Sunday, July 26, 2009

Caregiving: Bootcamp for Extreme Self-care

You don't get to choose how you're going to die, or when.
You can only decide how you're going to live. Now!
-- Joan Baez

For me, caregiving was selfcare bootcamp. In 1996 I was 45 and about to get the lesson of my life. I had recently launched my new business as a life coach. My husband and I were settling into our new old home, a former one-room schoolhouse in small town New Hampshire. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, caregiving hit. I didn’t choose caregiving—caregiving chose me.

I had learned early in life to keep my negative, judgmental mother at a distance. When I finally acknowledged her decline, I could see that it was my turn to care for her. (My eldest sister had Parkinson’s disease, and my middle sister had handled our mother’s needs for seven years.) However, I had no way of knowing the changes I would undergo in the process.

Over the course of that decade my career diminished to part-time, my marriage and relations with my sisters shifted in dramatic and unexpected ways, and I got cancer. As life became increasingly complex, I began to notice changes in my temperament. I moved more quickly, laughed less, and was impatient with others. Fortunately I had my life coaching experience operating in my favor. I systematically began to apply to myself the life coaching techniques I had been teaching to others. These techniques sustained me throughout caregiving. They now form the basis of the Mindful Caregiving tools that foster well-being in my clients and readers.

Well-being requires balance—a balance between taking care of others and taking care of ourselves. Mastering balance calls for awareness. While most of us are keenly aware of others’ needs, we easily overlook our own. How can I spend time coddling myself?, we think. I knew I couldn’t optimally support others unless I took care of myself.
Reiki, massage, and laughter were top on my list of necessities, providing me with greater energy, self-connection, better sleep, less stress, and a lighter spirit. In my journal I wrote, "I even invented ways to laugh on demand. As I drove on errands, I would think of old croony love songs, and then sing them to myself in an Elmer Fudd voice, as though they were love songs to me: 'Fwy me to de moooon', or 'I wuv oooo, faw sentimental weasons.’ I laughed till I cwied and almost went off the woad.” Whatever works. I got serious about lightening up. I made time for inner peace.

I also learned to identify and articulate my needs. If you don’t know what you need, you can’t ask for it or go get it. Contrary to logic, I found that asking for help was empowering. All of my life, I had been remarkably oblivious to my own needs. I was, by nature and training, a giver. When I first realized I needed to ask for help, I felt like a failure. Aren't I supposed to be able to do this single-handed? Once I started going after what I needed, I was amazed at the energizing connections I found with others and with myself. My husband and I became true life partners. All of my relationships became more balanced.

Along the way, there were seemingly darker aspects of my experience that I thought of as teaching tools. Anger and illness were two that could not to be denied. Anger became a signpost to what I was ignoring.

As a culture, we are confused about anger, not knowing whether it’s a good thing to let out, or an inappropriate self-indulgence. How can I manage it well if I'm not sure how to think about it? What if your anger could be an act of self-preservation? Anger is normal and, within limits, it can be healthy and useful, signaling us when something is not as we think it should be. I’m not talking about pathological anger that is unleashed as a weapon to damage or control others. Rather, this is the domesticated variety that can be a highly valuable release valve and a helpful red flag.

Many illnesses are at least in part due to a weakened immune system and/or suppressed emotions. My cancer was yet one more teaching tool. I knew that if I didn’t learn from it, I might not have the time to live the life I wanted. It kicked my survival instincts into gear, mobilizing me to practice what I now think of as Extreme Selfcare. Extreme Selfcare goes beyond temporary feel-good experiences. It's a systematic full-scale housecleaning your life. I studied and fine-tuned my survival strategies, my commitments, and my relationships. Some were serving me, and some weren’t.

I analyzed my commitments, de-committing from any that were unnecessary or overly draining. I kept the ones that gave me energy. I also did a “fearless inventory” of my relationships. I questioned the necessity of being around people who were draining. I held close to me those that were uplifting.

The bottom line learning was that self-care is no frivolous indulgence, but an essential part of achieving good quality of life. Take it seriously and you’ll be healthier, inside and out.

So what keeps us from taking care of ourselves? Why do we choose short-term indulgence over long-term goals? Sometimes it comes down to a fear of the unknown and the discomfort that is generated by making life changes, even when those life changes ultimately benefit us. After all, we know we can survive under present circumstances—sort of—if only barely. We struggle to avoid change at all cost, even if the cost of that avoidance is our own happiness. Instead of learning how to thrive, we spend our energy trying to nip and tuck life into submission.
Others of us rebel against self-care, thinking of it as some form of restriction or deprivation, instead of a step toward a better, happier life. Living in wellness requires keeping our sights on the broader deeper value of life so that, when we're faced with a temporary self-damaging pleasure, we see it as less significant than the life for which we're shooting.

Caregiving taught me to live my life fully. I found my voice by speaking out when necessary. I learned when to put myself first. I gained a new sense of myself and a life of self-expression. I am now happier than I have ever been because I systematically engaged in the learning and proving ground of caregiving.

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