The Stigma of Perfection
On a daily basis, I do a lot. In one shift, I pulled all the sheets of four different beds and cleaned the room of anything left behind by the previous occupant, pulled I-don’t-know-how-many patients up in their bed with only a sheet and a co-worker, took the entire body weight of someone twice my size with only a plastic strap when their legs collapsed, passed out and picked up meal trays for all of my six patients and refilled countless cups of water. That’s not counting the secretarial stuff I do as well, or picking up call lights, and taking and recording blood pressures and temperatures and pulse rates. Oh, and I’ve been doing it while the dosage of my medications is being altered.
With the help of an app, I caught my mood trending downwards and brought it up to my therapist and my psychiatrist before I relapsed. So we’re tapering me off one medication and adding in another and I’m balancing withdrawals and new side effects while being on my feet for 12 ½ hours three times a week. The good news is that my new medication is often used to replace my current one, which makes the withdrawals much less of a problem than they normally are.
My coworkers occasionally ask what happened whenever I’m wearing my kt tape or pulling on my knee braces. I don’t really hide my mobility aids, and I don’t mind sharing my medical issues. I’m a lot shyer about sharing my mental health diagnoses; unfortunately, the stigma is still very present in most of my coworkers.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned to my coworkers that I want to work in a psychiatric facility. I love the high adrenaline “stabilize them and hand them off” moments of trauma in the ER, and the intense “keep them alive for the next 12 hours” pace of the Critical Care Unit. I’m even in love with the balancing of “this patient needs hourly blood pressures while on this drip and this patient is having pain and the doctor won’t call me back and this patient has alcohol withdrawal and I haven’t charted a thing and it’s already 1pm” of my own telemetry unit. But mental health is where my heart is at, and that’s because of the nurses I meet in the hospital.
Every single voice was telling me I should be ashamed of my scars. And I was. I refused to reveal my injuries until I saw another patient brave enough to let a nurse treat hers. While the other patients stood around the station to finish the nightly medication distribution, I followed a nurse into a small room that was far too bright after our post movie quiet time. I expected to be shamed, or at least treated to the “you are a beautiful girl with so much going for you, you shouldn’t be throwing that all away” speech. Instead, I think she asked if I had any pets. Then I talked about my dog while she applied cream and wrapped my arms with gauze.
I was never shamed, never scolded, never made to feel as though I was an overdramatic teen just searching for attention.
Once at work, I helped transfer a patient to a different unit because the doctor had activated suicide precautions. I wanted to reach out and hold their hand, look them in the eye and say “I know it’s dark and scary and you think you’re alone, but I promise that we are here, we love you, and we are going to do everything we can to help you. I know the lies depression is telling you, that the world would be better off without you, but I promise you those are LIES. I know, because I’ve been where you are. The world would be so, so much worse without you.”
I wish I had. But I had stressed and tired coworkers pushing themselves to get far too much done in far too little time, cramming work into those last few minutes before a cart full of meal trays was pushed onto the unit and the night staff flooded the station ready to receive report. It was all I could do to push that bed down the long hall and hope that they understood the meaning of my tattoo that I carefully kept in view.
I love my job, and I love the people I do it with. But sometimes our demographic is excluding enough to rival Donald Trump. I’m too afraid to reveal my anxiety and depression to a coworker who’s become a friend.
We all have this image of perfection we strive for, to be the perfect classmate who is always color-codes their notes and emails them to you on a sick day before you’ve even asked, the perfect boss who always has their door open and is easy to open up to and quick to help a struggling coworker....
The perfect activist who is always open about being mentally ill and smashes stigma wherever she goes.
One of my nurses noticed my tattoo and asked if it was part of the Semicolon Project. I just smiled and nodded. I wanted to share, but I just... couldn’t. I’m afraid that my work will be second-guessed. I’m afraid that I will have to prove over and over again that I am just as good as I was before someone learned that I need medication to feel something other than complete numbness interspaced with moments of hopeless terror.
Perfection is a myth. It’s comparing another’s best moments to our worst and pressuring us to do the best. To be the best. It’s a competition of overachievement. It tells us we are not enough, will never be enough until we have those awards, those records, those standing ovations. Until we are publicly recognized as the best, we have no worth. At work, I’m known as the bubbly and positive, upbeat one who is always smiling. I often get “you’re always smiling!” “you always have the best attitude!” I’m caught between the image of the perfect activist and the perfect co-worker. Neither of them are real.
Perfection is just a way to keep everyone else at arm’s length, to pretend to yourself that there’s no pain, no suffering, no constant questioning if that was the right choice, the right words, the right reaction. Pretend you’re perfect, and no one can hurt you.
Look at the little ways you beat yourself up about not being perfect. Maybe it was forgetting to say I love you when you dropped your kids off at school, and then worried about it the whole way home. Text them that you forgot because you’re not perfect. Maybe you forget what you were going to ask someone in the middle of a sentence. Make a funny face instead. Don’t be perfect, be human.