Submitted by Susan Rhedmon, RN, CMSRN, HNB-BC
I have now been practicing as a nurse for ten years, working in hospitals and
volunteering in clinics. I am part of a pool of nurses known as the “Resource Team” for a prominent system where I live in Portland. We work on multiple units and have a collective reputation of being competent, hard workers. As part of this team, I grew in skill and confidence until I became too arrogant. The guise of this arrogance was hurriedness and disbelief of the safety protections put in place by my employer, which led to my making a medication error and the unraveling of my identity project.
According to Kathleen Dowling Singh, our identity project begins during adolescence with incessant internal dialogue. We then spend the remainder of our lives reinforcing this self-constructed image.
I am a non-Buddhist, with incredible reverence for its principles and methods. The 1st Noble Truth is that suffering exists (no argument here); the 2nd Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by our attachments. My attachment to being a nurse was evident prior to potentially losing that title, but became pronounced when I thought I might be fired. What else would I do? Who would I be then? Then followed the aspect of shame because my identity project has the adjective “good” associated with nurse, and how could a good nurse make a mistake? I felt fear of being judged by my peers and my manager. What was the source of this fear?
Now in my late 30s, I have just begun to look at my childhood programming. I was raised by two “Recovering Catholics”, in the middle-class suburbs (yawn) of Washington D.C. I was taught to conform and excel, and to respect the System; the more perfect I was, the more accepted I would be by society and the more worthy I would feel. Conforming would help my life flow with ease. How I perceive myself to be perceived was a driving force for my behavior. My conditioning was fear-based, but too subtle to be noticed by the similarly programmed masses. What was once fear of God’s judgment became fear of another human’s judgment. I still struggle with this image-consciousness, and I fear(ed) being thought of as an incompetent nurse.
The most potent gift of this process for me was experiencing darkness. Self-loathing is unfamiliar to me, a blessing of my genetics and my up-bringing. I may have been depressed for a short period in college when I became acutely aware of injustice in the world, but I don’t tend towards those emotional states. The only time I had felt so equally despondent is when I realized my mother was dying. Once I had recognized the full potential for harm from the medication error I made, I became immobilized and joyless; I had touched the darkness, and my scope of empathy expanded. I now understood what so many humans experience as self-loathing, and I became grateful for its scarcity in my world.
Another thing that became evident to me was who of my many beautiful friends I trust with my vulnerability; it was surprisingly few. Finally, my medication error reminded me to be humble because of the potential harm in so many things that I do every week in the early morning hours.
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
-Viktor E Frankl