Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Be Kind to Yourself

A friend, Eowyn, has asked me to post this piece I wrote, reprinted from Hot Psychology's November issue. It's titled "Be Kind to Yourself", though I don't think I'm really thrilled with that title. However, I am OK with the actual article - anyway, here you go Dear Readers.

I don’t remember the year exactly; it was in the mid 1980s. I think I remember what I was wearing though, at least the pants, gray linen-type slacks. I remember that because after it was all over, the pants were bloodstained.

What I do remember first – was the shrieking. The sound of a man being zapped by over 200 volts of electricity was definitely out of the ordinary. The next thing I remember was the quiet. A roomful of 10 or so women was stunned and silent. It seemed as if they too, were rendered immobile by electric shock. But it wasn’t something physical keeping my co-workers motionless – it was fear.

We had been sitting at our desks toiling away at paperwork or data entry. A maintenance worker – and I don’t remember his name, but I’ll just call him Bob – was on a stepladder doing some routine repair work to an emergency light fixture. He was at the front of the room, but his presence wasn’t all that disruptive, that is, until his tools made contact with a wire connected to a live circuit. Then he started howling.

His legs were thrashing, knocking over the stepladder. He was attached to the fixture by virtue of the electricity that was charging through him. And the rest of us were attached to our spots. The scene seemed to go on forever, Bob being hit with this current, and no one doing a thing. I looked around at everyone, disbelieving that not a soul was reacting. Finally, I got up and ran to the front of the room. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew that it wasn’t the time for inaction.

First I knew that Bob had to be released from the source of the electricity. I also knew that I couldn’t just grab him, or I’d get zapped too. I looked around, trying to find something non conductive. The closest thing was a roll of paper towels. Not very strong, probably wouldn’t be all that effective – but I was panicked, and didn’t have many options. As I picked up the roll Bob fell to the floor, the charge had released him. I gradually became aware that there was movement in the room, and others were beginning to give assistance.

A woman was next to me as I knelt by the non-responsive Bob. We saw he was bleeding; his arm I think. I directed her to take some paper towels and press them on his wound. I was trying to remember everything I could from a college First Aid course. The ABC’s. Airway. Breathing. Circulation. Bob seemed to be breathing, no obstructions. The blood we were dealing with.

But he was unconscious. I called his name, and loosened the belt at his waist. This is when I started to feel helpless. I just didn’t’ know what else do to! Thankfully, others had been taking action outside of my immediate awareness. While I was rushing to assist Bob, others had started calling for help – on the phone, and into the warehouse below. So by now, Greg* from Shipping & Receiving had joined us.

I remember him calmly asking me if I was a “certified First Responder”. I was thrown by the question, and all I could answer was, “I took a First Aid course once”. Turns out that Greg knew what he was doing – he was also an EMT. He noted that I had done pretty well, but he thought that Bob might have been going into shock. I wonder if I too, went into shock, because I don’t remember a lot of what happened after that. Greg pretty much took over until the firefighters arrived.

Bob survived fine, and was released from the hospital, and actually came back to the warehouse that same day. We found out later that circuits had been mislabeled and he was supposed to have been working on a disconnected device. I’m assuming the company we worked for had since made the appropriate safety corrections in the electrical system – but who knows. It dismays me to admit it, but the whole affair left me with a sour feeling towards my employer – and not just for their negligence.

Within a few weeks, the owners of the company made a big deal about recognizing the warehouse worker, Greg, who had given first aid to Bob. Which is great. Greg did a wonderful job; he was calm and thorough. But yet, I couldn’t help but wonder, what about me? I know, my ‘reward’ was really that Bob had been OK. But yet, I couldn’t help but feel very disappointed by the higher-ups – especially since the owner of the company actually saw me at Bob’s side, doing what I could. Anyone could have told him what had happened, that I had been the first to reach him and actually had started first-aid procedures. I tend to believe that the boss, Mr. J., was a chauvinist. Or maybe that the fact that Greg was the better trained aid giver impressed him more than a young woman who tried to take action, when everyone else around her was in panic.

