Who takes care of the caregiver?


Get up and call work.

Antionette, my officemate, asks what’s wrong. Before I can answer, my lungs spasm.

“You need to see a doctor,” she says in her military voice. “Today.”

I just want to sleep. But I know she’s right. I call. Yes, I can be there in an hour. I drive, knowing I shouldn’t. The x-ray confirms the diagnosis.

“You’ve got pneumonia. Go home and rest.”

I leave a message on Brian’s voicemail asking him if he can pick up the kids and my prescription. Then I curl up under the covers.

The phone rings. The house is dark. “Mommy, aren’t you going to pick us up?”

Moving through disorientation, I pull on my sweats and arrive at school two minutes after closing time. Benny, my youngest, bursts out crying when he sees me. I apologize for being late, for being sick, for making them worry. Once we’re all home, I remember that Brian never called back. I call his office.

“Sorry, honey. I was in a deposition all day. Even if I’d gotten your message I wouldn’t have been able to get away. Not with the trial coming up.”

Who will take care of the caregivers?

Brian comes home after the kids and I are already in bed. Then, before any of us gets up the next morning, he’s gone. Usually, I understand. But this morning, I feel abandoned. I suck it up and get the kids ready for school. Later, I pick up my prescription myself.

The kids do their best to comfort me. After I pick them up from school, Corianne makes me tea with honey, Danny draws me a picture of a beautiful day, and Benny climbs on me as I lie on the couch. Corianne reads to the boys at bedtime so that I can turn in early.

Hours later, I feel Brian slip into bed.

“What time is it?”

“After midnight,” he says. “We had a filing. Did you get your medicine?”

“Yeah, but it takes a while to work.”

“I’m so tired,” says Brian. He turns over and goes to sleep.

In the darkness, I cry. Something in me has changed. I am not the person I thought I was — self-reliant, independent, strong, a person who takes care of others but needs no caretaking in return. The fact is I need my family. They ground me. They soothe me. It shocks me that I’ve come to depend on them as much as they depend on me.

When I arrive at the hospital for my next shift, everyone is talking about a nurse who was recently diagnosed with cancer. That makes four nurses and a social worker with breast cancer, one nurse with liver cancer, and one with brain cancer. Several weeks ago, a substance abuse counselor committed suicide.

Who will take care of the caregivers?

For twenty two years, I’ve listened deeply to stories of men who violated children and mothers who pretended it wasn’t happening; of pimps who enslave girls, husbands who beat wives, and young men who shoot at people as though they were cans for target practice; of grown-up children with fractured souls because of  parents who tried to “beat some sense” into them.I’ve worked with people who mutilated their bodies or refused to eat, people who scrubbed their hands until they bled or heard voices telling them they deserved to die. I feel ravaged by overexposure to human cruelty and suffering.

Perhaps I am, by nature, vulnerable to other people’s pain. Images of trauma become lodged in my psyche, standing in the wings when I am awake and moving to center stage when I dream. If there is a way of listening to others’ feelings without being touched in return, I cannot imagine it.

It feels like I’ve come to the end of a twenty two-year backpacking trip. My shoulders ache. I need to drop my backpack, sit on a high peak, and gaze at where I’ve come from and what lies ahead.

What would happen if I took off my pack?

 If I am not a nurse, who am I?

When I enter the kitchen and peek inside the family room, the boys are still riveted to Aladdin. Judging from the scene I saw as I walked past, I have twelve or thirteen luxurious minutes in which to shower. After scrubbing, shampooing, and conditioning, I stand with my back to the downpour while wet heat pummels my muscles and opens my lungs, filling me with a new sense of purpose and possibility. A rumbling erupts in my chest. It pushes upward until it uncorks streams of uncontrollable laughter. I ride the waves of giddiness until they dissipate and deliver me to an island of calm. Then I hear the pounding on the bathroom door.

“Mommy!” yells Benny. “Maaaaaahmeeeeeeee!”

I shut off the water, wrap myself in a towel, and open the door.

Benny eyes me suspiciously. “It’s over, Mommy. The movie is over.”

I smile at my future. “So it is.”

When I tell my boss and colleagues that I am leaving, most are not surprised. Though they assume it’s to spend more time with my three kids, and that’s partially true, the real reason is that I need to leave to take care of myself before I become a basket case.

If I were my own nurse, I would advise doing what feels good: Take the kids to the park, dig in the garden, make love, cook good meals, write, sing, spend time with friends, and choose movies from the comedy section; and try new things: meditation, exercise, and yoga. I feel guilty for having the option to leave when others don’t, but we caregivers must find ways to take care of ourselves so we can continue doing our work.

Like the roots of a rose, mine will continue to support me through a period of dormancy, until I am ready to bloom again. I will always be a nurse.

From The Comfort Garden: Tales from the Trauma Unit. Copyright © 2011 by Laurie Barkin. Adapted with permission of Laurie Barkin and Fresh Pond Press;

Laurie Barkin, RN, MS
Laurie Barkin, RN, MS, is a psychiatric nurse consultant to the University of California, San Francisco. She is the author of "The Comfort Garden: Tales from the Trauma Unit."

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