Well trained in dysfunction

You’ve been practicing these habits for a long time and it will be hard work replacing them.

So said a good counselor after hearing another summary of my neurotic accommodations to life’s challenges.

While “normal” life invites us to try out personal training in dysfunctional thinking and behavior, care giving pretty much necessitates it.

Are you angry?  Practice holding it in because if you get loud or take a tone it will upset the person in your care.

Are you a people pleaser with crummy boundaries?  Keep pulling down your fences and pushing open your gates because you’re Just So Needed.  Where will those loved ones be without your sacrificial efforts?  I mean, the whole world might come off its axis if you stop.  And It’s All Your Fault.

Are you the addictive type?  Eat, drink, smoke or otherwise imbibe comfort, ‘cuz you ain’t gonna get it from healthy relationships (of which, it should be said over and over, you’re manifestly unworthy.)

20170715_131800A friend sent me this pro wrestling poster from our younger days.  Pro wrestling is a good simile for what I’m talking about here.  Yes, they train hard.  But it is to produce a product that is fake.

Hey, it draws cheers from the crowd if you do it right.  Even if all the pretense might leave you crippled.

My big discovery this week is that things are worse than I thought.  Why do you try to play God and take the world on your shoulders?, I’ve been asked more than once about my care-giving-supplemented anti-health training.

But that would be easy to address, wouldn’t it?  I mean, it’s a simple confession that my pride is taking on stuff beyond what a normal being can do, so the path of repentance is clear: identify the over-the-top stuff and leave it to God.

But what I realized this week is that I’m not playing God: I’m worshiping a false god, an idol.

Trying to make everybody happy and ensure good outcomes, the focus of my relentless training, IS NOT SOMETHING THE REAL GOD CLAIMS TO DO.

It is a fake god, a demon.  I’m not stepping into the middle of the universe to play God, which reality quickly corrects.  I’m wandering around in a phony universe, a simulation that maintains the lie and never delivers on what it promises and promises and promises.

Although a humiliating discovery, when I was able to express it I felt about 500 lbs. lighter.  Some restoration of health and sanity is already underway.

I wish I could say that it was like an exorcism and now the idol is gone and I’m back to reality and can’t we all just get along?  But there’s much more to do.

My working name for the idol is “FEAR.”  Fear goes back a long way in my life, taking up residence (at least as far as I can consciously regress) in childhood trauma that I’m not going to dump here.

But it now pervades everything. It warps decisions, it mocks every thought and stalks every experience.  It casts a smoggy haze over relationships.  Decades of care giving, with all the could-go-wrongs and worries that accompany it, helped FEAR embed and enlarge in my soul.

So I need to change my exercise program.  I need to pull down and smash the stones of which this great idol is built.

When people were dazzled by a great ancient temple, where political power and profit had displaced prayer and the presence of God, Jesus of Nazareth said, Yes, look at these great buildings. But they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another! (Mark 13:2, New Living Translation)

I’ve been repeating that – not one stone left on top of another – as the voice from the FEAR altar snarls in my consciousness.  My resistance training now must be pushing and pulling down worries and expectations over which I have no control, and stepping up to action where I can be responsible.  Saying NO more often.  Speaking for myself instead of bouncing back what I think someone expects me to say.

I hope this reaches some folks at the start of their care giving years.  Please, please, please: don’t smash yourself.  Smash the stones that are piling up – the false expectations that ask you to do things that aren’t necessary and/or by which you hope to gain some kind of elusive approval from the universe.

Smash your idol before its temple gets built.

Jerusalem Temple Stones Matt Kennedy

Jesus was right about that temple.  Matt Kennedy took pictures to prove it.

Upside Down

Well, not literally.  I’m not flipping the car or other antics described in the last post.

The publisher of my book about the care giving experience occasionally posts excerpts on the web.  One came up today, and it flips into that “upside down” feeling,

I guess it can’t be any other way. There is no magic cure for autism. You have to take in lots of advice and experiment with different approaches because what lifts the life of one autistic kid could be fruitless or even counterproductive with another.

upside down me

Care giving: actual footage.

