How I Learned to Be a Caregiver

by Sarah Eshleman

“From caring comes courage.”— Lao Tzu

sarah.jpgIn the stifling Florida heat, I drove toward my dread that summer day in 2013. Only 24 hours before, Laura confessed her mental collapse to her family in Maryland. When asked what would help, she said, “Being back in my apartment with Sarah.”

She rescheduled her flight to Wilmington, NC, to land in Fort Lauderdale, an hour away and a week earlier than she’d planned. And now I braced myself, feeling less as if I were greeting a dear pal and more as if I were collecting a mangled friend from war.

I had always known Laura was careful, a worrier, the first to back out of an adventure. But because it was early in our friendship, this was the first I had recognized her peculiarities as a valid condition, the first time her monster had inconvenienced me in all its fury.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Not long after we became friends a year earlier, Laura read a magnet on my refrigerator: Do one thing every day that scares you.“Boy, no wonder you are the way you are,” she said.

The way I was, back then, was eager to take risks, go on adventures alone, acting in spite of uncertainty. I lived by the mantra, If you’re scared to do something, do it.

Given my derring-do motto, I judged Laura for not sticking out her hard situation. It seemed ridiculous for her to panic with her family, the people she was most familiar with, and I didn’t want to coddle her fear.

At the airport, she looked relieved to see me. But as I drove us home in silence, fighting fear of my own, I wanted to command her, Pull yourself together.

I wanted to command her, Pull yourself together.

How would life continue as normal after this? And what exactly did she want from me? Sure, it was flattering to be the one person who could calm her. But I resented that duty she’d assigned to me.

When we arrived home, she left her suitcase inside the front door, walked to her bedroom, and closed the door. In the living room, I paced, nauseated, my hands shaking. Throughout my life I’ve never been able to abide suffering. Whether hurt animals or wounded humans, my first response is not to heal pain but to end it, even if that means simply abandoning it. Being this near to someone in anguish made me want to bolt—in fact, I’m not even sure I set down my keys.

A few minutes later, my phone buzzed with a text from her. “You’re my best friend, Sarah. I need you. I’m afraid, and you give me courage.”

I doubted my own courage to face the fear in that room, let alone relieve it. Opening the door meant acknowledging, welcoming this terrifying new reality.

Opening the door meant acknowledging, welcoming this terrifying new reality.

But I had a mantra to live by. This was the one thing I was afraid of, maybe more than anything else in my life—so I walked to her door and placed my hand on the knob.

Stepping inside, I saw her curls poking up over the far side of the bed. She was slumped on the floor, knees drawn to her chest, sobbing.

My voice sounded like someone else’s, an actress playing a brave part, as I forced out, “Hey, we don’t have closed doors here.”

She turned toward me. “How am I going to get through this?” Then she curled up like paper set afire, chin tucked in to her chest, as she cried. Her shoulders rolled forward and arms crossed as she centered, focusing on what she could control—her fear of not being in control.

But I didn’t recoil. I just held her closer. My next words, melodramatic as they sounded, were the only hope I could muster: “One day at a time.” I didn’t realize that day would often be too large a measurement for survival. Hour by hour sometimes seemed too much.

My battle with compassion and patience waged on.

Like Laura’s fight with anxiety, my battle with compassion and patience waged on. When I came home from work in the afternoons to see yoga DVDs on the entertainment center or watch her inhaling calming lavender oil, I rolled my eyes, resenting her weakness. Did I even want to live with her, I wondered at one point, afraid her fear might defile my pluck, my spirit of independence.

Over time, Laura not only accepted her condition and called it by its name, but she also named me, like a constellation in her sky of trouble.

Caregiver. It was a name I knew all too well.

Caregiving runs in my family. My grandmother has cared for my mentally challenged uncle his whole life and attended her father in his elderly years. My parents have cared for my handicapped sister for 28 years.

Pinned to me, the title seemed unearned, exaggerated.

But pinned to me, the title seemed unearned, exaggerated. The caregivers I know change diapers, push liquids through a feeding tube, coach dementia patients through sundowning episodes.

