On Friday, I finally got to see my mental health professional, Deborah, and I read her my long list of reasons not to do CPE at TWMC and she said it sounded like I have made my decision, but then I told her what I like about this work, including that it’s an honor to be with people at the most difficult moments of their lives, that I’m good at it, that I like meeting new people every day, and that it feels great to do something that is undoubtedly worthwhile.
She said it’s OK to be happy: If I’m happy having a simple, quiet, low-stress life at my former company—assuming I can get a job there—that is entirely fine. More than one friend has said it sounds like I’ll be OK financially whatever I do and that I should take money out of the equation, but Deborah said financial well-being is subjective. She knows people with $10 million who don’t feel safe unless they have a paycheck regularly coming in.
She said maybe there are other ways I can get my needs to be a chaplain met and that I need to guard my health and well-being. She said that, as a cancer survivor, I have to be careful about stress. She said she thought of that several times while I was listing the arguments against going on.
“Does stress cause cancer?” I asked.
“It can’t help,” she said, which sounded rather right to me. Later, however, I did a little online research and learned that there actually is no evidence that stress directly causes cancer.
I have been having a lot of difficulty falling asleep this past week. The person who was coming off call Saturday morning said trouble sleeping can be a symptom of compassion fatigue, which you can indeed have after just eight weeks of CPE. He suggested remembering to do the things that bring me joy, such as hobbies I might have been forgetting about lately. He said people confuse compassion fatigue with burnout, but they’re not the same thing. Compassion fatigue comes from dealing with all the feelings that arise in caring for dying or ill people—our cup is just overfull with feelings. Burnout is more when we hate the whole system, hate our boss, etc.
I asked if there’s such a thing as being a hospital chaplain without being stressed out and he said that in itself, it doesn’t have to be a stressful job. He said he’s gotten to the point where his job per se doesn’t stress him out, but he said it’s not a simple, mindless job, and it will always be challenging. When you add in running a household, raising kids, and all the other things we do, there is the potential for stress.
I attended a death yesterday, spending time with the family and offering a prayer, and visited another patient who was actively dying. I had to take cabs to two other campuses of the medical center. One of my cab drivers said, “You seem like a very chipper chaplain.” After I said I was trying to decide whether to continue in this field or not, another cab driver said, “At your age, you need a job with less stress.”
My three most joyful moments in contemplating what to do next month have been when I decided not to do CPE. That seems telling. But when I think about going ahead, I sometimes feel a sense of a huge, thrilling, unknown expanse—a mystery and an adventure. How wonderful to have the chance to go on an adventure! At other such moments, I feel profoundly touched and almost teary contemplating the opportunity to fulfill what seems like a sacred trust.
Per Jack, I acquired Stephen Jenkinson’s book Die Wise. Skimming through it, I concluded that he’s kind of a jerk—could it be that everyone who works in spiritual care is a jerk, at least sometimes? I can be a jerk, certainly. Maybe everyone everywhere is a jerk sometimes, but you never get to see this working in finance because people don’t bring their whole selves there. Anyway, I did like very much what Jenkinson wrote to his sons in his acknowledgements section: “May your days become your own true days, proof of how it all could be.” I believe my own true days more likely take place in a hospital than in a corporate cubicle. But I also don’t want to be stressed out all the time, and I don’t want to be strapped for cash.
One of my favorite patients, M.I., was discharged last week before I even had a chance to say goodbye, and my other favorite patient left the hospital against medical advice. I had really been enjoying reading her chart. One day she was found with a pipe and contraband pills. The chart said the writer, a nurse, had been “unable to retrieve the pipe.” A couple of days after that, the nurses noticed her room was filled with smoke and later found rolling papers and a lighter.
I wrote their names on little pieces of paper and put them on the shelf that in effect is my altar, where I keep objects that I find beautiful and meaningful. I will keep them in sight for a while, and later put them in some sort of vessel, along with the others likely to come, so I can look at their names from time to time and remember their faces.