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The Caretaker, the Therapist, and Me

I’m my husband’s caretaker while he’s on a kidney transplant waiting list. I’m also a psychotherapist by profession and always have lots of ideas for my clients who are caretakers of people with chronic illnesses. I now have a new appreciation for caretakers and how hard it is to take my own advice.

My life is on hold and I’m on an island all by myself. No time to do what I want to do. No opportunity to go where I want to go. There’s only time and energy to:

  • • Make sure his diet is right
  • • Go to all his doctor appointments
  • • Prepare his arm with cream and plastic wrap on dialysis days
  • • Read up on all the latest kidney news

Whatever it takes, I am there to do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I am his wife and my wants have no place. There’s only time and energy for his needs. This disease that is his is now mine too. But the caretaker in me is burning out and developing resentment. I feel guilty for feeling this way. He’s very ill. I am his wife, and should be there at all times, no matter what. It’s a set up for disaster.

As a matter of fact, a mini-disaster happens about every 6-8 weeks when I cry at the drop of a hat. Once a crying episode is over, I’m usually good to go for another round of ignoring my wants to meet his needs. I wasn’t taking care of myself – the exact thing I tell my clients not to do. The caretaker in me wasn’t listening to the therapist. I needed another voice.

One day, at my husband’s doctor appointment, I asked his doctor if it was okay for me to go to San Francisco to give a presentation at a conference. The doctor looked at me, just as I look at my own clients, and said “Don’t give up your life for his disease!”

The doctor’s words rang in my ears. Taking care of me wasn’t an option – it was imperative.

The caretaker in me finally heard what I say to my clients:

  • • If you don’t take care of yourself, there’ll be no energy left to take care of others.
  • • Resentment, depletion, and burnout will lead to your own illness.
  • • Feelings of resentment, anger, and depression can crop up at different times. Having human feelings doesn’t make you a bad person.
  • • Mini-breakdowns are okay – they help to let off the steam of feelings held in check.
  • • Trying to be perfect is a set up for failure.

So What is a Caregiver to Do?

Here are a few things that you can do to nurture yourself when you are feeling lonely, afraid, anxious, overworked, powerless, overwhelmed, depressed. You might even try some of them before you reach the place of burnout and resentment that I did:

  • • Find some music that helps you relax or a CD of relaxation. Bellaruth Naparstek’s recordings are a good resource or The Academy for Guided Imagery book store online.
  • • Don’t isolate yourself. Talk to a friend, go to a park, a museum, a mall, or go on a hike.
  • • Take a bath, bake something you love.
  • • Watch a funny movie or sitcom.
  • • List what you are grateful for in your life – remember the small things!
  • • Put a list of telephone numbers on the refrigerator – and call one of them when you need to talk to someone.
  • • Make up a special bag or box with nurturing items to go to when you can’t think of what to do. Put in your favorite tea, candy, a journal, art supplies, music, book, etc.
  • • Remember to challenge your own inner critic and be as compassionate to yourself as you are to others.

Now I need to listen to my own good advice.