A Caretaking Life

I’ve been a caretaker pretty much my whole life. Even in elementary school I was the one who fussed over my friends and tried to take care of them. (I blame my parents for not giving me the baby sister I kept asking for. LOL) I spent my twenties and early thirties taking care of a partner who had significant undiagnosed mental illness, and who progressed from occasional depressive episodes to delusions and agoraphobia so bad that I had to handle everything that involved dealing with the outside world, even by telephone. I stayed in that relationship until it was almost literally killing me, finally escaping (despite my partner’s threats of suicide) in my mid-thirties.

After a couple years being single, half of which was spent taking care of a roommate with substance abuse issues, I met the man who would become my husband. He was smart and funny and passionate and insanely talented – and bipolar. He was managing it pretty well with medication for the first year or so that we were dating, but as time went on he couldn’t keep it together and I stepped in as the caretaker. Again. He lost two jobs in a row because of his depressive episodes, and I ended up supporting both of us. Again. He had two suicidal episodes that I know of in the six years we were together, before completing suicide in March of 2010.

We were passionately in love and he was my best friend. I thought my life was over when he died. I was finally healing from that loss and just starting to be able to appreciate the freedom of not having to take care of anyone but myself, for the first time in my adult life… when it became obvious that my mom needed me to take care of her.

At first, I’ll admit, I resented that. I wondered, when will it be my turn to take care of me? Is living my OWN life and not the life of a caretaker really too much to ask? I tried to arrange things so that my mom would be safe and well cared for without intruding too much on my daily life. I was afraid of becoming Laura Linney’s character in “Love Actually,” who lets responsibility for her disabled brother keep her from having even one romantic encounter, much less an actual relationship.

Over time I came to realize that I worried about her and felt responsible for her well being no matter what I did. Over time my attitude shifted and I stopped carefully guarding my free evenings and limiting the time I spent with her. I stopped worrying about when I would find time to date or write my memoir. I surrendered to being her caregiver.

During the last few months, when I feel anxious or frustrated about the level of care she’s receiving, I’ve often found myself contemplating having my mom live with me. I’ve discussed it with my therapist and also with acquaintances who have experience being 24/7 caregivers for their parents, and everyone agrees it would be a bad idea for me to take that on. My therapist went so far as to joke that she would lie down in front of my car to stop me. I know they’re right. I can come up with a dozen reasons just off the top of my head why it wouldn’t work out well to have my mom live with me. Why, then, does it sometimes sound so appealing, so right?

I had an “ah ha” moment today. This business of being responsible for someone as vulnerable as my mother is now, it’s scary. And I think it’s human nature in a scary situation to gravitate toward what feels familiar. The caretaker role is a comfortable and familiar one for me. I’ve been practicing it all my life. It would be easy for me to fall back into that role as my primary identity. Easier than learning how to advocate for her care in a facility, as I’ve never been good at confrontations. Easier than delving into the painful loss of my husband for my memoir. Easier, let’s just admit it, to let my mom be the excuse for why I don’t date than to risk my heart again.

In reality, of course, there would be nothing easy about living with my mother and being responsible 24/7 for her care, especially as her dementia progresses. I would most likely grow resentful and it would poison the close and loving relationship we have. I owe it to both of us to make a different choice – to choose, for the first time in my life, to give my needs equal priority with the responsibilities of caretaking. The real challenge here is to maintain that balance so that both of us can be as healthy and happy as possible.

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