I love my wife dearly, and I take my duties as her primary caregiver very seriously, almost religiously. I also have a full-time job in the computer geek world, a part-time job in the music world, and a passion for writing that demands its own pound of my flesh. When I am in balance, I can handle those responsibilities with joy, and I use the word joy intentionally and in its fullest context. I don’t know why that is, but I promise you that’s what I feel. I look upon my caregiving role as a job no one else on earth could do as well as I can for my wife. The outside world often calls our life “hell”, but I embrace the sense of being selected, of being honored with a privilege few will ever know.
Then times are those times I want to run from the house screaming.
Quite a contrast, wouldn’t you say?
I wish I knew the exact stressors that trigger my flight response. It seems in a life filled with serious responsibilities and deadlines that one more stressor wouldn’t make that much of a difference. As I look back at those times I wanted to runaway, I realize that the stressor guilty of triggering the “get me the hell out of here” response was so minor in retrospect that I should have been able to shrug it off, but couldn’t. I also realize in looking back that there were clues something was about to boil over and I should have seen them, or more likely, simply ignored them.
I know it sounds so heroic to say that a caregiver can ignore physical and emotion signs of oncoming burnout, but keep in mind these indicators don’t always happen at convenient times. An unforgiving Monday at work doesn’t care if you’ve spent the previous weekend in intense caregiving because your loved one was in pain, or that you’ve had a hospice nurse to your home after midnight three of the last four nights. Energy is a rare commodity for a caregiver, second only to compassion, and unless your co-workers show you the latter, you’re going to be out of the former very quickly.
I promise you, after three days of continually being crushed by events you feel powerless to change, you’d be looking for the front door, too, and I would be the first to hold it open for you.
Much like the Boston Marathon has “Heartbreak Hill” at its conclusion, so does caregiving, except we can’t see the route we’re running, and it’s impossible to prepare for what you can’t see coming. And many times in my personal experience, I found that “Heartbreak Hill” was just a warm up for what’s to come. Yup, at times like that an insignificant stressor can lead to the full blown “fight or flight” response.
Caregiving at its heart is about partnerships. It’s at times like these that the one being cared for can make the caregiver aware things are piling on, and suggest a break is in order, or ask someone for help. When that’s not possible, a friend can attain “super-friend” status and jump in. Any break, large or small, helps a caregiver regain their strength, and more importantly, their composure.
How a caregiver recharges is as individual as each caregiver, but given time and space, every caregiver will re-enter that place within which allows them to do what only they can do. In my case, I need time alone, sometimes in silence, sometimes with classical music in the background, sometimes with the roar of my motorcycle’s pipes. It changes my mood from a fantasy world where I dream of blowing up every car on the road in front of me, to a reality saturated and motivated by joy.
(The same goes for watching senseless violence on TV, otherwise known as the National Football League. I don’t know why, but it seems to bring closure. Don’t judge me.)
Quite a contrast, wouldn’t you say?
If you are a friend of a caregiver, please feel free to intrude gently into their lives, as busy as they may seem, and ask if you can provide a break. You WILL be turned down often, but if you keep asking there will come a time when, unbeknownst to you, it is the perfect time. Caregivers often get so wrapped up in the day to day combat of caring for someone else that respite doesn’t cross their mind. In my case, I’m forgetful that breaks exist, and a whispered reminder often prevents my screaming need for silence later.
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