I Can’t Handle This

Guest Post by Linda G. White

Response to “You Mean for Free?”

Laura asked me to do a blog in conjunction with hers – a mother-daughter blog.  And I wanted to. I love being a part of her life. We talk about books and ideas.  We often like spending our time, what little of it there is that’s free, doing the same kinds of things: going to movies, reading, writing, and running around Cleveland tracking down Robert DeNiro – don’t ask. We share our writing from time to time and writing a blog together would be ideal.

Her topic of choice for this moment in time was going to be volunteering. I’d made a lot of notes about that topic already because a lot of my friends volunteer, and the sheer number of things people do as volunteers simply amazed me. I’d planned to one day compile their stories in a collection about local volunteers, what they do, and how they got into volunteer work. I admire and respect others who volunteer their time, but Laura actually wanted me to do some volunteer work so we could write about our experiences from mother/daughter perspectives. I didn’t have time for that kind of consistent commitment.

Nope. Didn’t want to do that. It bothered me to reject this offer but, no, I couldn’t make that kind of commitment right now.

I could hear the disappointment in her voice. I suggested a different topic but she was committed to this one. The whole thing made me so uncomfortable, I didn’t even want to talk about it – and I couldn’t figure out why.

I’d been a ‘formal’ volunteer long ago, working “for free” as a Nursing Home Ombudsman. My grandmother had recently died and I missed her. Being around other grandmothers, well, it seemed like something I needed. My commitment was for a year – and by the time that year had ended, so had my outlook on many things.

I discovered this is not something I can do on a regular basis. I can do this sporadically, but I can not do this kind of really personal thing on a regular basis because I can’t handle it. Laura can’t watch commercials for the Humane Society or the ASPCA. I can’t watch the elderly die by degrees. Can’t watch them waste away as their friends leave them. Can’t bare to see the mirrored rejection of their relatives in their pleading eyes. My grandmother was never in this position, and it hadn’t occurred to me that this could be the end result of life once engaged in the business of living.

I wasn’t prepared for elderly residents who were needier than I could have ever imagined. Mostly in wheelchairs, they sat randomly in the hallways and around the nurses’ stations. They looked as if they’d been abandoned in the middle of getting from one place to another while some nurse or aide rushed off to attend to someone else. Some were tied to their chairs, their fragile wrists bound with various materials. Their heads so often bent toward the floor. I rarely saw visitors, though I came at varying times and on different days.

Every time I came it was the same. As I walked down the hall to see those individuals I was supposed to interview, the random army of squatters would reach for my hand, begging for attention. A word or two. An exchange maybe, no matter how brief, that might constitute conversation. I couldn’t say no – to any of them. Each time I stooped down to make eye contact and converse, however briefly, I’d be beckoned by someone else. As I went from one to the next, I not only took part of each person with me but also left some of myself behind.

There were more of them and less of me with every visit I made that year.

A depression slowly made its way through my limbs. It went home with me and took up a place at my table. It slept next to me in bed, and accompanied me to the university and sat at the desk next to mine. It worked alongside me at my regular job. It stayed with me day and night until there was almost no happy space left for my children.

When I started the program, I’d planned on doing it for a long time. I left after one year – when my initial commitment was over.

Laura’s suggestion that I become a volunteer made me hesitate, then made me question my hesitation.

Laura remembers feeling guilty because she was healthy and others in the hospital were not. Like her, I feel guilt, too, but mine stems from not doing more, not doing what others do.

But what’s the best way to do good? We each have gifts to offer and they’re not all the same. That’s the beauty of our individuality. Everyone’s good at something; we just have to find out what that something is.

My husband tells me I give too much of myself to every cause I become involved in, even peripherally. But I don’t feel like I’m giving anything at all; I don’t feel like I’m doing anything at all. And that, I think, is where the guilt comes in. He says I give too much of myself to the people I meet, but I just can’t seem to separate myself from people in general. I wish I could separate sympathy from empathy. It’s the empathy that takes a toll on me. I can feel what others feel, almost put myself right into their shoes (tennis shoes, hiking boots, standard heels, whatever). At the same time, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Feeling is better than not feeling.

But like Laura said, it takes a toll that extracts a heavy personal cost.

Maybe it’s because when I was growing up, I felt so isolated and alone most of the time, and no one seemed to care. No one asked. No one listened. If someone had, it would have made a huge difference in my life. It’s the difference I want to make in others’ lives.

I do care. Deeply. I ask because I care. I listen so others know I’ve heard them. And sometimes that’s what people need most: to be validated; to feel less alone. I do what I can whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself.

My grandmother was lonely too, and that’s something I only realized after the fact. She had all of us, but she was still growing older, alone in many ways. I hadn’t really understood that before all this.

Guilt? Yes. That’s what it was I’d been feeling all along. Guilt for not volunteering as Laura suggested I do. Guilt for not doing something. Not doing what other people do.

I just can’t do what other people can. But I do what I can.

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About lauracgardner

Laura lives in an undisclosed location with her adopted dog.

Posted on November 19, 2011, in Volunteering and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Mom,

    I know what you mean about not being able to separate yourself from others. Sometimes I wonder if I’m feeling too much of what others are feeling or experiencing, and if so, how much of that is a good thing? When is it bound to become too much and hurt rather than help. I find myself tossing empathy around in my mind a lot, asking those questions and others (blog post on that soon!) But like you, I believe it is better to feel so much that you might be considered hypersensitive to others’ pain than to not have compassion. Hospice and nursing homes are, I believe, the more, let’s say, challenging places to work or volunteer; it takes a unique strength to be able to do that sort of work, and I have the utmost admiration for those who do.

    “There were more of them and less of me with every visit…” Maybe that’s when we know it is too much, that this is not the place we belong. When it takes too much of a toll on us, we are unable to do and be whatever that particular work needs. We lose our ability to do the only thing we really want to do – help. The same is true for how much of ourselves we give to those we love. Women have been taught self-sacrifice as a virtue probably since the dawn of time. This is what is expected of us, it is what we know, and it is extremely difficult to move past that thinking – even when we know that putting ourselves last will take its toll on us, and that, consequently, whatever it is we are doing will also suffer. Work gets done haphazardly. Nothing gets our complete attention, etc. But sometimes what we are doing for someone else is actually something we are doing for ourselves, though we may not realize it at the time. (Stay tuned for more on this…)

    “And sometimes that’s what people need most: to be validated; to feel less alone.”
    I’m so glad you wrote that. Maybe you don’t do what other people do. But “what other people do” is not a collective whole performing the same function. You do a lot, and you have an incredible sense of what others need, and I see you doing what you can to give them that on a daily basis. Asking, because you care. Listening, so others know you’ve heard them. The times when I’ve needed the most help, I’ve gotten the most from that alone: just being heard. Someone asking “How are you?” – and actually waiting for an answer. Many of our problems stem, I believe, from feeling so alone. Our individual problems sometimes have a domino effect and develop into much greater problems, as was the case with Columbine, or Virginia Tech, for example. In that same vein, the smallest actions, a smile, a hello to a stranger, can have such an impact. Again, you don’t have to be helping some cause that is emotionally draining in order to make a huge difference.

    Oh, and Mom, we could always blog about something else, like Robert DeNiro;)

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