I have consciously tried to stay away from news this week, and it’s worked. I’ve had moments where I realised I wasn’t feeling all worked up with the world’s goings on, because I hadn’t checked the Guardian website for the past few hours. It’s great. I can still know what’s going on because I will hear about anything important on facebook, but if I don’t want to fry my brain with a self righteous article on a news website I don’t have to.
At work there have been interesting times this week. I guess I am settling in now, with more tasks to do and more people to speak to. I realised that until this week I hadn’t had any truly bad days – the type of day when I just can’t unfreeze and be myself, because I’m stressed or angry about something. Although it had been a stressful time what with political events in the last few weeks, I wasn’t struggling to going into work and feel ok about being there. That was until this Monday, when I had nothing to do. Although I have a few projects going on I just couldn’t get on with any of them on Monday, because K wasn’t in to give me guidance, and there was no one else around who could. I had about an hour of work to do in an eight hour day. Needless to say that’s not good for someone with insecurity issues and an over active imagination. I could just see it being like that for the next six months, me sitting there waiting for things to be given to me until the dreaded R word inevitably comes up (redundancy).
I emailed J, K’s manager, to see if he needed anything doing, and he came over within half an hour. Great, I thought, finally I’ll have something to occupy my afternoon. Instead of giving tasks specifically to me, he read out a list of stuff that he wanted the whole team to do, none of it very taxing or time consuming at that. All it was was a list of vague future projects that will each take up half an hour or so of our time.
I ended the day furious, which didn’t help anyone, and I didn’t think I could go on that way much longer. So on Tuesday when K was back in, I was ready to say something. Fortunately, she had a list of stuff that needed doing, and she was happy for most of it to come to me. She already knew I’d been twiddling my thumbs earlier in the week and I know she feels bad when that happens. My trouble with the whole set up, and this will probably continue to be the case, is that I still don’t have any regular daily tasks that I need to do, it’s all just little projects that get given to me when they come along. Everyone else seems to be happy with the set up because they constantly have these little things going on. I meanwhile don’t have that much going on, and I’m left feeling useless when a particular task is finished. I feel so stupid having to go to K all the time asking for something to do, but that’s just going to have to be the way it is, unless things change. When she’s next available for a catch up I probably will have to say something to her about this, because it’s not good for my health at all.
My stress levels while all this was going on definitely weren’t helped by the fact I had a nerve racking day out on Wednesday coming up. I was due to be shadowing the charity’s home help team for the day. That team goes out on visits to people’s homes, helping them with housework and shopping and generally befriending them in the short period after they’ve just come out of hospital. K had mentioned to me in the beginning that I should try and arrange a day with one of the frontline teams, so that I could see what they do and how they do it. When it was suggested I was keen on the idea, but when it got to Wednesday I wasn’t looking forward to it at all. As with any new situation where I don’t know exactly where I’m going and who I’m going to see, I was like a child on his first day at school. I’d talked to my sponsor the night before about this, and it was clear to me that my head was still stuck in that part of my childhood. Countless times I’ve said that I understand this and that I don’t want or need to be stuck any more, but still the feeling comes up, no matter how much good experience I have in these situations as an adult. The anticipation is always the worst: those hours and moments before you get there when you literally don’t know what’s going to happen.
On the train to their office I became aware that Colin my disease was trying to push time back. He was aware of the dreaded event coming up and he wanted it to stay in the future for as long as possible, so he made me overthink things, a trick that never fails to slow time down. In these situations I’m always thinking, thinking, thinking about what could possibly go wrong and how I can make it right. This has the effect of making time drag, which is good for Colin because he gets to avoid experiencing the fearful situation for a bit longer, but it’s not good for me because I’m out of the present moment and I’m not experiencing all that I can. When I’m away in my head like that I’m actually making the anxiety worse because there’s this disconnect between my head and the world.
When I got to the home help office I initially got a bit lost looking for it, as it was tucked away in a small obscure room on the top floor of a hospital building. I didn’t realise that they’d be sharing the floor with loads of other charities and services. Once I’d found them I was told pretty much straight away by the manager that I’d be going out on three or four home visits that day, a fact that shocked me. It was certainly going to be a busy day, and I would be glued to different colleagues on each visit as the manager wanted me to learn from all of the team. Pretty much my worst nightmare, then. There’d be no safely sitting at a desk that day. I was expected to travel around the area with three different people that I didn’t know, going into the homes of strangers who weren’t expecting me.
My thoughts turned to everything that could possibly go wrong as I went out on the first visit with S, a quiet younger woman who didn’t seem all that happy to be saddled with me for the morning. I tried my best to get the small talk going, but there’s only so many questions you can ask about the job, and by the time we were at the client’s house there was nothing left to say. All I could do when I was there was watch as she did the client’s hoovering – there was nothing else to do on that visit. I felt even more useless than I had the previous day at the office. The client didn’t say anything to me, didn’t want anything of me. To him I was just an invisible shadow, which I suppose was my official role for the day. I just found it very unnatural standing there watching them like I didn’t exist.
