Curiosity + Kindness = Compassion

January 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’ve always thought that social workers often do very simple work in complicated situations.  When I say “simple”, I certainly don’t mean “easy” or “amateur” or “brainless”, but rather our work is lucid and transparent – often very straightforward.

In the maelstrom of a busy hospital unit, in a setting where science and deductive reasoning take prescience and where concrete answers are sought for every situation, the perceived “messiness” of emotions and psychosocial situations are often deemed as untenable mazes with no solution.  There is no pill to pop to take someone’s tearful anger away or an injection to eradicate a depressive fog or a course of treatment to mold a non-compliant patient into a model one.

Undoubtedly, these are complicated situations.  Some are so much so that I often wonder if I’m within the scenes of a movie or the pages of a novel, rather than a real life circumstance.

But this is where social workers dwell.  In what is perceived to be a situation of uncertainty and precariousness.

So how do I navigate these situations?  Simply.  With a genuine curiosity and a gentle kindness.  These two things are the greatest of my tools.  Compassion is what often unravels the maze that people find themselves in and in most cases, even lights the way to the solutions of their own problems.

And this often doesn’t take long.  Sometimes within minutes, there arises a solution. Or at the very least, the realization that perhaps their situations could be different, maybe even better.

Feeling anxious lately?

January 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

It would seem that, more and more, I’m encountering people, friends, and patients who are having trouble dealing with feelings of anxiety and extreme worry. Often people will describe these feelings as overwhelming and paralyzing, cutting into their routines and often putting severe roadblocks in their day-to-day lives, careers and relationships.

And it would also seem that diagnoses of generalized anxiety disorder are on the rise. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health in the US, anxiety disorders now affect 18 percent of the adult population in the United States, or approximately 40 million people. This is a huge number, when you compare it to the percentage of those suffering from mood disorders (ie. depression, bipolar illness, etc.) which is only at 9.5 percent of the US population.

Canada is also not immune. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of Ontario, over 12% of Canadians will be affected to varying degrees by anxiety disorders.

I’m no expert on anxiety, but thankfully there are people out there who are and are willing to write about it. In fact, The New York Times has just started a series of articles and essays on the topic of anxiety.

And Daniel Smith, a journalist, author, editor and generalized anxiety disorder sufferer writes a candid and amusing blog about his life and experiences:

Feelings of anxiety are sometimes very much a part of normal and daily coping and functioning.  However, if these feelings become more and more frequent, or begin to impede on your ability to function in the various realms of your life, perhaps it might be worthwhile to discuss this with your family physician or with a counselor.

In the meantime, it never hurts to slow down and take a deep breath. Often this simple step can do wonders for easing feelings of worry, stress and yes, anxiety.

A different pace..

January 10, 2012 § 2 Comments

I drove and drove and drove, it seems.  My little car wove in and out, between the rockface of the Canadian Shield. Huge juts of limestone, dotted with tiny and almost ramshackle Inukshuks – signifying that someone had once scrabbled across the top of those immense sheets of rock.  I passed by sconces of frozen waterfall cascades – the result of a recent thaw that illuminated those ancient waterways, snaking though the granite.

For stretches at a time, I was the only car on the road, despite the brand new four lane highway.  And it seemed that I had traveled so far north that there were no more familiar stations on the radio. The soundwaves of the city were long gone.

So in silence, I kept driving.

After a brief detour into a very isolated but quaint general store – whose decor and interior atmosphere (and even the white-bearded proprietor himself!) made me feel like I had stepped back in time to the days of the early lumberjack pioneers – I arrived at my destination.  The childhood home of a very good friend I wanted to visit and to whom I was going to provide a ride back into the city.

Almost immediately, I felt a balm of quietness come over me. I was surrounded by trees, snow and vast, vast space.  I could hear the crunch of the ice under my feet, I heard the dryness of the branches – their creaks and moans. And I breathed in the crisp air; so cold that it almost hurt the insides of my nostrils and brought an instant chill to the top of my lungs.

But warmth was immediately felt from my friend’s family and the coziness of the house.  A welcoming hug, while the wood stove burned bright in the corner and an elderly golden retriever dozed nearby. A wonderful lethargy fell upon me.  The day ahead fell away in a sort of timelessness.  So different than in the city – where we are all ruled by seconds, minutes and hours.  The currency that we scrabble to elongate or cheat.   But up in this small town, and on this day, it only mattered when the sun would go down and it would become dark.

It is often said that life in a small town is such a very different thing.  And even more so, the further north or more isolated it gets.  But as I gazed over the stillness of a cove in the bay – laughing with my friend over a joke as we stood on the shore, and watching as my friend’s brother skip a stone across the thick slick of ice that had frozen over the water – I understood what Thoreau had written about.  That this was indeed a sort of paradise.  A paradise of solitude and stillness. A place where it is the easiest thing in the world to completely accept oneself.

Not once did I feel rushed.  Not once did I glance at the clock.  Things seemed to fall into place.  Each meal was leisurely, the timing dictated only by the grumblings of our stomachs.  Even the session of outdoor skating we decided to embark on had a feeling of looseness, despite being warned by a fellow patron to be sensitive to the time.  We ambled around the shoreline, we trunched through the snow, and we made way for more ambitious snowmobilers.