What then, was I going to do with that feeling, that realization that I would have liked a little recognition? Did that mean I was grubbing for ceremonies and certificates of merit? To that part, I honestly can answer, “no”. But yet, what bothered me so much? I remember that Greg had approached me later on. He told me that he tried to explain my part in the whole episode. I do appreciate that. He too, felt that something wasn’t quite fair in all of this.

We are all taught the values of altruism as children. As I was brought up in a Christian family, I learned the Biblical lesson of the Good Samaritan. Without getting into the nitty-gritty, basically the Good Samaritan was a man traveling from A to B, and came across a fellow traveler in trouble. This other man had been beaten and robbed. Now, unknowing to the Samaritan, other travelers had previously seen the poor fellow at roadside, yet ignored him and continued on their respective journeys.

The Samaritan, being a good sort of man, immediately stopped and gave aid to the traveler. He brought him to an inn, cleaned him up, fed him and left money for his care with the innkeeper. The thing of it was, in those days, the Samaritans had a long history of not getting along with the Jews and were thought to not have pure lineage. To put it in a more modern context, a Samaritan today represents a social group that is feared or misunderstood – say, someone from a biker culture, or Islamic sect.

Thinking back now, that story seemed, if not scary, at least a little exotic. It certainly wasn’t the only story in either Testament that involved doing good, ‘for goodness sake’. Yet, it’s the one that sticks in my mind the most. And for me, it creates a most interesting parallel. The novelty of the story wasn’t all in the fact that someone gave of himself without expecting compensation – what surprised the people of the day, was that someone of an supposedly objectionable group was capable of doing this. Of course the Samaritans were capable of good. We know that now. We also know that today the odd Hells Angel, ex-convict, or homeless drug addict could show kindness and compassion.

What is also unexpected is what goes on inside the “Samaritan’s” head. In my case, I felt slighted. And I hated that feeling. But, human that I am, I understand that we are not built to be pure good, nor pure bad, and I’d do the whole thing over again, if I had to. Even knowing I might get slighted again. Helping someone who desperately needs it overrides any pride I might have to deal with. But still, there are consequences.

A distressing phenomenon tracked over the last few decades, is the occurrence of rescuers and first responders suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other troubles such as depression or alcoholism. Those who are involved in rescues or other heroic gestures can have trouble coping with either all the attention, or the “Hero” brand. In 1987, Richard O’Donnell pulled 18-month-old Jessica McClure out of the 20-foot well she had fallen into. The paramedic’s patient efforts at pulling and nudging Jessica out of the well gave him much more than 15 minutes of fame. Problems with migraines and depression eventually tore up his marriage and ultimately he sought relief with a shotgun in 1995.

The Quecreek, PA mine disaster of 2002 left the survivors grateful, yet still having problems adjusting to life after the Disney movie, and all around media flurry. Robert Long, the man who was most visibly instrumental in the rescue, killed himself 11 months later. Similar stories in the aftermath of other events such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the attacks on September 11th are just as heartbreaking.

Undercurrent themes of these and other disasters are fear and panic. Also at play are the triggers of PTSD, factors such as fatigue, hunger, and sleep deprivation. But there is an emotional component that cannot always be measured, that affects our long-term outlook, either as victim or rescuer. Whatever human frailties or problems we have before such an event, will carry through and influence our reactions. The hero brand may be too difficult to wear if we can’t reconcile our self-views with the world’s views.

It can’t hurt to strive towards doing good, while not expecting a reward. If we truly embrace altruism, we don’t expect compensation or even a thank-you. To borrow from the Bible again, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6: 3-4) But as true as that is, it is still important to remember and acknowledge that we do need to be appreciated. And when we are not valued the way we’d hope; as humans, we’re going to feel the hurt.

Life is random. We don’t know when a car will crash, or a bomb will drop. We cannot live in constant fear of the world, nor of our own reactions. So, as we give aid to others, we need to remember to be kind to ourselves.

*Not his real name

Hot Psychology, November 5, 2006.
Page 26, Volume 2, Issue 11