After running herself ragged, trying to be the “perfect” caregiver, Jessica Walker realized she was not only doing herself a disservice, but her husband, too.
A supporter’s pain is real. When you care for someone experiencing trauma, you experience the trauma right alongside them. However, in my case (and perhaps yours, too), it was difficult to admit something was wrong. Whenever someone asked how I was doing, I brushed it off, saying, “I’m fine,” and moved back to talking about my husband. He needed support, but so did I.
It took me running myself ragged, to a point where I could no longer support him in the way I wanted, to realize this. I was exhausted, not only physically—from the lack of sleep and constantly running around—but also mentally. I was not seeking emotional support, and it was starting to show. I became frustrated more easily, felt overwhelmed more often, and convinced myself I was failing. The pressure to give everything I had ultimately stretched me too thin.
By trying to do it all, I wasn’t doing anything very well. My self-given “to do” list distanced me from Tommy. I had trouble realizing that slowing down and allowing myself to receive help would actually give me the time and energy to fully support Tommy in the way I wanted.
When you care for someone experiencing trauma, you experience the trauma right alongside them.
Looking back over the past year and a half, I’ve learned three things that have helped me most as a caregiver:
- Seek help when you need it—whether you want to or not.
- Take care of yourself first.
- Stay present.
Becoming a caregiver is like taking on ten full-time jobs—especially at the beginning. You feel the need to be everything for your person: their strength, their support, their shoulder, their assistant, friend, chauffeur, secretary, nurse, spiritual guide, chef, emergency contact, their calendar, and then, oh yes, their spouse (and in my case, their son, girlfriend, mother, and neighbor, too).
It’s hard to find balance. If your situation is like ours, you were probably blindsided, and didn’t know much about cancer at all. It’s difficult to help someone navigate something you’re both only beginning to understand while still making meaningful decisions in the middle of the storm. It’s like building the plane while you fly. I had to call doctors I didn’t know and ask questions I didn’t understand. I felt like I was stuck between treading water and drowning. I felt a sense of urgency that came from a place of uncertainty. I was not a doctor; I didn’t know if waiting an extra day for a test might cause the cancer to grow, or if choosing the wrong medication could change the course of treatment. You don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only option.
At the beginning of our journey, I wanted to show Tommy, myself, and the world that I could “handle it.” I wanted to convey confidence and positivity to help keep everyone at ease. I felt like I needed to take this on as the main communicator between our doctors and our support system. I wanted to convince myself that Tommy’s treatment was “no big thing,” and if it was “no big thing,” I could handle it on my own.
After a week of breakdowns, I had trouble getting out of bed, and when I did, I felt completely drained and useless. I noticed that Tommy was now trying to care for me rather than focusing on himself. I had tried so hard to be the perfect caregiver, and here I was, adding stress to Tommy’s life. Of course, we are a team, and there is a balance to this, but those few months of healing were critical to Tommy, and realizing I made it harder for him was a huge wake-up call.
However, the moment I realized I needed help, I felt overwhelmed. To admit I needed help was to admit that the problem was real. Asking for help was saying it was too big for me alone, and that meant it was serious. Asking for help meant it wasn’t a tiny blip; it was going to be a difficult road and we couldn’t yet see the end
I was spiraling, but much to my surprise, when I finally took the plunge and asked for help, it did not make me feel weak—it made me feel stronger. It was hard to ask the first time; I felt like I would be branded a failure or a bad wife or caregiver. But the truth is, no one will think less of you.
Rip off that bandaid and ask for assistance. Everyone wants to help, so let them in. When you let more support into your bubble, you are also better supporting your partner. Let someone bring food over. It doesn’t mean you’re terrible with time management and would otherwise let your partner starve; it just means that now you have more energy to spend in other areas, like having fun with them!
Putting your personal health before your partner’s may seem counterintuitive, but in order to do the best for them, you have to do the best for you: In order to provide the care they need, you have to be healthy.
It is easy to run yourself into the ground as you navigate this new role. I know spending time on yourself can feel impossible on a day that is already consumed by your spouse’s care. It feels selfish, but I promise, it’s just the opposite. Spend five to 10 minutes a day on yourself. Don’t think about cancer, or your partner. Have a cup of coffee, take a walk around the block, write in a journal, catch up with a friend, watch trashy tv, go to the gym, read a book— just do something for you. Taking this time will help you recharge and keep that deep physical and emotional fatigue from setting in. It will help you feel normal. It will help you know there is a world outside of cancer, and that you and your spouse will one day be back in that world.
This is the most difficult thing I’ve learned, and I’m still working on it. Every time I’ve fallen into a dark head space, it’s because I’ve let my brain leap ahead into the unknown. My worrying always starts with “what ifs” that pull me ahead of where we are right this moment.
Cancer treatment and recovery is in no way linear. There are twists and turns and ups and downs, and attempting to predict the future is impossible. I like to focus on the things I can control: I make sure Tommy is eating, that he’s hydrated, that I’m truly listening to what he’s saying. I try to meet him where he is on the day—not where I think he should be, or where I think I should be. I make sure our appointments are scheduled, and then let them go.
Life is full of surprises—some good, some bad—but when I jump ahead, all the surprises convince me they are the bad kind. Every time I’m able to pull myself back into the present and ask, “But how are we right now?” the answer is, “In this exact moment, we’re good.” Things may be up in the air, they may not be ideal, but if I can pull back and ground myself, I realize right in this very moment, things are OK. I can exhale.