I will likely never forget the moment I kissed my husband goodbye before his operation. I smiled and made sure not to cry.
Making my way to the waiting room afterward and surrounded by friends, I suddenly became very confused. Where was I? What was going on? Where was my husband? I could hear them speaking to me, begging me to look them in the eye, but I was unable to. I was in another place. I finally locked eyes with my best friend, and I lost it. Tears I could not stop, primal sounds I didn’t even know how I was making — my body was releasing all the fear, worry, anxiety, and stress I had endured leading up to my husband’s brain surgery. And it was doing so in grand fashion.
In the time between learning of the massive tumor in my husband John’s brain and the surgery to remove it, I had taken care of many things to prepare for what we were about to endure. But what I hadn’t taken very good care of were my own emotions, and my body was sending me a loud message because of it.
Self-care when you are a caretaker for others is not optional. It is necessary if you are to have a shot in hell of maintaining the stamina, patience, and positivity required to care for another human being who is seriously ill — be it your parent, spouse, child, or friend.
And here’s how you do it.
Step 1: Identify Your Needs
For me, that consists of three things: spin class, manicures, and seeing my friends. If I set aside time each week for at least one of these, I feel renewed. They may sound frivolous, but I swear to you if my nails look good, I know I can conquer anything. So I no longer feel guilty about spending money on them. They are an investment in my sanity. Yours may be alone time at Target, or reading a book or taking a walk. Whatever they are, when you are in the caregiver role, these things move from the “I want” category to the “I need” category. You need to do them, so don’t apologize for it.
Step 2: Ask for Help When Needed, And Accept Help When Offered
In other words, don’t be a martyr. You cannot do this alone. Let me rephrase that: You can do this alone, but you will be a shell of your former self once it’s over. Caring for a sick loved one is a marathon, and even marathon runners require the support of people cheering them on from the sidelines or handing them water as they cruise by. Part of self-care is realizing that you need others in order to do it.
Step 3: Just (Don’t) Do It
I am a master multitasker. The more I have on my plate, the more productive I am. As such, I hate saying no. If help is needed at my kid’s school, I feel the need to sign up. If a friend asks me to give feedback on a project, I want to drop everything and take a look. I have learned this past year though that you cannot give what you do not have. And when you are a caregiver your plate is constantly full, overflowing in fact. So I made the decision not to get involved at my son’s kindergarten this year the way I normally would. I will write checks when I am able and order room supplies when needed, but I cannot give more than that until treatments are done, and I’ve had time to adjust back to “normal life.”
Do I feel guilty about this, yes? Do I want to take charge of the school’s auction and really make my mark as a mom who can “do it all”? Yes. But I’m not sacrificing my ability to care for myself simply to prove a point. I will have many years to get involved, but this isn’t one of them. And that’s okay. It’s necessary to say no sometimes.
Step 4: Fall Apart
I have come to realize that self-care doesn’t always involve self-control. When I was in that waiting room, my body on the floor spasming, rocking, and shaking, I was fortunate to have a friend who is also a clinical psychologist guiding me through it. She later explained to me that our bodies really do know what we need. So often we tell people to “calm down” or “take deep breaths” in order to center themselves when they are upset, but in that moment the only way I could truly care for myself was to completely lose control. Because once I came out of it, I felt better — a weight had been lifted. By allowing myself to fall apart, I was able to then move forward during the most terrifying day of my life. Sometimes you must give yourself permission to cry, scream, pace the floor, or punch your pillow. It’s the release your body needs.
Many hours later, when I was told the surgery was successful and heard my husband speak, part of me knew that my journey as a caregiver had only just begun. It’s been a long and very winding road, but I know for sure that if I weren’t taking time for myself, there’s no way we’d still be on course.
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