Man, I can’t believe it’s been already one year since I started my job as an RN. I honestly never pictured my first year to turn out the way it did. It’s been a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs and in-betweens. I’ve gotten to know the truth about this industry and all the bullshit that exists in hospitals, as well as all the freaking wonderful things that go unnoticed to most people. I’ve developed a sort of sisterhood bond with my co-workers and with my unit. I know now for a fact that they all have my back. Most importantly, I proved to myself that I could do it. That I could survive my first year as a nurse and go through all the emotions—the fear, the nervousness, the doubt, the excitement, the anxiety, the stress, the joy—and come out as a stronger person. It’s so hard to convey all the things I’ve seen and gone through this past year. A canvas with bright, messy colors splattered all over it, sprinkled with sparkles, goose feathers and tears are the only thing that comes close to embodying it. You’ll realize that in reading this, I share events that happened at work that affected me in my personal life. I chose nursing for practical reasons (stability, flexibility, and I love wearing scrubs!) but also for personal reasons, in hopes to fulfill some life purpose of mine. Therefore, my emotions were really tied into it [some of which I detail here are intense. You’ve been warned!]. I never wanted to go into a career where it was “just a job” and live a life of constant longing for the weekends. Early on, I knew I wanted a career that I was passionate about and that brought me joy and purpose. A career is such a large part of any person’s life, and I want to make mine worthwhile. Hope you enjoy 🙂
July – October:
On Orientation—Excited and Energetic
This was a very exciting time for me. It’s my first real job as a professional. And the start for me to make more money, have my own insurance, and be a more independent adult! Woohoo! Freedom!
I look back at this part of the year very fondly. I was starting to familiarize myself with the unit and was getting to know all my coworkers. This was such an amazing part of the journey because I received so much support and guidance from the nurses on my unit. And I did everything with a sort of lightness and easeful energy because I had a wonderful preceptor who I could fall back on in case I ran into any issues. Things were very fresh, very “rosy” at this point in the game. My heart was very much in it, and I still maintained this vision of making positive impacts in patients’ healing processes.
I carried a clipboard with a spreadsheet of everyone’s medication schedules and to-do list. I never took my eyes off that thing. I will admit, I was pretty organized and dedicated to this system I set up. One of the other nurses joked that she always saw me with that clipboard! And she was totally right. That clipboard was the one thing that kept me from feeling like a total newbie.
November – December:
Off Orientation—Nervous but Still Optimistic
Being off orientation felt scary, but my unit continued to reinforce their support.
“Even though you’re off orientation, you can still ask anyone for help.”
“We would rather have you ask us stupid questions. Because if you’re not asking questions, and you’re not reaching out to us at all, that’s when we would be worried about what you’re doing.”
“If you aren’t familiar with a medication, ask us first before administering it.”
That’was a lot of what I had heard from my coworkers once I was fresh off orientation. It was all very helpful, and it really reassured me that I could always ask for guidance. It made me feel less alone or like I was carrying all the responsibility. [Note: Nursing is very much a TEAM sport. I was very lucky to have found a unit that supports and encourages one another. When scouting out for a job, especially your first job as a new nurse, the unit’s culture is SO FREAKING IMPORTANT. On most units, you should be able to shadow a nurse for a day just to test it out. I would highly recommend it.] I was also lucky enough that there were 6 other new grads starting out on my unit as well. We all got off orientation at the same time and were able to confide in each other during tough times. It was SO helpful to see other novice nurses going through the same learning curve as me. It definitely normalized my doubts, worries, and fears about caring for the patients.
It’s funny, because in nursing school, they talk to you about lateral bullying in the workplace. Like, nurse to nurse bullying. And how “nurses eat their young”. But on my unit, particularly on night shift, the new grads were being bullied by the nursing technicians. I’ve had instances where I had asked one of the techs to draw labs, and she told me, “You new grads need to draw your OWN labs. You guys have to learn.” We also got, “These new grads don’t know shit”, or “These new grads need to realize that nursing isn’t just all about passing meds”. It was really humiliating and disrespectful. It also made me feel like I had to do EVERYTHING since I felt unsupported by them. It was so hard to delegate to someone who intimidated you and who gave you orders on what you need to do. It was also difficult because, yes, I was a new grad so of course I won’t know as much as someone who’s been there for years. Eventually, all of us new grads took it up with our manager, who had received complaints about those techs in the past by other nurses. So she apparently had individual talks with the techs, and they backed off for a while, but eventually resumed their bullying to some degree afterwards.
Eventually, I ended up getting permanent day shift, so I stopped experiencing bullying from those techs. And although day shift was MUCH busier, it was so much better having techs that supported you, rather than throw you under the bus.
Once I was on day shift, there was a lot of hustle and bustle—medications, doctor rounds, new orders, coordination with care teams—I felt like I could barely keep up. But at the end of the day, I still felt great and even proud of myself for making it through. It felt good to be learning and soaking up knowledge each day and feeling more confident about myself as a nurse.
