Those two words define the last four weeks for me – and although it was a gradual process, now that I am on the other side, I am very aware of the consequences of allowing myself to get to the point of no return.
Caregivers are heroes – many people do not realize that when a family member or friend becomes a full time caregiver, they are essentially giving up a portion of their life, of who they are, to care for another. Many times, this was not a choice – this new role – but a role handed to them by the circumstances of a life event. Aging parents, injuries, accidents, and major medical events can all lead to a significant life change not just for the person that is dealing with the life change, but for those around them as well.
Caregivers often become completely wrapped up in the world of giving care. What may seem like small daily tasks can quickly overtake all other daily activities, even things like watching TV or getting a haircut move to the back burner.
When a caregiver is wrapped up in another person’s life needs, their own world loses focus, becomes faint, less important. It is easy to lean in and worry about another; those that are caregivers give without thought to the losses of their own. But by doing that, it is easy to lose perspective of one’s own personal needs.
Those needs, things like regular meals, naps, stress relief and self care, become a thing of the past. The things that once were part of regular daily needs become special, only needed now and then, and the one giving care begins to break down. And as I can truly attest, when the caregiver is no longer able to be the support system, there is no system.
My own personal burn out happened just this past week. I have been sick for a few weeks, but I am part of the belief that I can do it all, and that things will be fine. I have always gotten over my illness in the past; there is no reason for anything to be different this time.
But this time was different. This time, after being a caregiver for 15 months, I am depleted. I am tired. I am not giving myself breaks, or good nutrition, or positive self care moments.
This time, I am tired. I am sad. I am emotionally drained. I am not nutritionally well supported. And I am not giving myself time to do things for myself.
So this time, it’s different.
This time, I ended up at the doctor, in bed for four days, unable to be the caregiver to my family, the support that my husband needs, the mother for my children.
I failed them. I failed myself.
And I know better.
Part of my education to others living with a family member that needs help, especially when dealing with brain injuries, is that we have to give time to ourselves. When we do not do that, life begins to take pieces away from us. When enough pieces are pulled away, we can no longer support others, let alone ourselves.
I know this lesson. I teach this lesson. And yet, when it came down to it, I did not listen to my own lesson.
It is an easy place to get to; the denial, the “I can do it all” attitude. But none of us are invincible. We all need to be supportive of one another. And the first person we need to support is ourselves. I know that this goes against our nature – thinking of one’s self first is not the nature of a caregiver – but when we don’t support our own self first, we fail, and the entire system that we are supporting crumbles.
I am lucky that not much damaged occurred when I crumbled. There were enough people surrounding us that I was able to recover soon, and we were able to get through that time. But not everyone is that fortunate; not everyone has people available for immediate takeover of care giving if something happens to the one leading the pack. That is a plan that should be in place for all families, not just those living within the world of care giving.
It will continue to be a skill I need to develop – the skill of taking care of myself first. It is not in my nature. I bet that it is not in your nature either.
But we are important to the ones that we love. They need us here. We need to be at our best. And only we can give to us what we need.