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.

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)

We’re being followed

Here’s a bit from Raising a Child With Autism, courtesy of the publisher,

I was more on top of weed-pulling in our first garden. I had the energy of youth, the pride of a new homeowner, and it seemed urgent. Likewise, in the early years of Joey’s life, we were young enough to run ourselves ragged trying to do everything: work on every skill and learning drill, coach him through every small task, try to keep him engaged, clean up after him, visit and consult every expert, and go to every seminar and meeting. As each year passed, we accepted more freedom just to say “no.” We accepted that there would be all kinds of needs and issues all the time.

We also learned more about depending upon others. I pay friends’ kids to pull my weeds these days. In raising a person with autism, there are free services and activities out in the community, and some for which you have to pay. Either way, there are good and competent folks who can enrich the life of a person who lives with autism.  

You can spend all of your time pulling weeds. You’ll have a nicer garden, a sore back, and a growing sense of futility. The job is never done.

20160317_153607

Not another list

I know, I know, you try to chill with some time surfing the internet and you are bombarded with the 5 Things You Must Do and the 10 Things You Should Never Do and the 3 Things You Absolutely Must Stop Doing.

So many experts available to overhaul and repair our lives.

Bumped into a list this morning, but it’s good.  It’s not loaded with absolute, must, always, never or any of that arrogance.  Just four good ideas, especially if you’re not a caregiver but care about someone who is.

This one most resonated with me:

Time is the greatest gift. Many caregivers have told me that caregiving locks them into whirlwind daily routines of attending to others’ needs. Above all else, they miss time for themselves — to go to the salon or bank, read a book, clean the house or catch up on sleep. The greatest comfort you may offer is the gift of time. Offer to sit with care receivers while caregivers take a break. Pick up supplies for caregivers so they can stay home and relax. Try to make yourself available to listen as often as they need to vent.

Tony Gaines Starz

Yes, me (on the right) doing stupid guy stuff with a friend makes me a better caregiver.

Things you might consider small favors are solid gold to a caregiver.  YOU just being around can be a gift.  Even in the midst of a tornado of chores, an adult friend with whom to joke, whine, opinionate or otherwise have a peer level, non-care-giving interaction is a blessing.

Go check out the list of four suggestions.  You’ll find you have a lot to give by just being you.  And in caring for us caregivers, you are improving our peace, strength and focus to help those in our care.

 

Flurry of memories

20180414_132115Much of our region is shut in by a massive blizzard today.  The City of Sioux Falls is asking people to stay off of city streets, let alone risk country roads or the Interstates.

Now that we are empty nest, I find myself remembering the anxiety that would have accompanied this kind of day when we had our son at home.  Everything would be wrong and a potential meltdown: if the weather cancelled an anticipated outing; if it prevented fulfillment of a whim for some particular food that wasn’t in the house; if any daily routines were in disarray.

Boredom would make him edgy and mounting stress could issue in a seizure.  But he wouldn’t engage in activities we tried to share.  He’d generally vocalize some demand that was impossible to meet and his tension would escalate.

Today he’ll be in his group home.  He has his own room with a computer and movies in case he wants to be alone.  There are common spaces with things to do if he wants company.  And there are staff there with the residents doing what we used to do, and we are grateful.

Stressful days are not limited to snow days when it comes to autism and care giving.  School vacation or “in service” days, when routine is removed, can be walks through hell.

My respect goes out to all who are shut in today, be they people with special needs or their caregivers.  Whatever inconveniences and challenges most of us endure, they have an extra helping or two.

“I need help, please.”

I need help, please was a bit of expressive language that some good teacher or therapist helped our son with autism to use years ago.

For a person like our son, navigating an array of impairments like fine motor and personal care skills, the request is vital for opening a bottle of juice or getting to the bathroom on time.  (Of course he also learned to use it to enlist mom and dad for remedial action; I need help, please could signal a wardrobe change or a bathroom cleanup.)

It’s a sweet phrase in our family life.  It’s entered that volume of cute things the kids used to say, so my wife and I might raise our voice to a childlike tenor and say it if we can’t  find some item around the house.

But it came to mind in a more serious context this week when I asked a clergy friend about his Easter service at a residential care facility.

He shrugged and said, Well, there aren’t that many there to attend because they don’t have enough staff to house the population they used to.

help

From here.  They need help, too.

I need help, please.

People with special needs need family caregivers.

Family caregivers need professional allies in public and private agencies.

Public and private agencies need good human and financial resources to support individual and family needs.

The need for help is broad, but energy, money, time, staff, space, love and other resources can be in short supply; either hard to find or quickly exhausted and slow to replenish.

It’s a tough and perennial problem, even for the ultimate caregiver,

And Jesus said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  (Luke 10:2)

I’m no Mary, he sure ain’t no Jesus…

When Joey was a toddler and we were at camp, the thought flooded my head like perfectly heated steam, while the sun poured into my skin like soft lotion. Some distant, bitter stranger, more like a stick-figure with a disproportionate index finger pointing at me was saying “That is blasphemy, you fool and you will writhe in the pit of Godless Hell.” My conscience made no sense of that brittle, screeching thing.

