Category Archives: Mental Health

Surrendering to the Magic of life

My daughter just suggested we start a petition to “remove February and even the first and last weeks of March.” I imagine living in one of the sunnier regions of the world would make life easier during the winter months, but still, February and March seem interminable. The festivities of the holidays are long behind us, spring seems like it will never appear, and frankly, life feels sluggish. Winter seems endless. In a nutshell, this is how long-term caregiving can feel, like you’re stuck in a ‘never-ending February.’

Instead of fighting the February blues, I have been inviting surrender into my life. I returned to one of my favorite poems to remind me once again of how to “be helpless, dumbfounded, unable to say yes or no.” The poet Rumi talks of allowing “a stretcher of grace” to scoop us up, trusting that when we surrender, “miraculous beings come running to help.” I think a little magic is just the ticket, especially in the ‘February times’ of our lives.

Zero Circle

Be helpless, dumbfounded,
Unable to say yes or no.
Then a stretcher will come from grace to gather us up.

We are too dull-eyed to see that beauty.
If we say we can, we’re lying.
If we say No, we don’t see it,
That No will behead us
And shut tight our window onto spirit.

So let us rather not be sure of anything,
Beside ourselves, and only that, so
Miraculous beings come running to help.
Crazed, lying in a zero circle, mute,
We shall be saying finally,
With tremendous eloquence, Lead us.
When we have totally surrendered to that beauty,
We shall be a mighty kindness.

Rumi, 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic.

The Exhaustion of Fear-based living

Probably the hardest part of my days as a young girl was coming home from school. I didn’t know whether or not my mom would be awake with a drink in hand, or in her room. When she was in her room, the tell-tale sign that she was probably passed out was the empty insulated glass in the living room that smelled of pine trees.

Not knowing what I’d find kept me in a heightened state of fear. I ran scenarios of what I would do depending on who I found–awake mom or passed-out mom. I dreaded coming home, so instead, I kept ridiculously busy with extra curricular school activities. But that, too, was exhausting.

When I’m exhausted my emotional brain gets triggered. I receive panic messages: “You’re not safe! No one likes you! You can’t fix this or anything!” It’s very difficult to accomplish anything logical when the animal brain kicks into high gear. I don’t find myself wanting to run, so much as wanting to crawl into bed and “sleep it off,” hoping all the discomfort simply goes away.

I’ve grown to understand all those deep-seated emotions can easily be triggered by lack of sleep, an overload of external stresses, or a casual comment that hits me the wrong way. I’m also learning that when I’m triggered, I need to stop, acknowledge the feelings, understand where they come from, and take a deep breath. Sometimes I need to dance or go outside and work. Sometimes I need to cry and call a friend for support.

Caregivers can often get triggered, especially when they’re already beating themselves up for not doing enough or being enough for either the person they’re caring for or their families. You’re already tired and stressed because of the job of giving care. It’s as if your animal brain is just waiting to pounce on any trigger and throw you into panic mode.

Understand that fear is exhausting, that you’re already in a tender place. Write a note to yourself that says, “This is my animal brain on high alert. It’s not reality.” And then reach out to your trusted friend for extra support.

I get it; When caregiving is unpredictable, it’s extra challenging to respond in a calm manner, especially if you hold deep-seated past fears. Now is the time to change your old, outdated messages. Let go of the irrational fear messages and replace them with a new mantra, such as “All is well.” That message will seem fake and uncomfortable at first, but will serve you better in the long run. It’s also much less exhausting than living in fear.

Incredible Cost of Giving Care

There is a cost to caring for our parents and loved ones that goes beyond the financial. Our schedules are eaten up by hiring caregivers, going to doctor appointments, answering weepy phone calls, defending our need for time away. Instead of complaining outright, we complain in public restrooms to strangers or at lunch to our best friend, while woofing down a sandwich and surfing the net for assisted living options. We yell at our kids, forgo the workout at the gym, eat out of the vending machine, and ignore those activities that gave us so much joy. They’re our parents, after all! We must take care of them.

Why do we do it? Why do we put ourselves in the role of giving care to our parents or other family? Reach beyond the usual response of, “If I don’t do it, who will?”

In my recent radio show, author Katy Butler shares her caregiving story. Her touching and trying account of looking after both parents will cause you to think. As will Dak’s blog Dying Gone Haywire from 2013.

I understand the pull of wanting to do what we “should,” and needing to set boundaries. I’m here to help and want to hear from you.

I See that you’re suffering; let me provide relief

“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily. Dementia, as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the person affected by it. My mother’s core was rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of the weeks-old vase of flowers. She had been beautiful when my father met her and still capable of love when I became their late-in-life child, but by the time she gazed up at me that day, none of this mattered.”

