Gang, you know I write to pass on information that gives my fellow family caregivers more resources and tools in an effort to achieve a greater quality of life on a daily basis.
I am blessed to speak and exchange thoughts with family caregivers across the country. Over the years, I have learned a lot…a lot about what to do and even more about what to do a little differently to make life more joyful, regardless of the day-to-day challenges we face as family caregivers.
There is one area of our life experience that we all face from time to time, and that is feeling genuine personal heartache. I can’t tell you when it will happen but I can be pretty confident in saying it will happen… if you are lucky!
Lucky to have heartache? Come on Victor, please stop the positive attitude baloney! But I’ve never given you simple just think positive talk. What I mean is something much more profound.
The heartache I am talking about is the one that sits very deep inside when you believe and feel what a loved one or dear friend is experiencing through their personal challenges. Whether it is fear, confusion, or deep sadness, it sits inside you sometimes feeling like pure heaviness. And, because of the care you have for the other person your heart aches for them and perhaps even for yourself, because of what it means to your life. By the way, that is absolutely ok. It is not a selfish thought. It is real and part of being human!
I am talking with you not just as a person who for 18 years has studied the ins and outs of family caregiving, but as a fellow family caregiver. You see, I am dealing with my own heartache right now as I cope with an illness in my family. It is an ache that I go to sleep and wake up with. Honestly, it is an ache I have had on and off for quite a while. An ache that has morphed into many emotions.
At its root is a relationship between two people that only they understand. On some days it clouds my entire day, on other days I put it in the back of my mind and go on, but I have to admit, the feeling is still there as much as I try to push it down. And, this is what I want to talk with you about. Given the high probability that one way or another we will all experience this in our lives, the question is how can we use this experience to personally grow by learning more about ourselves and experience a better quality of life for it.
I have found many of our most unsettling times happen when we are fighting emotions within ourselves, either suppressing our feelings, not knowing what to do with them, or sometimes even feeling guilty about them. There are suggestions I strongly believe will help you. None of them are magic, and your heartache won’t just disappear with the snap of a finger. However, they will help you reframe your thoughts to better understand your feelings, and this is the first step to help you take better control of them.
First, let’s agree on one thing. Most of the time we have virtually no control over the occurrences that cause us heartache. However, we do have a helluva lot of control about how we handle it.
I recently had a long conversation with Dr. Linda Weinberger, Professor Emerita of Clinical Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences, Keck School of Medicine of USC (Now, that is a title!), about this topic.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Weinberger about a range of issues. She is wonderfully knowledgeable, insightful, and very practical. From our discussion, I took away three key thoughts I strongly believe will help you build resiliency when working through your heartache experience:
Isolation exacerbates these difficult, deep feelings. It is so easy to internalize them, keeping them to yourself, and why not? They are so personal and at times very jumbled, cascading from empathy to conflicting feelings that detach you from the life you enjoy. The latter feeling can easily make you feel selfish, preventing you from sharing them with someone. My God, what will others think of me? This can force you into a bunker mentality.
To help avoid this from happening, you need to own your feelings—all of them! You’re frightened. Fine. You’re worried sick. Terrific. You’re angry. Better yet! It’s all ok. Work on understanding where these feelings are coming from and be honest. It is not only ok, it is critical to helping yourself.
And, please don’t be judgmental because there is little chance good friends will be. They are interested in helping you through your difficult time, so embrace this resource. Reach out and build your personal support community. I promise it will help you more than you can imagine!
Avoid Losing Yourself
It is wonderful to care for a loved one but who is caring for you? Is self-care even on your radar?
It needs to be. Ultimately, neglecting self-care will erode your resiliency, and resiliency is key to weathering the day-to-day challenges we face as caregivers. Our research indicates 35% family caregivers have self-described depression, which can lead to increased personal stress levels.
Regardless of how time consuming your caregiving responsibilities are you absolutely need to allocate time each day to care for yourself! And, please don’t say I don’t have the time because that is self-fulfilling nonsense. Sorry to be so blunt but I feel strongly about this and deeply care about your health.
I am not going to prescribe a one-size-fits-all set of “me” activities for you. Every family caregiving role is unique. However, I am going to recommend you start exploring small daily activities that can brighten your day a bit. These can be as short as a 5-10-minute meditation on the free app Headspace (www.headspace.com), walking around the block a couple of times being mindful of your surrounding versus thinking about your caregiving responsibilities, working on a crossword puzzle, or simply reading the newspaper or diving into a chapter of a book you enjoy. Begin with these types of activities and disrupt your current pattern. Over time you will find it easier to take more extended respite periods during the week.
Embrace that this is not abandoning your loved one. In fact, talk with them and explain what your needs are. Believe me, in the great majority of cases your love one already feels this need for you and supports it. And you will be a better family caregiver for it!
I don’t know about you, but at times it difficult to focus on the current moment and not project ahead. I catch myself using my current conditions as the foundation for how life will be going forward. Sound familiar?
This mindset is not unusual, yet it can easily set you up for deeper heartache and emotional despair. Do we really know if our circumstances are only going to get worse, because we are dealing with difficult conditions today? Of course not! We only know what is happening now and the rest is a story we are writing. You have complete control to author a story that is more realistic and personally empowering.
The one thought to always keep in mind is this feeling will eventually pass. No, you will not forget the situation and it may not disappear completely, but the ache will ease and the skies will clear. I promise you.
I began this blog asking you to embrace heartache. Candidly, I wish no one had to deal with this, but we do. Use heartache to better understand yourself, use it to help interrupt your disempowering thoughts and create more productive ones, and use it to initiate and practice new habits to help give yourself the great gift of emotional and physical self-care. Over the years, this has helped me during my down times. And while I can’t promise you will immediately see the light at the end of the tunnel, I say the light you see will not be a train coming towards you!
Help yourself. Help others.