You are the only child and you have just learned your dad is dying and you need to come home. You get a few sacred moments to talk to him on the phone. You love his voice. He tells you he had some delicious chocolate pudding. That was him, always trying to be positive and happy even as he was dying. In one of the conversations you facilitate a conversation with your step daughter. He tells her,”love your mother”. He also tells you to take care of your mom. You hear your marching orders and make a promise. You live in Saint Paul and your hometown is in Indiana. You are not prepared. You didn’t even have money for a plane ticket. Your cousins rally to get you there in your dazed and confused state. You, your, mom and your aunt visit with a few friends. You watch your dad’s blood pressure drop. You, your mom, and your aunt gather to hear your dad’s last breath. You hold each other. You hold your mom and physically shake in sobs that cannot be expressed here in words. You are here.
This is where my journey began as I transitioned into my new life. A role that I chose. A role that I would not change. It was a role I should have been more prepared for more than most, and I suppose my prior knowledge was helpful. Just a couple years before this I created and presented a workshop to support caregivers. I was a life coach and consultant. I originally supported young adults with disabilities but my attention turned to their caregivers, who also needed the help that the research behind my work could give. My research was concentrated on happiness, resilience, longevity, and flow. The parents of my clients were losing sleep, stressed out, not taking care of their physical bodies, and not addressing their own health issues because they were focused on caregiving. They were angels to their adult children. I remember one couple telling me they had decided as a result of the workshop to take a vacation for themselves for the first time in over a decade. I had no idea how hard it is to say yes to self-care as a caregiver until now. I really had no idea. I thought I did.
So how did the expert handle it? Well, I sort of sucked at it, but I have made some major shifts in the last 6 months. I took a job in my small town as a special education teacher. It was a high stress, somewhat thankless, and toxic job. I did that for two years. I worked all day every day. I even got a certificate for perfect attendance. Because the nature of my work required confidentiality and many potential friends in my town were more curious about any gossip they could get out of me than friendship, I chose to go to the bar, hang out with some farmers, windmill guys, truck drivers, landfill workers, and retail managers that were interested in simple things. Drinking, talking about nothing of great importance, and calling it a night. I loved these guys and gals. They were my community. Unfortunately, my one or two whiskey drinks a night turned into 3-5 a night. On the weekends, there was more time to kill, and I did not want to be fully conscious in my new life. I lost a lot all at once. The void was filled with drinking. It is embarrassing to say this, but I feel it is important to be vulnerable and say what is true. I made some unhealthy choices.
The home I left was pretty amazing. I lived in a very nice artist loft in downtown Saint Paul. It was a spacious, high ceiling, apartment with new appliances, modern design, and concrete floors so I could paint freely. We had a rooftop patio to gather. As an artist, to lived among artists, in the West Seventh neighborhood, Little Bohemia, I was in somewhat of a personal paradise. I had all of my friends that I made in the Twin Cities since I had moved myself there 28 years prior, I was surrounded by art, progressives, working class people, immigrants, politicians, the lakes and most of all the woods. Oh how I miss the Minnesota woods. In Minnesota I took African dance, salsa, was part of a country line dancing team, and could take dance format classes at the Y just about whenever I wanted. There were art museums, history museums, and science museums. There was amazing architecture. Minneapolis had the modern architecture. Saint Paul had the old. Minnesota offered me so much of what helped me feel my best. All of these things were so missed, but above all, and what kills me the most now, is my stepdaughter is there. We started having a better relationship when dad died, and now I am not there. I miss all of her stuff and feel somewhat trapped between the two remaining most important loves of my life, my mom and my daughter.
This state I am in, is very common. This demographic is called the “sandwich generation”. We are taking care of parents while being parents. This is just one demographic of caregivers.
For me these are the powerful steps I have taken over the last 6 months:
I moved into my own apartment, in a more progressive city, with more of my kind of people, although it was barely affordable with my teaching pay and I felt guilty for leaving my mom .
I fortunately, do not drink as much. As I got happier, it is not a focus anymore. Some people would need professional help to recover. I am grateful that I could take it or leave it in my new environment.
I became an OULA instructor– which is a dance format exercise program and taught for a while. This helped me find more of my people and get my body back to functional. The food in Indiana is delicious and I had been eating more and exercising less. I am trying to get back to eating mindfully and including more super foods.
I maintained a membership at my Y. I have started lifting weights and taking Zumba again.
I became an art teacher for a year. The pay was not good. The commute was long. The benefit was that I had a break from some of the greater stresses involved in special education and I got to focus on art and continue to work with children, my passions. I am now looking for a job where I can serve and use my talents, but also be more financially empowered to take care of my loved ones. I am also starting up my coaching business again because it my personal calling to help people through coaching and art. I feel it is time to make myself available again.
I have a lot of information and tools to help caregivers but for me, going through this personally, the most powerful step for me was to take control of changing my environment to the extent I could. We all need “sanctuary” from life. I needed a home of my own, where I could just be. I spend hours every day just day dreaming n my little peaceful apartment, at times, that if I were in my hometown, I would have needed a drink. I also need a place to work that is healthy. I need to work in a place where I am fulfilled and my financial needs are reasonably met by that work. Most of life is not a beach. Life is mostly work and home. If we can create good environments in both, life feels more in balance. My work is a life coach is to help clients find a plan they are willing to work at and hold them accountable to work that plan. For caregivers, there is often a need to have someone to remind them that self-care is not selfish. We take care of ourselves so we can take care of others.
Above is a painting of an elephant honoring their ancestors with their young at their side. I painted this the summer after dad passed. Elephants often return the to bones of their ancestors, pick them up and seem to peacefully remember their lost relatives. I lost my dad, I get to be here for my mom, I am doing my very best for my daughter. I deserve space to heal myself. If you are a caregiver, you deserve that, too. Take Care.
You can find more about this CDC recognized health crisis for caregivers at this link, https://www.cdc.gov/aging/caregiving/index.htm
If you want to set up an initial coaching session to see you can find sanctuary in the midst of caregiving, you can reach me at 651-331-1421.