I would tell you that we can smell our own kind, but it’s even more obvious than that. People haunted by their version of a Dark Traveler stand out to me. It’s recognizable almost right away, like they have a colorful aura around them that gives it all away.
Their tone of voice, their body language, the lack of energy, the mood swings, the aversion to eye contact, it goes on and on. Depression, anxiety, stress, attention deficit, loneliness, longing, loss, mania all seem to have distinct tells, like a poker player given away their hand.
Guilt. Guilt also has a color, an aura. As the minutes ticked away that night in the hospital, the patient fresh off a procedure rested comfortably in bed. Having administered all the meds, offered the PRNs, written all the notes, documented the assessments, done my I/O’s, I too sat quietly in this patient’s company as he thought carefully how to choose his words.
I adore the older generations. They are living breathing tomes of history. This gentlemen definitely lamented his current state, but the tale of his life was fascinating. Now five plus years clear of the cancer, his current procedure nothing more than a speed bump, he still couldn’t let go of his guilt. “I don’t know why God chose me to survive…”
This man’s great crime, to his perception, was surviving. He loved his wife and kids. He watched and enjoyed the grandchildren’s ball games. He still had his own recreations. But, he still couldn’t shake his guilt. It’s not up for me to fix that. As nurses, there are times when our emotions get the best of us, we get nervous and we talk too much. We offer false assurance that everything will turn out fine and ultimately, what we end up doing is comforting ourselves and not the patient.
In my entire adult life, no one has ever dropped a heavy topic on me then said, “Tell me what you can do to fix this.” Being present and listening is often a good enough start. Even though we can empathize with someone’s situation, we never truly understand what they are going through. But we can understand how to be supportive and that comes with practice. There is no one size fits all approach to emotional support. Chances are, we’ve all set the complete wrong thing at one time or another. It’s okay as long as we learn from it.
This man and his son (the one who asked me to assess his father’s mental state) had never talked about how his father felt. The specifics of what the patient said to me remained between the two of us, but I encouraged the son that when he felt his father was feeling down to offer him some support. A simple, “You seem down today, I want you to know I’ll make myself available if you want to talk about it” will allow the person to know someone else cares enough about them to recognize when their mood changes, but also gives them space and doesn’t put them on the spot. It takes practice. It takes time. It is extremely rewarding to hear someone thank you for kindness, even if they aren’t ready to talk yet.
As we heighten our sense of awareness we improve our assessment skills. This doesn’t just apply to nursing. If you spend your day thinking about Subaru’s, the next time you get in your car there are going to be Subaru’s all over the place. They’ve always been there, but like Dark Travelers, if you aren’t paying attention they lurk on the periphery of our awareness. If we want to improve an area of our lives, we only need to raise our level of awareness then solutions and opportunities have a way of presenting themselves.
I’ve been summoning Dark Travelers for years because I feel it’s important for people struggling to know they aren’t alone and that it is not weakness to ask for help. So if you ever see me walking down the street, and I notice you’re not alone, I’m going to throw you a smile just to let you know there are people out there who have struggled too. Maybe you’ll even want to talk about.