Beyond Exhausted: The Stress Series III

Richard and I talked
over lunch last week.
His wife June was diagnosed
with multiple sclerosis
nineteen years ago.
She’s been bedfast since 1999.
They have been able to keep her at home
this whole time.
A full-time aide comes five days a week.
The rest of the time—
evenings, nights, weekends—
Richard is her hands-on caregiver.
Meals, massages, bodily care, nursing duties—
it’s all his to handle.
I asked him how the experience has gone.
“The first two years were very hard,” he said.
“I was exhausted and exasperated.
I raced from one thing to another—
from my work as a teacher
to my work as a caretaker,
back and forth, day after day.
I felt trapped between the two.
There were even days when I asked myself,
‘How can I get out of this?’
I’ve never felt such stress in all my life.”

We don’t need to document here
all the ways caregiving can cause stress.
We know it already, deep inside.
The question is this: what will we do about it?
We can, of course, become aware of our stress levels,
knowing that the various stressors
affect all of us differently.
We can be sure to own our stress levels,
whatever they happen to be,
clearly acknowledging them to ourselves,
and ideally also to someone we trust.
Then we can learn—
from others like us, from professionals,
from our reading, from deep inside,
from life itself—
what stands a good chance
of giving us some perspective,
some relief, some healing hope.
Finally, we can act on these learnings,
realizing we must take the lead ourselves.
We cannot expect others to solve this for us.
When opportunities for lessening the burden
do come from others,
we can accept these kind offers
with gratitude and with grace.

“What changed after the first two years?”
I asked Richard.
“I went to a therapist,” he replied.
“One session was all it took.
After she heard my story, she said,
‘You need a life that involves more
than just being your wife’s caregiver.’
She helped me release the guilt that had kept me
from ever doing anything for myself
because I felt so badly for June.
Ever since then I spend part of my days
taking care of June
and part of my days taking care of me.
I love June and I know she loves me
and we’ll make this work
just as long as we can.
We’re fortunate we’ve found a way.”

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