What it takes

I’ve noticed people, including myself, mentioning that they’ve observed a change in themselves since they became a caregiver. There are the obvious changes; way more tired, more stressed, more patient, and more appreciative of times that are good. We’ve most likely gained a bit more compassion and found we appreciate kindness in ourselves and others a little more. Then there are the not so obvious changes, the ones that maybe only we notice. For me, I’m less patient; not outwardly, but in my head if that makes sense. And there’s always that edge of constant worry - worry about money, and wondering if I’m doing enough, along with the fear that goes through me when mom’s number comes up on my phone or when the phone rings in the middle of the night.

I’ve been listening to a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) course on Audible. The subject has always interested me and I may as well learn something while I’m getting my miles in. The instructor includes recordings of sessions he’s had with actual patients; one of his patients, Maria, really touched my heart:

Maria and her husband, Jack, have been happily married for forty-five years. They had retired, bought a sailboat so they could explore the coast of Maine together, and were looking forward to this new chapter of their lives. Then he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

I have no idea what it would be like to have a spouse with this disease and I hope neither Bill nor I will ever have to find out. But when Maria speaks about the worry, guilt, anger, and depression I can hear it in her voice and understand it from my point of view. She’s actively mourning her husband while he’s still alive; he doesn’t know who she is most of the time and he can no longer take care of himself. She’s doing the best she can because she loves him but it’s changing who she is. That’s the part I understand the most - this disease not only changes the person who has been diagnosed, it also changes the person who takes care of them. Pain will do that.

We all know there’s two kinds of pain; physical pain and emotional pain. I’ve often wondered, hypothetically, how much pain of either kind a person can take before it kills them? Delivering a baby is pretty high on my list of physically painful experiences - in fact, it holds the top two positions. I’ve experienced childbirth without an epidural twice; not by choice but due to crappy planning and a baby who was in a hurry. The thing is, with babies, the pain itself won’t kill you (although it sure as hell felt like there was real potential there) plus, there’s most likely a happy pay-off at the end. Thankfully, when we reflect back on physically painful events, we may wince at the memory but we no longer feel it.

Emotional pain is different; it can change who you are - you know, you’ve been there. There are songs I can’t listen to, places I avoid, and things I won’t do because of the pain I’ve associated with them. I’ve had my heart broken, I’ve lost a best friend, I’ve hurt someone I love, I’ve watched my dogs take their last breath, and I’ve experienced the deep pain of losing my dad. When I reflect back on some of those times I can still feel the pain - not as much and not as deeply as I did at first, but it’s still there. As awful as these experiences can be there is good that can come out of them; it’s through these experiences that we gain compassion and the ability to empathize with others going through something similar. How else are we able to witness a toddler having a tantrum and look at the parent with a “I’ve been there too and it sucks” smile?

Being a caregiver for a parent or spouse with dementia or any chronic illness is draining, emotionally and physically. And the emotional pain that comes with it is, for me, a slow burn. Of course, when mom was first diagnosed and I was trying to figure stuff out, the emotional pain and frustration had some moments that were anything but a slow burn - they were white hot with their intensity. But now, things have settled into a kind of normalcy; the worry is always there but it’s not as loud as it used to be.

So, where do you find the energy to keep going and still feel joy, happiness, contentment, and some semblance of control over your life? I’ve said it before but I think it’s worth repeating - to make the time to take care of ourselves is the best thing we can do for the people we love. A sleep deprived, stressed out, malnourished, depressed caregiver is not what any of us strive to be but it’s a role that seems to be incredibly easy to fall into. Plus, on top of it all, we’re harder on ourselves than anyone else would ever be.

Someone very dear to me had a mantra he would repeat to himself while taking care of his dad:

Today I will be the best I can be with my dad. And when I don’t feel like it, I will act like it. Tomorrow I will look back on today and I will say, well done.

Being the best you can be today does not mean perfection; it’s the best you can do with the physical and emotional resources you have right now. There are times when I feel frustrated with mom but nothing good will come out of me expressing that frustration to her, I’d be venting which only adds fuel to the situation. I’ve found if I re-frame what is happening, or let it go and move on, I eventually feel more in control and I don’t leave mom feeling like a scolded child. Many times it’s not your actions that can make or break a day, a visit, or an outing - it’s your reactions. It’s nice to sit down at the end of the day, pour yourself an adult beverage, and know you handled things in a way you can feel good about. Guilt and remorse isn’t a good look on anyone.

My friend, Jonathan Kirkendall MA LPC, has a series of videos  he calls “30 Second Therapy”. One of the videos is about preparing for a big life change and in it he explains how important it is to have internal and external support in place. External support meaning you surround yourself with people who have experienced something similar, like your friends, or a support group, or perhaps the Departure From Logic Group (not necessarily a shameless plug, we’re just all in the same boat). Internal support, as Jonathan explains, is a time to practice a mindset of curiosity, or self-compassion. When you hit a wall, rather than quitting and  feeling as though you’ve failed, think about how to get around it or how to work with this particular challenge. Take some time to visit his page, it’s so very worth a look around. Oh, and be sure to check out his story. Our history and what we do with our experiences is what makes us who we are, and he has done an amazing job.

I found an article at the Family Caregiver Alliance  site that addresses the special kind of stress that caregivers are under. Did you know that caregivers are more likely to have a chronic illness - namely high blood pressure and cholesterol -  and an estimated forty-six to fifty-nine percent of us are clinically depressed? No surprise there but, to get out of that cycle, you’ve got to get your own shovel and dig yourself out. Not an easy task when you’re exhausted but the only one who can fix it is you in whatever capacity that may be.

I mentioned Maria earlier in this post.  At the beginning of her CBT sessions I could hear the sadness and exhaustion in her voice - it brought tears to my eyes several times. With some coaching, Maria learned she is enough, she is worth some time to herself, and getting out and being with a friend has some pretty magical powers. Her situation, my situation, is not going to get better before it ends and the emotional pain will be there; however, it doesn’t have to take a front row seat all the time. The people we love deserve the best us we can deliver - there is nothing wrong with showing ourselves some of the kindness, consideration, and tolerance we show others. It’s not easy, I have to consciously make the effort, but I know it’s worth it.

“Take the great example of the 4 minute mile. One guy breaks it, then all of a sudden everyone breaks it. And they break it in such a short period of time that it can’t be because they were training harder. It’s purely that it was a psychological barrier, and someone had to show them that they could do it.”  - Malcolm Gladwell