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When The Caregiver Gets Sick

On Tuesday, November 14, 2017, I heard the words “You have breast cancer.”  I knew the words were coming.  Somehow, I just knew. I had had a routine mammogram the week before..a week and a half after I had noticed a lump.  A lump that my doctor had NOT noticed 3 weeks before. Within 2 days, I had a biopsy and I could tell by the atmosphere in the room that they thought it was suspicious.  They’ve seen enough malignant lumps to know one when they see one.  So, I wasn’t surprised, but I WAS shocked.  How the hell is this happening to ME?  Haven’t we been through enough?  I’ve been taking care of a husband with a rare disease for 10 years, who 7 years ago had a motorcycle accident and broke 10 bones, in addition to raising 3 children, running a household, and working full time. In between the major crises, we had so many mini-crises that I’ve lost count…sepsis more than once, dead cars, financial crises, a daughter with a ruptured appendix, broken appliances, more car issues, and now my own cancer diagnosis.  And did I mention my car just died last weekend?

I’ve seen a lot of statistics over the years about how caregiving can impact the health of the caregiver.  Logically, it can have a huge impact on depression rates, but it can also impact the physical health of caregivers.  We are told all the time to “take care of ourselves,” and “take time to pamper yourself.”  As caregivers, I think we can all agree that is much easier said than done. I mean, when exactly are we supposed to do that? We go into auto-drive and we do what we have to do.  We think about the people we take care of…the sick, our children, our jobs and responsibilities, and our finances. The last thing we think about is ourselves.

I’ve seen the statistics and I’ve always thought that it will never happen to me.  I’ve always told myself “I’m strong, I do what I have to do, it’s just our life now, I take care of myself by eating pretty well, I won’t let this get me sick, etc.”  I pride myself on having a positive attitude, a great (and frequently twisted) sense of humor, and my incredible resilience.  I have handled everything that’s been thrown at me.  I just put my head down and forge ahead and I do what has to be done.  I think that’s the common thread with caregivers.  Unfortunately, sometimes life catches up with you and says, “Hey, since you won’t give yourself a break, I’m going to force you to have one.”  I certainly don’t think of this as getting a break, but I do have several weeks to recuperate from surgery so I get a little bit of a rest.  The next treatment is up in the air at this point.  Chemo may be in my future, maybe not. I do just look at my cancer as yet another bump in the road. It’s just one more hurdle to get over.  I was lucky my cancer was found relatively early and my prognosis is great.

I’m not sure if I’m being super positive, if I’m in denial, or if I’ve finally lost what’s left of my marbles, but this isn’t going to get me down.  I have too much to do in life and I have people relying on me.  I’m going to kick cancer’s butt, and I’m going to look good doing it with my cute, perky new rack, and even a bald head if I have to.  I just do what needs to be done, and I will always try to do it with a smile on my face.

 

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I See You

A few weeks ago, I was at the beach and I saw a young woman walking with her two little boys and her husband.  Her husband was disabled, walking with a cane and appearing to have lost some muscle function in his arms and legs.  I keep thinking about the woman and what I would have said to her at the right time, in the right place.  This blog post is for that woman, and the other young people who are caring for an ill or disabled spouse, while raising a family.

To The Woman on the Beach:

I see you.

I see you enjoying a day in the sun with your family.

I see you including your husband, who is clearly finding it a challenge to walk in the sand.

I see you take his hand, silently letting him know you are there for him.

I see your little boys, enjoying the sand, seashells and surf like all little boys would at the beach, happily oblivious to what you and he are going through.

I see you trying to make life as normal as you can…for your boys and for your husband.

I see you putting on a happy face, even when you aren’t happy.

I see your concern for the man you love.

I see your heartache and your heartbreak…watching the man you love suffer, wondering what your future will be like, wondering if you will someday be alone.

I see your worry…worry for your husband and his future, worry for your boys and their future, worry for yourself and your future.

I see your exhaustion.

I see your resentment and your guilt.

I see your loyalty.

I see your commitment.

I see you lying in bed in the wee hours of the night, waiting for the darkness to pass and the light to return.

I see your sadness.

I see you taking one step after another, walking through the storm, hoping that someday there might be sun again.

I see you trying to find happiness wherever you can.

I see you being grateful for all the little things.

I see you wishing for things you may never have.

I see you laughing.

I see your tears, cried silently when you are alone.

I see your appreciation for the moments you have together.

