There is an unspoken challenge in Sandwich Caregiving. Keeping with the sandwich theme, I will call it the “leftovers”.
A common presumption in caregiving is that the caregiver is caring for someone he or she loves. And with that premise we feel empathy and sympathy as that caregiver slowly watches her loved one change and diminish. But the reality may be something different.
We all have baggage. I heard a therapist once say ” if you think you have no baggage, you must not be breathing”. We all got it – some more than others – but we got it!
Consider the daughter, who never felt loved by her mother, She never felt good enough, could not achieve enough to earn her mother’s praise and yet must now provide primary care for her mother.
The son who was verbally abused by his father, could do nothing to please the man he most wanted to please, but now finds himself in charge of this father’s care.
The wife who stayed with her husband because ii was simply “what you did”, even though their marriage was filled with pain and frustration and lack of fulfillment, and now she is caring for him as he progresses in his dementia.
These caregivers are facing the current reality and providing care but are also stuck with the “left over” feelings and hurts that were never reconciled – never soothed – never settled.
I met a daughter once who was struggling mightily with her “left overs”. Her mother had never been affectionate, She was not one to hug or cuddle, yet as a little girl this woman had longed for that tender touch. Now, in her dementia, Mom was quite loving. She wanted to pat, hug and kiss everyone! This daughter was seething with anger. ” Why, when I needed this so very much years ago, was I rebuffed?? And now she will hug anyone and everyone!! It makes me so furious!”
Caregiving is challenging enough and then we add the leftovers. Those leftovers can feel like the heaviest of suitcases – over stuffed baggage that we must lug around day after day while doing things like encouraging dad to eat and wiping his chin, changing mom’s depends several times a day, dressing the husband each morning and shaving his whiskers. Yet that extra burden remains unspoken.
You can’t say that, right? You can’t say ” I hate my mother!” or ” I wish I had divorced this bastard years ago!” Or ” I was never good enough for Dad, but now I am good enough to change his diapers!” You would be frowned upon, thought of badly, seem like a bad person. So you add that “leftover” to the baggage you carry. and it’s heavier because it is unspoken.
For years, I wasn’t sure what to say to those caregivers. I understood, I felt their pain, I didn’t think less of them, but I didn’t know what to say, or how to help them deal with those feelings. I would often suggest they see a therapist. And that may still be a good idea! It just might be a good idea for everyone to see a good therapist! But in the meantime, now I do have some words of advice. Now I am going to try to offer some help. Here goes.
A wise person once said to me, ” Hurt people, hurt people.” Sit with that for a moment. Consider that the person for whom you are caring, had been hurt in his or her own life, didn’t know how to handle it or cope with it, so in turn, they hurt others…namely you. This doesn’t negate the pain they inflicted, no sirree, but it does, possibly, explain it. Mom had her own baggage, her own hurts and not knowing how to deal with them, she lashed out at you….because she didn’t know any better.
Ok, so now what? Well, you can’t change Mom now. You can’t take her to a therapist and work through this with her and get her to say ” I’m sorry”. But you do need to sit a bit with your pain. You need to look deep down in your heart – heck, go even lower – get in to your gut, and feel the full devastation of the pain you feel and felt as a child. Sit with that a moment or an hour or a day. Feel it. You can’t move on from it until you feel it head on. No one can tell you what you “should” or “should not” feel. Those feelings are there to let us know there is something that needs to be dealt with. So deal. Honor those feelings, step outside your self if you can, and see that child that is hurting so deeply.
Then move on to the next step as you are feeling that pain. Say out loud – yes that’s right, OUT LOUD, tell yourself, ” IT WAS NOT MY FAULT!” As a child you bore no responsibility for how your mother or father treated you. It was their responsibility to nurture you and be tender with you and show you unconditional love and they did not. BUT IT WAS NOT YOUR FAULT! And own that, Honey! NOT your fault. Now, in your mind, reach out and hug that child you were. Put your arms around that young woman who had such high hopes for her marriage. Yes, hug that young man who tried so hard to please. And sit with that.
The next step might be a little harder. You are gonna’ need to forgive your parent, spouse, whomever it is that inflicted that pain. You need to say ” I forgive you for hurting me. I forgive you for inflicting your hurt upon me. I forgive you for now having this illness and needing my help.” This does not mean you will suddenly forget all that you have been carrying. But it does mean you are on the way to lightening the load and to the realization that you can heal your own hurt.
That good ol’ boy and therapist Dr. Phil says that people don’t ever really break habits, they simply develop new ones. SO, this means you are going to have to repeat these two new mantra’s a whole lot. Everyday you may have to say to yourself, ” It was not my fault,” and ” Mom, I forgive you.” until that part of your soul is soothed. Until that particular suitcase you have been carrying feels lighter. You are going to feel a sense of healing when you can let go of the feelings of anger, quilt, frustration and inadequacy. You are now the adult, the one in charge and you can soothe that little child from long ago, or that young wife who was so trusting. Pat yourself on the back for the good work you are doing, give yourself the love you may have never received before.
Remember that phrase, “hurt people, hurt people”? If you don’t deal with your hurt, who might you be hurting? Now , stop! Don’t go in to feelings of guilt and pain that you might be hurting your own spouse or children because of your hurt!! NOPE- say no to that guilt – don’t add on that suitcase! I don’t want you to go THERE!! But do say hello to the “enlightenment” you might be experiencing – can experience -as you go through this exercise. Because unlike that person for whom you are caring, you now can see what is happening. You now can acknowledge your hurt and end the cycle. And THAT my friend, is a good thing.
Just like left-overs you find in the frig, some are yummy,- good memories of happy times, loving thoughts . But some are just plain yuck – dry, tough, maybe even have some green fuzz on them, so THROW THEM OUT!!! Put ’em where they belong – in the trash!
It’s a tough path we are on my friends, that of being caregivers. Just know that someone recognizes your pain. Someone else knows that extra baggage you have been carrying. Just remember as you are rushing, running, struggling, pedaling that bike you are on….someone else knows and cares. And remember one more thing, you are moving toward the light! Keep looking forward, keep moving forward, tomorrow is a new day.