there being a world within our own. They explain how the world of faeries starts where there is a thick blanket of fog over a meadow, and that the ephemeral boundary between the two worlds is a well designed concept by the faerie Kingdom. Needless to say, whenever I saw fog, I raced into it. I never met or saw anything, much to my disappointment.

ImageThe point is; we seem to like to clearly appoint lines and borders and ends. Probably because our minds are too limited to encompass the incredible infinity of life. We’re all one big life, endless, connected and the result of each other. The bear eats the salmon, and once the bear dies he is food for a tree.
What if all the information of our personalities isn’t in our DNA, but in our molecules? What if even molecules move and change in a way that isn’t random, but exactly there to make love and kindness possible in our brains? The same molecule that was once part of a tyrannosaurus rex could now be in my brain, doing its work, making my brain more complete. I am not separate from the past, nor from the future. The things I am composed of, will always be here. Even if the entire universe collapses, the infinitely small little things I am put together with, will still be here.

We’re not even separate from each other. There’s air between us, molecule after molecule of it. If all we could see was molecules, we would all just be one gigantic mass of tiny particles. None bigger than the other, and none more important than the next.