Later on my second visit I was with a much chattier individual called A, who seemed to have a lot more experience of the role than S and who was happier to share it with me. Our task was to do a client’s shopping for the week. Not exactly a difficult challenge, and I got to help out on this one as there was far too much for A to carry out of the supermarket by himself. We talked non-stop about his experiences in the role, what kind of people he went to see, some of the more challenging cases. The woman whose shopping we were doing was an elderly woman who was pretty much confined to her flat by a mysterious condition that I didn’t feel it appropriate to ask about. As we unloaded the shopping bags in the kitchen I noticed that she was watching the news on the TV at top volume. Next to her armchair she had conveniently placed the remote control, which she could use to change the channel at any time. I briefly had a vision of my mother in twenty years’ time, sitting there in front of the news all day, remote control handily placed to one side so she never has to get up.
I left the lady’s flat feeling a bit unsettled, but I tried not to think about it too much. On the way out I saw some very old photos stuck to a cork board, all showing the woman in her youth and middle age, on holidays and at family parties, looking happy and independent and free. Now she was but a shadow of her former self, completely dependent on charity and the occasional friend to do her shopping for her. I tried not to think about that too much either.
For my last visit of the day I was with J, also a very chatty and warm person who had a lot to say about the job. I was glad to know that they weren’t all quiet and distant like the first girl I had shadowed in the morning. Even though I’d been anxious all day, at least I could connect with two of them on a human level. For this visit we were going to see a lady just out of hospital with a bad leg. It was my colleague’s first visit there so she would need to do a risk assessment of the client’s situation. When we got to the house we were greeted by a very frail old lady who could hardly move. I instantly felt sorry for this lady who clearly had an independent spirit but who could do little for herself. The small flat that she lived in was full of clutter and health hazards, and she told us that she was virtually stuck on her sofa because of her leg. She was desperate to be able to do more, and she was adamant that we weren’t going to arrange a long term carer for her because she would surely be much better soon.
My colleague quickly set about assessing the risks in the home, of which there were many. She had hardly any food, no hot water or heating due to a boiler that packed up years ago, and to get to the bathroom or bedroom she had to get down these declivitous steps that would be dangerous for me, let alone her. She was extremely polite and friendly, evidently grateful for our help, and once again I couldn’t help thinking of my mother, who would be essentially the same in thirty years’ time if things are left to get out of hand. I simply don’t know how any family members can leave their elderly relative in such a state. The woman hadn’t had a bath in over a week because of her leg, and it didn’t look like anyone had been to see her.
Later on I gathered from J that the authorities can do very little for these people because they’re not at death’s door and there’s hardly any funding for proper, long term care in the home. If you don’t have the means to pay for it yourself, you may end up being stuck. For the first time in my life I was getting a real glimpse into what happens to those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to be gifted with money and loving families, like the whitewashed version of old age you often see on TV. Out there there must be thousands, if not millions, of desperate old people whose only mental activity involves daytime TV because they simply can’t get up and go out. It scares me. I never want that to happen to my mother. It’s easy for me to say now that I will make sure it doesn’t happen, that I’ll always find the time to look after her when she needs it, but I don’t know how hard it’s going to be. I think it’s going to be very hard. One may think there’s no need to talk about that now, her frail and dependent years are still decades off. But we all know it’s coming. None of us are getting younger, she certainly isn’t. In the past few years already I have seen signs of her ageing. She’s a lot more prone to tiredness and confusion than she used to be. Sometimes I have to shout to make her hear me, her hearing not being what it once was. Yes, she’s still in good physical form, able to go out and work full time. But in six years she’ll be old enough to retire, and then what?
I had gotten very annoyed with my sponsor the previous day when we were talking about my mother. I was trying to explain to him why I was so nervous about what I had to do at work the next day, and somehow we got onto the subject of my childhood and how my mother’s anxiety probably passed down to me. Since we’d never discussed the subject of my childhood in any great depth I guessed it would be worth telling him about it now, to help illuminate some things for him. As I was talking he kept trying to compare my experiences with his own, telling me about something that had happened to him years ago and how he didn’t let it affect him any more. He did this repeatedly, interrupting me every five minutes with another charming anecdote. And he kept saying that I had to let it all go, get myself away from the past and into the present, as if I didn’t know this already. As if I hadn’t done the steps before!
I know it wasn’t his intention to offend me, but I felt patronised, and it was the most angry I have ever been with him. When you’re interrupting someone in pain and trying to get them to see how great you’ve handled a situation they’re going through, you’re not helping them, you’re not showing empathy. It’s like telling someone who is expressing grief: “well, at least you’re alive.” Any sentence that starts with “at least” is not going to help someone who is struggling.
Within a few hours I had quietly forgiven my sponsor. He is the way he is, and being annoyed with him doesn’t take away from how much he’s helped me the past year. Despite how angry I was on Tuesday I realised later how much I got out of the conversation. For one thing it got me thinking about where my anxiety started – with my mother, and not at school as I always thought. I was anxious about things before I can even remember anything. I didn’t turn five, go to school, and suddenly become an anxious child. Nor was I born fearful and anxious, so it must have started in the years in between, and I can only imagine I got it from mum. My sponsor unapologetically told me that I shouldn’t blame my mother for that any more, not realising that I stopped blaming my mother years ago. He really seemed to think that I had never done step four before, when in fact I covered all of this the first time I did the steps and I happen to believe that I forgave both of my parents at that time. Talking about it and explaining it now doesn’t mean I’m still angry with my mother. I’m not.