The first paragraph in Alice Sebold’s novel, The Almost Moon, hit me in the gut. A frustrated daughter relieves her mother’s suffering while also setting herself free from the pressures of caring for someone who no longer recognized her as her daughter.

But this is a novel. This is not real life. As soon as I finished the book, I sighed and silently asked the unthinkable, “When will we see a headline about a daughter ‘relieving’ her mother of suffering?”

And then this article appeared. Is that what this is about? When we see a mother-daughter murder-suicide in the news, alarm bells ring. I discussed this with Dak and these are our thoughts in his words:

 

It’s just one case, right? It’s not like this is happening all over the place. This is not an epidemic. It’s just a weird thing is what it is. It’s an isolated incident, that’s all.

And yet, there is a whole lot of mystery to this that opens out into many possible worlds. This story offers very little detail. The authors won’t speculate. This one will.

I can imagine reasons for this happening from many angles.

The mother had a dread disease and no one would listen to her except the daughter who decided to act to alleviate her mother’s pain and then couldn’t live with herself.

The tyrannical mother finally became weak enough for the abused daughter to overpower and kill. Then killed herself.

Sorrow at loss of being useful.
Sorrow for being a burden.
Without hope.
Interior demons hide in the dark and they look like competence to everyone else.
Despair. So many reasons for despair.
Why did she choose a gun?
A belief that there is a better afterlife.
The weight of living is too heavy.
Too much of a burden on the ones you love.
Too much of a burden on the country you love.
Loss of community to death, to convenience, to entertainment and long distance.

What are the solutions here? How do we feel when we read a story like this? I feel my mind reach out to try to comprehend what happened, but why? Do I think I might become a woman whose mother is still alive and have to face this situation myself? No. But I can imagine how it could have felt and I think it would have felt pretty bad. No matter what the story behind the people is, at least one of them was suffering and had no relief in life. We can moralize about her choice, but that doesn’t seem like a solution to me. I feel that it’s wrong to kill, but happy people have no reason to kill. A satisfied society is a safe society.

So these two…hey one of them lived to be 93. That’s some persisting. I don’t think people live to be 93 without figuring a few things out and my feeling is that she had a good way of coping with stress, one that worked. Her daughter made it to 60 and that’s saying a lot as well. (I know we’re not supposed to be impressed with how long we live now compared to the entirety of our previous existence, but I’ve been watching “Cosmos.”)

She was suffering and we were in no position to offer relief. I think the fear is that one day we will be suffering in such a way that we need help for relief and it doesn’t come, or it’s slow to come. What kind of help?

We seem divided from our heritage. We have social media instead of being social, and I think many of us are fooled into thinking that the two are equivalent. There will always be suffering, but what if we were so kind to each other and considered ourselves together as a body rather than individual and separated pieces that we all shared the suffering so it ceased being so awful to any one of us?

I think it’s easy to forget that there are solutions to our problems and they are going to be found whenever two or more of us gather together. Remember who told us to do that? Again here it is easy to get hooked into the story, but the story is alive in us. We are telling the story of ourselves right now. I know I’m not alone in preferring kindness to suffering.

Dak Gustal is a freelance writer and poet living in Randoph, VT. You may contact him at st.augustus@gmail.com

What older adults know

This is where I started working with older adults. 24 years ago, I fell in love with teaching and directing adult learning programs. The experience shaped my career. My brother and I attended camp together as kids and now he’s back as an adult, sharing what I know to be a very special week:

Dak and KBBy Dak Gustal

What is knowing? What is not knowing?

I am at the Norwegian adult learning program at Concordia Language Village’s “Skogfjorden” in northern Minnesota and I am feeling good but also a little torn apart. Things move fast here, and there is a sense of motion that cannot be denied but also does not want to be fully explained, like a wave and a particle trying to compete for the same space in the mind. And this is only day two.

Here is a program predominantly led and attended by older adults and when you hear that, you might be tempted to think there should be a slow pace going on. You would be wrong.

These are not people waiting around for some kind of reward; they are teaching and reaching out to all that is around them, embracing their interests and uninhibited by learning.

DSC_0069

These are people that are willing and able to tell the truth of their lives and they share readily of themselves here without reserve.

They are not growing old despite their aging; they are also not burdened with the idea that they are more than what they are.

They are comfortable with their lives and because of this, they are able to offer themselves up with a kind of joy and openness that you don’t find in youth.

Contrast this with the serenity of the setting—the deep, northern woods, beautiful rustic cabins and pristine lakes in the cooling colors of autumn—and you feel life in a way that is its own reward. The mix of active and strident work learning a new language with the natural pace of deep nature is life itself lived fully.

