Mental Clutter

Perhaps I have no business writing about clutter, because I am a clutterer. I’m clean. You won’t stick to any surface in our home, but you may have to move some magazines to find a spot for your glass on the coffee table.

Sometimes My Surgical Mask Feels Like a Gag by jparadisi

Sometimes My Surgical Mask Feels Like a Gag by jparadisi

The topic of clutter is larger than that unwieldy pile of unopened mail on the dining room table. In the words of Newman, the mentally unbalanced postal worker on Seinfeld, “The mail never stops. It just keeps coming.”

The relentless flood of mail is not unlike the emotional barrage facing nurses during a typical shift. The tragic diagnosis of a new patient, recurring cancer in a well-known patient, too many patients, not enough nurses, phones constantly ringing, and unfamiliar chemotherapy regimens are just part of it. Then there’s the work environment: difficult coworkers, budget cuts, and, oh, no time for lunch today. At times, it’s overwhelming.

These things create a work day mental clutter difficult to shed at the end of a shift. Mental clutter paralyzes creativity, interferes with relationships, and impedes sleep. Managing stress is essential to happiness.

Having a mental clutter shut-off switch between work and home is effective. A mental clutter shut-off switch is a ritual activity, which when performed, tells your brain that:

  1.  The shift is over.
  2. You are going home.
  3.  You are leaving the workday craziness at work.

Easier said than done, but it can be done. Don’t we teach patients methods for managing stress?

Here are ideas for creating a mental clutter shut-off switch between work and home:

  • Join a gym or yoga class near work, and avoid rush-hour traffic by exercising before driving home.
  • When driving home, turn off the car radio. Listen to soothing CDs or a book on CD, such as God On A Harley by Joan Brady. It’s the story of a nurse learning to simplify her life.
  • As soon as you get home, take a 20-minute walk. Put your walking clothes and shoes on your bed before you leave for work, so they’re ready and waiting for you.
  • Create a personal sanctuary in your home. Mine is a comfortable chair with an ottoman. Next to it are my laptop, paper, pens, a sketchpad, knitting supplies, reading glasses, and several books. A small table holds a cup of coffee or tea.
  • Limit discussions at home about work to 30 minutes. Set a timer if you have to, and then stop when time is up.
  • Limit your time watching the evening news. Avoid it before bedtime. Be informed, but remember that you can’t fix the world.

That brings me to my last point: You deliver the best care reasonably possible to your patients, but you are not responsible for their outcome. You are a nurse, not a superhero.

What would you add to this list?

Don’t Change the Way You Look, Change the Way You See

Vegetable Still Life with View of Yaquina Bay photo: David E. Forinash 2011

Getting cancelled for part of a scheduled shift at work is often a problem during a recession, but on Friday I volunteered to go home at noon when our patient census was low. David and I planned to leave early Saturday morning for the Oregon Coast, but since he had Friday off, I packed quickly and we left that afternoon instead. Getting cancelled for half a shift felt like a gift instead of a loss in this circumstance, and my coworkers who wanted the hours were happy. The way it looks depends on your point of view.

I am in Newport, Oregon looking at a 180 degree view of the Pacific Ocean, with a blue heron nesting in a nearby fir tree. Last night I thought I heard a small dog barking, but it was the heron. What surprisingly harsh squawks from such an elegant bird! I see the heron in a new way.

Saturday morning at Newport’s Farmers’ Market we bought heirloom tomatoes, slender eggplants, a radicchio with red leaves edged in light green, and purple, yellow, and red peppers. Although we are traveling, I couldn’t resist the beauty of the vegetables, and when we paid for them even the farmer commented on the remarkable colors. Although he’d set up the booth himself that morning, he saw them from a fresh perspective while weighing them on the scale.

At the locally owned JC Market (which has a surprisingly good wine selection) I bought a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir and a Pinot Gris. As I carried the brown paper bag through the parking lot, I saw Don’t change the way you look, change the way you see, written on a sticker pasted to the bumper of a parked car.

It makes perfect sense.

I knew a pilot who said when he entered any public venue such as a movie theatre, the first thing he did was locate all the exits in case of fire. It makes sense that a pilot would see a theatre that way. After all, how to exit the plane in an emergency is the first thing taught to commercial jet passengers.

For a long time, I viewed many opportunities through the lens of their worst possible outcomes. I believe I learned this behavior as a nurse, seeing the traumatic outcomes of choices written on the bodies of patients in the ICU. Jobs requiring an exceptional sense of responsibility for the safety of others, such as piloting a jetliner, or nursing, affect our view of life, creating habits within our personalities, which I believe are unique from most of our society. It took me awhile to realize nursing influenced my enjoyment of life, and not always in a positive way.

For instance, I used to make choices based on their potential for risk or emotional pain. “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst,” was my viewpoint. Now I look at choices for their fun value too, not only potential peril. Otherwise, I may miss seeing the movie by worrying that the theatre might catch on fire.

Don’t change the way you look, change the way you see.