Many days I feel the need to remove my caregiver hat. It's worn out, tired looking and needs to renewed, but it's under several other hats that I wear. My other hats are: wife, cook, maid, yard and house maintenance person, organizer, counselor, motivator, physical therapist and pharmacist. The last two I'm not licensed in, but I practice some of the duties on a daily basis. When I became a caregiver, I didn't go looking for the job. In fact, I didn't fill out an application and certainly no one checked references to see if I was qualified! It has strictly been on the job training: sink or swim and I have sank on many occasions.
When Aaron was paralyzed almost 6 years ago, he was sent home with no medical follow-up care. The VA discharged him and the Army forgot about him. He was in limbo within the system. I wasn't taught how to care for him or to recognize medical issues. In fact, while he was inpatient at the VA there was no program to include me in much of anything. I think they forgot that I was the one who would be caring for him when he came home. I was doing things for him that I never thought I would do for another human being. Honestly, I was barely taking care of myself while trying to deal with the tragedy that had taken place.
When we become caregivers, we take on a lot of extra burdens and over-function. When we over-function the veteran under-functions and that in turn leads to a vicious cycle. For myself, even when Aaron became more independent, I still over-compensated, because it was all I knew. He later told me that when I over-compensated it made him feel incapable. That wasn't my intention. I really thought I was helping. Everywhere we went, I was on the lookout for any situations that could be difficult for him. I didn't want him to struggle. I worried about accessibility issues, his lack of sleep, forgetting to take his medications, his physical pain, his current medical issues along with possible future issues and what if he tried to do too much and caused himself more pain? I had a difficult time learning how to step back and when to not help unless asked. I had to learn that he's a grown man and capable of more than he was right after his paralysis. I still struggle with this.
Now that I'm not working outside the home, I have a need to feel validated and acknowledged. It's not that I want a bunch of "that-a-girls" but somewhere in all of this I tend to lose myself. I need to be reminded to take care of myself and take off my super-caregiver cape. I like to think that I can do it all and be perfect. I trying to be okay with mediocrity and I really don't like it! I need to feel connected with other caregivers that understand my thoughts so I have don't have to go into great detail about everything, besides I know that most people don't really want to know. Other caregivers simply "get it". When I interact with non-caregivers, I don't generally share my fears, because I don't want pity. I just want support. As military wives, we're very independent and have learned to rely on ourselves. We have endured so many deployments that we have become self-sufficient. We don't normally have family around to help so we generally just don't ask for help. We are quick to adapt.
Fortunately, over the years, there has been an increase in awareness regarding caregivers of veterans. In fact, just this month Redbook magazine ran an article about Post 9/11 caregivers. I'm blessed to say that I know two of the women profiled. They have overcome in the face of adversity. I'm not trying to discount other caregivers, but I do feel that the caregiving of a veteran is unique. Many of us are young, have small children at home, have quit our jobs and are isolated from family. We're dealing with PTSD, TBI, amputation, paralysis, trying to explain to children why mommy or daddy isn't the same as before, while we as spouses are still trying to grasp that. We grieve for the loss of what we thought our lives would look like and loss of our dreams. Yet we press on.
I want to remind you that while you're pressing on you still need to take care of yourself. I can hear you saying, "I don't have time to care for myself." Guess what? If you don't, then you'll crash.
I've been there, done that and it wasn't pretty. Not only was I hospitalized for a week, but my husband had to take care of me when he was needing to be cared for. I truly know how hard it is to slow down, but we have to care for ourselves in order to be there for others. In the South they say, "Ain't no one happy if momma ain't happy."
Here's some quick tips: 1) Stop and breath 2) Be mindful of the moment. So often we worry about the next thing and forget to be in the present 3) No negative self-talk. Boost yourself up, not down. 4) Let go of control-What can you control? Let go of the rest. I'll let you know when I master this one! 5) Know that it's ok to say, "I need help". 6) Get rid of energy drainers. You know what I'm talking about. People that bring you down or create more drama that you don't have time for. Create boundaries for those people and say "no."
If you want to find resources, aside from my resource list under the Sept archive, then check out Hearts of Valor and Family of a Vet. You'll find great tools, ideas and information. Also, there are many groups on Facebook that connect caregivers of veterans. Many of them are "closed groups" which means comments are hidden from view of non-members so you can post honestly without being judged. I check out Facebook daily. It is my social connection, a place where I can chat with others who understand me and can encourage me when I want to remove all the different hats I'm wearing. So reach out, connect and most important take care of yourself.