In the Service of Others: Working Myself Sick

Thursday, August 21, 2014

I've been working myself sick lately.

Taking a step back from my commitments so that I can recommit to myself -- a lesson that I am always in the process of re-learning, but that has especially come up since the month of Ramadan -- has proved to be way more challenging than just canceling a few appointments and finishing a few jobs.

One of my major tasks at work is to address the needs of patients who are calling into the clinic; their issues may be urgent, or they may feel they are urgent despite the easy answers that come with a few minutes of gentle probing. They don't know our systems, and we don't know their lives. But we are building a scaffolding to address their health needs not only in response to symptoms, but at the root in prevention. Even though I have to keep in mind when there are difficult callers that they are experiencing really stressful situations, I can't get enough of the feeling that I am helping people.

I am always moonlighting to get more of that feeling. The jobs that I feel called to are all in the service of others: in the past three weeks, I have attended an equivalent number of births. I have massaged three women while they were in labor, watched their babies come into the world in the wee hours of daylight or the late hours of the evening, and absorbed that unique energy that keeps birthworkers up for hours and hours at a time (minimum, I have been with the moms for 7 hours or more per these births). You step out of your body for a moment, through giving so much of your energy to that person as they deliver. I have been wanting to write about this feeling for so many weeks, but haven't had the breathing room to sit with it.

This feeling is one of the reasons I love my healing work. People need me, it feels like. People need me to answer the phones, send the emails, stand by the bedside, advocate for their rights, connect them with resources... I am the interpreter of systems and the gatherer of knowledge -- how lofty and cool does that sound? But, in some ways, it's a trap.

When I am facing my deepest personal challenges, I often ask: "caretakers, who takes care of you?" It's not just a silly inversion of words. It really helps remind me that I need to rely on and truly trust others to provide me the energy in order to keep working in their service.

Lately, I've been circling the drain of thinking that the only reason someone would want my presence is for my ability to serve them. Resting your self-worth on a concept so tied to performance takes a toll on you when you decide, for your own basic wellbeing, that you must take time to eat food at regular hours, sleep in, and turn down potential job offers. Because there is no end to how many things people need from you, and ultimately you will disappoint someone. Ultimately, you will disappoint someone through taking what you need.

I can think of no better example of this than regarding my recent move. In the past few months, I have had cockroaches destroy my things and crawl over me while I slept in my Bronx apartment. The decision to move was inevitable, but I finally took steps to make it happen in the last month. In the past week, with the help of several friends, I packed up and shipped out to a new comfortable and roach-free place in Brooklyn. My previous landlord, however, decided to take this as a personal affront to him and called -- not to collect money or ask me to do any particular thing -- but to lecture at me for 30 minutes about my irresponsibility as a tenant. I interpret that he needed me to take his emotional burden from him as I tried to meet my own needs. Then it came forward: Disappointment in myself. Guilt about moving. Shame. In my mind, I was already taking responsibility. I had to realize that the other person must also hold up their part of the relationship.

I've put on hold a lot of the work that I can be doing for others, but that doesn't make it any easier to step away when I feel responsible. Or to acknowledge my own emotions/ego around success or failure. Or to admit that caring for others allows me to avoid caring for myself. If Allah gives us only the burdens we can carry, easing someone else's does not guarantee that you have managed your own.

I send love and wish ease to all those who are carrying burdens now that feel impossible to hold. I admire those who survive, who take what they need with no apology whether they are forced to or by choice. Know that I need to learn as much from you as I do from other healers about how to move closer to my own truth.