***

At Buck Lake, Late September, 2013

Few look
But if you do
Come open
Fly apart
The leaves
Falling here
Are your heart
The wind
Breathes
For you
Forever here
You will not survive
This kind of beauty
Look anyway

Dak Gustal is a freelance writer and poet living in Randoph, VT. You may contact him at st.augustus@gmail.com

Three Taboo Subjects to Raise with your Aging Parents

Finances, Mental Health and Sex: Three topics of conversation avoided in the calm times and poorly handled under crisis—especially when a conversation needs to take place between an aging parent and their adult child. Read more »

Time to Reboot

I’m worn out. I’ve had it. I don’t know where to turn.

I have heard these three statements in various forms quite a bit lately. With my private caregiver coaching clients, my friends, my family. I get it. Being tired after a good workout or a long day of work is one thing. Being worn down from day after day of not getting ahead, not accomplishing your to-do list (let alone your mother’s or husband’s), or feeling defeated from all you’re trying to be for everyone else…that is a whole other beast.

And the voices in your head! How do you turn them off? The non-stop judging of how little or well you’re doing, the old tapes that seem to be stuck on repeat…Those voices seem to have moved in permanently and do not listen to you screaming “Stop!”

Whether you’re a caregiver or not, my interview with Robin Collins on “The Unexpected Caregiver Radio Show” will provide you with down-to-earth, accessible advice for how to reboot your core thinking. Her wisdom resonates to the heart of your being. If you haven’t yet listened, I offer you this gift from Robin. And here’s how you can get in touch with her: lovetothe5thpower@gmail.com

Robin Collins offers that reboot we all need. And I am so grateful.

It’s not you; it’s your hormones

Thank you Dr. Sara Gottfried for reminding us to stop blaming ourselves and take a look at our biology. If our hormones are out of balance, we’re struggling against our selves. I gained invaluable insights into hormones during my radio interview with Dr. Sara: Caregiving and Hormones.

As women and as caregivers, we tend to give and give and give. Dr. Sara sees thousands of women in her medical practice. The majority of her patients fall into the classic definition Read more »

A Holiday Greeting tells of a Midlife Review

I love holiday greetings! All of them. However they show up–in pictures, form or personal letters, cards–it doesn’t matter. I relish reading them over this beautiful and sometimes overwhelming time of year.

Read more »

Kari’s Brain Class Challenges

The goal of my brain classes seemed simple: look at the five areas of brain health, brainstorm what you’re currently doing well, what you’d like to add/change and how you’re going to support those changes.

It always seems easier in theory. Read more »

Looking for the proverbial proof in the pudding

When faced with making changes and taking on new challenges, many of us struggle with patience. We want the results to come immediately. After one set of pushups, we want defined arm muscles. We tend to give up and look for the promise of a quicker fix. This mindset has crippled our ability to achieve long-term goals. Need proof? Just search the Internet for “keeping New Year’s resolutions. Read more »

It’s Your Brain: Choose to Shift Priorities

“This is not easy and it is not a “quick fix.” Says Dr. Paul Nussbaum, author of Save Your Brain(Amazon.com). I know Paul’s integrity and dedication to bringing brain fitness to the forefront of all our agendas. It’s time to dive in. You’re in it for the long haul…so prepare yourself for setbacks and slow, steady progress. Journal about the changes you’re feeling and remember, with any challenge, put yourself on the gentle cycle. Read more »

Mental Fitness Challenge – Playing with your food (nutrition)

Why do you eat? Personally, my eating habits are often socially and emotionally based. To view food as strictly nutritional does not come naturally for me. Thus, this is not a typical food blog entry. This blog is about play. Read more »

Mental Fitness Challenge – The Five Areas of Brain Health

Ready to start contemplating changes you’d like to make to create a fitter brain?

Brainstorm in each of the five areas just what you’d like to improve. For example, in the area of nutrition, I am increasing the amount of fruit I eat. My diet has consistently been healthy, but I don’t eat a great deal of fruit. I will be working on adding in fruit. (More on the “how” later—for now, focus on the “what.”) Read more »

Mental Fitness Challenge – Changes

Change. Some of us can’t wait to take it on and others run from it. I view myself as a person who enjoys change, but when it comes to creating new habits, I tend to resist it.

We know exercise is good for our bodies, but do we do it? We understand that bad habits increase in intensity as we age, but do we change them? Eating lots of veggies and fruits is still a great idea, but isn’t always the immediate choice. Read more »

Kick off to Kari Berit’s Mental Fitness Challenge

Are you brain fit? I’ve been teaching brain fitness for years and now, it’s time to turn inward. Take the plunge and expose all my habitual cobwebs. I’ve created a brain fitness team, brave friends and colleagues who are willing to shake up their daily routines to achieve greater brain health. Read more »