Caregivers hear it all the time – “Don’t forget to practice self-care”.
Excellent advice. Horrible advice.
Excellent because it is absolutely positively necessary for a Caregiver’s health in every category – mental, physical, emotional, spiritual.
Horrible because there usually isn’t enough follow-up to that statement. What does it mean? Can one person even give another advice on how do to it?
Self-care is not the same thing for everyone. Some activities will soothe and calm one person but drive another completely up the wall. Some people need to be physical and have an outlet for pent-up energy, frustration and emotions they can’t even define while others need to simply be still.
I’ll bring up various aspects of this one topic in other posts as well, but today let’s talk about “The Escape”.
When Caregiving was at its craziest for me, I was primary Caregiver to my in-laws who both required 24/7 oversight, was homeschooling two middle-schoolers, had another kiddo away at college and was trying to stay somewhat on top of all the regular housekeeping responsibilities. I finally reached a point where I realized I had to get out of the house for at least a night. “Calgon, take me away” was my mental mantra and “I’m Going Slightly Mad” was my theme song. I had fairy tale visions of peacefully sleeping for an entire night, waking up refreshed and returning to my family completely invigorated.
During my first escape attempt, I spent most of the night worrying about what was happening at home, listening to the cars outside the hotel, people in the hallway and the machinery humming away through the walls. I went home not rested, not relaxed and not happy to be back.
A few months later, the next attempt involved two nights (and, if I remember right, a kiddo along for the ride). Having a companion wasn’t so bad, but the first night was a repeat of that first escape. I was too keyed up to get a good night of sleep. The second night, the one I was now hoping would be the answer to my Caregiver burnout, brought it’s own issues. By the middle of the night, I had a headache. A big headache. The can’t-sleep-but-can’t-be-awake, thinking-hurts-and-so-does-not-thinking kind of headache. I woke up with it, it lasted through the morning, the afternoon and accompanied me home. Strike two.
By the time I felt like I could justify another round of running away from home, I was fully aware that I had to do something a bit more drastic. I honestly didn’t want to see another human being for a significant length of time. I didn’t want to deal with anyone’s bowel program, hydration tracking, hunger, sleep (or lack thereof), emotions, requests, any of it. I knew two nights wasn’t enough. I also knew that if I didn’t get myself – my brain, my emotions, my level of stress – under control, I was going to snap in a very ugly way.
So…I did my research and found a little cabin to rent in Estes Park. It was the off-season, so the price was right. No indulgence guilt. It was far enough away that I felt like I was on my own, but close enough that I could get home if I really had to. No abandonment guilt. I spent time prepping my family for my escape – meals, med prep, kids’ schedules coordinated. No Mom and Caregiver guilt (okay, maybe just a little).
Night one: Just like the others. I was ridiculously keyed up. Every guilt I thought I had neatly eliminated came bursting into what was supposed to be my peaceful space. My kids Facetimed me (admittedly, I did enjoy that part). But my new environment, which visually oozed “relaxing” just wasn’t.
Night two: Wow, that headache is brutal. Add in some nausea and whatever the definition of “general malaise” is, because I had it all. Seriously. I felt like crap starting about halfway through the night and extending into most of the next day. By evening, after three rounds sitting in a hot bath * Just a little random aside here – shower gel/bubble bath is NOT a good choice in a jetted tub. Bubbles nearly reached the ceiling. Live and learn. *, lots of herbal tea (and chocolate) and forcing myself to chill out mentally, I finally started to relax.
Night three: Probably the best night of sleep I’d had in two years. I kid you not. Slept like a baby, woke up truly refreshed and blissfully enjoyed having hot tea on the deck of my little cabin while I thought about driving back home. I didn’t rush my morning but still ended up home by early afternoon. I was ready to be a Caregiver again.
After that, when I knew I was nearing my breaking point, I would start planning for another three-night escape. I could go months in between, but when the time came, it HAD to be three nights. For me, that was the key. I could even take a kiddo along, but every time played out the same. One night of being wound up, one night of feeling sick and the final night being completely refreshed. Does this mean three nights is the right choice for everyone?? Nope. Does it mean that sometimes you need to experiment a little and be stubbornly persistent at finding what works best for you? Yep.
Every time felt over-indulgent, I worried about spending the money, leaving my kids (taking one was okay, but two or all three was out of the question), leaving my husband to care for his folks, the whole bit. But, I came to understand (as did my family) that those tangible and intangible costs were nothing compared to what they would be if I broke. We had to make it work because Caregivers really can’t take good care of other people when they don’t pause now and then to take care of themselves. Exhausted, resentful and unappreciated Caregivers are easy to spot. But then, so are the calm, attentive and loving ones. That elusive concept of self-care is often the difference between the two.
There are so many ways to practice self-care. This was one of the ways that eventually worked for me. But, running away from home can’t happen every day, every week or even every month. So when it can happen, you’ve got to make it work for you. For the time in between, there are other things to try. There are things you can do every day, week and month that can help keep you sane, compassionate and calm enough to take the on the knowns and the unknowns of Caregiving.
But we’ll chat about those later…now it’s time for some warm tea and (hopefully) a descent night of sleep.