We all have different personalities. Some of us are more private. Some of us are open books. Some of us are somewhere in between.
Personally, I am an open book. I do have private moments, thoughts and feelings, but overall, I am open. I am open to new ideas, I am open to sharing emotions and embarrassing moments. I am open to admitting my weaknesses in the hopes that others will not only see me as real and honest and forthright, but they will see that it is ok to not be perfect and to have faults of their own. We all do. No one is immune from culpabilities. It is part of being human and part of being vulnerable. Vulnerable. We all are. But it is sometimes easier to pretend we aren’t. It is easier to cast a hard veneer around ourselves in the hopes that nothing will penetrate our weak spots. We are scared of being hurt, of being laughed at, of being an outsider or different. We are scared of needing someone and having them walk away or let us down. Especially as a caregiver where you are already feeling so out of whack and out of sorts. Most of the time you don’t know if you are coming or going. How can you expect anyone to understand and want to be your friend? How can you invite them into this world you don’t even completely comprehend?
Fortunately for me, I did have younger kids and so more people offered help because they saw me struggling not only to care for Jim, but for the children as well. But what about those who are older? Maybe you don’t have the opportunity to get out and meet new friends and your current friends have their own health issues. Maybe they are dealing with an ailing parent of their own or have retired and are traveling the world.
So, you are left feeling alone and maybe even a little bitter. Loneliness sets in and you become more and more isolated. And as your loved one progresses and you are burdened with more and more emotionally and physically, you feel less like yourself and less like calling someone for help. It is a perpetual downward spiral.
Stop. Stop the spiral. It isn’t easy and will take a conscious effort. But it is imperative for your sanity and your health.
When you have young children and are working out of the home, it is easier to make new friends. As you and your kids age, it can become more difficult to meet new folks and expand your friendship circle. If you retire or stop working to care for your parents or spouse, you stop with opportunities to encounter new people. And by some chance if you do, what do you say? At what point in the conversation do you bring up your husband who is terminally ill? Or that you are taking care of your parents 24/7 and aren’t able to get out much? What do you tell them to keep the interaction “normal.”
While Jim was home and was progressing with his Younger Onset Alzheimer’s, I would meet other parents at school functions or at the ballfields or somewhere at an event. It seems I always had in the back of my mind that I needed to explain our situation. Explain the craziness. Explain why I wasn’t myself. Explain why I wasn’t working out of the home or when I still was, why I couldn’t just leave the kids at home with their Dad to go to a function. There was always a decision to be made on when and how to tell someone. It was easier to just keep my circle close, not try to expand and include anyone new and hope and pray that the close friends I had would be the ones who could get our family through. And they did. With flying colors.
Now I have started making a concerted effort to meet new friends. People who never knew Jim. They didn’t know me when I was his caregiver. When I was stressed and running ragged. They see a different Karen. They see someone I don’t. I still feel the overwhelming anxiousness of being a caregiver: What is coming next? What should I be doing? Am I doing enough? And on and on. It sticks around for a while.
But making new acquaintances and getting to know them and learn from them and move on as a different person, a new person, is imperative to healing and growing. I wish I would have been able to do so when Jim was alive.
When is the last time you met someone new? When you met them, did you rush through the conversation to get it over with so you wouldn’t have to explain too much? Did you trade information so you can contact them again? What are you doing to expand your circle? What are you doing to keep yourself from becoming isolated?
Old friends who knew your loved one and have been there with you as you have navigated this most precarious time will become special and even more cherished. But new friends, friends who don’t know the baggage, will bring new ideas, thoughts and energy into your life.
If you meet someone and tell them your situation and they walk away, are you really worse off? If you meet someone and tell them your situation and they stay and become another beam in your support system, are you better off? What do you have to lose?