Why I Want to Be a Nurse, part II
I was right that I would see her again. She came in often, almost always for the same thing. For the first few times, we did the same dance over and over. She would challenge me, wait for the judgment that did not come. Slowly, painfully, she began to trust me. She began to look for me when she came in, and we started to connect. I liked her, if the truth be told. She was so much more than her pain, and the things she did to herself, while disturbing, were far from the most important thing about her. She turned out to be shockingly intelligent, and possessed of a sharp and dry wit that often caught me off guard because of her perfect, deadpan delivery.
There were rules. I tend to touch my patients—a hand on a shoulder, a pat on the arm—if they are willing. She was never, ever willing. I never got the sense that she disliked touch but rather, that she was denying herself even this small comfort. Her self-harming shamed her and her self-loathing ran deep. Another rule was that I could not be sympathetic in any way. I learned to never ask her if the wounds hurt, or to murmur words of support when she got the painful injections of anesthetic so she could be stitched up. I could ask her about her pets (whom she loved) or I could tell her something funny. I could stand nearby where she could see me, but even the simple kindness of a pillow under her head was often too much.
If this was a movie of the week, it would end with her getting the necessary help and slowly stopping the behavior, and my presence in her life would be a catalyst for change. If you work in the medical profession, you know better. “Helping people”, a fine ambition, is nevertheless a phrase that requires redefinition over and over again when you care for people in this way. It was beyond my ability to help her with the soul-deep wounds that had brought her to this place. But I could and did create a place of comparative safety, and one without the judgment that she feared. When I left that clinic, she was still suffering although she had started to see a professional. It wasn’t the first time. I hope fervently that it was the last, that it did the trick, but I know the odds aren’t good.
Thing is, my co-workers (who were mostly sweet young things) were baffled and would say things like “You’re amazing with her”. As if she were a dog to be trained. I hated those remarks. I wasn’t amazing with her—I was amazed by her. I was amazed by her strength, her courage. You’re probably thinking that it doesn’t sound very strong to keep hurting oneself over and over, but who knows what dealt the vicious blow that led her to that place? For her, survival of any sort was probably a triumph.
It’s like when you walk on an icy sidewalk in slippery shoes. You flail, right? You wave your arms around and bend and twist and grab pointlessly at whatever’s nearby, just to keep from falling on your ass. And it makes perfect sense—to you. But to the person across the street who doesn’t see the ice, you look like a freak. Your behavior is crazy, inexplicable. It’s like that with people who have been so badly hurt. I couldn’t see this lady’s personal sidewalk, and nor could anyone else. She was trying with all of her being to stay upright, though, and I admired the hell out of her for that.
I’ll tell you the absolute truth: if I helped her, if I held a fraction of her pain from time to time, if I made her a safe place for brief periods, then I’m glad. But knowing her was a gift. She taught me volumes about life and about pain and about caring. About the breathtaking indomitability of the human spirit. She taught me that you can touch without your hands and you can comfort with laughter and help doesn’t always look the same. Everything she gave me was precious and rare.
She’s why I want to be a nurse. But not just her—all of them. Every last person who comes for help and still graciously offers lesson after lesson while asking little or nothing in return. They’re gifts that take my breath away over and over again. I can’t believe I get to be there for that…..but I know I don’t want to stop.