A Caregiver’s Challenge

Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

Helping your child without losing yourself.

Last week my favorite jeans didn’t fit. They were too tight. And no, despite my best attempt at self-deception, the dryer didn’t shrink them. A step on the scale verified what I had tried to ignore over the weeks of wearing forgiving athleisure type clothing. I felt puffy, bloated and had gained 10 pounds over the past few months, comfort eating my way through my son Jack’s current medical issues. While I was watching him, I was losing myself in his medical minutiae.

Actually, ignoring my own needs is the real problem, not my weight. My weight gain was just the visual manifestation of reacting to Jack and forgetting myself. It was the product of every food and beverage choice I’d make to soothe, reward, numb and distract myself–a sugary boost to keep me going. A chocolate croissant here, large portions of pasta there, add in some mixed nuts, wine, cheese and let’s not forget stress. Voila! Those snug jeans tell my story.

It is so easy to use our children as an excuse to develop habits that don’t serve us. I have been guilty of this countless times. Comfort eating feels good for me in the moment, but then over time my physical and my mental health suffer. The good news is that after 16 years of caregiving, I’m much quicker to recognize the start of a personal downward spiral. I don’t have to sink so deep before I recognize I need to look at what I’m doing.

Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.

Mr. Rogers

I love that quote from Mr. Rogers. After all, we are human. Not perfect. We have easier and harder times caring for our children and our own health can become neglected during those rough spots. Caregiving isn’t easy. But self-awareness helps us acknowledge and identify our own needs. Only then can we get ourselves unstuck.

So how do I get myself unstuck? It’s simple. I start monitoring myself much like I would monitor Jack. How am I spending my time? I note my overall mood each day and how I impact my well-being by the choices I make and the activities I do. And I ask myself these 2 important questions:

  1. What actions in my day give me energy?
  2. What actions in my day drain my energy?

Some examples of energy boosts: walking, meditation, talking to friends, reading a book, being outside.

Some examples of energy drains: sugar-laden carb heavy foods, alcohol and caffeine, mindless television.

What energizes and drains you might be different. The point is to recognize what nourishes you physically and mentally and what doesn’t. There’s no blame involved. We face difficult situations periodically and we do the best we can. Let’s not distract ourselves by misplaced self-recrimination and instead keep our eyes open for ways to best help ourselves. We already do that for our children. Let’s prioritize this for ourselves.

Only by examining my habits can I incorporate energy boosts and minimize any energy drains. And for the days I might lean on my own energy drains to cope, at least I gain clarity for why I feel off.

Here’s how I’m analyzing my behavior in recent months. I walk for at least an hour every day—rain or shine. I have for years, because I recognize it is something vital to my mental health in addition to my physical health. So that’s good. My walks enhance my energy. However, I have also allowed some energy zappers to creep in like drinking more caffeine, drinking less water, eating more junk, eating more pasta and watching more Netflix. My daily meditation has become hit or miss–mostly miss.

I understand how I got here. And I know what I need to do to improve my body, mind and spirit. And I’m not changing for anyone else or because I’m too cheap to buy new jeans. No, it’s because I know how good I feel when I’m taking care of myself. So I will continue to control the stuff I can control and accept what I cannot.

The hits to my mental and physical health aren’t as severe as when Jack was younger because I’ve felt the downward tug before. I can recognize the signs. But now I don’t berate myself for the times I struggle with self-care. Life happens. Big deal. I’ve gotten back on track before and I will do it again.

For me, my jeans are a signal. My canary in a coal mine alerting me to take care of myself. They force me to step back and reevaluate how I’m spending my days and the choices I make. I don’t want to keep barreling through my days fueled by love, cortisol and chocolate covered pretzel bark. So I won’t. I’ll keep asking myself what am I doing that gives me energy and what am I doing that drains it. And I’ll adjust.

In time, my jeans will fit. And what if this happens again down the road? Well, caregiving stress is a beast. And I recognize I’m doing the best I can in sometimes daunting situations. I will start anew. After all, I have a road map I can follow since I’ve been here before. With my years of accumulated self knowledge it gets easier. And yes, I have my well-worn jeans to help me.

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