The universal manual of “normal” parenting fails to help. Normal parenting is to yell if you spot an emergency in progress. But if we’d raised our voices and warned Joey, “Hey, put that down. You’ll put your eye out,” we’d be living with a Cyclops by now. You learn to use soft, reassuring tones to say, “Honey, you’re standing in front of an oncoming bus there. How about standing with Mommy instead?” You find yourself looking at the world upside down.

Care giving is a practice in which common sense and conventional wisdom take frequent beatings.  Which is why I try to share some spiritual perspectives here from time to time.  Misery loves company as it stands on its head, and it also cries out for help that can bring things into perspective.

And just like that…

ditch

He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire.  (Psalm 40:2)

…I was at the bottom of the ditch between north and southbound lanes of the Interstate.

I probably fell asleep at the wheel.  I know that one moment my car was heading north and the next it was turned west, running over an orange construction cone.  I managed to control the vehicle, not slamming on brakes and steering to roll with the the terrain.

I bumped down into the culvert, nosed the car north and, as it was running and did not seem damaged, was working to ease it back up onto the blacktop when I became stuck in the muddy bottom.

Smart phone, auto club, yada yada yada.  Just like that, I was winched out and driving home.  After a County Sheriff showed up and told me he wouldn’t ticket me for reckless driving and just chalk it up to stupidity.

Yeah, have a nice day.

Talking with my wife at home, I found out I’d been snoring the night before.  Full disclosure: I have sleep apnea and use a CPAP.  Came on just like that in my late 50s.  The mask must have slipped in the night and I was probably oxygen and sleep deprived.  The sun through the windshield warmed up the car and just like that, I was westbound on a northbound Interstate.

Just like that, we are old and do old folks’ stuff.  We fall asleep at embarrassing times and drive less aggressively but also less competently.

My wife talked about me needing to recognize my age and not turn around from a late night meeting and drive (which I had) to run right back to work early the next day (did that too).

Just like that, we were into a discussion about formerly easy household tasks that now seem like hard labor, changing diets, things with which we used to roll that now cause impatience, and other old people gripes.

Now, these are not unique to caregivers.

What strikes me is the way we didn’t accommodate the changes and evolve with them as we went along.  Just like that, they’re all in our face.  We didn’t age gracefully or go through midlife crises or any of that.  We went flat out as caregivers and just like that the role mostly went away and just like that we looked around and found ourselves aged.

So back to yesterday’s mishap – down in the ditch, just like that, my inner teenager represented as a compulsion to Instagram the picture of the tow truck setting up to pull me out.

I was struck by the cross-shaped apparatus being deployed atop that green hill not-so-far-away.  It’s the sign of life that Christians see by faith, and Jesus planted it right where we live, among the visible, sensually perceived signs of decay and death.

So my heart, mind and spirit are still in working order (assuming that meditating on the cross while being towed from a ditch isn’t a sign of mental degeneration, which can also arrive just like that.)

Anyway, as you come to the end of a season of care giving, you will find that a bunch of changes set in while you were so busy.  Be gentle with yourself as you recognize and adapt to them.

And don’t drive when you’re tired.

And if you’ve neglected it, commence a gentle turn toward things eternal: In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed.  Do not cast me off in my old age; forsake me not when my strength fails.  (Psalm 71)

Who cares for prisoners’ carees?

A friend who visits prisoners shared this piece that crosses into both of our areas of concern.

state penitentiary

A view of the South Dakota State Penitentiary, Sioux Falls

Care giving tends to be accepted rather than sought out.  It lands on many of us more like a meteor than like Santa sliding gently down the chimney with gifts.

Spouses, grandparents, foster families and others care for the dependents of people in prison.  They accept difficulties that none of us would choose:

FINANCIAL IMPACT OF INCARCERATION ON CAREGIVERS

Financial problems are extremely common for caregivers. Consider these key factors:

  • Family income averaged over the years a father is incarcerated is 22 percent lower than family income was prior to the father’s incarceration. (Western and Petit)

  • Seventy percent of children’s caretakers are over the age of 50. About 55 percent of children live with a caregiver who doesn’t have a spouse. And 19 percent live in households with four or more children living there as well. (Hairston)

  • Caregivers may have to make the decision to leave their jobs in order to take better care of the children. Those caregivers who are no longer working often exhaust their retirement savings in order to pay for the children’s needs. (La Vigne)

  • Forty-one percent of children in kinship care live with families with incomes less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level. (Hairston)

Prison Fellowship and others have creative programs aimed at supporting the care givers outside of the walls.