And when the sun did go down and the sky went dark, we all gathered around the table to share a simple meal and talked, joked, teased each other, like we had done this for years.  A sense of warm familiarity and gratitude washed over me.  A feeling that I hope to carry with me for some time to come.

Taking a break for the holidays…

December 22, 2011 § 5 Comments

So this will likely be my last post of 2011.  I’ve decided to take a break and resume in Jan 2012, when I’m sure more social work adventures await me.  But before I go, I’d like to wish you all a very happy holiday, whether and whatever you celebrate, and a very joyous, wonderful New Year.

Or at least, have a better time during the holidays than this poor cat:

Cheers and see you in 2012!

More Face-to-Face time and less Facebook…

December 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Tis’ the season for getting more facetime in – and I’m not talking about the iPad app.

Perhaps I’m showing my age, but remember the time before social media?  How did people get in touch way back then? We actually called each other.  We perhaps sent letters.  And maybe once in a while, we actually appeared on each other’s doorstep.  Remember when Bobby would knock on Peter’s door and ask him to come out to play?  Yes, those were the good old days.

Now, we hustle and bustle right past each other.  Our very busy lives often leaves little space to actually meet up and talk, and even when we do, the smart phones come out and instead of paying attention to the person in front of us, we carry on multiple conversations at once.

I used to marvel at this.  Technology is terrific!  What a wondrous feat!

Until I realized that something very important was being sacrificed here.  And when I realized that I certainly didn’t like “competing” for the attention of someone sitting right in front of me.

Life is hard enough.

What happened to the quality of interacting with someone? The days of scintillating conversation? The rolling and raucous laughter of a joke well told and enacted? The almost salon-like atmosphere of healthy debate and discussion of important issues?  There is something in the live exchange between people that cannot be captured by a piece of metal and plastic – that unspoken connection, the thread that glistens between people who are discovering each other, bit by precious bit.

In hospital, it isn’t the telephone call, or the Facebook comment, or the number of followers on Twitter, but the face-to-face visit – the time spent in the presence of each other – that often brings the most joy, relief, positivity and support to my patients.

During this holiday season, and maybe (hopefully!) even beyond into the New Year, try to put those smart phones away once in a while and just pay attention to the people who are surrounding you.  Likely, you’ll realize just how very much you matter to the ones you love and who are close to you.  Guaranteed, this realization will be so much better than downloading a new phone app.

What we all don’t want to talk about….

November 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

I had planned to write about something else for this week’s post, but I came across an excellent series of articles done by the Globe and Mail about a very important and serious issue.  As a member of the sandwich generation – the generation that will likely end up taking care of elderly parents as well as children at the same time – these issues will have more significance and will need to be paid attention to.

Patients are living longer and longer, often assisted by medical technology and devices, beyond what we had ever imagined.  For most patients, this is a godsend and allows them to live a life full of quality and joy.  But what happens when the very opposite happens? When life is only prolonged, with no semblance of quality or of living a full and complete life?  I see these situations over and over in the hospital where I work.  These situations are fraught with emotions, ethics, and legalities.

There are no easy answers.  But to start talking with family and loved ones about  issues such as advance directives, powers of attorneys, executing estates and drawing up wills, and how to die with dignity are so important.  The best time to have these discussions are when we can, not when it’s too late.

Check out the series on End of Life in the Globe and Mail.

Slowin’ down…

November 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

My day as a social worker is pretty hectic.  Very rarely will you find me in heels or in skirts as I’m usually literally running around the floor, skipping in and out of patient rooms, grabbing phones and dialing madly, talking and negotiating with community stakeholders and staff.  As a result, my presence on the unit doesn’t really seem to be one of calm.   My team members tell me that I bring a sense of calmness to the floor, which is always a nice thing to hear. (Perhaps it’s because I’m always “putting out fires” that seem to pop up out of nowhere with respect to patients and save the team from worry.)   But on the inside, it’s pretty far from the truth.

Getting so revved up on the floor can be exciting but it’s a mighty hard thing to come down from.  I often go home on a kind of buzz and sometimes I will have to walk a few blocks before I can feel my respiration return to normal.  It’s times like these that I think seriously about self-care and how so very important it is.

I guess for me, self-care is about slowing down.  It’s about doing things that force me to take my time, to think things through in a very leisurely way, to really engage in the checks and balances of my inner self.  Usually these tasks have to be somewhat crafty or menial.  These are the only activities that I find either turns my brain off or works a whole different part of my brain that invigorates rather than depletes my energy stores.  I guess I tap into my ability to be creative, as opposed to being linear – which my day-to-day social work relies so heavily on.

Self-care is not necessarily about being lazy.  Although, lying on a sofa, watching movies all day, eating chips and drinking a glass of wine once in a while does wonders!  But self-care can be about productive endeavours – the ones that will replenish and inspire you.

For me, I love to cook and bake.  I also like to sew (which I’m still a beginner at). I take long, meandering hikes in my favorite conservation areas. And I write.  I try to write alot.

At the end of the day, these activities leave me tired, only pleasantly so.  But more importantly, my brain feels rested.  Ready to take on another day of being a busy social worker.

What do you do to take care of yourself and replenish?


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