Ever since my son’s accident five years ago I have been caught in a spin cycle. Sometimes I ask myself, “Why are you spinning so fast? And where exactly are you going?” The answer is often, “I don’t know.”
Clearly, I am afraid of what may happen if I stop.
In the initial days after Taylor’s accident, I remained firmly planted in the waiting room, by his bedside or in the corridor outside of the ICU. I eventually allowed myself to maintain five or six hours of sleep at home and eat a dish of warm oatmeal every day, but in hindsight, I was fearful that a break in my routine might bring another unexpected horror.
As Taylor entered rehab, I created a new spin-cycle. The hospital was hours from our home, so I set up camp in a room provided for me across the road. I busied myself with learning as much as I could about brain injury, and by the end of most days, I left the hospital with tears running down my face and an eventual wondering if I could keep up with the emotional pace I was setting. I will spare you the gory details, but the truth is I crumbled under pressure more than once, and putting myself back together was tough.
Months later when we returned home, the spinning continued. There were fundraisers to attend, daily outpatient therapies an hour away, and trips to the beloved social security office. During my first visit to social security, my spinning turned to crying, and once alone, screaming.
Driving here, driving there, painting a smile on my face, or gushing tears almost everywhere. At one point someone in our community shared with a friend that they found me to be unfriendly, and wondered why I had not been more gracious towards her. I was too busy trying to keep myself together, that night was my first night out since the accident. In essence for a few moments, the spinning had stopped. But now I needed to add to the spin cycle classes: how the mother of a severely injured person should behave. With spinning came the need for perfection, and everyone’s approval. Our community was watching, and I was not going to let anyone down.
About a year and a half post-injury, maybe even two, my mom and I had a blowup. We sat in my car at a pull off, overlooking a body of icy cold water, and she told me that I needed to slow down. She asked me what I was doing all of this for, and how in the world I expected myself to keep up. Both of us understood that spinning is part of what I do, and nothing would change that. What I could change was my recognition that I could better manage each cycle. I admit, spinning helps me feel less. My mom called me out on this, and it hurt, but it was true.
If I am busy with every little thing, then I don’t have time to be sad, angry, feel hopeless or miss our lives and the son I knew before. I can diminish the magnitude of Taylor’s injury. It just won’t hurt as much, until it hurts like hell and can’t be ignored. So here is what I learned in my own version of spin class.
- No matter how much you spin or whatever you do to ignore your ache, it will catch up. Give yourself the freedom to just be, to feel, and to sit in stillness and accept what has and is happening. You will survive the quiet, and it can actually help you heal. Quiet helps you hear yourself, and when dealing with an ongoing diagnosis, that self often becomes diminished.
- Give yourself permission to step away. Caring for a loved one who is suffering is draining. No one can do that endlessly. I fully regret not letting a friend come and steal me away for an hour or so when Taylor was in the hospital. The world will not fall apart if you let someone else take care of you for a few moments. In fact, it may come back together in a small, but recognizable way.
- You can’t change your emotional makeup, especially in times of crisis, but you can recognize and improve unhealthy patterns. The whispers that remind you that your other kids need you, or you are hungry for real food, or that you need a break from the hustle of caregiving, are all reminders that your own care pattern, for yourself, matters. Hear those whispers; they present themselves for a reason.
- Let go of the extra stuff. This was so very hard for me. I wanted to please everybody. I wanted to do everything. I wanted to fix everything. Eventually, I realized the doing and fixing were crushing me. Too much is too much. Be loving, be gracious, and be gentle with others…and um, also yourself.
- Know your goals and stick to them. Part of the conversation with my mom was discovering what was most important to me. Choose to be faithful to what matters most. I needed to put down the other worries for a while, and focus where my heart called me to focus.
Over the last year, I have given myself a break for my imperfections. I have celebrated the brave occasions when I say no. And I have graciously accepted love shown to us and understood that I don’t have to go overboard in expressing gratitude for that love. In full disclosure, I am still spinning, and I will probably never stop, but I do it in a way that recognizes when the cycle is getting out of control. I’d like to close with some worthy advice, “Put the world down, it’s heavy.”
From my heart to yours, as a caregiver, mother and fellow love warrior.