Care givers are easily overlooked as it is.  The shaming and marginalization of those with a loved one in prison can only add to invisibility.

One of those days…

…on which I woke up at a mellow pace, had a fruitful time in prayer, went to the gym, and am now brewing some coffee with little on the agenda until a friend’s graduation party this afternoon.

In other words, the kind of dawning weekend most folks desire, but which is too often eclipsed.  This is especially true over the years of care giving.  Weekends?  Holidays?  Vacations?  HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

20180515_123848I read a novel for a library book club (yes, I can go to things like that if so inclined these days).  The title evokes some of my perception.  Care giving calls on us to bury a good chunk of life, especially our many preferences if we are true to the task.

Aspects of who I am are being excavated these days.  It’s uncomfortable rediscovering them.  Was I lazy or a failure to have let them get buried?  Shouldn’t I have kept life in better balance?

Or are such burials loving sacrifices?

These and questions like them exercise my heart today.  I am thankful that I have the time and space to ponder them.

 

Strong mind, weak back

When advocating for our son’s placement in a group home, one of our arguments was our increasing age and the upcoming physical challenges of ’round the clock care for an adult with autism.

Now that he’s placed, our incredible wisdom is validated.

This week, Tim was diagnosed with something called “frozen shoulder.”  As the Mayo Clinic reveals,

Certain factors may increase your risk of developing frozen shoulder… People 40 and older… (Note: Tim’s about half past 40).

Even with Joey in a good group home, our age impinges on what we can do for him.  We just bought the new bed he needs, and Melissa’s call to the mattress place went something like,

My husband can come pick it up, but he’s got a shoulder thing.  Can someone there help him get the mattress on top of the van?  And can you tie it down for him?

Which is to say,

Silver Roses

An excerpt from our book showed up on our Publisher’s page today.  Hope it helps you get off of your own back.

One year, my wife and I planted roses all around our backyard. If we knew what we were doing, we would tell you that the flowers were called Lady Wilhelmina Sunburst Spectaculars or some such name. The reality is we went to the nursery and said things like, “Oh, let’s get some of those silver ones.”

Sure, we had red roses and yellow roses, but we were really excited by the bush that would give us silver roses. Our friends would stare and sputter, “Wow, silver roses. Never seen those.”

We planted the silver rose bush in a prominent angle of our fence line. It would be the eye-catching star of the backyard. We followed the nursery’s instructions about how deep to dig, how much to water, and whether it liked red or white wine with meals.

Our dog at the time was a burly malamute mix named Rocky. Evidently, he shared our interest in silver roses. We came home one afternoon to find Rocky lying on the grass, gnawing on the dug-up silver rose bush. After much arm-flapping and loud shouts of, “Oh no!” and “Bad dog!” we replanted the bush. Rocky was a good dog and left it alone. A few weeks later, we had our silver roses. That rose bush didn’t pout because a couple of beginning gardeners forgot to protect it from their dog. It just went back to making silver roses.

Our son Joey endured much because his caregivers were medical amateurs. We never spotted warning signs before a seizure caused him to bang his head on a TV stand, making him bleed profusely. He couldn’t tell us that a stomach bug had him dehydrated, and all we could do was watch the emergency room nurses give him an IV to re-inflate him like a tire.

But after incidents like those, he just took up wherever he left off. Our expertise—or lack thereof—didn’t bother him. He went back to his daily routines and loved us just the same. Joey is not what we made him or failed to make him. He’s always carried strengths of his own that we can admire as precious gifts from God.

We are part of a culture that takes responsibility for too much and assumes that our every word, deed, or thought will have a life-altering impact. Caregivers take that warped thinking to another level since we are in constant interaction with people who have special needs, and we assume that we will do them more harm by our perceived failures.

“For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16 NIV).

