86: A Happy Heart

86: A Happy Heart

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

A Happy Heart

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

~Bertrand Russell

“So what do you do?” Back in the 1970s when strangers at parties asked me this, I probably should have fudged. I could have said I worked for the county, and left it at that. Instead I felt compelled to provide a flat-out conversation stopper.

“I’m the psychiatric social worker for the nursery at MacLaren Hall,” I’d answer. “That’s where the police and children’s protective services workers bring neglected and abused kids to wait for court disposition. I do play therapy with the toddlers and try to get help for the abusing parents.”

I’d smile and wait. People usually inched away, as if I might be slightly contagious. I’d watch as eyes glazed and jaws dropped.

Or they’d say, “I couldn’t do that,” and sidle off in search of someone who had a more socially palatable occupation.

Burnout rates are astronomical for those who work in my profession. Social workers, like police, rarely get thanked for what they do. Often they’re criticized by the very people they strive to aid, or vilified by the press and the general public for not doing enough.

So I didn’t expect accolades, or parades, or even sympathetic ears from strangers at parties. Nobody wants to hear horror stories about babies who’ve been abandoned in garbage bins or children who’d been mistreated. I understood that, and I generally didn’t tell them.

I did have sunny tales to relate. Several addicted parents I’d counseled had successfully completed rehab, found jobs, and regularly visited their children, who were in foster care. Maybe I’d mention the unresponsive four-year-old who started speaking again as we sat on the playroom floor manipulating finger puppets. It wasn’t all doom and gloom.

When I’d first become a caseworker for the county, my husband Bob, a police officer, listened patiently when I vented. His job was equally stress-filled, and so he empathized. Over the years though, he’d sought relief in vodka. Eventually he sought treatment for alcoholism. He’d been in several outpatient programs, and on and off the wagon, but nothing really took. I’d occasionally thought of divorce, but I shoved that troubling notion aside. He needed me.

Not long before I started at MacLaren, Bob entered an in-patient program. This one worked. He made a commitment to sobriety, but no longer was around to give me much emotional support. He spent every free minute in twelve step meetings and hospital aftercare programs.

I needed to find other support systems for myself. I recognized that some of my colleagues already suffered from compassion fatigue, burnout, and depression. Some coped by eating compulsively or relying on tranquilizers. I wanted to continue with my job, but I certainly didn’t want to pack on unneeded pounds, or 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 new friends who were artists, photographers and poets. I enrolled in an aerobic dance class and lost myself in choreographed routines where I’d imagine I was a Broadway dancer.

My marriage continued to unravel. Then 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 a few days later at work, when I broke out in a cold sweat. The stutter had returned.

I made an appointment to see my doctor, who gave me an electrocardiogram. “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?”

“I think my husband and I are headed for divorce,” I confessed. “I worry about that, and about the little children I work with. I try to take care of myself. I go to aerobics three times a week. But I probably drink too much 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 a decision about your marriage, the better you’ll be. Not knowing one way or another how it’s going to work out just adds to your stress. Don’t remain immersed in uncertainty. Don’t be afraid to take the first step.”

She suggested I substitute tea for coffee and try to get more sleep.

Bob resented the evenings I spent with my art gallery friends and would have preferred that I devoted my free time to going to recovery meetings with him. As thrilled as I was that he was doing so well, I honestly didn’t want my life to revolve around his sobriety, as it had around his drinking. I wanted to write and dance.

The problem soon resolved itself after Bob confessed he’d fallen in love with one of his outpatient counselors. We agreed to separate.

I continued working at the county facility for a few more years, through one administrative upheaval after another. A few times I thought about leaving for a job with more regular hours, one that wouldn’t require me to work on Sundays. But each time, I’d think of the children in the nursery and would decide to stay on. They needed me.

Then one afternoon, after I learned that the play therapy room was scheduled to be converted into an additional dormitory, I felt my heart skip a beat once again.

The arrhythmia was back, but this time I knew what I had to do. I might not be burned out yet, but I could smell the smoke. Even though I’d invested fifteen years in county employment, a future retirement pension wouldn’t keep my heart healthy today. I didn’t need to be a martyr.

I updated my résumé, sent out some job applications and within months landed a new job in the private sector with an HMO. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a change. And my happier heart calmed down.

It’s been over twenty-five years now since I’ve experienced any irregular heartbeats. It’s not that I lead a stress-free life. I’ve worked overseas with the 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 continue to do the important routines — I keep caffeine to a minimum, exercise reasonably, and get enough sleep. I owe myself good health. I need my heart to live. Now when people ask me what I do, I have a favorite response. “I keep a happy heart,” I say.

But the 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 take that first step.

~Terri Elders

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