I’m writing this with a very sore finger. I smashed it during my last caregiver meltdown. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say I should never be left alone with a set of instructions and a screwdriver.
Assembling things is better left to professionals. It’s for my own safety, especially when I’m in the middle of emotional trauma and don’t even know it.
If you find yourself doing any of these five things, you could be headed for trouble. Hide the tools and warn your family: it’s about to get ugly.
1. You’ve gone silent.
You know those odd feelings called emotions? They’re meant to be expressed, as in out loud. But if you’re like me, when the going gets tough, the tough shut up. Not a good plan.
Neither is screaming in the car, pounding the steering wheel, and gesturing at the guy in front of you who takes longer than three seconds to go when the light changes from red to green. So lest you think any old kind of expression will do, let’s be specific: talk to your spouse, a friend, counselor, minister or family member. Let them know what’s going on in that scary neighborhood otherwise known as your mind.
I wasn’t raised to express my emotions freely. But if I’m to stay reasonably sane, I have to learn. Sometimes, it takes forever to even identify what the heck is really bothering me.
Take the day I attempted to put together that wretched piece of exercise equipment. It just happened to be the day before I flew out to see my mom and stepdad. The day before I’d see Mom for the first time since her last fainting episode, usually a sign she’s had another mini-stroke.
I was terrified, because she sounded so much worse on the phone. I didn’t know how I’d find her, or how upset my stepdad would be about Mom’s latest decline.
But I didn’t register the emotion “terrified.” Instead, I got furious that I couldn’t figure out how part A fit with parts B and C. I was yelling at anyone and anything in my path. All those pent up emotions spewed out sideways.
Trying to jam the pieces together (because when in doubt, use brute force), I smashed the heck out of my finger. When I stopped to nurse my wound, it hit me: I’m so scared. I’m so sad. I’m so angry. This is about Mom.
I apologized to all within a three block radius, and left the equipment for more capable hands. I sat down and talked about what was really making me crazy. It was like releasing a pressure valve.
Because I shared all that emotion, it didn’t seem so enormous. It wasn’t my burden alone; someone else acknowledged my feelings and vowed to be there to support me. Funny how that works.
2. You’re focused on every negative aspect of every inch of life.
Admit it, you know what I mean. It’s way beyond singing that song “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, think I’ll eat some worms.” You hate everything. Everything hates you. Everything’s going to hell in a handbasket.
That spot on your fork? Hideous and irreparable. You should throw out all your silverware and just use plastic. That hairball your cat just threw up? You’re the worst pet owner on the planet; you should’ve been brushing him. You should find him a new home.
Nothing’s right. Nothing’s funny. The world’s coming to an end, and you’re halfway glad.
Stop it. Take a deep breath.
I know. It’s sometimes impossible to feel anything but negative when someone you love is suffering from this damned dementia disease. But you can’t stay there; you’ll go mad.
You’ve got to take control of your emotions. Find one thing that makes you happy and focus on it. If you start going negative, catch yourself and reverse the trend.
Spots on the silverware? Fantastic! Time to buy a new set (or at least new dishwasher detergent). Hairballs? Fabulous! Cats can cure what ails them!
When the least little thing starts working you into a lather, know it’s your stress talking. Sit down and make a quick list of 10 things you’re grateful for (or three if you’re really in a spin and can’t think). Focus on one positive aspect of your life until you feel an attitude shift.
Find something, ANYTHING, that makes you laugh. Don’t be afraid to just sit in front of the TV and watch old cartoons (Bugs Bunny or Foghorn Leghorn usually works for me.) Maybe turn on an old Three Stooges show, or Monty Python’s Flying Circus reruns. It doesn’t matter, just find a way to laugh.
3. You haven’t left the house for days.
Maybe you’re in the same clothes you’ve worn all week. Maybe those clothes just happen to be pajamas.
Your hair’s in permanent bed head mode, and you don’t care. You don’t have a clue what the weather’s like outside.
First, peel off those clothes and take a shower. Wash your hair. Put on clean clothes and (wait for it)…
GO OUTSIDE: feel the fresh air, stare at the grass and trees, watch the birds fly overhead.
Anne Frank said “Go outside…amidst the simple beauty of nature…and know that as long as places like this exist, there will be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be.” Yeah, that Anne Frank. Think about it.
Nature heals. We need to connect with something larger than ourselves when we’re torn up by fear, sorrow and exhaustion.
Go stare at the moon. Stop everything you’re doing and watch the sunset. In those seconds, you can turn off everything else and just be. You’ll be stunned at how much energy that can give you.
If you need someone to step in and take care of your loved one while you’re out, ask for help. Take time to yourself.
There is life during dementia caretaking. Embrace it.
4. You’re living on coffee and fig newtons.
Ok, that was a true confession on my part. Feel free to substitute whatever bad dietary choices you’ve made lately.
Meals containing mostly sugar and caffeine have a way of making you jumpy. And irritable. Maybe even downright mean.
When I’m stressed, I tend to stop taking care of myself. I’m sure some psychiatrist out there can explain the phenomenon of self-destruction at the most inopportune times, but all I know is that it’s one of my worst habits.
I tell myself I deserve those 15 fig newtons: I’m stressed out and need to feel better. But it doesn’t make me feel better; it only compounds my physical stress. My blood sugar spikes, then crashes, and I’m left feeling exhausted.
Exhausted isn’t a feeling I can afford. It contributes even more to whatever depression or anxiety I’m feeling about my mom, and that doesn’t help at all.
I’m trying to grow up when it comes to food choices. I’m working on changing very old habits and coping mechanisms that no longer serve me. I’m trying to take better care of myself, so I can take better care of Mom and my family.
I’ll never turn into a 100% food purist, that would stress me out as well. I just want to do better.
I recognize now how self-defeating some of my food choices are, so I’m changing them. Less sugar, less caffeine, less empty calories. More protein, more vitamins, more vegetables. One meal at a time.
5. You’ve turned into a sedentary creature.
Dust off those walking shoes. Toss the clothes off the treadmill and turn it on. If you can’t leave your loved one, and they’re ambulatory, take them outside and go for a walk. Or better yet, find someone to watch them for a while and go out by yourself.
Take some alone time and take care of you. Join a gym, take an exercise class and have fun. Plan times to exercise with a friend.
Walk. Run. Stroll. Take the stairs. Swim. Ride a bike. Do anything that moves your body; I promise you’ll feel better.
Exercise changes your brain chemistry. It reduces stress, and helps you cope with all that comes with caretaking. Need more proof? How about these articles from Scientific American or Mind Body Green?
Exercise makes you happy. It gives you energy. We need both in vast quantities to do what we do on a daily basis.
So, fess up: are you doing any of these five things? I was in the middle of all of them prior to my meltdown. Smashing my finger was a wake up call. While administering first aid, I resolved to do better.
That’s all we can do.
I’ll never be a spiritual guru or fitness fanatic, but I can promise you I’m making daily efforts to take better care of me. I can’t survive the caregiver stress, guilt and exhaustion any other way.
Like every other major life change I’ve implemented, I can only manage it one day at a time.
We can do this together, OBC caregivers!
(Tell us in the comments how you cope with stress, what changes you’ve made that help, and what you’re resolved to do better. We need your help.)
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