I see you taking care of everyone’s every day needs, while putting your own aside.

I see you wishing you could have time to yourself.

I see you keep going even when you think you can’t.

I saw you on the beach that day.  I saw you, and I want you to know, I understand.

 

Exhaustion

Exhaustion.  It can hit out of the blue.  You think you’re doing well and handling everything, and you have a hopeful outlook.  It’s not always physical exhaustion.  It can be mental or emotional exhaustion.  But, mental or emotional exhaustion definitely adds to the physical exhaustion.  That’s where I am this week.  I’m mentally exhausted.  I’m tired of struggling all the time.  I struggle with a busy schedule…work, managing a household, taking care of kids, being available to my husband for his dialysis or any other medical needs he has.  I struggle with worry EVERY SINGLE MONTH on how I’m going to pay everything and still be able to buy a little extra, or do something fun, or be able to pay for something my kids need or want.

Home dialysis was supposed to make things easier for “us.”  They told us the machine is the size of a suitcase, and we can take it anywhere, even on vacation.  They didn’t tell us we would need to lug 5 large bags of fluid for each day of dialysis (25 bags for a week), saline IV bags, and a gazillion medical supplies with us. They told us you do dialysis more frequently, but for less time.  We do dialysis 5 nights a week for 2 1/2 to 3 hours once he is actually hooked up and dialyzing.  It doesn’t include set-up time and clean-up time.  It ends up more like 5 hours a night.  That’s a lot.  They said he can do it on his own, but it turns out, he has to have someone here with him to help him hook up and unhook, or be here in case of an emergency.  It’s not easier at all.  It’s harder.

I’m so tired of worrying about money.  I get the summers off, but I end up a stressed out wreck because I don’t get paid when I don’t work.  I’ve been applying for other full time jobs that are year round, even though it will mean I will have to leave a job of 9 years that I love.  I considered finding something part time that I could do during the school year to supplement my income, and pick up hours in the summer to maybe enjoy them without worrying.  But, because of dialysis 5 nights a week, I don’t know how it’s possible to work part time during the school year, after work.  There just isn’t enough time in the week.

I’m tired of saying no to things that are important to my kids because I can’t afford them or I don’t have the time or ability to be both at home, and out.  People will say, “you don’t have to give them everything they ask for.”  My answer to that is that they don’t ask for much, and when they do ask, it’s very important to them, or it’s a life event that they shouldn’t have to miss.  I hate that there are times they have to miss out because I’m not available or can’t afford something.  I hate struggling to figure out where the extra money is going to come from.  I hate that I am the only one who worries about it.  It really sucks to keep disappointing your child, when you know you are struggling yourself to accept all of this.

I’m tired of having to keep it all to myself because the person that I’ve always figured this stuff out with is sick.  He’s sleepy, he’s medicated, his brain is often foggy.  And there isn’t much he can do.  He is exhausted, too.  His body is failing him, he’s in constant pain, he’s sleep deprived, he’s forgetful.  He doesn’t have a solution to any of this.  I’m tired of handling it all alone.  I have to always keep him and his illness in mind, otherwise I would be overcome by resentment and hopelessness.  I keep him in mind because he has enough to worry about.   He didn’t ask for this any more than I did.  He has it worse.  My exhaustion is nothing compared to his.

This exhaustion has come and gone many times in the last 9 years since he got sick.  We always rally, we always make it through, we always survive.  It’s a matter of plugging along and pushing through.  We have no other choice.

When Is Enough, Enough?

I walked in the door at 7:30 tonight after being out since 8:15 this morning.  My day consisted of working with kindergarteners for 7 hours, picking my daughter up from track practice, driving 40 minutes to her voice lesson and 40 minutes home, and a stop for Chinese food.  I blew off a meeting because I had to get home at a decent hour to help my husband, and I was tired.  Like almost every night, I was greeted by dishes in the sink, dirty floors, dusty pet hair covered surfaces, laundry piled on the couch, laundry in the bathroom, laundry in the laundry room.  Did I mention there was laundry?  The bathroom is a mess, even though I clean it at least once, if not twice, a week.  There is also the usual clutter of a lived-in household.

