Preserving Friendship Through Illness and Caregiving

Realistically, this feels too raw, too new, and way too recent to write about, but sometimes that is exactly what the heart yearns for.

C A T H A R S I S

My health had been declining, and I’d been aware. It was not something I was ready to admit, nor was I willing to accept. But, I was scared. I feared the fact that I hadn’t been eating. I was nervous that I’d lost 22 pounds (even though I could afford to,) I was terrified of the fact that the smell of food made me sick. I was quiet about the fact that I knew I’d been fainting and losing focus. I knew I was constantly fatigued. It was apparent something was happening with my vision. I knew this didn’t simply align with depression or anxiety. However, I didn’t want to know what was happening to me.

But recently, it became worse. More frequent. I couldn’t run from whatever this particular illness was any longer. I began having what a team of neurologists would ultimately deem non-epileptic seizures following a five-day hospital vacation.

I was lucky. I had an amazing support in an incredibly dear, though newer friend. In the throes of his very own life, work, and personal responsibilities he threw himself 100% into my care. He provided unconditional love, support, compassion, and care. However, in providing for me and helping to meet my needs daily he reached a point of burnout which I had made so many attempts to encourage him to avoid. If I had an opportunity to force him into practicing self-care it was my number one priority. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen often or easily.

During that time we shared so much, we grew closer, we learned more about one another, and oddly we established an odd routine in a terrible situation, we got comfortable.

But, he was a force to be reckoned with when it came to caring for himself. Unlimited care and concern for me left him completely on empty. He had no time for the things in his life that are necessary for his balance, stability, and health.

The friendship I became accustomed to has shifted significantly since my discharge. I would be lying if I didn’t take a moment to admit that a favorite part of my day is missing. His presence mattered, our friendship was valued, and my gratitude for him and his gentle care and concern is overwhelming. But we aren’t the same. The connection feels lost. The communication dwindled. I think both of us had a myriad of thoughts following this interaction and we chose a path of not openly discussing and taking the time needed. I chose the path. I couldn’t step back and give him the space he needed to heal after the high of caring for me wore off.

So, how do you protect your friends from burnout by encouraging self-care? And if they do burn out how do you repair damage caused by overwhelm and potential resentment?

I’ve spent a significant amount of time as this has unfolded meditating on these topics and I’ve settled on a few tips.

How to care for yourself while caring for others

Often the concept of self-care is one that is simply believed to be overindulgence, luxury, and being pampered. These are things that the average individual, let alone someone caring for another is able to squeeze into their daily lives.

Self-care, however, is a deliberate attempt to give to yourself in an attempt to preserve your overall health and wellbeing.

Caring for yourself in times when you’re concerned for someone you love can be difficult but you must remember it is necessary. How can you care for someone else without losing yourself?

  1. Take a dog for a walk. Yes, animals can be an absolute pain, but they’re also the best opportunity to get outside and remain present. Take time on your walk to observe the things around you. Enjoy the sunshine, listen to the sounds of nature, feel yourself breathe air in and out of your lungs. These mindfulness moments are rare in times of turmoil and man’s best friend can help you out. So if you don’t have a dog then grab someone else’s and get going!
  2. Go to sleep early. You can’t care for others if you cannot care for yourself. It might seem like a total drag to be in bed by 8:00 p.m. but, you’ll wake rested and ready to take on the day and whatever it throws your way.
  3. Kill the news, and kick up your favorite tunes. Staying up to date on current events is important, but it can also be incredibly stressful and depressing- seriously, Trump is the president. Set some boundaries for yourself and listen to a favorite band or podcast.
  4. Stay hydrated. This almost sounds silly but it is so easy to become dehydrated leaving yourself with fatigue and a lack of motivation. Coffee, and other stimulants that we rely on for that pep in our step, and even sleep are dehydrating. So, give your body a much-needed gift of water. It will thank you later.
  5. Put your wellbeing first. Often times when we are in the depths of showing love, concern, and care for others we make either a conscious or subconscious decision to set aside our own needs for a time which may be more convenient. If you delay your own happiness or don’t fulfill your needs in a timely manner you’ll find yourself slipping away and once you realize you’re gone too much time will have passed.
  6. Create a daily log of tasks of care for yourself. Break down your necessary tasks and things that contribute to your overall wellness and keep track of whether or not you’re performing them. These tasks could include daily meals, goals, medications, sleep, a gratitude list, physical activity and exercise, and daily hygiene.
  7. Practice Meditation. Whether guided or solo adding meditation to your daily list of things can and will improve your overall mental health, state of mind, and energy. Meditation lowers stress, increases happiness, and gives you an opportunity to focus on sorting out things you may not even know are bothering you.

Practicing self-care while caring for others will look different for everyone but it will aid in relieving stress, allow you to decompress and thus you’ll be able to be your best, most present self for your loved ones.

I failed to practice self-care, I’m burnt out, I’m resentful, my relationship feels broken…now what?

  1. Time and space are key. I’ve learned that the definition of time and space relative to healing is different for everyone. Regardless, it is important to take a deep breath, back away from the situation, and gather your thoughts and feelings. Make sure you are capable of processing the situation in a manner in which you don’t harm yourself or the individual you’re trying to care for.
  2. Surround yourself with those who fill your cup. When hurt, lost, or feeling neglected (even if you’ve neglected yourself) it is important to place yourself around the individuals in your life who make you feel most alive. Hold close the ones who support and feed your soul. Let those individuals remind you of who you are, that you’re OK, and allow yourself to be grounded by the presence of the loved ones in your life.
  3. Communication is tough, but making it concise, clear, and honest is the best way to navigate a situation such as this. Once you have chosen genuine authentic unconditional love and kindness time and connection will strengthen the bond you share with the person you care about. Reflect on why this bond is important. Communicate that to the friend or family member in question and openly discuss needs, expectations, and how you may help one another.
  4. Rid yourself of your frustration. It is natural, normal, and even common for individuals to become frustrated. Caring for someone else can feel like a burden that though you’re willing to take on you don’t realize how stressed you may become. It's important to release stress and keep it from hampering your otherwise good intentions.
  5. Forgive yourself, and forgive your loved one. Whatever happened is now in the past. Take time and picture yourself forgiving yourself, and them. Think of what you’d like the outcome of the situation to be and no matter what, whether the result is good or bad make sure your loved one knows that your intentions came from the best place and you didn’t intend to land in the worst.
  6. Acknowledge that you might be a part of the problem. Apologies can take away immense amounts of pain. Even if you don’t think you’ve wronged your loved one or treated them unfairly as things fell apart it is completely OK to apologize for the incidentals. “I’m sorry I didn’t care for myself better,” “I’m sorry I didn’t communicate my needs,” “I’m sorry I’ve made you feel responsible.”

Breaking and repairing friendships sometimes serves a strong purpose you learn more about the person you care for and you both learn about your wants, needs, and boundaries. Situations such as these can help you better prepare to ride out a storm in the future.

Relationships that have been broken and repaired are the cracked vases of life. The items that have been pieced carefully back together after the forming of a fault line. Your friendship could feel, look, and be completely different than it was in the past but you’ll have an opportunity to move forward new willingly embracing whatever this new stage of growth represents.

If you value your friendship with the person you were caring for in any capacity you’ll recognize where you could have done better, you’ll acknowledge that time is not guaranteed, and that lost time is something you can never get back.

We don’t live forever. Grab this life of yours and hold tightly to the people who will always have your back. We don’t get many of them.

I help white folks navigate white fragility and antiracsim. I run a Facebook Group where we talk about race: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2105707219575112

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