For more than thirty years, I’ve been a caregiver for my wife through a medical nightmare that continues to bring new challenges—often daily. With a surgery count that has mushroomed past six dozen, and treatment by now nearly 100 different doctors, this journey shows no signs of slowing down. Along the way, I’ve had ample time to make virtually every mistake one can make as a caregiver. Sometimes, I feel like the “crash test dummy of caregivers.”
Through this journey and through all the mistakes, I’ve also gained hard-won wisdom, and experienced teachable lessons on the challenges, predicaments, and heartache of the caregiver.
One of those teachable moments came following a snowmobile excursion in the forests of Montana with our youngest son, Grayson.
Ten miles from the paved road in a tiny town in Montana, my wife’s family’s home backs up to the national forest. No stranger to snowmobiles, Grayson, and I took off into the mountains and traveled deep into the vast Montana wilderness one afternoon. Trails are marked by reflectors posted periodically on trees, and if you are not paying attention, it can be easy to miss one of those markers. Although logging in many hours on those trails, this particular day was a windy one, and the fresh snow covered any tracks from previous riders made along the trail, and I missed a marker. Grayson and I found ourselves on a slope, in a deep snow drift, and my machine sank into the drift—and quickly became stuck.
Getting a sled out of deep snow is not too bad if you have two people, but the problem was, I didn’t know where I was. We’d have to work to get the machine freed and somehow make it back up the hill (in the soft snow) and find the marker. So if we spent all our energy digging the machine out of the snow, we still ran the risk of getting stuck even worse unless we knew where the trail lay, and could get our bearings there.
As the sun lowered over the peaks, the temp dropped. The wind howled and snow whipped around us, and I have to admit I felt more than a little unsettled. I wasn’t thinking about the house; I wasn’t even thinking about five miles down the mountain. I simply wanted to find that next marker, navigate to a place of safety, and get my bearings.
After a systematic search using Grayson’s machine, which he had kept back away from the soft drifts, we found the marker. Then, we worked together to free my sled from the deep snow. With my heart racing, I gunned the machine, felt it take hold, and made a beeline for the marker and the trail—where I knew the packed snow would make it easier to navigate, and give me a moment to catch my breath.
Arriving on the trail, Grayson and I then safely headed down the mountain.
Now, why was this a teachable moment for me as a caregiver?
We caregivers often find ourselves stuck in precarious circumstances—with deteriorating situations. Even if we spent the resources (money, energy, time) to get “unstuck,” we don’t often know where the path to safety is, and we risk getting in an even a worse spot—with fewer resources.
We need to know where the marker is. Stuck in that snow drift, I wasn’t thinking ten miles down the trail; I wasn’t thinking five miles down the trail. I just wanted to find the next marker and regain my bearings.
As caregivers, we often can’t think years, months, or even weeks down the road. We simply have to take the next right step and stay on a path to safety—and follow the markers to stay on a trail that is often hard to see.
In that snow-covered field, I couldn’t simply walk around. The snow was so soft that I sank up to my waist at times and had to be careful where I stepped. Each time I floundered in the snow, I risked getting hurt, wasting precious energy, stepping into a covered hole, and even compromising the ability of my son to help me.
This is our daily life as caregivers, but we often push ourselves to deplete what meager resources we have (physically, emotionally, and financially), and many of us get hurt in the process.
The markers are there, if we look for them. They’re a lot easier to find if someone who knows the trails helps point to them.
The first and easiest marker to find when we are freaking out and don’t know what to do is to “Do the next right thing.” Sometimes we work ourselves into a froth living way out in the wreckage of our future, and we’re paralyzed with fear in the present. The next right thing may be to just take a nap, have a bowl of soup, make an appointment with a physician or a counselor for ourselves, or call a friend. We don’t have to figure it all out in one afternoon. As caregivers, we simply encourage one another to do the next right thing, and before long, we will see a pattern of healthy choices.
That’s good to know, because “Healthy Caregivers Make Better Caregivers,” and today’s a great day to start being a healthy caregiver.™