Here’s a scenario I’ve seen often and have experienced myself. You’re a loving caregiver, but caregiving starts to feel like a burden. You are tired all the time and grow increasingly frustrated. Day after day you hold in your feelings of sadness, anxiety, and bitterness over the situation that life has thrown at you. Like a grenade, TBI was hurled at you exploding your world and you’re tired of picking up the pieces; you’re still bleeding from the shrapnel.
Finally, you confide in someone close to you, and you’re told, “You need to take care of yourself.” Hearing these words makes you want to scream, cry, and stamp your feet! There are no words to describe to this person how impossible that feels! You think to yourself, “Sure, I’ll take care of myself. How? When? Will anyone help me do that? Who will take over for me while I do that?”
And yet, it’s true. You know you are falling apart and that’s not helping anyone.
The first time I saw someone about my sleep problem, I had no idea how to explain my inner sense of panic. Every time I lay down to sleep, I saw my husband on a bike slamming into a car. The images came, my heart raced, and my eyes flew open. I could not close my eyes to sleep. The only deep sleep I had was drug-induced.
Through private counseling with a LCSW, I learned I had post-traumatic stress resulting from a series of drastic life changes. Nothing was predictable. Nothing felt solid. I grew fearful and overprotective of my family. I wondered what would happen to my family if anything happened to me.
It soon became clear that if I wanted to heal myself, I’d have to understand what was going on inside my own mind and find ways to cope. All of the physical symptoms I experienced were emotionally driven. I was physically exhausted because I could not sleep. Not sleeping gave me headaches. I was nauseous and had trouble eating because my stomach churned with anxiety. After a year of this, I came down with shingles from prolonged stress. Few people knew how I felt. Everyone thought I was fine, that I handled things so well. I was told I was strong 10 times a day, but I was a mess.
It does seem impossible to “take care of yourself” when you are in the throes of caregiving, especially after a traumatic event like TBI. But it is essential. It’s my belief that many caregivers suffer from PTSD and don’t even know it. I could not understand how I could have it; I was not even at the accident that injured Hugh. It didn’t happen to me, and yet it felt like it did. I relived Hugh’s accident again and again. I was afraid of driving. I imagined other accidents happening.
Here’s what helped: listening to and doing what was recommended by the professionals that I saw after Hugh’s accident. These professionals included the manager of medical psychology services at Hugh’s rehab facility, the licensed clinical social worker I saw alone, and the neuropsychologist that Hugh and I visited together for counseling. I can’t stress this enough. It took a while for me to actually implement what they told me to do.
We often receive advice, but how often do we put it into practice? It’s in the doing that we change and grow. We don’t improve our condition if we don’t take positive steps to heal ourselves.
Each of these professionals provided me with valuable insight into my feelings. All of them offered tips to help lessen my symptoms, but the hard work was up to me.
Little by little, I learned to eat healthfully, to use small breaks in the day to stretch, do breathing exercises, and occupy my mind to keep it from racing. I can’t say anything changed overnight, but I did improve week after week. So here’s my advice to you: “Take care of yourself.” Don’t just talk about it, scoff at the words, and shake your head. Do it. Here’s a starting point. Grab a piece of paper and put it on the fridge. Every day, write down at least one thing you did to take care of yourself. Pat yourself on the back. You deserve it! As the list grows, see if you don’t find yourself sleeping more soundly, worrying less, and smiling more.