A woman came in with her daughter one night while I was working in the triage area of the emergency department. Her daughter was obviously impaired, with what kind of drugs though I wasn’t yet sure. The daughter was paranoid, anxious, fidgety, and couldn’t sit still in the chair for 5 seconds. I began to ask a series of questions to find out what they were needing and what had brought them into the ER. They were there for detox which is what I had expected. As I gathered more of the back story and the facts from the mother, the strong exterior that she walked into the ER with began to crack and her emotions began to come through.
The story was truly sad. Her young daughter got mixed up with the wrong crowd of people in high school and had never been the same since. She’d been in rehab once before but after getting out, went back to her boyfriend who had been physically abusive to her the past and just like clock work, she had relapsed.
As I was finishing up my triage note I explained to the mother how the process works for getting patients medical cleared prior to being detoxed and what to expect from team of psych doctors they would be seen by.
Her eyes began to well up with giant tears as I asked if she had any questions. The tears began to fall and she said ‘please, I just want her to get the help she needs here. I don’t want to have to take her home with me like this.’ Somewhat perplexed, I reassured her that her daughter would be cared for and that we had all of the necessary resources to ensure excellent care.
That was when she broke. She began to weep as she sat in the chair between my computer and the stretcher where her daughter sat. She told me that the first time her daughter detoxed was in their own home. The daughter was just a teenager at the time and the mother confessed that she didn’t really know what was going on until her daughter was in full on withdrawal.
They had done what they thought was the best thing to do as parents. They had gone and picked her up from her ex-boyfriend’s house one night after their daughter had contacted them saying she needed help. In another abusive relationship, verbally and physically, the daughter found herself afraid for her life. ‘I did what any mother would do, I went right then and picked up my baby.’ She went on to describe how they brought their daughter home that night and laid low for a few days, allowing her to rest while trying to figure out what to do next.
‘When it started I didn’t even realize what it was, she just was nauseated all the time, she wouldn’t eat anything and then started vomiting. She was restless, she couldn’t sleep at night. Then she became paranoid, she started hallucinating, and then came the seizures.’
Her voice was cracking and she sobbed between sentences at this point.
‘I didn’t know what was wrong, she’d never had seizures before in her life. Then I realized she was withdrawing. I didn’t know what else to do by that point so we rode it out at home. She eventually got through it. She detoxed in our own home.’
Shame is a powerful emotion, while I do know shame, I have no frame of reference for the shame a mother can feel. But I looked back at this mother, stricken with shame for the fact her daughter had detoxed at home. It was something that had haunted her everyday since. And her desperate plea, that we get her daughter the help she needed, stemmed from that shame and the weight of if that she’d carried for years.
In that small little triage room, I got a glimpse into that woman’s soul, a soul that was weighed down with shame and desperate for help.
Our own shame is uncomfortable enough but when facing another who is neck deep in their own shame is another matter altogether.
We have two options; we can pass our own judgment on them, on the situation, and believe that they could have done better or tried harder. Or we can believe that they were and are doing the best they can.
I reached out and took her hands, her mascara was running and her eyes were red and puffy, she looked up and I said to her ‘you were doing the best thing you knew to do as a mother. You were doing the best you could.’
She put her head down and continued to weep. My heart broke for the daughter but also for the mother.
She looked back up after a few moments and said ‘that’s the only way I’ve gotten through the hardest days with my daughter and her situation, is by telling myself that I’m doing the best I can. Most days I don’t feel like the best I can do is good enough, but I am doing the best I can.’
On my better days, I believe that people are doing the best they can. I don’t think they wake up in the morning and think ‘I’m going to try to be a horrible human today.’ I don’t believe people wake up and think ‘when I go to work today I’m going to try to do a terrible job, be lazy and not work hard.’ On my better days, I believe people are beautiful and kind.
But on my worst days I believe that people really suck. I think that people aren’t trying that hard in life. I think that people are morally and personally ok with being delinquents in society and that humanity as a whole is comprised of a bunch of degenerates.
Believing the best is what I have to practice.
When I look into the faces of the people I see everyday, the patients that walk into the ER, the people waiting in line at the grocery store, and even my own face when I look in the mirror, I have to believe that we’re all doing the best we can because when I don’t, that’s when I pass judgment.
Shame thrives under judgment.
When we pass our own judgments, believing that people aren’t trying and they’re surely not doing the best they can, we echo the voice of shame that whispers into the souls of others saying ‘you’re not doing good enough, you’re not doing the best you can.’
When we pass judgment on others, it’s often a reflection of the shame we carry in our souls. It’s a reaction to the shame that we carry for not feeling like we can ever do enough, it’s a reaction to the pain we feel, when people push on our wounded places, when others don’t believe that we are doing the best we can.
Shame tells us that even when we are doing the best we can, its still not good enough and will never be good enough. And that’s what our judgment of others communicates to them.
That night, sitting in triage with a complete stranger, I sensed shame begin to lose its grip in a powerful way.
The surprising part was how human and how connected I felt simply because I know what it feels like, to be doing the best you can, and I believed this woman. I believed that she was doing the best she could as a mother who had walked an immensely difficult road with her daughter.
That simple belief ran off the judgment that was lurking, waiting to pass.
The simple belief snuffed out the shame that wanted to continue its reign.
That small belief has immense power when we believe that about others and when we believe that for ourselves.