As you might have guessed if you’ve read any of my other blog posts, my job can be pretty stressful at times. Those of us in caregiving professions can easily become exhausted — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually — by the constant demands of helping others. Sooner or later, inevitably, we will experience what is known as compassion fatigue. It happened to me during my first year as a staff chaplain. (Actually, I’m sure it was happening to me during CPE as well, but it just felt like part of the gauntlet of that year of chaplain residency that we all had to endure!) I had not yet learned to recognize the signs. I was not getting enough sleep. I was eating unhealthy foods at strange times of day. For a while, I would burst into tears whenever anyone outside the hospital asked me how I was doing, because I was working so hard to keep my emotions in check at work. I worried about my patients, constantly praying for them and hoping for updates from those who checked out of the hospital. And then finally, I found myself unable to care about them at all. My wake-up call came when I went with a doctor to inform a young woman that her boyfriend had died. She began weeping openly and though I put my arm around her as I normally would have, I realized that I felt nothing. I had nothing left to give. Though I had not taken any of my vacation days at that point (as best I can remember), I was still afraid to ask for time off. I feared it would be perceived as weakness. I was the new kid on the block, and one of only two women on staff. I didn’t want anyone to think I wasn’t tough enough to handle this job.
Finally, thank God, I realized that I had no choice. I could not be the chaplain I wanted to be, the person I wanted to be, anymore. I needed to take time to care for myself. That is not easy to do, especially, I think, for those of us who are clergy. We are praised for working ourselves half to death, for never taking time away from those we serve, for being available 24-7, for not saying “no” to anything that is asked of us. We’ve pretty successfully made an idol of workaholism. But the reality is, if we don’t willingly take the time off, eventually it will catch up with us, and we’ll be the ones in need of pastoral care in the hospital! No vehicle can operate on an empty fuel tank. So, what do we need to do to fill ourselves?
I have learned the hard way what I need to do, and not do, to care for myself as a minister and a human being. Before leaving the hospital after a difficult shift, I have a ritual. I go to the hospital chapel, where there is a notebook for prayers. I sit in silence for a few moments, calling to mind the patients, family members, and staff who were in my care during this shift, especially the ones who cause me the most worry. Without using their names or details, I write the best continuation I can think of for their story, the theological equivalent of “And they all lived happily ever after.” This becomes my prayer. When I am satisfied that I have written down all I want and hope for them, I lay my open hands across the pages, a physical reminder that I am letting them go. But I am not, as I used to fear, dropping them into oblivion, throwing them away as if I didn’t care. I am saying, “I’ve done all I can. This is what I want to happen for them, but I am powerless to make it happen. I’m giving them to you, God, since you have more power and more love than I ever could.” This makes it easier for me to go home and sleep peacefully, knowing they are in good hands.
Another thing I make sure to do for myself these days is schedule time off regularly. Since my schedule is so erratic, it isn’t always easy for me to find two days off in a row. If I want that — or three or four days in a row, which is necessary sometimes too — I have to ask for it ahead of time. I make the most of those days off, doing things I love that are good for me in every way. I ride my bike, spend time with friends, walk my dog on the beach, attend yoga classes or go to the gym, read a book on my back porch swing, do some writing, take time to simply be. It is incredible how refreshing even a day or two of that can be.
In her memoir, Leaving Church, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor tells of being asked the question, “What is saving your life right now?” In many ways, caring for others as a chaplain saves my life. But I know that I cannot do it on my own. I need regular time away to reconnect with the source of my ministry. Jesus often escaped to quiet places for prayer, and he encouraged his disciples to leave the crowds behind from time to time in order to be alone with him. It is no exaggeration to say that good self care is constantly saving my life. Today, one of my favorite people in the world is coming for a visit. For the rest of the week, I will be away from work. My time will be spent introducing him to my friends here and my favorite restaurants, playing tourist with him in beautiful downtown Charleston, engaging in lively discussions of theology and current events, enjoying the perfect October weather, and generally relaxing, making a quiet space in my life to reconnect with God and with myself. When I return to the hospital next week, I will be renewed in body, mind, and spirit, ready to carry on with the ministry I love for a while longer. And in the weeks and months ahead, I will listen for the voice inside that tells me when it is time to get away again. I recognize that voice now, and know that I ignore it at my own peril.
What do you do to take care of yourself? How would you answer the question, “What is saving your life right now?”