I’ve learned since then that caregiving, like anxiety itself, looks different on everyone. And the apparent extent of care one gives does not lessen the fact that they are giving care to someone whose needs reshape the caregiver’s life.

I’ve accepted the role, learning Laura’s signs. Like a service dog detecting the nuances of blood sugar levels and neuron firings, I watch for her fingers scratching against the thin skin at her neck, as if trying to release pressure, to dig out tension. I listen to hear her sniffing, trying to gather enough breath to fill her tightening lungs. When she’s talking faster than normal or laughing hollowly, I ask if she’s having an attack.  When she says, “Can I tell you my worries?” I drop what I’m doing and sit while she confesses for however long it takes to exorcise her monster.

I’ve learned to distract her, assure her, push her past panic, but many times I simply accompany her in her anxiety.

Sometimes I’m faced with the darker aspects of caregiving.

And sometimes when I have to sit with her in silence, I’m faced with the darker aspects of caregiving. Guilt that I’m not the one struggling with anxiety. Frustration because I want to fix her rather than comfort her. Loneliness because many people don’t consider mental illness a legitimate condition. Repression because talking to someone about my feelings seems like a betrayal.

On the hardest days, realizing I cannot cure Laura, I feel I could shatter from—what? Frustration? Fear? The groaning of a universe yearning for anguish to be passed?

I wish to find someone who could help her, to leave her behind so I’ll no longer see her torment.

Sometime ago, I read this quote by Henri Nouwen: “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing . . . not healing, not curing—that is a friend who cares.” It comforts me often on days that are hard to muster patience, to barely tolerate the “not knowing” and the stifling dependence.

But then I think of what Laura has given me—what I had once been afraid she would take—courage, the courage to care.

When Laura started her blog, the testimonies and confessions flooded in on Facebook, email, text. “Me too,” they said, a silent hoard of sufferers. And I thought, for every anxious person is someone (I hope) who knows, who might not fully understand, but who stands beside them in their struggle.

We might all be caregivers at some point, to aging parents, disabled children, an ailing spouse, a mentally ill friend.  When the time comes, I hope you’ll claim your title—caregiver—and embrace both its purpose and darkness. In the solitude of comforting someone else, take comfort and courage in knowing that you are not alone.

***

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Sarah Eshleman is an accomplished essayist and editor, published in Ruminate, Counterclock Journal, Grace and Such, and Answers in Genesis. Read more of her work at theviewfromgoosehill.wordpress.com.

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2 thoughts on “How I Learned to Be a Caregiver

  1. I loved this guest post, Laura and Sarah. I am the caregiver for my 86-year-old mother now that my father is gone and my three older brothers live far, far away.

    Growing up, we children were never told of my mother’s emotional challenge–a type of Bipolar Disorder. Consequently, we had no idea what was going on and why. Why was Mom so often sad? Why did she sometimes go away for a week at a time?

    When Dad died 13 years ago, all his tricks for soothing Mom were buried with him. It took years, but I finally learned to recognize when a “storm” was headed my mother’s way. I could tell by her voice when she called, its tremor and breathiness.

    In the beginning, what helped Mom most was for me to say firmly and cheerfully, “Let me call your doctor.” In time, though, I figured out her psychiatrist was not helping her. In fact, he was in my opinion, harming her. By letting her stop by his office ANY time. By changing a med by a mere milligram or two. Sometimes on a weekly basis. To me, it seemed an addiction–his presence and/or the minor med tweaks.

    Thankfully, my daughter was good friends with a young lady whose father was a psychiatrist elsewhere in our state. He recommended a different clinic for my mother, one specializing in an older patient poplation. For almost two years now, the residents and supervising physicians at this practice have been a huge blessing. To Mom and to me.

    These days I only take Mom to the geriatric psychiatry clinic every three months. And now, she has not experienced a “storm” in over a year.

    I used to be embarrassed by my mom, and impatient with her. But now, I’m proud of her. I’m also proud of me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is why it’s so important for those with mental illness and the caregivers to share their voices. Your dad’s tricks should never have gone to the grave. I’m so glad you stuck it out with your mom to help her. Even if she never says so, I’m sure she’s so grateful.

      Liked by 1 person

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