Riptides

People speak of being “carried away.” When it comes to care givers, a depression or a rage can grab us for no apparent reason and take us on an unwanted ride.

I think that this has to do with accumulated stress and other emotions we have to swallow in order to give some kind of decent effort to those in our care. It isn’t fair for us to emote all over them, as they have plenty to bear as it is. At the same time, it isn’t fair for us to just walk away from them to deal with our stuff when they need our care. So there’s always the risk of burying some intense feelings only to have them pull us down later.

For those who might be landlocked, there’s a thing beach goers deal with commonly called a riptide. It’s an intense outbound current that can grab a person and pull them out to sea. The emotional messes I’m describing are like that – one minute we’re just wading through the day, they next we’re yanked into the depths of extreme emotion.

What to do?

The first and most obvious is to avoid the riptide. Lifeguards put out warning flags and signs when rip currents are detected. Those on the beach can enjoy the sun but need to stay clear of the water.

In care giving, this means taking advantage of all the self care opportunities one can, to stay out of a destructive emotional current. Basic stuff like diet, exercise and sleep; higher stuff like prayer, friendships and hobbies; as-needed stuff like counseling.

Problem is, when it comes to emotions, we tend to get stupid. That’s what dear departed Robert Palmer sang with allure…

“Where will it take me? What shall I do?” Care givers get as brain dead as lovers, I’m afraid. We let our emotions pull us in directions that are at best embarrassing and at worst deadly.

So if we can’t stay out of the water, we need to employ riptide survival strategy.

When caught in a literal rip current, one must not fight it. You can’t swim against it because it will just drag you out and leave you exhausted in deep water far from shore.

You actually go passive and kind of ride the stupid thing, because the current eventually peters out. You then swim parallel to the shore, not right back toward it, because the current is narrow and you can get around it. Once you stop feeling resistance, you can swim safely back to the beach.

All of which is to say, we just have to accept and ride out a foul mood from time to time. Much as we would like to do something about it, once it’s there, it’s there and fighting with it only exhausts us and takes us under.

We recognize this with physical illness. If we wake up with a head cold, we just know that whatever we do for the rest of the day will be less than our 100% best. Normal stuff will have a tinge of discomfort. Fave foods will be less tasty until the cold passes. We need to give ourselves that same permission to just accept the limitations of a crappy mood swing.

Is there any help to be had?

A swimmer pulled out by the rip current might eventually receive help from a lifeguard. If so, the right thing is to follow instructions – let the rescuer lead. Don’t panic, grab on and create danger to both parties.

In other words, don’t dump your mood on anybody – especially not the person in your care. Don’t take it out on the waitress or the customer or the friend who drops in. Feel free to say, “I’m in a bad place right now, I need to be alone.” Vent if someone offers you a shoulder to cry on, sure. But let the rescuer lead. Don’t grab on and start thrashing.

And if I didn’t say it up above, don’t exhaust yourself. Don’t let others confuse you with exhortations to swim harder against the current. Like the Sick Puppies say, “Floating down in my own riptide, the water is fine.” Give yourself time and space to ride it out.

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