I blew off cooking dinner tonight because if I had to make a meal, we would have been eating at 9 p.m.  Did I mention I was tired?  So, take-out it was.  Again.  I was out of the house and on the go for almost 12 hours today and had no desire to cook.  As I sat and ate my Chinese food , I looked around and started criticizing myself for my obvious incompetence in running a household.  What kind of wife and mother lets her home look like this?  How dare I have this amount of laundry all over?  How dare I allow my floors to look like crap all the time?  It’s incredibly embarrassing every single time someone walks into our home.  I wonder what they must think of me.  I don’t like it when people come over.  They probably think I’m lazy.  There is no excuse to not keep up with it all. Even though I try to clean it every week, it never looks the way I like it, let alone the way guests would expect to see it.  It looks good for a day at most, and then it’s a mess again.  I don’t have time to make it look incredible, or even presentable most of the time.

I look forward to weekends, but then I spend them grocery shopping, cleaning what I can, driving kids around, and hopefully catching up on some of the sleep I inevitably missed during the week.  It’s a rare weekend that I get to do something just for the fun of it.  Sitting and reading a book can be a challenge.  I figure I don’t deserve it anyway, because I can’t even get my simple chores done.

I’ve also been trying to find a part time job to supplement my income during the school year, and be able to work in the summer when I don’t get paid from my regular job.  I can make it work.  I can work a couple of evenings, and maybe one weekend day, while holding my full time job.  I mean, it’ll take some of the stress off, right?  I can do this.  No excuses.

Meanwhile, my husband sat in his recliner.  No, he isn’t lazy.  Far from it.  He was hooked up to the dialysis machine that keeps him alive.  He does this 5 nights a week for several hours.  He can’t be alone when he is hooked up to the machine.  I have to be here with him, or another adult has to be with him, in case something happens or he needs something.  I figure that should give me the time to clean, do laundry, and cook, since I’m home anyway, right?  No excuses.  There is no excuse.  There is no reason that I shouldn’t be getting everything done every night.

These are the things I say to myself all the time.  Then tonight, as I sat here,  I heard that sound a record makes when the needle scratches it.  You know the sound, if you are old enough.  Now, I didn’t really hear that sound…it was in my head.  But I noticed the negative chatter in my head and stopped myself.  What is wrong with me?  I never stop, and yet it still isn’t good enough for me.  The house isn’t clean enough, I don’t cook enough, I don’t keep up with the laundry, I’m not giving enough time/money/attention/experiences to my kids, I’m not giving enough time/attention to my husband, I’m not making enough money, so I can’t provide enough.  I also tear myself apart because of what other people might think.  They’ll think I’m lazy, or dirty, or simply not good enough.  I make it seem like I can handle it all just fine, but I really can’t.  Why is that not okay?

Honestly, I don’t know how to fix it all.  I’m trying to accept that this is my life for now.  My house will be messy, the laundry won’t be completely done, we will eat take out more than we should, and if other people come over, they will have to tolerate the mess.  People will always judge what they haven’t lived.  I’m judging it, and I live it.  I’m just trying to get myself to the point where I can say “enough is enough,” and be okay with just doing the best I can for now.

Adjustments

It’s been almost 8 years since my husband’s disease was discovered.  It’s been a long 8 years, full of learning experiences I never thought we would ever have to endure.   I’ve learned how very possible it is to get through every day life, struggling with exhaustion, or finances, or lack of time, or situations out of our control.  I know what it’s like to continually take one step forward and two steps back.  I know what it’s like to make sure my kids have a good childhood, with interesting experiences, unique opportunities, and the chance to become the people their souls are meant to become, all while living with a fathers’ illness that invades every part of our lives.  Life has been an ongoing struggle between dealing with a sick spouse, the loneliness of losing people in our lives who can’t deal with it, grieving the loss of our dreams, and living every day life, raising kids, enjoying what we can, and just keeping on going whether it’s an easy day or a hard day.

The hardest lesson has probably been acceptance of how this disease has changed our marriage.  Eight years of spousal illness takes a rough toll on a marriage.  Both of us are dedicated to each other until the end.  There is no question of that.  We love each other and we are both loyal to each other.  But life has changed for us.  My husband sleeps all the time.  When he is awake, he has no energy, or he has energy for short amounts of time.  He is on so many medications that he is often in a zone and not really hearing what I’m saying, nor responding to me.  He is in pain almost all the time.  It never goes away completely.  For all the exhaustion he has, he never sleeps well because he can’t get comfortable.  It’s really hard to watch your husband suffer every single day.  I get tired of it all. Sometimes, I just want to get out of the house so I don’t have to look at him like that.  There are days I want to scream out of frustration…frustration that he isn’t talking to me or listening to me, frustration that he can’t do much to help me out, frustration that it will never get better.  It’ll only get worse.  We likely won’t grow old together, and get to do the things we used to talk about doing when we retired.

