Overcoming Caregiver Catch-22
Self-sufficiency can be a sneaky thief. Unchecked, it can rob us of our peace, and overdraw our emotional and physical reserves, leading us into no win situations. There are ways to protect yourself from the double-bind it weaves during times of adversity.
Highly capable, responsible people who feel moved to take matters into their own hands are vulnerable to the slippery “self-sufficiency” bandit. They take control of situations that others wouldn’t dare touch with a ten-foot pole. Sometimes there’s no choice. Some things in life chose us, and we’re left to figure out how to stabilize a situation, mop up the mess and move forward. You might know someone who fits this description, or perhaps this person is you?
A dear friend reached out to me in a state of intense distress. She shared that she was “cracking up,” and didn’t know where to turn or go for help. She works full-time and is a parent of a child and adolescent with exceptional medical needs. She’s experienced some major losses in her life. Asking for help feels embarrassing and risky for her.
My friend is married to a person who, by profession, works late at night and on weekends, literally putting his life in jeopardy every day he goes to work. She lives in a pressure cooker, under extreme stress. She prides herself on self-sufficiency. She jokes her tombstone will someday read, “worried-to-death.” I hope not.
We all deserve to thrive, and we can with the right support. We have a choice. We can either accept a situation is beyond our control and explore options. Or, we can stay stuck in the cycle, closed off from possibilities, expending tons of energy without the ability to move forward.
When life takes an unexpected turn, self-sufficiency is a powerful survival skill. For a short period, it can be an excellent coping mechanism. Over the long run, it ensures isolation and sense of being alone with our burdens. It can also lead to anger, anxiety, depression, loss of enjoyment of life, increased irritability, a lack of productivity, poor work performance, and the list goes on.
Living in an environment of extreme stress can make it difficult to see the forest for the trees. Taking a step back, and letting go of a situation even for a short time feels counterintuitive when we’re bracing for a storm to pass. The truth is, certain types of stress can become chronic. Some things are not a passing storm in a teacup that will eventually “cool down.”
Like my friend, I struggle with the notion of letting go of any form of independence for fear it will render me powerless. I feel capable. I’m committed. I’m willing to do what it takes. With this mindset, I continue attempting to outrun unmanageable situations. Sometimes, even the most capable people hit a wall. Sometimes, effort, energy, endurance, and thinking aren’t enough to turn back the tide.
How can we recognize when our self-sufficiency superpowers have gone too far? Do a quick internal body scan. Do you have tension in your hands, jaw or muscles? Are you getting a good night’s sleep? Do you feel apathetic, stuck, or are you barely hanging on, going through the motions day to day? If your answer is “yes,” it’s time to explore options. It may also be time to see a professional.
Getting help does not mean a person is broken, defective or weak. It means they’re human and they care enough about themselves and those they love to do something. Some things in life we can brush off, others we can’t. No amount of emotional stuffing, eating or drinking will make it better.
There are millions of us in the world who take pride in adapting to any circumstance. We enjoy the feeling of being responsible. We’re naturally inclined to be sensitive to others in good times and difficult ones. Despite our best efforts, no amount of twisting, turning or wrangling can sway the outcome of a dysfunctional situation.
I am not Supergirl. Even though it may be obvious to the rest of the world, I had to learn this the hard way. Applying everything I have, depletes my own emotional and physical energy, and there’s a limited supply of each. Being overly self-sufficient leaves me feeling discouraged. My thinking becomes cloudy, and my body becomes susceptible to illness. These consequences only make a “bad” situation worse.
Some conditions are genuinely beyond our control, and we get swept up by the storm. When I was pregnant with my second child, my oldest son (nearly three at the time) was hit by a car. It was beyond my control. I also couldn’t stop my mother-in-law from slowly dying of metastatic breast cancer during that same time period. More recently, my younger son needed major stomach surgery. Post surgery, he became very sick with hospital-acquired pneumonia. I wanted to make everything ok, but I couldn’t. Recognizing these situations are beyond my control didn’t stop my heart from aching to do something. The reality was, all I could do was advocate, offer care and comfort, put one foot in front of the other and collect resources for support and healing.
Significant life traumas can alter our response to stress. My typical response is to “get organized” and make a plan. This brings an immediate sense of satisfaction that I’m taking action, “doing something” about it. It’s also an attempt to control and minimize uncertainty. In truth, at least part of my motivation for organizing or being active is to avoid uncomfortable feelings about what’s happening in the present — sometimes related to a past trauma. It’s a reasonable distraction for a limited time.
After my son’s car accident, I adopted the philosophy of “adapt and overcome.” It gives me a sense of capability and self-sufficiency. It’s a good coping strategy in the face of adversity, but it’s not a healthy way to go through daily life — because “doing something” doesn’t always equate to the outcome we’re seeking. For me, what my heart wanted most was harmony, safety, and stability.
Sometimes it’s best to slow down and feel our emotions so they can pass instead of becoming bottled up inside causing internal chaos.
Living through major traumas forced me to reassess my approach. To move forward, I learned that I’d have to value and trust myself enough to feel comfortable trusting others, and asking for what I needed. In some cases, what I needed was a lawyer. In others, a medical specialist, a mechanic, an electrician. Or someone to feed the dog while we were at the hospital. After the storm passed, I needed time to visit with a trusted friends, and someone I could trust to watch my kids. Many times, what I really needed most was a hug.
Ebbing and flowing with family dynamics and keeping pace with our daily lives can easily absorb every waking moment or potential time for self-care. Chronic stress brings along a picnic basket of anxiety. Many caretakers would rather not open the basket in front of others. It’s a matter of pride. While caretaking is necessary, it doesn’t mean we have to do it alone.
It’s healthy to desire good things for the people we love and ourselves. It’s normal to feel discomfort when we witness suffering in another person. It’s natural to want to help. If circumstances become unmanageable, it’s important to ask for help. A little self-preservation goes a long way.
Women are the majority of informal care providers to spouses, parents, parents-in-law, friends and neighbors according to When the Caregiver Needs Care, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health. As advocates, hands-on health providers, case manager, friends, companions, and decision-makers within our complex healthcare system — caregiving is essential to providing a backbone of support in the U.S. A recent UC Berkeley study of caregivers found that preserving the mental health of those who provide support to others potentially improves the lives of patients too.
Being thrust into the role of caregiver is something that can happen to anyone. How we respond when we’re in the thick of it can have a lasting positive or negative impact on the arc of our future. One way to ensure caregiving doesn’t pull us under is to put on our life vest, and loosen the white-knuckle grip we have on the rope of total self-sufficiency. Learning to act in our own best interest while caring for others will create one less human tragedy, and it may also improve the lives of those we love. Double-win.