January – April:
I Officially Become a Jaded Nurse
I was dissatisfied, mildly depressed, and apathetic. The initial peachy glow of my early days as a nurse had finally faded into a gloomy gray. This was what my shifts felt like:
My phone keeps ringing. Constantly. When I’m in an isolation room, when I’m talking to patients, when I’m simply trying to take a moment for myself and pee. I want to throw my phone into the wall and have it smash into a thousand pieces. I want to yell at patients who want me to refill their water jugs, when they are able-bodied themselves, which delays me from giving pain meds to a patient who is demanding, impatient, and rude. I want to dodge making rounds with doctors because it takes too long and I have so many things to do in the morning it’s not even funny. My head hurts and it’s only 10 am, even though it feels like I’ve done a day’s work already, and I haven’t even been able to sit down and chart on anyone. I’m unable to take breaks or drink water because I’m being called on constantly. I’ve been so busy, I haven’t been able to see one of my patients in two hours. I hate people. I hate family members who ask a lot of questions. I hate doctors who continue to put in a bunch of new and confusing orders. I hate doctors who are hard to get a hold of. Don’t ask me to help you, because I have so much shit to do myself. I hate my job. I want to quit. Get me out of here or else I’ll explode.
I wasn’t fulfilled by the work I did. I remember thinking to myself frequently that I felt like a slave, or a dog, or a servant—just following orders blindly, running around all flustered, and not having any time to just breathe.
I felt depressed about my life because I suddenly felt like I had no purpose. The desire to help people is what motivated me in my professional AND personal life. I constantly thought, It’s not possible to make a difference. I don’t even want to make a difference anymore. I just want people to leave me alone. There was nothing to fuel my personal hobbies of reading books and writing about on healing, self improvement, and spirituality anymore.
Compassion fatigue hit me hard. I would look at a patient who was in the midst of an emotional crisis and I would feel nothing for them other than all the work I had to do that day. I wanted a new job where I didn’t ever have to interact with people again. The compassion and desire to help people heal, which is what started this whole journey for me to be a nurse, was no longer there for me to lean on. There was nothing behind my eyes except pure dissatisfaction and a desperation to not be bothered by anyone.
Rock Bottom—Depressed and Grieving
May is when it all just blew up—in my career and personal life.
A seemingly well and stable 20 year old patient of mine had died suddenly and unexpectedly during my shift. She was found unconscious, and after an hour of resuscitation, she was officially pronounced dead.
Oh. My. God.
That event shook my whole world.
After she was pronounced dead, I couldn’t even stay in the room any longer. I left to go to the bathroom and sobbed my eyes out.
Being a new nurse, I felt like it was my fault. Like it was something I had done. Or something I didn’t do right. I shook uncontrollably and felt like I was going to faint.
The worst part was how old she was. Me being 23, I felt like it wasn’t fair that she died. There was so much that life could have given her.
After all of this, I went home thinking it was my fault. Despite all my coworkers and everyone who I had talked to told me it wasn’t, I had put it on myself. An empty bottle of narcotics was found hidden in her bed, and cause of death was drug overdose. Yet, that didn’t matter to me. She was still my responsibility. And the whole experience was overwhelmingly traumatic.
I spent the next day crying and crying and crying. I felt like I didn’t deserve to live after that. I had to call my boyfriend and tell him that I felt like hurting myself. I felt scared of my own self—the part of me that viciously blamed myself. I was really at rock bottom at this point.
I didn’t think I could help anyone at all at that point, let alone help myself. The feelings of wanting to kill myself were fleeting and brief, and I came out of it unhurt—but being in that dark place for any number of seconds is dangerous and scary. I’m so grateful for everyone who was there for me and who acted so loving towards me when I myself could not love me at that time.
I eventually was able to go back to work and face being a nurse again. But not without more tears, anxiety, and doubts. Everyone at work was so gracious and kind to me, and I wouldn’t have gotten through it if it weren’t for their unconditional support. And I really, really mean that.
The Guilt of Healthcare Professionals
I think about that day when that girl died. A lot. That memory is seared into my mind. The scars of that day will always remain. But I also realized that that could have happened to anyone, on any other day. It just happened that it happened on my shift. It was nothing I did. It just happened that way. And it really helped me heal from the situation to realize that often times, patient outcomes are impersonal. Yes, I went into it from the start thinking I wanted to make an impact on people’s lives and give them the support and love they need to heal. But also, people are also making their own choices. Often times, in the healthcare setting, there can be this huge pressure on us to keep the patient as safe is we can. Which I agree is important to do, but also, sometimes it gives off the impression that WE are responsible for things that we cannot control. If a patient falls, they are quick to judge that it was the nurse’s fault. Or the doctor’s fault. Or the technician’s fault. Sometimes, shit just happens. No amount of safety protocols, fall mats, bed alarms, or hourly rounding can prevent unfortunate events. Even though, consciously, I understand that that pressure is bullshit, I can’t help but carry some guilt when things happen like that. And I know many other nurses who feel the same way. And I wish it weren’t like that. I really really wish it weren’t. Because to be someone who constantly absorbs the burden of guilt and blame wears us out. That’s how we can get burnt out. That’s how we quit and give up on it. This all makes me terribly sad. But I believe that no matter what happens, we can always take the best out of that situation, regardless of how crappy or devastating it may be.
