Pain Killer Smile
I used to work at a community health center, and the best part of my work was without a doubt the clients I worked with on a daily basis. Because healthcare in the United States is difficult and confusing, the health center offers pro bono insurance assistance services. My job as a Public Benefits and Insurance Navigator was quite literally to guide patients/clients through the health benefits system as one would help steer a ship. Call me a compass, I guess. After two and a half years at the health center, I developed close working relationships with more than a few patients, since they came back to see me again and again for help renewing their benefits, accessing their medication, and helping with any other obstacles to their healthcare that might come up (and almost always did). My bonds with our patients, to say nothing of my extraordinary colleagues, made it difficult to leave. This health center is a special place.
I knew that I needed to leave, though. Not because I didn't love working there, but because I was experiencing a pull to travel and explore other parts of myself. I needed to take an internal journey, I suppose, and the only way that I could take those first intrepid steps within myself was to force myself far outside my comfort zone via a physical voyage to the other side of the world.
I still miss it, though. I miss my coworkers, I miss our patients, I miss the DC community, and more than anything, I miss the daily satisfaction of knowing that I was able to make a tangible positive impact in another person's life. Working in healthcare can be frustrating at times, to be sure, but the beauty of solving problems within that system is that I got to see the physical results of my work. A patient finally picked up her medication. A client showed off his brand-new Medicaid card. Another got the surgery she needed. I watched people go from extremely ill to robustly healthy, and knew that I played a very small part in making that transformation possible.
Since leaving the health center, I've often struggled with feelings of worthlessness. I know that my sense of self-worth shouldn't be based on my work, but once I stopped working I discovered that was very much the case. I am writing and traveling and trying my hardest to provide some value to the world through my words - and, on rare occasion, get paid for it - but I am not laboring on a daily basis to serve others in the same way I used to be. I know that my worth is inherent, that I make the world a better place by being here, and that I deserve to take up space. But recent months have found me wondering what good I'm really doing in the world, and whether it's enough to justify my place on this planet. In other words, I've been beating myself up for not working hard enough, because I subconsciously believe my work to be the only way that I can make a positive impact in the lives of others.
Then, someone sent me a reminder.
A former client of mine sent me a message via Viber. I could feel her words from across the ocean. She sent me encouragement and affirmations and told me she was doing well. It was a long text that I won't copy here, but she told me something that I will never forget:
"For everyone equal, you have a nice pain killer smile."
A native English speaker would probably not have come up with that phrasing, and yet it is the most perfectly evocative sentence I have ever read. I know exactly what she means. And it brought me crashing back down to earth.
I was spending far too much time in my own mind, twisting my thoughts into punishing circles that only spelled out failure. A lie. A lie that diminished my opportunities to do good right now, right here, in all the ways that I can, metrics be damned. Telling myself that I am not good enough because my impact can't be measured is like claiming delicious food is tasteless because I can't describe the flavor. It is simply not true, and it does nothing but selfishly drain energy that I could be spending on other people.
The message means more to me than she could ever possibly know, because it reminded me that I can create good outside of the concrete metrics of my work, past and present. You can, too. Large or small, you can have an impact. Even if you don't know it, you may be someone else's pain killer smile.