Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sea of Islands

I worked in domiciliary care for 6 months of 2010. I was lodging at the time, half an hour's walk from my nearest appointment. I walked everywhere. I did a great deal of walking.

Mare Insularum means "Sea of Islands"

The Evening Shift

This is an assignment with plenty of sit down, watch the box time. The evening shift means watching my client, making sure he doesn’t choke on anything, organising his medicines and putting him to bed. It also means sitting through Emmerdale, Eastenders and Corrie. Watching soaps sounds like a breeze except (in my case) when it feels like cruel and unusual punishment, trapped between pill drops and bedtime. That time might otherwise feel like not working except you are being paid to be there and being there is often more important than being busy.

One client, whom I have only seen once, definitely didn't want me to be there. He was paying and, to his mind, it was his usual carer that he was paying for. It took a while to persuade him that he wasn't being fobbed off with a temp but as my two hours with him progressed it turned out to be a most rewarding experience for both of us. His stories of wartime on a frigate and peacetime on the footplate of a steam locomotive were quite entertaining and by the enormous smile he left me with I figured my time with him was greatly appreciated.

In domiciliary care you get paid for your time working - when it's in your allocated time. You don't get paid for the extra bits like when you find a client drunk in the bath covered in shit and you spend two hours cleaning it up. You don't get actual breaks on the job because your employer gets paid only for allocated hours for allocated clients and the profit margins are tight. Some clients are wonderful, others horrible. Some are complex (interesting complex and odd complex) while others are straightforward. Some are grateful and others feel entitled like the old guy who seemed to think crapping himself in bed was some perverse privilege that came with senility.

My clients deserve a level of respect regardless of their behaviour, opinions or lifestyle and whether or not they are appreciative. But for this particular old man, whom I hopefully will never see again because he is on someone else's list, I have little more than contempt. Entitlement without dignity is an ugly trait. When you work in the care sector you often get asked to conduct yourself professionally. I believe most care workers do but it always grates on me when someone on a minimum wage is asked to perform to a standard way above their pay scale.

Some aspects of the job are mundane, some repetitive and tedious but on the whole its rewarding. Beyond the payback that is reflected in my bank statement is a sense of duty that should not be underestimated especially when it is practised diligently. The constraint of following instructions and protocol tempers the spirit and focuses the mind. It’s a kind of left hand - right hand scenario, removed from the context of good works which can carry with it a sense of entitlement for merely acting like a decent human being.

So the big guy's in bed, the log is filled in and I've rung in to say I'm leaving. Its 9 O'Clock and I'm off. It's a half hour's walk back to my lodgings just as it was half an hour's walk to my first gig this morning. Walking between four and six miles a day for my job and with other activities I'm Physically in good shape - this is the fittest and thinnest I've been in ages - but mentally I'm a bag of spanners.

A Bag of Spanners

The most traumatic experience of my life is hanging over me like a shroud and there is no respite. In a holding period between devastation and equilibrium, I’m in survival mode in a sea whose islands are mere stepping stones only hours apart. My duties are my saving grace because the time I have to my own thoughts, walking from client to client, is a constant mental battleground. With psychological baggage that feels crippling, my thoughts are constantly accusatory, regretful, condemning and chaotic.

My journey home takes me over a river and through a park. I can then follow the road round the estate to where I lodge or cut through a fenced ginnel. The path through the park rises in a broad path to a high point that overlooks several housing estates and the city where my clients live. Its at the high point of this path, that is also a railway embankment bordering the park, that I stop. Its a pleasant breezy evening and my mind is free wheeling, performing it's usual mental gymnastics but it feels like I've hit an intersection of ley lines, superimposed by my own private paradox where longing cannot be separated from dread.

Home is a place of beginnings and endings, where you leave from and arrive. To dwell or sojourn is to reside but that doesn’t necessarily imply permanence. Its just where you belong at that time. Everywhere else you are simply passing through and like those 40 winks that top up your sleep or the snacks that get you through to dinner, the wayside hostelry is no more than a stop gap in your journey. So when your place of lodging is the best worst place to be you experience a permanent sense of suspension like sleeping in the station waiting room with your coat as a pillow. The ambient dissonance maintains an inaudible hum so long as you are distracted by life’s busy-ness. But when you inadvertently reach out for false hope the hum envelopes you.

It’s that journey homeward, unmindful of any concept of home yet anticipating a narrow ginnel at my journey’s end, that evokes a childhood memory; not an anticipation of anything but a memory of shadows and it’s the shadows that scare me most. It’s not the fear that stops me but the need to know where that fear comes from. If I barge through this barrier that my unconscious presents, then I have ignored its message and lost an opportunity to face down the fear that thrives on anonymity.

As if this were a vote on a committee of one, I propose doubling back towards the conurbation I have just left, that gives me some comfort and a sense of framework in which I can operate with some degree of confidence. So I head back to a traditional pub of which I am familiar. It so happens that at this time there is no one that I know here still I can buy a pint, read the newspaper and distract my mind from questioning.

Mare Insularum

It might seem overly introspective to analyse each fear that I encounter, like a detective seeing a clue in every revealing snippet, carelessly dropped by those knowing more than they will admit to. But in my journey across my Mare Insularum towards a Mare Serenitatis, delivering care to others navigating their own sea of islands, it is my inquisitors who signpost my journey from brokenness.

We have all experienced trauma at some point in our lives and from that experience we know that peace is not found through angels of resolution until we have dealt with the devil's advocates. Its only in tackling the difficult and painful questions that we find satisfactory answers. There is no gift of healing, only the gift of pain through which healing is won. And as society is judged by the treatment of its most vulnerable so it is defined by the care of those whose situation challenges us most.

While dealing with my own demons of dysfunction I find myself in an organised and functional network delivering care to those who would otherwise find it impossible to maintain a tolerable existence. Its a job that sought me out and for this experience I'm grateful. On the whole I have the tools at my disposal to carry out my defined role and its in these small accomplishments that I find purpose.

I am humbled by my job, not because I'm a grunt on minimum wage, but because of the inherent value I see in every human life I encounter. It is in the respect we give to others, regardless of their circumstance, that we can correctly evaluate our own worth.

© Chris Price 2017