Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Flat Land

Excerpted from the Spiritual Journey of Family Caregiving, available directly from me for $14.95.

A few months ago I had lunch with Mark O'Neil, an interfaith minister writing a book on spiritual lessons he learned on a cross-country bicycle trip with other people. He told me that when the going was rough, cycling up mountains, all the riders could think about was flat land when everything would be easy. That's all they could think about mile after mile and then finally they got there. Kansas, Utah, Nebraska! Blissful relief!

At first.

But then the reality of flat land would hit: mile after mile of unrelenting boredom. Cornfields and unchanging vistas for as far as the eye could see. It eventually dawned on them that as hard as the mountainous roads were, they were far preferable, far more interesting, and a lot more fun.

I had a similar experience recently. I finally got away for a long weekend in the country. Life had been so stressful that I had made no plans and brought no projects, not even a book to read. I was looking forward to a long weekend with nothing to do, socializing with friends and enjoying the scenery. It was great for the first day and a half. But there were no hiking trails nearby and I didn't have access to our car for much of the time. Suddenly the reality of being stuck in the country with nothing to do sunk in -- I felt trapped! Hours of unrelenting boredom! I wanted to do something, go somewhere -- anything would do! What seemed like heaven on earth quickly turned into hell. (Clearly, I wasn't into the idea of this becoming a meditation retreat!)

On the way home our car broke down in San Francisco just after we got off the Golden Gate Bridge. I normally think of that kind of an experience as a disaster -- stuck in the city on a heavily traveled street with cars whizzing by narrowly missing our vehicle, waiting for hours for a tow truck to take us safely home. But instead of feeling awful I was struck by how uplifted and excited I was. Finally, I was having an adventure! It had challenges, perils, and involved interesting experiences I never had had before. We met wonderful people who helped us call for help and got us off the Presidio and onto a quieter, safer street nearby. We played a game while waiting for help: trying to guess at what point cars would notice our flashers and pull into the next lane and trying to see if we could influence drivers to pull over more quickly through prayer and psychic intervention (it actually worked!). We noticed and commented on the weird variety of reactions people had to seeing us stopped by the side of the road -- everything from kind suggestions for help to yelling at us for tying up traffic! We got to have the fire department inspect our car to see if it was a fire hazard and then watched the process of having our vehicle lifted onto a flatbed truck and hauled to Santa Cruz. In short, even though parts of it were very stressful, this "bad" experience was the most interesting and engaging thing that happened all weekend.

So what does this have to do with caregiving? Well, I've noticed in the caregiving support groups I lead that when week after week people report that nothing has changed, nothing is happening, the energy level of the group appears to drop. It's like everything is stuck in a rut and, instead of enjoying the calm, people seem demoralized. But when something does happen, when there's a crisis or a change that needs to be accommodated, the group rises to the occasion with vim and vigor. People become energized, interested, they get ready for action or do what they can to pump up the person who needs to take action. It's quite inspiring as a support group leader to watch everyone come together to help one person figure out how to do what needs to be done.

Right now, we're not on flat land. Our country is on red alert, watching, waiting to see what's going to happen next. [This was written not long after 9/11.] I see the stress on everyone's face and recognize it in myself; yet, I'm also energized. I'm awake. I'm interested and engaged in what's happening in the world in a way that felt more difficult a few weeks ago. And I'm not alone. Suddenly we all have an urgency to do what needs to be done and an acknowledgment that this isn't something we can do alone.

And neither is family caregiving.

The message for today is together we can do whatever needs to be done. People in a common struggle help each other out. That's what happened in New York. That's what happened here in Santa Cruz after the '89 earthquake. In a crisis you can't just wait for the Marines -- they're busy! You depend on whoever is available and they depend on you. Are you getting overwhelmed by caregiving but close-by family and friends are hard to find? Notice who is in the struggle with you: your fellow caregivers! Join an online support group. Join an in-person support group. Then call these people up and exchange friendship and support. Hire an in-home support person together for an afternoon and go to the movies. Invite each other over for dinner with your patients. Then make a pact to call each other for support when you need extra help. This is different from imposing -- it's a mutual agreement to help each other through whatever needs to happen. Not only that, you get to have more fun. Three women I know who met each other through an Alzheimer's support group, support each other to get respite and take weekend trips together. You should see their happy relaxed faces in the photos they took of their last trip to Tahoe! Their partners are steadily getting worse. None of these women are on flat land -- they're climbing mountains -- but they're starting to have fun along the way and they know they'll have support through thick and thin.

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