You love oldies so you find a 60s station in your car and you sing along to the Fifth Dimension’s “Go Where You Wanna go. Do what you wanna do. With whomever you want to be with.” Have you got the lyrics right? You don’t care.
You don’t remember such carefree days. You retired a while ago, or at least think of winding down so you can enjoy life. It’s your time, after all.
Today you have some free moments to yourself. Other than belting out that tune you can’t get out of your head, “Go where you wanna go. Do what you wanna do,” you have no clue what to do. You don’t recall what you used to before your loved one got sick: the 4-year-old grandchild who needs major surgery; the 90-year-old parent who lands on the floor one too many times and denies–or forgets– they happened; the lifelong pal who felt lousy, but declared it no big deal until the diagnosis proclaimed it a really big deal and now you care-give full time. Now you don’t go where you wanna go and you don’t do what you wanna do, because you sit squeezed in the middle in the sandwich generation and the squeeze won’t let you.
Your therapist-type friends quote statistics on caregiver burnout. You’ve read the stress research so you say, “Uh-huh. Thanks.”
“I’m-only-trying-to -help” types blame you for not feeling worthy. “Don’t you deserve to take care of yourself?” You want to chant those other words from that song to them, “You don’t understand….” because your actions right now have nothing to do with deserving or how you feel about yourself or what you believe about your worthiness.
“I” and “me” have taken a back seat. Your caretaking has to do with what needs doing. Driving. Appointments. You are the go-to one because of love and because legally you got chosen. You are that person’s person. Laundry. Cooking. Dishes. Phone calls. Managing the what-ifs. Pain scales. You become hyper-vigilant. Did that person sleep last night? Does that person hydrate? What can we do about that fatigue?
Today a friend took your person for a ride. You have time, but no ideas. You default to your preferred escapes, your best distractions. Coffee, which will make you jumpy, but in the moment you crave comfort so you dismiss the heart palpations you’ll get. Or chocolate. At noon you eat enough of the organic, fair-traded 70% dark variety to call it a meal. You can’t feel into your own body. You focus on the bodies of others so you can’t predict your certain post-sugar migraine tomorrow. How could you forget the cacao-hangover headaches?
In your down time, you know you “should” rest or meditate or make a plan with …ah,ummm, with whom? “With whomever you want to be with.” You still wonder about the exact lyrics. No matter: you get the point. Only you can’t plan anything or think of anyone to be with since you haven’t socialized forever. What would you talk about? Pill organizers? Your world has shrunk: doctor’s visits, hospitals, tests, second opinions, calling family.
Oh, people have offered to help. They have. Pretty much everyone you know, actually, and some you’ve never met. People step up. They say, “Whatever I can do.” You nod, grateful. But you don’t know what to request, because you’re fine, really. You’re handling it. Your sweet neighbor calls: “I’m going to Shaw’s. Do you want anything?” You do but you don’t know what. You go blank. With your mush-mind you say, “Thanks, we’re good.” Instead of produce you eat canned minestrone for lunch and frozen pizza for dinner. You tell yourself it’s ok, because at a very deep level it is ok. You are doing the best you can, and all you can. It has to be enough.
Then people start showing up with what you need before you know you need it. Your daughter buys you a few par of shorts because it’ll be warm soon, which you seem to have neglected, and you have somehow lost a few pounds over the winter. How did that happen? She sees that your clothes don’t fit. How did you not notice? A favorite cousin, who knows you better than most, comes by with a huge pot of vegan, gluten-free black bean soup. She made so much she says you’ll have to freeze some. But you eat it for days, all of it, because you can barely manage even leftovers. She brings yellow spring-reminder flowers, too. Daffodils? You used to know that. Another favorite cousin, a former walking buddy, figures you haven’t been outside in weeks. She texts: “when can we go for a stroll? Any time. Name the place.” But your attention laser-beams on how you need to call the pharmacy to refill that prescription and you can’t think of any time or any place. She guesses that and says, “how about tomorrow at 3:00 at Audubon?” Folks care. They do.
Your brother pops in because you need such-and-such repairs in your house. He’s here to fix them. He rolls in with materials and tools and you let him do his good work. A sister suspects you’re lacking rollicking laughter, so she sends side-splitting cards. You need that. You appreciate the comic relief because you’ve lost your sense of humor. You’ve missed it.
Eventually you become one of the “people who need people,” one of “the luckiest people in the world.” At first you can’t grasp that “needy=lucky” because you didn’t train in dependence. You learned self-reliance and self-sufficiency, a woman coming of age in the 60s and 70s. I am woman, hear me roar.
But bone-fatigued and behind-the-eyes exhausted, you realize you haven’t eaten a salad for a whole season of non-stop “which specialist do we see today?” and “Do you have your insurance card?” and “I’ll check with Medicare again.” Now your teeth ache since you have brushed just a little too hard since you feel rushed by duty, even in the bathroom. You ask yourself, “When was the last time I flossed?” As your gums bleed, you remember those studies: caregivers get sick. And you hear an aha: we are not meant to do this alone. As social animals we are wired for connection.
So you take an action step. You reach out. You write to your good friend who lives in Dublin now. You know she’ll answer. She does. She sends love, hugs, and good energy. She writes how she coped after her husband died. She doesn’t give you advice. You don’t need advice. You don’t want advice. She ends, “you are not alone. ”
You had almost caved. You could not hold one more detail, or support one more person, and now you feel held and supported. You still can’t go where you wanna go or do what you wanna do. You do what you have to do. You hold the hands of the ones you love. Nothing has changed, except you now understand inter-dependence. You know that whole communities hold your hand too. That’s big for your new world, which has felt so small, because when your brain turns to fog, the love of others can —-help illuminate your path.