Take a look at your hand and pretend that it represents a problem you are having. Now put your hand (your problem) one inch or less away from your nose. What can you see? Not much besides your problem! In fact, if you're like most people you probably can't even see all the edges of the problem, never mind a solution. But if you put your hand down and take in the wider view, you can see the rest of the room and the view outside the window. Your life gets bigger and encompasses more possibilities, the problem seems less overwhelming and you can automatically breathe more deeply which reduces your stress and anxiety.
Caregivers of people with brain-impairing illnesses often find their lives reduced to nothing more than taking care of that other person. When I ask how they are or what's new nine times out of ten my clients respond by telling me how their patients are. I have to persist in getting my clients to open their focus wide enough to even include their own health.
I understand this. I'm the same way! The only thing in my life is the problem I'm having and if it can't be resolved right away I just try to focus harder. I try to control what's going to happen because the crisis makes me afraid. I think about the problem constantly, turning it over and over in my mind attempting to figure out what couldn't be figured out before. I reject proposed solutions out of hand if they don't match my imagined vision of how things "have" to go and then chastise myself for supposed "missed" opportunities. I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't because clearly if things aren't going the way I want them to after all this time there's something I must have done wrong and, therefore, I ABSOLUTELY MUST TRY HARDER! And don't you try to distract me away from this intense focus. I KNOW I'm right to be trying so hard because -- can't you see? -- I obviously haven't succeeded yet! The problem's still here!
Can anyone live a satisfying life like this? Sometimes you just have to take a break.
There are people with cancer who somehow continue to live satisfying lives. I always find their stories fascinating because if I were in their shoes I know I would frantically put all my attention on surviving. Yet I recently read a wonderful story about a woman with a recent cancer diagnosis who opened my eyes because she started out doing exactly what I would do. She researched all the latest conventional and alternative therapies, she changed her diet, started exercising, did visualizations and worked very hard to control her feelings because she read that she "couldn't afford a single negative thought." Her life became reduced to her illness and what she was doing to combat it.
Then one day she woke up. All her time was consumed with surviving but what was she surviving for?
It suddenly occurred to her that she had to put her illness into the context of a much wider life - that if she had a reason to live and spent more of her time doing exactly THAT she at least wouldn't have wasted the time she had left. So she took a break and went on a healing retreat where she could be cared for and take some time to rest, meditate, relax and dream. She asked herself the question: since she didn't know how much time she had left (and nobody does know how much time they have) how did she want to spend that time? What made her heart sing? What gave life meaning? How could she leave a legacy or make a difference in someone else's life? What did she want to remember on her death bed that she hadn't experienced yet?
She didn't give up her cancer-fighting protocol but she now saw these activities as a beginning in making her life happen. The steps she took to deal with the cancer slowly started to take up less of her time as she started to shift her attention to what gave her life meaning. Some of her anxiety and fear faded away -- she was too busy focussing on the beauty, wonder and intensely interesting activities of the present moment -- and her enjoyment of life increased. The tumor has not changed size -- at least not yet -- but it does seem a lot smaller in her psyche. It doesn't really matter how the story ends. We don't know yet whether she'll beat this scary monster or not. But she's bigger than that. Her existence is shaped by her illness but it encompasses more life, more dreams, more of who she is and that makes all the difference.
We can't always control what happens in life. Earthquakes happen, our lives get disrupted and we have to spend time picking up the pieces and making new choices instead of doing what we thought we most desired. The roof falls in. Do you walk away and start over somewhere else or do you hold your ground and rebuild? The parent who has abused you all your life needs caregiving assistance. Do you hire people to help her and feel guilty because you're not there or do you do the work "like a good daughter" while she continues to make your life hell? Your loving partner has a brain injury from which he will never recover. After the initial crisis has passed, do you ask for a divorce or stay by his side even though he will never be able to be a real partner for anyone ever again? These are not easy questions with straight forward answers. Neither are they situations where you just do what needs to be done, solve the problem as quickly as possible and get back to your old life. There are moral struggles, practical implications, sometimes heartbreaking consequences no matter what you do.
Sometimes the answer is to step back. Take a break, get a fresh perspective.
Ask yourself what gives life meaning, what makes it worthwhile and, if possible, try to find ways to incorporate your highest values into the life you have now. Given what has happened how do you wish to respond? What are your priorities in this life situation? How do these priorities fit with your deepest values, hopes and dreams? This has nothing to do with "shoulds" and moralistic expectations. It has nothing to do with what you hoped to have in your life at this time. It's about what matters in the present moment and what -- over time -- you want to work towards.
The previous blog was an excerpt from The Spiritual Journey of Family Caregiving. If you like what you read on this site, why not buy the book? You'll be glad you did!