A Happy Heart
“So what do you do?”
In the ‘70s when strangers at parties asked this, I could have fudged…just say I worked for the county, and leave it at that. Instead I’d provide a flat-out conversation-stopper.
“I’m the psychiatric social worker for MacLaren Hall’s nursery,” I’d answer. “That’s where neglected and abused kids await court disposition. I do play therapy with the toddlers, and try to get help for their abusing parents.”
I’d smile and wait. People usually inched away, as if I’d confided that I ran pigeon drop scams on senior citizens. Or that I might be contagious.
During the ensuing silence, I’d watch eyes glaze and jaws drop.
“Oh,” they’d sputter, “I couldn’t do that.” They’d nod and sidle off in search of someone with a more socially redeeming occupation.
Burnout rates soar in my profession. Social workers, like police, rarely get thanked. Instead, they’re criticized by the very people they strive to aid, and vilified by the press and the general public for not doing enough.
I didn’t expect accolades, parades, or even sympathetic ears from strangers at parties. Nobody wants to hear about babies who’ve been abandoned in garbage bins or children who’d been tortured. I understood that, so I didn’t tell horror stories.
If anybody stuck around long enough, I could relate sunny tales. Many addicted parents I’d counseled successfully completed rehab, found jobs, and visited their children who were in foster care. I could mention the four-year-old voluntary mute who spoke again as we manipulated finger puppets.
In earlier days, my husband, Bob, a policeman, listened patiently when I vented. With an equally stress-filled job, he empathized. Over the years, though, he’d sought relief in vodka, eventually spiraling downwards into alcoholism. He’d been in several out-patient programs, and on and off the wagon, but nothing took. I’d occasionally think of divorce, but I’d shove that troubling notion aside. He needs me, I’d convince myself.
Not long before I started at MacLaren, Bob entered an in-patient program. This one worked. With a commitment to sobriety, he no longer was around to give me emotional support. He spent every free minute in Twelve Step meetings and hospital aftercare programs.
I needed to find support elsewhere. I recognized that some of my colleagues already suffered from compassion fatigue, burnout, and depression. Some coped by eating compulsively or relying on tranquillizers. I wanted to continue with my job, but certainly didn’t want to pack on unneeded pounds, float through my days like a zombie, or eventually be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
I started to frequent an art gallery that published a magazine. I wrote articles for it, and made friends who were artists, photographers and poets. I enrolled in an aerobic dance class, and lost myself in choreographed routines, pretending to be a Broadway chorine.
Despite these distractions, my marriage continued to unravel. One day, toweling off after a particularly invigorating aerobics session, I noticed my heartbeat seemed to stutter. By the time I got dressed, it beat normally again. I forgot about it until one day at work when I broke out in a cold sweat. The stutter had returned.
I saw my doctor, who gave me an electrocardiogram test.
“You’re experiencing premature ventricular contractions, commonly called PVCs,” she explained. “It’s not dangerous yet, but it could be. What’s going on in your life?”
“My husband and I may be headed for divorce,” I confessed. “I worry about that, and about the children I work with. I try to take care of myself. I go to aerobics three times a week, but drink a lot of coffee.”
“Caffeine, too much exercise, a high stress job, plus anxiety over your marriage, all could be contributing factors,” she said. “The sooner you make decisions, the better you’ll be. Not knowing one way or another how a marriage or a job will work out adds to your stress. Rid yourself of uncertainty. Don’t be afraid to take the first step.”
Bob resented my new activities, preferring that I devote my free time to accompanying him to recovery meetings. Delighted with his progress, I still didn’t want my life to revolve around his sobriety, as it had around his drinking. I wanted to write and dance.
That issue resolved itself after Bob confessed he’d fallen in love with one of his outpatient counselors. We agreed to separate.
I continued working at MacLaren through one administrative upheaval after another. I’d think about leaving for a job with more regular hours, one that wouldn’t require me to work on Sundays. But I’d remember the children. They need me, I reasoned.
Then one afternoon, after I learned that my play therapy room would be converted into an additional dormitory, I felt my heart skip a beat again.
The arrhythmia was back, but this time I knew what to do. Not burned out yet, but I scented smoke. Even though I’d invested 15 years in county employment, a future retirement pension wouldn’t keep my heart healthy today.
I updated my resume, sent out applications and within months landed a new job in the private sector with an HMO. Not perfect, but a change. And my happier heart calmed down permanently.
It’s been over 25 years now since I’ve experienced any arrhythmia. It’s not as if I’ve lead a stress-free life. I’ve worked overseas with Peace Corps and held other demanding jobs. I remarried and saw my second husband through a long series of illnesses and eventual hospice care.
I do the routine things: keep caffeine to a minimum, exercise reasonably, and get enough sleep.
But my real secret is that I don’t remain immersed in uncertainty. I don’t allow myself to feel trapped by the perceived needs of others. I seek a way to take that first step. After all, I need my heart to live. I owe myself good health.
Now when people ask me what I do, I have a favorite response. It raises eyebrows.
“I keep a happy heart,” I say.
TERRI ELDERS, LCSW, lives near Colville, WA, with two dogs and three cats. A lifelong writer and editor, Terri’s stories have appeared in dozens of periodicals and anthologies, including multiple editions of Not Your Mother’s Book, Dream of Things, Chicken Soup for the Soul, A Cup of Comfort, Patchwork Path, Thin Threads, Tending Your Inner Garden and God Makes Lemonade. She is the in-house copy editor for Publishing Syndicate, and co-creator of its anthology, Not Your Mother’s Book: On Travel. She blogs at http://atouchoftarragon.blogspot.com/.
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SONIA MARSH SAYS: Your strength and determination to keep yourself “in balance” despite your demanding job and the pressures in your marriage, are admirable. I am a curious person and would love to have asked you more about your profession, had we met during a social occasion. I was touched by your statement, “Social workers, like police, rarely get thanked.” So I’d like to thank you for all your years of helping neglected and abused children.
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