And, I’m Better For It
It’s 2013 and I’m 24. I’m staring into her eyes, damp from the freshly drawn tears, and I imagine they must have once been filled with light. I imagine that everyone’s eyes are filled with hope, like those of children, at least once. But, not now. Now, they are weary. Perhaps now, they’ve seen too much. It’s been a long summer; in fact, a long year. I’ve been working at the senior center for ten months and while I was happy they wanted me to stay on staff following my internship, more than anything, I was grateful. Graduate school was expensive and I needed the money. Plus milieu therapy had its benefits. Done were the verbatim notes on each conversation or session that I conducted. Instead, I was to be part of the community. Listen when they spoke, dine when they went for lunch, and help them with their daily tasks, which often had to do with insurance claims and benefits. It was routine and comfortable.
I’m not telling anyone to quit their job or shirk their responsibilities. I’m saying that giving more of your time, energy, passion, and enthusiasm to the things that matter most to you will always feel better than anything else.
I’m daydreaming. I need to get back to her. I need to be present. She’s telling me about her husband who passed away twenty years ago, or was it her son? Her brother? No, it was definitely her husband. They were soulmates and made it to this country from Puerto Rico with just the clothes on their backs. They got jobs, a home, and started a family. They spent their nights holding each other close and their weekends spoiling their children. They wanted nothing more than to grow old together, but cancer. Or was it diabetes? No, diabetes was Mrs. Johnson’s husband and also, Mr. Henry’s son. Their stories are weaving together and I am tired. I no longer know if I’m staring into her weary eyes or a reflection of my own and I want nothing more than to escape. But, where? When we’re done speaking, I’m going to get on the bus home, shut myself away in my room, and only return to repeat today over again tomorrow. Every day is filled with stories of death and even though many of these people passed years ago, there’s something about aging that makes even the oldest losses feel fresh.
It’s 2019 and I’m 29. I’m a licensed social worker and in the few years that I’ve been in the field, I’ve seen it all. I’ve worked with kids, teens, adults, seniors, low-risk, high-risk, and everything in between. I’ve done individual therapy and groups. I’ve been called in for help because of suicidal ideation and supported countless youths through experiences with sexual assault. I’ve cried, wiped my eyes, and felt the tear ducts dry up to allow for a more guarded approach that allows me to keep going. I’ve done a lot, but what I haven’t done is learned how not to take the work home. Thankfully, I’ve transitioned away from direct practice and taken a few steps back to better help people. I love my work, but that kind of stress is gone. Yet, I’m sitting in an emergency room being told that my blood pressure skyrocketed and there are no clinical indications why.
“Were you exercising?”
“Did something traumatic happen to you?”
“Not really, I guess.”
“You were at work. Do you have a stressful job?”
I nod and laugh to myself, a glimmer of normality.
Just two hours ago, I was sitting at my desk and spiraling. The deadlines, expectations, and high stakes of it all had gotten to me. I called my mother, something that I do each day, but I did it again after five minutes of just speaking to her.
“Hi, I just wanted to let you know that everything is alright. I’m at work.”
“Jay, are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”
“Because you just hung up with me. Just a few minutes ago.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize. I’m just a little tired, I guess.”
I wasn’t tired. My mind was racing and I couldn’t breathe, but this wasn’t a panic attack. I’ve had those. This was different. I put my head down on the desk, slightly crashing into the keyboard. Something isn’t right. When I was able to lift my head up again, I walked to urgent care and was told that my blood pressure was high enough to cause a heart attack or stroke. I thought about mom and her first heart attack. I thought about her not coming home that night. I thought about scouring the city for a hospital that knew her name. I thought back to the feeling of my heart sinking through my stomach, past my toes, and into the ground, when we found her. I recalled my teary eyes when the doctors described how they found her: face down in the bushes. “She collapsed,” they said. “She’s a little delirious,” they said. Will I collapse? Will I make it home? Am I delirious?
They wanted to call an ambulance, but I refused. I’d be paying for that for months. I left against medical advice and hailed a cab. Now, I’m sitting here being told that I need to calm down.
It’s 2023 and last week my coworker said I’m mature. We were discussing the influx of new blood in the office.
“They’re babies,” she mentioned, motioning to the cubicles.
“They’re not that young,” I replied. “Some of them are around my age.”
“Yeah, no offense, but you have the soul of an old person. You’re wise beyond your years.”
I looked her in the eyes, acknowledging the compliment and sincerity of her words, and replied the only way that I knew how.
“That’s not wisdom. That’s trauma. I’ve been through some shit.”
We both laughed, but there was nothing but the truth in my statement. Since I was sixteen years old, I’ve been a caregiver to multiple people, my senior and my junior. I was homeless as a teenager and that experience shaped how I see the world and gave me a purpose. I’ve done my best to process my own emotions and evolve while being the person that helps others through their darkest times. I don’t know if I’m wise, but I do know that, at times, I’m tired. I do know that “quiet quitting,” is a term that swept the nation and resonates in ways that I never imagined.
The truth is that I quiet quit that day in the emergency room and my life has been better for it. I still do my job and I do it well. I still love helping people and giving to my community. But, I don’t give it my all. I hold onto the parts of me that I need to feel whole. I’m not telling anyone to quit their job and shirk their responsibilities. I’m saying that giving more of your time, energy, passion, and enthusiasm to the things that matter most to you will always feel better than anything else.
It’s 2023 and when this is published the hands on the clock would have crossed twelve and I will officially be thirty-four. Perhaps more gray hairs will come and my look will match my aura, or perhaps the wisdom that others see is me finally prioritizing myself and my health.
Lord knows I deserve it. We all do.