During the journey of caring for our parents, it is very easy to become self-absorbed. Yup. Self-absorbed.
Isn’t that impossible? We are spending our days caring and tending to someone else’s life – making sure that they eat nourishing meals, making sure that they get to the doctor’s office, ensuring that they take their vitamins (supplements, too) and prescriptions at regular times, allowing outdoor time (walks, exercise), ensuring they are washed, showered, clean, combed, dressed, and yes, toileted. We even do our best to get them in bed early enough so that everyone will enjoy a restful sleep, without interruption (s).
So, if we are supporting our loved one on a full-time, daily basis, how the heck can we become self-absorbed?
Because sooner or later, the fatigue, fear, stress and imbalance in our life (and in our own health – body, mind, spirit) will overwhelm us, and because of the fatigue, we will no longer make careful and caring decisions – for ourselves! Instead, we begin to live in our thoughts (and they are full of fear).
Our friends will invite us to lunch, and we will decline because we are too tired. Our friends suggest coffee at our convenience but we decline that, too. Our own physician’s office will call and inform us that we have neglected our annual check-up – we are long overdue, but we will not make an appointment because we tell them that we are too busy caring after our loved one’s health. We put our own health concerns on hold which really reflects that we have designated our own health as secondary; worse, insignificant.
Our partner, companion, husband or wife will plan a surprise dinner for us – we are not surprised or happy. Instead, we are upset with them because we are too stressed to sit down and eat a meal…don’t they get it? We ignore the effort that they have made – we are just pissed at them (and we don’t even understand why).
When we look into the mirror, we see someone who is a stranger – a tired, old stranger! Who is she? When did we become her? But in spite of recognizing that we need a hair cut, or that our nails need to be manicured, we will not make follow-up appointments. We would rather complain. It’s become so much more comfortable.
Under stress, we are so self-absorbed (living in our thoughts) that we cannot see what is truly happening to us – we are not living in the present; we are not living in the Now; we are not accepting our reality. We are absorbed in our story and drama.
We push our friends away, we deny ourselves their support and friendship, and we are often oblivious to the real needs of our loved one who has dementia – they want to be validated and know that they matter still. When our hearts and minds are too absorbed with our drama of caregiving, we forget to sit down and hold their hands, to read them the daily newspaper – perhaps with inflections in our voices, making our loved one laugh or smile. We forget that being is more important than doing.
When I wrote my ebook on caring for parents with Alzheimer’s I dedicated a whole chapter to self-care and self-compassion. Just so you know: self-compassion is the opposite of self-absorption. (It’s about love versus fear.)
I know the fatigue and the stress of caring for parents: they were my sole companions for some years.
When I look back on those years, I am grateful and thankful for the many lessons and gifts that I received from those years, but I recognize how difficult that time was and I am now passionate about reminding others to take care – of themselves!
I believe that I allowed myself to become self-absorbed. I played the poor me martyr role well. Even when my friends told me what a wonderful job that I was doing (always with the postscript: I don’t know how you do it), I always felt like a fraud. And I know this because my caregiving did not come from a place of acceptance – it came from a place of need.
Caregiver fatigue has many symptoms: fatigue, sleep deprivation, anxiety, stress, and what I call the terrible trio: resentment, anger and guilt. Once we recognize and then accept these emotions, then (and only then) can we transform them. How do we transform them? We learn to accept that we have these emotions and we give them attention. We learn to ask ourselves some deep questions: Why am I angry? Why am I feeling such resentment? Why do I feel guilt? Then, you forgive yourself.
If we don’t pay attention to these questions, we will never move forward. We need to face the emotions and dig deep. Once we recognize that our anger or guilt is real (of course it’s real! you’re feeling them….therefore, they are real!) and we stop pretending that we are okay (We are clearly not!), the attention or spot-light on the emotion slowly begins to dissolve the emotion.
When we practice the art of paying attention to our emotions, we practice acceptance. In acceptance of my emotions, I learned some big truths about myself: that I could let go and allow others to help me; that I was safe (I am okay) even when I made mistakes and was imperfect; that I shared a common and universal bond with other people – I was sad and mourned the loss of my father and that I mourned watching my mother’s mind decline, too. As adults, we are thrown off kilter to recognize how truly sad it is to lose our parents to a dementia. We are not prepared for it.
But another Truth I learned was that no matter how sad or depressed, or angry or resentful…I am enough, just as I am…and that insight, itself, brings great love for oneself. And love for oneself leads to love for others. Once we open ourselves up to love – deep compassion, kindness, gratitude and joy enter!
When we learn to accept our reality and our emotions, we can make small, but significant changes. We can ask for support; we can have more meaningful conversations with our family members; we can make better, more informed decisions (instead of knee-jerk reactions). Perhaps we can forgive ourselves that we cannot continue this journey of caregiving alone – perhaps, we need to search for alternative options. These thoughtful decisions can be life-changing for your loved one who has a dementia, but these decisions are also about our lives and our happiness, too. When we are too stressed or self-absorbed in our misery, we are incapable of making sound decisions because we come from a tight, constricted space, not an open and loving space.
In true acceptance, we accept that our loved one needs more help than we can give them. Or, we accept that it is a loving act to ask for daily help and support from an outside agency. In this state of acceptance of our reality, we learn to come to terms that our loved one is ill and we give ourselves permission to grieve – even when he is still here. We grieve for their loss and our own loss.
In true acceptance, we learn to set aside both the past, and the thoughts about the future. We try to live in the present and enjoy our time with our loved one – today. And it is in these moments (whether brief or not), we feel joy well up. We feel love surround us. We feel forgiveness, too. We feel the joy that can only come up from our spirit, validating that this is enough…just as it is. And we accept that. And we feel true compassion (because compassion is love for another’s well-being) and we feel a connection to all.
In acceptance, I learned that my life was still filled with love, faith, hope, resilience and joy. Joy.