We are who we are. Others are who they are, too. Our impact on them is dictated as much by their own inner workings as by our intention and skill.

So let’s drop fear of failure from the one hand and fantasy futures from the other and concentrate on taking hold of what is true in the relationships entrusted to us by God in the here and now. Those placed in our care have special needs we can meet, but they are unique people and not just extensions of our lives.

Silver roses are not our creations; they are the beautiful flowers of tough plants.

No, you’re not crazy.

Well, maybe you are.  But since care giving puts a whuppin’ on body, heart and mind over time there’s no surprise that our lives reflect the damage.

I’m currently reading Being Mortal but Atul Gawande.  The author is a surgeon who also writes outstanding prose that invites the lay person to look at medical issues and medical professionals to look at the human impact of their work.

Yesterday, I read his description of an adult daughter caring for her father,

Taking care of a debilitated, elderly person in our medicalized era is an overwhelming combination of the technological and the custodial… The burdens for today’s caregiver have actually increased from what they would have been a century ago.  Shelley had become a round-the-clock concierge/chauffeur/schedule manager/medication-and-technology troubleshooter, in addition to cook/maid/attendant, not to mention income earner.  Last minute cancellations by health aides and changes in medical appointments played havoc with her performance at work, and everything played havoc with her emotions at home… 

She felt her sanity slipping.

Misery (or is it madness?) loves company, and I was reminded of what I wrote in the intro to Raising A Child With Autism,

Maybe you are an amateur trying to be caregiver, therapist, clinician, advocate, mommy, daddy and everything else to a loved one living with autism. You feel like a lone idiot with a leaky hose when the job needs a landscape company.

So if you’re out there feeling depressed, or enraged, or exhausted, or or or or… just repeat after Dr. Sheldon Cooper:

sheldon not crazy

Flashing before my eyes

Not my life, but my son’s life.  That’s what flashing before my eyes.

Today we have the meeting to set up his move to a group home.  All of the staff will be there, both the folks from his day program and from the house where he will live.

It’s a positive thing, of course, something for which we’ve (my wife and I) waited for a long time.

I can’t speak for her feelings, and I can only guess at our son’s, so I’ll shift to first person here.

I realize that my role in my son’s life is not over, but much of what I can do and shape is.  I’ve formed what I can in his life, second guessed myself to the point of agony, been critiqued and judged plenty from without, as well as encouraged and supported at precious points along the way.

I can look back on…

 

JOEY Yucaipa

 

…who Joey was…

 

 

Daves mom and joe

 

 

…who he’s become…

 

 

 

20170723_110957

 

 

…and ponder who he’ll be.

 

 

 

 

Something of me travels with him, of course.  And I pray that it is whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable (Philippians 4:8).  God knows and every day reminds me that there’s plenty of me that needs to be ignored and forgotten, and I can only pray that little of that drags along with Joey.

So a new leg of the journey commences, over territory we’ve not been and over which we’ll have ever diminishing control.  But ain’t that life.

An old priest I knew always included a warning in his message at the baptism of a child.  You (parents) know that you’re handing your child over to God now.  You’re no longer in charge of the outcomes.

As my life flashes before my eyes, and Joey’s plays across my imagination, I’ll trust that warning, and know that all of our lives are in the hands of the One who’s cared for us beyond all deserving.

 They will declare,  “The Lord is just!  He is my rock!  There is no evil in him!”  (Psalm 92:15, NLT)

Don’t Call Us

Our publisher’s site features a bit from our book today.

If you are grappling with frustration, especially if it’s born of perfectionism and the constant setbacks of care giving, you might find this little selection useful.

pathetic-7If our efforts to raise houseplants have been hit and miss, imagine some of the misadventures of raising a son with autism. Caregiving provides instant and constant experiences of inadequacy. Just as we’ve tried various strategies to keep the plants growing, we’ve sought out an array of therapies, settings, medications, specialists, diets and more to bring out the best in Joey’s life. And even with all that help, there are plenty of withered efforts to report.

It’s not all gloom and doom.  Some of the spiritual uplift (we hope) of the book comes in as well.

Hoping you have some good growth and blooming amid all your fails and weeds today.