Caregiving and the Couple: From Self-Sacrifice to Self-Preservation

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Have you ever been faced with caring for a very sick or terminally ill spouse or significant other?   Perhaps you are struggling right now, unsure how to navigate your loved one’s medical and day-to-day needs while maintaining a healthy and balanced life for yourself.  Read on to learn about one woman’s challenging journey and how, with the help of a caring therapist, she found hope and meaning in her life again.

Jane and Tim were both in their fifties when cancer struck Tim. They got married right out of college. They had two sons and a daughter, and they had recently become “empty nesters.”  Jane was enjoying sleeping in on the weekends and going to yoga for the first time.  But Jane’s life was about to change, and she would be tested in ways she never imagined.  

When Tim starting getting sick, Jane assumed she could handle it. She was a go-getter and a multi-tasker. She worked full-time in her own successful marketing business, she volunteered when she could, and the family took vacations every year. Jane always persevered in life, even when the odds seemed not in her favor. She overcame a childhood illness, and her mother’s many sacrifices made an impression on her. But they also instilled in Jane a dogged determination.

Jane was used to compartmentalizing things.  She usually buried herself in her work. But some days Tim’s treatment and side effects were so debilitating that she had to set aside her life to take care of him.  She planned ahead. She bought and read books about food and recipes geared toward cancer fighting. Tim’s well being became Jane’s mission—even if it meant putting hers on the backburner.

Jane’s days were seized by anxiety. She couldn’t sleep. If Tim were asleep, she'd sneak her iPad off the nightstand.  She searched for articles on his diagnosis and prognosis. She bookmarked research articles. She read blogs from cancer survivors. She attended many of his doctors’ appointments. She questioned medical staff at every turn. All the while she wasn’t eating well, and she stopped going to yoga. 

Her friends were worried about Jane.  Maybe she should see a therapist, they suggested, someone to listen who wasn’t family or friends. At first Jane felt it was unnecessary. But as the anxiety and exhaustion and fear of losing Tim continued, Jane reconsidered. She asked Tim what he thought about it. She was hesitant to tell him. She worried about appearing weak, unable to manage it all. But to her relief, he was supportive.

Going to therapy for Jane felt like a much-needed refuge from her daily life.  Jane started looking forward to her therapy appointments, and to having the space to cry, to doubt, to question, to laugh, and to triumph. It was very hard sometimes, to let her therapist truly see who she was, with all her perceived faults that she worked so hard to conceal. But her therapist made it easy for her, letting her go at her own pace. In return, Jane felt heard and supported. Most of all, she began to feel some relief.  Week by week she discovered she could continue to be her husband’s advocate and still have a life of her own.  She stopped trying to run Tim’s life.    

Through the therapeutic experience, she realized she didn’t have to feel as guilty or sad, and, she could actually work on giving up the control.   The anxiety and the fear didn’t go away completely. But through therapy Jane learned how to see it from another perspective and how to handle it differently. She learned to prioritize.  By taking stock of what she was doing, by taking a breath prior to barreling forward to tackle Tim’s next biopsy or blood test results, she found time to be herself again. She found the best of herself too. Her newfound outlook allowed her to be more present, less exhausted. She was more able to focus on what mattered most, and that was quality time with Tim and their kids.

For the first time in a long while, Jane felt hopeful that she could manage her life again. She felt her courage coming back, but in a different way. It required continued attention and practice, this newfound balance.  But she learned perhaps the most profound lesson of all—to accept that life often has its own course, its unknown paths.   Jane realized she could stay on the trail with steady feet even if she didn't always know where life was headed.  And it was going to be okay.  

Seeking out a therapist has the potential to bring added emotional support, clarity, and understanding during life’s most challenging times. This is true especially when our loved ones must lean on us a little more for their own well being.  Recognizing the need for extra support for yourself is perhaps the hardest step but may be well worth it in the long run.

 Disclaimer: To protect confidentiality, some personally identifying details have been changed.

To find out more about my services as a marriage and couples counselor, click here Couples Counseling

Diana M. Pash, MA, LMFT is a certified Solution-Focused therapist in private practice in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. To find out more about Diana click here: Diana Pash Therapy