There have been many times that I felt alone with all these frustrations, grieving the loss of a marriage that won’t be what we had hoped.  But, he deals every day with illness.  He never feels good, he is always wiped out and exhausted, he is bored being home alone all day while we are at work or school.  He wants to be included when we go out and do things, even though he doesn’t always have the stamina to keep up, and often wants to come home early.  There are times I need to get out of the house and away from the disease, so I don’t ask him to go.  I want to go out, and not have to worry about whether he is tired or in pain and needing to leave early.  We recently had a conversation in which he told me that it makes him sad when we do things and don’t invite him.  Honestly, I hadn’t really thought about it…I needed to get out, and I figured he wouldn’t want to go because he’s sick and can hardly stay awake.  I didn’t always think about asking him.

It made me realize how important the little things are when you are in this situation.  We can’t easily do the big things any more.  I don’t remember the last time we had a date night, or went away for a weekend, or did something fun together. Now, I’m happy when we have a ten minute conversation and he is awake and paying attention.  I’m really happy when he acknowledges the things I do around the house, or the little things I do to help him out, or when he brings me a candy bar just because I know he was thinking of me.  He is happy if I go to Walmart with him, or ask him if he wants to go with us somewhere, or if we pick up sandwiches and eat lunch together.

Life with a sick spouse is all about adjustments.  If you can’t adjust to a situation, you’ll never make it.  A simple shift in the mind can make all the difference in how peaceful your life is.  We have made small changes in order to make life a little easier for each other.  There will be more challenges and crises down the road, but if we do what we can for each other along the way, even little things, those challenges will be that much easier.

Out Of The Ashes

Living in a household affected by chronic illness is challenging, stressful, frustrating, and sometimes next to impossible.  It often feels like a jail sentence from which there is no escape.  But over the past almost seven years, my family has experienced amazing acts of kindness that we may not have seen if all had been well in our world.

In October of 2010, my husband wound up in the hospital with a failing kidney.  It was decided that he needed a nephrostomy tube placed through his back and into his kidney to allow it to drain properly.  His tumor had occluded his ureter and his kidney was swollen.  It was the only thing they could do to save his kidney function on that side.  We didn’t know it at the time, but that was the turning point for his disease and we had yet to feel the full impact on our family.  Meanwhile, I had a hip resurfacing surgery scheduled for early November that year, and we decided I should keep the surgery date and get it done before he was any sicker and I couldn’t take the time to do it.  I had surgery, and a few weeks later, my hip fractured, and I had to return to surgery for a total hip replacement.  My second surgery was 10 days before Christmas, and my sick time had run out.  Neither of us had any income coming in.  With three young kids, and no income, the stress of Christmas was the highest it had ever been.

One day, a letter came in the mail, addressed to me.  I opened it and found $500 with a note saying that it was so my children could have a nice Christmas.  It was signed, “Santa.”  I felt the tension release from my shoulders immediately, and was so excited that I could buy them presents to put under the tree.  A week or so after that, we found a gift basket full of cheese, crackers, snacks, and assorted other goodies, left inside our back door.  There was no note and we had no idea who had left it for us.  We put it under the tree to save for another day.  We decided to open it a few days before Christmas.  At the bottom of the basket was a green gift box.  I opened the box and found $800 in cash.  To this day, we don’t know who left those for us.  But whoever it was, they were our Christmas angels that year, and we will be forever grateful for their kindness and generosity.  That was the most stressful two months of our lives.  Our world had completely fallen apart, and yet out of the ashes came hope, love, and incredibly kind gestures that made all the difference to us that Christmas.

Over the years since my husband got sick, we have been the recipients of numerous kindnesses from many people.  Our friend celebrated her 40th birthday, and asked all of her friends and family to donate money to help us, in lieu of gifts for herself.  Our parents have helped us out numerous times when we were in a bind.  They have paid our mortgage at times, bought us heating oil, bought us appliances when ours had broken, and my awesome uncle even gave me a car when mine had died.  Friends gave us money this past Christmas and we were able to buy heating oil and pay some bills.  My parents treated us to a Disney vacation,  have taken us on vacation to the beach in North Carolina, and my husband’s parents treated us this summer to a vacation in Vermont.  The list goes on and on.  People have made us dinners, and taken our kids to do things, and helped with projects around the house.  Every gesture of kindness has been very much appreciated and drastically reduced our stress during those tough times.