My thought was that Joey was Jesus and I was Mary. Well, not really. It was more like it felt so perfect, that the love was so pure that it had to be the same love. I thought of my other two children. Did I love them less? I loved them as much, no second thought. Immaculate Conception? Did any reader who barely knows me remain in their chair at that thought? Lastly, Joey had never spoken but one word: “tickle,” and at the time I did not know he would not begin to speak until he was almost five years old. Nothing exceptional about either of us, to the outside world, rather unnoticeable unless misbehaving. 

Misbehaving? I shall not digress much but a doctor has mended a gash in my cornea after one of Joey’s meltdowns. As for me, it took a couple of exceedingly large women walking slowly, diagonally across a mall parking lot, no crosswalk, not looking, got an earful from me and yes, I was sober. To my husband’s chagrin, I was shotgun. 

Back to camp. Joey was 2 years old. He had been diagnosed with severe autism 2 months earlier. Out here in the open, running, clapping or flapping his hands in the fresh-cut grass, he had very few sensory issues. An “older” mother, I was 41.

Now I am almost 62, Joey is 24 and I am thinking perhaps God needed me to love him as deeply as Mary loved Jesus to get through the years of violence and injury he brought, mostly to me because I was physically the weakest, emotionally the most vulnerable, and although autistic, he was smart-enough to know it.

And if that was not enough there were the “outsiders:” every  wise-ass parent who saw a neuro-typical looking child like mine behaving badly and concluded it was my bad parenting, or the parent of another autistic child who had all the answers… I should not have immunized him as I did my other 2, I should have spent tens of thousands of dollars for some amazing camp run by people who looked like the people who used to hang at Haight-Ashbury which would “cure” him. Lastly, the 6-figure paid government employees who knew nothing about education but decided what kind of help my son and other children like him would not receive. Those meetings were tortuous hours.

I still feel the overpowering love that I can only guess Mary felt for Jesus, who was helpless to the world. Of course it is completely different. Of course it is not.

 

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

A dish best served with a smiley-face flower

The news is that agency staffing issues will delay our son with autism’s move to a group home (which seemed imminent about ten minutes ago) until mid-October.

Meanwhile, he’s descended upon us with increased nagging and bargaining for his Christmas list (yes, he starts early).  Mom and Dad are both on the ragged edge right now after bouts of illness and long work hours, so the din of his demands is a mental and emotional pummeling.

Yesterday we began to dish up a big ol’ plate of vengeance.  He came home from his day program with this very sweet guide to respectful communications:

20170824_173707THINK Before You Speak

T – is it True?

H – is it Helpful?

I – is it Important?

N – is it Necessary?

K – is it Kind?

BTW we stipulate that this is sound advice, not just for empathy-impaired people with autism but also for married couples, workplace relationships, social media, etc. etc. etc.  The world could be a much better place – Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29, The New Testament)

And yes, that’s a rack of his daily meds at the bottom of the picture.  I’m so tired that I gave up on the photo cropping function and I don’t much care.

So we used this against him with great delight,

Joey:  Be a good boy there will be presents?

Hateful parents:  Joey, is it NECESSARY to talk about presents today?

Joey:  When it’s winter there will be presents.

Atrocious parents:  Joey, is it HELPFUL to talk about this before the snow comes?

Joey:  When the snow comes there will be presents.

Should-be-arrested-and-executed-parents:  Joey, is it KIND to keep talking about presents?

Hey, you find respite where you can get it.  That’s care giving.  And it makes even a smiley faced flower stink some days.

 

What’s left

We are almost sitcom laugh track worth ’round here today.

Joey, our 23 year old with autism, has a nasty cough and is home in a NyQuil haze.  He’s intoning Disney movie lines in a voice that sounds like the audio of a slow motion replay.

Melissa (mom/caregiver) is suffering from a double shot – one shot of staying up all night to care for Joey and the other a shot of recurring pain from a chronic illness.  She’s closed her eyes for a few minutes (btw I think she’s pretty when she sleeps but that’s just editorializing and so I’ll move on).

Tyrion Aftermath-of-the-attack

Tyrion Lannister visits our living room today.  From here.

I (Tim – dad/caregiver) am sittin’ here typing this while my eyes keep closing and head drops on the verge of sleep.  I have the day off but I’m sleep deprived from some kind of phantom leg pain (possible arthritis although disc problem is another one the doctor threw in to consider).

We are all beat up in one way or another, but not by one another.  If anything, there’s a tenderness in the house that is surprising given how cranky pain can make any one of us.

When all else fails (and hey, what doesn’t when you’re a caregiver?), your kindness remains a gift to those in your care.  On days when all of you are hurting, you find out that everyone in the household is a care giver and a recipient of care at the same time.

Letting another’s head rest on your shoulder is a successful intervention, “How are you?” is deep communication and “Sit down, I’ll get that for you” is heroic service.

Sometimes what’s left is you, and you’re plenty.

I sent a prayer request to a friend in the midst of our family sick day, and what he sent back says it pretty well,

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)