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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Taking Care of Myself

I like to think that throughout my adult life I've had the good common sense to take care of myself. I've tried to take care of my body by (generally) eating right, (generally) getting enough sleep and (less generally) getting enough exercise. It's an attitude I've always planned to carry into the third phase to keep up my energy and to avoid doctors as much as I can.

I've also tried to take care of my mind with new activities, new writing projects and learning new skills. And of my soul by trying to forgive and love all I can.

"Taking care of myself," however, can be a difficult attitude to maintain when life goes off the rails as it has for us this winter with Peter's diagnosis of cancer of the esophagus, his month of radiation and chemo and his recent complicated surgery.

In the many encouraging notes I've received, people reminded me to take care of myself. And I have to admit, while appreciative of their concern, it often just seemed like one more thing I had to do. And I wasn't quite sure what they were saying.

I'm sure they don't mean eating every last potato chip in the house, pouring myself an extra glass of wine, eating a second or third helping of food which I definitely didn't need because I was distressed watching Peter struggle with a forkful of dinner. I'm sure they don't mean spending hours of mindless time playing computer games. Or feeling angry and terrified.

But what were they saying? Sometimes, I imagine they meant I should have bubble baths with a glass of champagne at my side or take myself out to dinner. Although their expressions were well-intended I was just never sure what they meant.

I have wonderful friends who have taken care of me with offers of rides, lunches, gifts of soups and puddings, plants and body treatments. One amazing friend arranged an apartment for us to stay in while we had some treatments in the city. I have been grateful for it all.

That said, I wasn't heeding the advice to take care of myself because, as I said, it just took too much thought and energy. Then I remembered back to an earlier time when my life went wonky and I stopped taking care of myself. It was after my ex-husband decided to end our marriage, leaving me with feelings of inadequacy and hurt, leaving me with the need to make a life for myself and my toddler daughter.

I had the good sense then, at least, to get some counselling sessions. And I remembered - as clearly as if I was sitting in her office - when the counselor asked me if I was falling into bad habits. I admitted that, although I'd never been anything but a "social" smoker, I was now smoking regularly even though I was prone to chronic bronchitis. And I wasn't eating. She then asked me what I had done over the course of my life that I found soothing. I sat for a bit before coming up with a short list: listening to music, walking in nature, preparing a tasty meal, reading an uplifting book. "Do those things," she said. And even if my list sounded like a corny Hallmark card I did those things. And I got through it. Prospered even. Felt stronger than I ever had.  

Her words came back to me this winter. I knew how to take care of myself; I was just letting the fear and anxiety win. In the space between treatments and surgery I re-booked a weekend at a spa with my daughter that I'd had to cancel after we got Peter's diagnosis. I knew there were more anxious days ahead but I tried that weekend to live in the moment, to revel in my daughter's company and her joy. I let myself be indulged with the "detox" treatment package. I nodded absently when the reflexologist said my adrenals were working overtime and giggled with my daughter while we ate in robes and dunked in the outdoor hot tub on a relatively mild winter day.

Surgery did bring more anxiety and I both failed and succeeded at taking care of myself. I let myself panic at the extra long wait in the waiting room as the clock hand moved further and further past the point the surgery was supposed to end. But I let myself be soothed by the people waiting with me, Canadians from all backgrounds with loved ones in for all kinds of surgeries. Strangers, we shared our stories. I was the last of us to hear from a surgeon. By then only one woman sat waiting for her husband to be moved from recovery to a hospital room. A friend had come to wait with her and when she saw how distressed I was she asked my husband's name and began a long prayer in Spanish. I'm not a religious person but I let her words and kindness wash over me.
I ate bad hospital cafeteria food of fries and the saltiest, greasiest grilled cheese I've ever eaten. Comfort food that brought no comfort. But in the next days I brought food from home or walked to a cafe where they made good soups. And, on the day of the surgery, when I was reeling from the surgeon's mixed messages, I had the good common sense to let others know I was hurting. My sister soothed me on the phone; friends wrote comforting messages. My American doctor friend insisted on paying for a hotel so I wouldn't drive home every evening and get into an accident on a wintry highway drive. I could afford the hotel but had never thought to indulge myself that way. Her offer gave me permission to take care of myself by not trying to do it all. Her words reaffirmed the common sense I was in danger of losing track of; she said she had seen too many caregivers brought down by trauma and illness because the attention of the medical team is on the patient.

And that I believe is the message I will carry into the third phase, a phase where all of us have to balance our own health, our own needs, our own desires with our concerns for a parent, a child or a spouse. Taking care of ourselves means different things to different people. Some of us are programmed to lean too far one way or the other. Finding that balance just might be the key to survival, if not happiness.

Oh, and now that Peter is home recuperating, I had a great workout today at the gym.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Debi. This was a very informative read even for those of us not caring for a loved one battling cancer. Self-care is extremely important for care givers and I have no doubt that you and Jane will get a better handle on it. All the best to your family and wishing Peter a speedy recovery!