Families dealing with chronic illness tend to get caught up in the day to day stress of trying to keep their lives as normal as possible, even though their lives are anything but normal.  It helps to take a step back sometimes and look at the good that has come out of a tragic situation.  We have had friends come into our lives who have provided companionship, laughter, and time away from “the disease.”  Anonymous people have come through to help us when we needed it most.  We all have a choice to get lost in the rubble, or to stand up and see the beauty that can come from the same mess. We were dealt a crappy hand, but because of that hand, we have also been given the profound gift of friendship, love and generosity.  THAT is the true gift.

Signs

A Prayer for the Caregiver
by Bruce McIntyre

Unknown and often unnoticed, you are a hero nonetheless.
For your love, sacrificial, is God at his best.
You walk by faith in the darkness of the great unknown,
And your courage, even in weakness, gives life to your beloved.
You hold shaking hands and provide the ultimate care:
Your presence, the knowing, that you are simply there.
You rise to face the giant of disease and despair,
It is your finest hour, though you may be unaware.
You are resilient, amazing, and beauty unexcelled,
You are the caregiver and you have done well!

 

Several years ago I was on vacation in North Carolina with my husband, kids, parents and my aunt and her boyfriend.  One night after dinner we went around the table and asked each other the questions that James Lipton asks celebrities at the end of the TV show, Inside The Actor’s Studio.  The last question he asks is, “If  heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?”  My answer to that question was that I’d like to hear the words, “You did a good job.”  I’ve always tried to do a good job, whether it was raising my kids, being productive at work, or just by being kind to everyone.  I’ve always tried to be a good person and do the right thing.

I’m not a religious person.  I’ve never had use for organized religion, but I definitely believe in God and consider myself a spiritual person.  My relationship with God is personal, and I don’t feel a need to share it with other people.  However, in my daily life when I’m struggling with a decision, or unkind feelings, or coping with stress, I frequently ask myself what God would want me to do.  Daily life with a sick spouse can be filled with stress, frustration, anger, resentment, sadness, loneliness, isolation, and exhaustion.  This is especially true when your day also includes raising children, managing a household, and working.

Over the past several months, it’s been a real struggle for me to deal with the resentment I have for my husband, our life together, and my life personally due to an illness we have no control over.  I’ve watched my husband go from a man who was always extremely energetic, busy, and on the go from morning until night, become a man who has so little energy that even the shortest tasks exhaust him.  I’ve watched him go from the life of the party to someone who stares into space, wanders around the house, and sleeps for long periods of time.  It’s extremely hard not to feel resentful when I’m running around taking care of the daily needs of three kids, myself, my husband, a household, and be responsible to go to a job.  I often feel like he is here physically, but his mind is tuned out.

I resent that everything is on my shoulders.  My plate is overflowing.  It makes me not want to do things for him.  I do it anyway.  It makes me want to run for the hills sometimes.  I daydream about what it would be like to run away from it all.  But I stay.  It makes me fantasize about life after the illness, when he’s gone someday.  That will be an awful day, but it will be liberating, too.  All of these things make me feel guilty.  It’s a daily struggle, a never ending cycle of resentment, fantasy, guilt.  We aren’t even at the point that my husband needs personal care, but I’m overwhelmed.  I had breakfast yesterday with my friend Yvonne.  She is my dear friend of 41 years.  I told her all of this and said, “I’m not even really his caregiver yet.”  Her response was, “you still have the mental stress.”  That acknowledgement was priceless for me.

I came home from breakfast and found the above poem.  I believe that sometimes God sends signs.  I believe that poem was a sign for me.  “For your love, sacrificial, is God at his best.” That line changed my entire perspective.  God works through us to help people who need it most.  It made me remember that question that I hadn’t asked myself in a while…what would God want me to do?  My husband is in need of someone to be here for him, not only to meet his physical needs, but emotional support, and to provide a home environment where it’s okay to feel lousy, and sleep, and just be sick.   When the days get rough, and the stress gets high, I will read this poem to remind myself of the good I’m doing for my husband and the example I’m setting for my children.  I’m sure there will be many days that are a challenge for me.  I’m only human.  Hopefully, there will be fewer days of resentment, and more days appreciating the time I have with my husband and making his years as comfortable as possible.