By Sondra L. Shapiro
I always considered myself a nurturing person. Though I don’t have children, I am a classic hoverer and worrier — a regular Johnny-on-the-spot whenever friends or family require emotional or medical support. When it comes to taking care of the family cats, there’s nothing I won’t do for them — shots, pills, enemas, staying up all night to watch over them when they’re sick.
So I was disturbed to discover I harbor a dark side. It began a couple of days into caring for my husband, who had surgery on his right foot. Since he was in a cast, on crutches and unable to drive, he required help with everything.
Before the surgery, I convinced him and myself that I was not only up for caregiving tasks, I’d be happy to perform them. “I’ll take such great care of you,” was a mantra I proclaimed with nauseating cheeriness. This proclamation was as much to soothe the guilty psyche of my normally active, athletic, obsessively chore-driven husband — a man of constant motion — as it was to reaffirm to myself that I was willingly embarking on a role I was born to play.
Now that I look back, my high regard for my abilities was bound to be quashed. Please do not judge me harshly — I’ve already done so. The purpose of my confession is to relay the new respect and empathy I have for those of you who are providing care 24/7 with no end in sight.
One of the most difficult challenges has been the struggle to keep my husband’s spirit from sinking into a dark abyss — while trying to keep my own from plummeting.
We are normally an equal partnership when it comes to chores and responsibility, but during David’s convalescence I naturally assumed all household responsibilities in addition to taking care of him. At the end of the day, exhaustion stole my Pollyanna demeanor, leaving behind Nurse Ratchet, who huffed and puffed her way through caregiving duties. And, believe me, David noticed and commented, adding guilt to my waning self image. “Do you know you have been constantly sighing all day?” he said about a week into our new family dynamic.
I know he expected me to perform each task with a smile, if for no other reason than because he hates thinking he is putting someone out — my occasional bad attitude was a reminder of his dependence.
I felt horrible that he felt he was inconveniencing me, because I truly wanted him to relinquish his sense of helplessness and concentrate on healing.
Friends called, insisting that I needed “me” time, offering to take me out for a few hours. I often declined because I didn’t want to leave my husband alone, helpless. How selfish could I be? Instead, I stayed home, wallowing in resentment, which didn’t help either of us — and which was ultimately an act of selfishness. I should have gone out for a while to recharge for both of our sakes.
Much is written about caregiver burnout, but what I learned is the care receiver suffers emotional stress, too.
For a normally active, independent person who hates being waited on, David has had an especially difficult time depending on others. My normally, even-tempered, light-hearted life-mate has been grouchy, argumentative and depressed. “I can’t even carry a dish,” he lamented with regularity. His dependence on me to drive him everywhere made him a nagging, back seat driver — unconscious actions, I am sure, to help him feel empowered.
His forays into independence caused us both misery. Like when he tried to help me unpack the car with his attempt to balance a bag while walking on crutches. That didn’t end well and upset him and me.
He has resisted adding anything more to my daily tasks. He put off a much needed hair cut because he didn’t want to ask me to take him, or a visit with his sick brother because I was tired when I got home from work.
At one point, David accused me of being a bad caregiver, asking “If this is how you are now, what will you be like later if I ever need more prolonged care?” His words stung because he verbalized a fear I was beginning to harbor. One which I never would have equated with myself before I began this caregiving journey.
That comment was made during a simple request for a bowl of cereal. It was 10 p.m. on a weekend night and I had just sunk down in my La Z Boy® to vegetate in front of the TV, when he proclaimed, “I’m going down to get a bowl of cereal.” To which I angrily retorted, “You know you can’t do that, so I guess I will go downstairs and get it for you.”
Was it wrong of me at that moment to silently paraphrase the old Henny Youngman line “Take my husband please” — and return him when he’s back on his feet?
Our communication skills finally helped us get through David’s convalescence. After our frustration with each other got to a boiling point, we talked things out. Even though it was tough at times, we both learned to listen. I finally was able to look objectively at my behavior and decided I didn’t want to be that person.
When we recite the marriage vows, “for better or worse, in sickness and in health” it’s more than rhetoric, it’s a promise, one I learned should be taken seriously.
In retrospect, I ventured into my caregiving role with high, not realistic expectations. I underestimated my all-too human stamina and attitude. In fact, I believe my rose colored glasses worked against me. When I couldn’t live up to my very high opinion of myself, I floundered.
David is now crutch-free, though full recovery is a long way off and he is still unable to drive. In the grand scheme of things, I should have had very little to complain about, especially since my caregiving duties were so temporary.
Now, with the luxury of more time to myself, and some perspective, I realize I am actually grateful for this experience. Had I not had the opportunity to take my caregiving skills for a test run, it might have been worse later on if I found myself in this role on a more long-term basis.
I may have my limits, and at times that dark side is bound to show, but that doesn’t mean I’m not the caring, nurturing person I always believed myself to be. As my husband, David, might say, when I’m having those moments, “At least do it with a smile.”