Continuing with December’s theme, here is the Day 9 link:
How resourceful were you in 2011? What new ways could you incorporate resourcefulness into 2012?
(Note: This one is going to be a longer, more serious blog entry. Some of it might make its way into my book, whenever I get around to writing it.)
“Resourceful” meant different things to me throughout this past year. In an eco-sense of the word, I continued to develop new ways to reduce my carbon footprint. Except for on the rare occasions that I forget, I carry my own reusable “take-out” containers into restaurants so that I don’t have to use styrofoam boxes. Waiters look at me like I’m crazy, but it’s similar to the looks I used to get when I would carry tote bags to the store, long before there was a market for reusable shopping bags.
But in a bigger sense of the word, I learned to manage my time in different ways based on different needs. In the months following Mom’s passing, I really needed time to recover from the exhaustion of being a full-time caregiver for almost 4 years. I had been aware of the ways that those who were supposed to be helping me would manipulate me in order to serve needs that competed with my own, but I had often told myself that I was being selfish for feeling frustrated with it. The biggest way this played out was that I found it very difficult to be “resourceful” in resting and recharging. I was very much aware that I had more assistance than most others in my situation, but often I found myself resenting the nature of the assistance because it was so chaotic. Not only did I have people (strangers whom I usually got to know over a period of time) in my home almost all the time–especially at night–but I had very little space that was really mine.
Due to occasional incidences in which a nurse did not show up for the night shift, I found myself not able to wind down in the evening. Every single night for almost 4 years, with the exception of periods when Mom was in the hospital or the extremely rare occasions when I was away from home overnight, I spent several hours in the evening wondering whether I would get to sleep that night. There were no guarantees. It’s incredibly difficult to find reliable nursing care for a vent-dependent patient who was as vulnerable as Mom was, and I could find only one nurse staffing agency that was even willing to accept Mom as a patient. This left me in a position of feeling dependent on them–when I would receive a phone call informing me that the nurse wouldn’t be showing up that night and there was no backup plan, I couldn’t say, “Well, I’ll take my business elsewhere.” Because there was no “elsewhere,” and we all knew it. As a result, I ended up feeling exploited, disrespected, and disregarded. The agency knew that I would stay up all night, even when it meant sacrificing other obligations as well as my health and well-being, and they took advantage of that fact.
I would tell myself that I wasn’t the only person in the world who had to stay up all night. I would hear from friends who are parents of young children that they were also up all night on occasion, which would make me feel like I was being unreasonable when I felt that I needed to sleep in order to be the best caregiver and daughter that I could be. But the reality is, most children get well, even if they have bouts of illnesses. And most of them aren’t completely dependent on a machine to stay alive, to the point that if the caregiver drifts off for a few minutes, it’s not a life-or-death situation. To compound matters, Mom would get really distressed when I had to stay up all night because she still felt that she was supposed to take care of me, not the other way around, and it upset her that the agency was taking advantage of her “baby girl.” Her blood pressure was always higher when I had to stay up with her, and she couldn’t get the rest that she needed. In other words, it was as hard (if not harder) on her as it was on me. And yet, it continued to happen…
The longtime nurses knew how much I stressed about this situation, and they handled it in different ways. One would make a big production about how she didn’t know whether she would be able to make it in to work when there was inclement weather. I certainly didn’t expect her to risk her life in order to show up, but she wouldn’t inform me until the last possible second as to whether she would be there because she didn’t want to lose out on the hours of work (calling in 12 hours in advance could have given us the time to find a substitute, but it would have guaranteed she wouldn’t get paid, whereas waiting around until the evening meant there was at least a possibility she might be able to make the drive). I sympathized with her financial plight, but that didn’t solve the problem of having reliable help. I finally started calling her on the drama by offering to drive to her house (an hour away) to pick her up, and suddenly she would be able to make it after all, without my assistance. And really, more than anything, it was about the drama of her being able to make a big production out of actually showing up to her scheduled job. She was a “savior” who risked her life and limb to be there, and I should treat her as one. This frustrated me to no end. And through all those productions, I still worried about whether I would have to stay up all night.
It had become such an established thought pattern that it took some time for me to get used to sleeping again after Mom passed away. I wasn’t used to sleeping in silence because during all those years, I had kept one of those baby video monitors on all night right next to my bed. Whenever the vent alarm went off, I heard it, either consciously or unconsciously. It was the familiar, the ever-present, and the background by which I went to sleep. I was also so used to the ebb and flow of the ventilator’s inhalations and exhalations (13 times a minute in the last year) that my house felt eerily quiet without it. I finally got to where I could really sleep again, and that’s when I became truly aware of how rest-deprived I had been for so long.
But it wasn’t just the sleep. I had also been deprived of the ability to function at “maximum performance level” because of the routine intrusions into my space. No matter how many times I asked her not to, one of the nurses would continue to open my door and walk into my room unannounced, sometimes for a reason as trivial as asking me to go to the store…at some point in the next couple of days. This happened with both my bedroom and my home office, and if I locked the door, she would proceed to knock loudly until I opened the door. I found it hard to focus on work projects and my dissertation because at the very moment that I was starting to feel productive, I would get interrupted. And if I tried to work away from home, I’d get constant phone calls informing me that there was an “emergency” that needed my immediate attention.
This pattern was so much a part of my life that I reached a point where I was no longer aware of how it impacted me. And that’s how I learned to be resourceful once again. After a summer of dealing with the seemingly endless tasks that needed to be addressed following Mom’s death, I was finally able to start thinking about my dissertation again. My advisor and I thought that we had until December for the defense, but we learned on very short notice that I had…a month (!!) But of course, a month really meant two weeks. Two very intense weeks of 18 hours a day sitting in front of my computer, with a few trips up to campus thrown into the mix. Those two weeks were probably my most “resourceful” weeks of the entire year, but not just because I managed to accomplish something that we weren’t quite sure was possible. I rediscovered myself during that time. I relearned how to be completely focused on a project, and I realized the extent to which I had been unable to do that sort of thing in the past few years. One day when I was visiting with my advisor, I told him that I was becoming aware of the degree to which I had been incapable of finishing my dissertation while I was functioning as a caregiver. I had put so much pressure on myself to “do it all,” and I would beat myself up when I simply couldn’t do it. His response was that he had begun to notice how different I sounded than I had for the past few years–that he was also becoming aware of what a strain my circumstances had placed on me (not that either of us had been in denial of that fact, but just that the degree was far greater than had been obvious). That was in large part due to the fact that I felt I should have been able to manage everything during those years, and I wasn’t able to recognize my own limitations–hence, I kept trying to do the impossible.
So when I think of resourcefulness, I think of the bigger lessons that I learned during that dissertation crunch. Yes, I finished my dissertation, and by all accounts, it’s a “good” one. But I accomplished something far greater in that I finally was able to see something that hadn’t been apparent to me: that I do have limitations, and there are times when it’s OK (and even necessary) to say, “I can’t do this right now.” It’s not a failure or some sort of personal deficiency but a clarity and knowledge of self to see things the way they truly are. It’s an understanding that I hope to carry with me throughout the rest of my life. And it was one of the most significant gifts that I could have received this year. I’m thankful that I had a dissertation committee who supported me during that journey and were invested not only in my completion of this massive project but also in the significance that it had for me as a human being. They’re really cool people, and it’s so cool that they could be part of such an important aspect of my personal growth. I’ll continue to hold myself to very high standards (perhaps too high), but I’ll also remember that it’s OK to cut myself some slack now and then. And maybe I’ll be even more resourceful for that awareness.