During June, I was able to resolve this issue with myself, and most importantly, forgive myself. It was at this point that I started to see a therapist—which really helped me work out the things that had gone down and also help me accept that I wasn’t to blame. And with that, I was able to release myself, and make more space in my life for things that gave me life and joy.
Finding My Compassion Again
Remember that clipboard with my spreadsheet schedule and checklist that was virtually glued to my hands? I threw it out.
There comes a time in every person’s career where they allow themselves to ease up and trust that they’ll figure things out as time goes. Operating under such a rigid schedule and high expectations, both of which were mainly self imposed, I scorched myself of all the passion I once had. Things weren’t fun or joyful anymore. It was all tyranny. I held onto the reigns of the horse so tightly, it was actually holding me back. I needed to ease up and loosen my grip, so that the horse could have enough space to move and run and feel free.
I don’t regret any of the past approaches I’ve taken. In fact, I’m extremely grateful. Because without the structure and expectations, I would have wandered aimlessly without a clue. Without the intense guilt, I wouldn’t have learned the beautiful lesson of forgiveness and being kind to yourself. Without the depression and apathy, I wouldn’t have understood the importance and role of meaning in my life. And without tragedy, I wouldn’t have recognized the support, love, and warmth that all my friends, family, and coworkers were so ready and eager to give.
Throwing away that damn clipboard was the ultimate symbol of liberation for me. I know that sounds silly, but it really helped me feel more present at work. Instead of walking down the hallway while writing down stuff to do on my clipboard, my to do list is now neatly folded into a small square in my pocket. And as a result, I can look at people in the face, smile, and interact with all that’s going around me. And when I needed reminders of what to do or know when a person is due to their next pain meds, I can just take it out and use it as needed. Again, I know this seems like a basic thing to do, but it was a big deal for me! I wasn’t trying to enforce perfection on myself anymore. Instead, I made room for being present with patients. And as a result, I was able to rediscover my compassion and joy again in nursing.
When I talk about rediscovering my compassion, it wasn’t just for the patients. When I started to feel it again, I made sure I kept and protected some compassion for myself. It’s this self compassion that helps me keep going. It reminds me to forgive myself all the time and every time. I reminds me to not take anything personally. Self compassion is the best shield I’ve got. And like having a real shield, I’m going to shine it and carry it with me out into the world.
And the Journey Continues!
Yes, one of the hardest parts of nursing may be behind me now. But tough days still lie ahead, as well as really awesome days. And I don’t think that will ever change regardless of my experience in this career. Because you never know what you’re going to get in a hospital. And I am a person too, with fluctuations in moods, feelings, attitudes, and energy levels. Some days I can handle it. Some days, I need a lot of help. And that’s completely okay. I am not a robot. I choose to strive to meet my own standards and expectations of what I think is right.
After one year, I’ve developed faith in my abilities as a nurse. I certainly don’t know everything, and I still ask a ton of questions. But I have faith that when I encounter a certain situation that I may not know how to deal with, I’ll find a way to address it. I have faith that the unit that I work on and the team that I work with are dependable, smart, resourceful and compassionate. And that belief is what helps me keep going. Trust me, some days it’s hard for me to believe in myself. Maybe I just can’t seem to get anything right or I have a particularly difficult patient assignment. And it’s those times that you just need to grit your teeth and bare through it (or have more coffee!).
I want to be real with how I feel about nursing so far. I’m not going to say nursing is easy and fun. Because it’s not. But I can tell you, with all the other jobs that I’ve ever had, I know I can withstand a 12 hour shift at the hospital more so than I can withstand a 6 hour shift working retail. Nursing is a challenging and engaging career. Every day is a different day for me. And I absolutely love that about nursing.
If I could say anything to someone who is just starting their nursing career, it would be this: this is YOUR own unique, personal journey. It won’t look like mine, or your coworker’s or anyone else’s. Be proud of that. And also, be kind to yourself. Always be kind to yourself. Remember to wear you self compassion like a shield. That is one of the most important things I had to learn [and I’m still learning!] to prevent myself from letting all the negativity out there consume me. Take care of yourself and take your breaks, because if you aren’t well and you’re completely burnt out, you are robbing the world of one less wonderful and compassionate healing practitioner who has the power to make a tremendous, positive difference. And that’s not fair to them, right?
Kisses & Meows,