Coping with Caregiving: Misery or Adventure?

When my kids were young, a trip to the grocery store could be a nightmare.

“I don’t WANNA go to the grocery store! I HATE the grocery store!”

And my response from the time they were quite little was,

“You get to choose whether this will be a miserable experience or a fun adventure. We have to go grocery shopping, so which do you want to choose?”

They didn’t always choose “a fun adventure.” Sometimes they were just determined to be cranky and mad.

But when they DID choose “a fun adventure,” what do you know? It almost always was!

They’d discover the cheese samples, or someone dressed up funny, or other children, and once a bird flying through the store!

And they’d skip around, cheerful, and go find things from my list… as if this was their favorite activity of all.

Life is exactly like this.

Everyday we have a choice whether to make it a miserable experience or a fun adventure.

Regardless of our circumstances.

Wait, before you click away from this, I realize that you might be feeling, “Sure I can see this for other people, but you don’t know what I’m facing!”

You’re right, I don’t, but luckily this can work in even the grimmest circumstances.

Of course some circumstances are so much more challenging to shift than others. But we’ve all met people in the most horrific situations who manage to show up as peaceful, grateful, and fulfilled.

My commitment is that you have THAT experience.

So how do they do that?

They do it by consciously shifting from “what are my feelings about all of this,” to “what am I committed to?”

I was more than a little bit resentful about taking over Cheryle’s care and management of, well, pretty much everything.

After all, she’s not MY mom. 

But I love my husband, Curt, and he was completely burned out, and his sister was missing in action. It had become a struggle to find the funny, gentle, kind man I married underneath the stressed out, angry, resentful caregiver he’d become.

And so I took over for him. So I could have my husband back.

At that point I had chosen to merely endure….

…Which is a pretty wretched space to live in.

And after just a bit of that, I decided it was going to be pretty hard to do everything I’d signed up to do and not end up like Curt had.

It reminded me of that phrase I had used so often with the kids…. “You get to choose whether this will be a miserable experience or a fun adventure.”

I needed to find something– “an adventure” –I could really commit to. 

In the beginning I wasn’t terribly fond of Cheryle, so committing to an adventure of fun or friendship seemed completely unrealistic.

As I mulled it over, I realized what I was authentically committed to was her safety and wellbeing. I didn’t want her scared or in pain.

So that’s where I started.

Each day when I’d be working on stuff for her — whether it was on her medicaid application, or cleaning her kitchen — when I’d feel some self-pity roll in, or irritation, I’d catch myself and remind myself what I was committed to.

Getting her on Medicaid would ensure her safety and wellbeing. Having a clean kitchen would help keep her food safe, and make her feel better about where she was living.

And each day I measured my tasks and accomplishments against my commitment to her safety and wellbeing.

Each tiny bit of progress toward that commitment had me feel good–actually really good–like I’d done something meaningful for Cheryle and for myself.

Now you might be thinking, isn’t this just stuffing your feelings and putting a shiny veneer on top?

Not at all. The key is to feel your feelings but not become them.

Self-pity, resentment, bitterness, irritation — all of these are natural feelings, and there is no shame in feeling these. But wallowing there, allowing those feelings to become our experience of life only makes us feel worse.

Our feelings, when handled well, should be felt, noted, and allowed to slide right through us.

But more often than not, we treat these feelings like they are what’s most true about us. Yet our negative feelings often leave us feeling like victims… at the mercy of our circumstances. And there’s no power there.

A commitment, on the other hand, is a place of power. You generate it, and you can own it. And when you create a powerful commitment, it calls you into action… into causing things.

It gets you out of your head and into the world around you… where life actually happens.

Shifting from your feelings to your commitment is simple–it’s a decision you make every moment you notice yourself stuck in distressing and negative feelings–but it’s not easy.

It takes practice to catch yourself in the thick of the sludge, and in later installments in this series, I’ll describe some techniques that help me stay in my commitments.

In the meantime, experiment with this. I’d love to hear what you think…. What you have questions about… whether this works for you.


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