|Image by Ulrike Mai via Pixabay|
I recently experienced a pretty nasty bout of caregiver burnout. In fact, I'm still trudging through the final stages of it.
And I want to talk about it.
Caregiver burnout isn't necessarily a "taboo" topic in the caregiving world. It's been written about over and over again. But most of the articles I see about it are centered around how to avoid it. And while some of the advice I've read in these articles is helpful, the stark truth about caregiver burnout is that it can't be avoided.
If you are a caregiver - particularly if you're a full time caregiver for someone who needs care 24/7 - you WILL experience caregiver burnout. And you'll very likely experience it more than once.
Caregiver burnout isn't this one-time-only, exclusive experience where you hit rock bottom. And the path to recovery often doesn't involve a work out regimen, a complete overhaul of your diet, or an impromptu getaway. That's all a glamorized version of how it works.
Because caregiver burnout is messy. And coming out of it usually means just getting back to a place in your life where you're juggling chainsaws instead of dropping them all over the place.
Caregiver burnout is like falling into a pit of lightning sand, clawing your way out, only to find that you're still living in the Fire Swamp.
I am a full-time caregiver to my husband Jeff who has a spinal cord injury from a diving accident in 2013. I have been his hands and feet for the last six years. I think that by nature, a caregiver's life is overwhelming. If you're taking care of someone else, that means you're also taking care of yourself - or trying. And taking care of everything else like meals, cleaning, bills, kids, pets, appointments ... you get the idea.
Caregivers learn to live with - and operate within - the overwhelming. Burnout happens when the overwhelming becomes too much.
I absolutely despise quotes about not being given more than you can handle.
"God won't give you more than you can handle."
"It is not more than you can handle. It is more than you thought you could do."
"This is your reminder that you can handle whatever this week throws at you."
Let me tell you how well I handled my most recent breaking point.
It was last week. I could feel the burnout coming on. My husband hadn't been feeling well. His stomach issues were acting up again. He was talking about the possibility of having to go to the hospital - again. Hoping this time we could convince doctors to try more tests. Hoping for answers. I was going about my daily overwhelming caregiver routine with the extra weight of anxiety about a possible hospital visit.
I need to make a list of what to pack. I need to make sure Evie is prepared. She wasn't understanding her math last night. We need to go over it tonight so she doesn't fall behind in school. I need to do laundry. I don't have clean socks. The last hospital visit I had to wear the same pair of socks for four days. I need to check the pool chemicals in case we're gone for a week. I don't want to come back to a green pool.
My caregiver brain was on overload. I couldn't seem to calm it. And I couldn't find any time for myself either because my to-do list just kept growing.
But then Jeff had an afternoon where he was feeling a little better. I got him up in his wheelchair, and he joined us for dinner and watched TV in the living room into the evening.
And when it was the usual time to get him back to bed, he said he wanted to stay up a little longer.
Suddenly I found myself with thirty minutes of that rare gem that so often eludes caregivers ... time to myself.
I sat down in the bedroom with my crochet (my "me-time" activity) when it happened.
Our daughter Evie called from the bathroom. "Mom! The toilet is clogged." I closed my eyes and tried to push down my rising anger. I told myself I'd plunged the toilet a million times. This would only take a minute.
I plunged. The water started to recede - a bit. But not all the way.
So I flushed. And plunged some more.
The water started rising. I was plunging furiously. When it was an inch from the top, I knew there was no way to hold it back. And by the time it started spilling over, splattering all over the floor, my tears were already streaming down my face.
I wasn't just crying. I was sobbing. Loudly.
My thirty minutes to myself were gone. They were replaced with:
- sopping up toilet water with towels
- mopping the bathroom floor
- cleaning the toilet
- starting laundry
I did it all through chest-racking sobs. I smashed the mop into the wall so hard that I broke it. I wanted my thirty minutes back, but I couldn't have them because I knew what was waiting for me on the other side of this sh*t show. I had to get my husband back to bed, charge his wheelchair, feed him a snack, do two breathing treatments followed by suction, empty his urine bag, change his colostomy bag, brush his teeth, give him his night time medication, then get myself ready for bed.
I was furious.
I was defeated.
I was falling apart.
I definitely wasn't "handling" any of this.
That was my burnout moment. The moment where overwhelming became too much. Funny how the moment itself didn't have anything to do with caregiving. It usually doesn't.
I spent the next day in a fog, exhausted from my emotional breakdown. I spent the next week in a funk. I did everything I had to do as a caregiver - as a mom - as the able-bodied adult for our family and our home. I didn't miss a beat. But the moment one speck of extra tipped my full plate, my emotions raged.
I wasn't on my period. I wasn't PMS-ing. I wasn't being irrational. I wasn't acting hysterical.
I. Was. Burnt. Out.
So what happened? How did I turn this burnout barge around? Let me tell you, it wasn't instantaneous. But there was a definite shift once I did a few things.
I slowed down a bit. I let some things fall off my plate, and I didn't freak out about not picking them back up.
And for a couple days, Jeff and I did something we don't normally do together. We binge-watched one of our favorite TV series. In a block of a few hours each day, we finished season 3. We talked about it and analyzed it. We reconnected with one another. And I recharged my fizzled out batteries.
It wasn't easy. I kept saying out loud to my husband how guilty and lazy I felt sitting there just watching TV when there was laundry to do and a kitchen to clean. When his toenails needed clipping and his hair needed washing. But he was adamant in telling me that I wasn't being lazy. That I was doing exactly what I needed to do in order to keep going.
Sometimes caregivers need to be reminded of that.
I'm not a medical or mental health professional, so if you're a caregiver, I can't officially offer you advice on the topic of burnout.
But I am a caregiver. And I've experienced burnout on several occasions. If you're a caregiver, chances are you have too. And I'm here to tell you that it's okay to burn out. It's okay to break down. It's okay to not handle it with grace and dignity.
I honestly think that going through a burnout is kind of a right of passage as a caregiver. I really don't think you can avoid it.
But I know you can get through it.
I'm not going to list the ways because so much depends on individual situations and comfort zones. But I'm hoping that by sharing what's worked for me encourages you to find something that works for you.
Sometimes just knowing you're not alone can help begin to pull you from the weight of the ashes.
p.s. If you're wondering what the TV series was that helped lift me from the pit of burnout, it's about a woman continually pushed beyond her breaking point who charges forward despite her abysmal circumstances. Here's a two-word hint: Praise Be.