Anger that my son has pain. Anger that my husband is away on business. Anger that the caregiver didn’t show up for my Mom. Anger that the milk is sour in the fridge. Anger that the doctor smirked when I asked a question. Anger that an old colleague’s career is flying high. Anger that the dog rolled in something awful. Anger that I have to do the night shift tonight alone. Anger anger anger.
Anger is an emotion that all primary caregivers know too well. Witnessing the unfairness of our loved ones suffering, combined with a sense of unwanted labour forced upon us sometimes swirls into a toxic stew of seething resentment.
Righteous anger that spurs us on to defend the interests of our vulnerable loved one is energizing – it is a positive force. But bitterness is negative. It sucks the life out of our best selves and it feeds on inertia. It’s hard to move forward constructively when you feel consumed by resentment.
The primary caregiver may have a network of close family and friends around her (or him), but there will be some days that the leadership role takes its toll. An angry, resentful attitude doesn’t attract friends. Bitterness sends potentially helpful well-wishers scurrying back to the safety of their peaceful homes. It isolates.
So, what can be done with these feelings when they stalk us through the day and night? For years, I held my anger inside when I felt it, and I certainly don’t recommend that as a strategy. Looking back, I wonder how I got through many of the toughest times. They say hindsight is 20/20 and I’ve combed through the memories of my life to find strategies that worked sometimes for me, even though I may not have realized it at the time.
In my book, The Four Walls of My Freedom, I wrote about how I thought of our family life as a swim marathon across a large body of open water. Jim was in the safety boat – he needed to be there, because to survive, we couldn’t have everyone in the water. During storms, I cried for him to let me give up the marathon and let me into the boat, or to have him jump in with me. But the lucid part of me knew that we needed Jim’s salary and that personally, I needed to have one person in the family who grounded us with a sense of order. “Everything will be all right”, he said. “You are a great mother.”
I’m no longer swimming the marathon. Nicholas is healthy and happy at the moment and I have retired from nursing him. Others do that now. My Mom is doing OK and our entire family pitches in daily to ensure she feels safe and loved.
What did I learn about swimming a marathon of caregiving through unsettled waters? I learned that there is an end to the marathon, even though it is beyond the horizon – it exists. Every caregiving experience has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I know that changing your swimming stroke is a strategy that works for the long haul. Floating on your back to rest and look at the stars means you stay in the water, gathering energy to swim hard the next day. Getting through a long stretch means switching from butterfly to side-stroke. It’s old-fashioned, but it’s what our mothers taught us and it’s energy efficient. I know that staying in the water with lots of people on the boat passing snacks and throwing a life-belt are the difference between drowning and mastery of the waters. And sometimes, in long stretches of calm water, it’s essential to trade places with a strong swimmer on the boat. It was hard to trust that others could swim or that they would stay the course if I looked away, but it was a necessary lesson. I learned that it’s always possible to jump back in and swim strongly after a rest and a change of perspective, especially when swimming against the current.
The biggest lesson about anger a life of caregiving has taught me is that resentful anger is not my friend. Treating it like a friend only hurt me more, every time. Changing my stroke, changing my perspective… those are the strategies that worked for me to banish bitterness.
My book, The Four Walls of My Freedom: Lessons I've Learned From a Life of Caregiving (House of Anansi Press, 2014) is available from all major booksellers in Canada and the USA.