So what’s the gauge reading on your emotional tank today? Getting low and searching for a fill-up? Half-empty and still draining? On fumes and slowly coasting downhill? I want to encourage caregivers today because the focus is so much on the patient that those standing by them often get forgotten. (If your’re not a caregiver right now, I hope you’ll read this anyway because you probably will be one some day and because it may help you understand how the “other” side feels!)
I first came across the idea of an “emotional tank” while raising our three daughters and reading How to Really Love Your Child by psychiatrist Dr. Ross Campbell. The book’s basic premise is that each child has a figurative emotional tank which gets filled by his or her parents as the child’s emotional needs are met. Only when that tank is full can children be expected to be at their best.
As we age we don’t outgrow our need to have our emotional tank filled. And just like kids, we only can be expected to be at our best when our tanks are full. All day long people and events make either withdrawals or deposits in our lives. Some of our tanks were so neglected when we were children that they leak easily, and we have trouble keeping them full as adults. Others of us have put lids on our tanks, hoping no one can ever make a large withdrawal again, but that also makes it difficult for anyone to make a deposit.
And then along comes cancer or a heart attack or dementia or some other diagnosis the life of someone you love. Forget about the lid. These life events can ram huge holes right in the side of your tank and quickly drain your emotional well-being, leaving you frantically searching for a refill.
And now, because you’re not a child, it’s your job to make sure your own tank gets filled.
I talked recently with my friend Cynthia about the crucial, but exhausting role of caregiver because 1.) she’s been one for more than a decade and 2.) she’s written a really helpful book on the subject.
Cynthia says her role as caregiver to her husband, Jim, has endured much shifting throughout his thirteen-year journey with non-small cell lung cancer.
“The role of caregiver changes depending on what Jim’s doing and what’s happening with him,” she explains. “I’ve worn different hats at different times—I’ve been a cheerleader at times, and other times I’ve been called on to be a nurse.”
Because Cynthia has been a caregiver for so long—through seven lung cancer recurrences, one go-round with prostate cancer, multiple surgeries, and countless treatments—I asked her how she finds the physical and emotional energy she needs to care for Jim.
She recommends finding a support group, ideally one just for caregivers. “Then you can really express yourself instead of both trying to protect each other,” she says.
“That first year [after Jim’s diagnosis] I didn’t really do a good job of taking care of myself,” Cynthia admits.
But in the intervening years, she says she has tried to play tennis or do Pilates or yoga two or three times a week. “That really helps me with stress,” she explains.
Cynthia also joined a community singing group, which she says “always lifts my spirits.” Together she and Jim find stress relief by watching comedies and reading funny books on “hospital humor.”
For most of the past three decades I’ve been a caregiver for family members who were either physically or mentally unwell. I’ve had a relative with dementia living in our home for years, and I’ve made biweekly seven-hour car trips for months to be with a relative undergoing chemo. I’ve been so physically fatigued I had to literally crawl up the stairs, and I’ve been so emotionally spent I’ve spent hundreds of dollars to pour out my woes to a counselor.
Caregiving is incredibly hard. I get it.
But I also know we make the job even more difficult when we fail to take good care of ourselves. Do you know what Jesus said the two most important commandments are? First, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” and second, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (see Matthew 22:36-39).
Don’t miss those last two words: “as yourself.” The Bible doesn’t just say to “love your neighbor,” it says we need to love ourselves. In fact, we can’t really love other people if we don’t love ourselves.
It is not selfish of you to do something refreshing, rejuvenating, or relaxing for yourself. You cannot “fill up” your loved one when you both are running on fumes. Somebody is going to stall and get rear-ended.
But an emotional tank doesn’t come with a loud, flashing warning when it’s getting low. You have to pay attention and notice the telltale signs in your life. Then when emotional refilling is needed, you have three ways to be replenished.
Firstly, make your own deposits by finding ways to “be good to yourself.” Watch a funny movie, enjoy a massage, go fishing, get a pedicure, take a walk, hit a bucket of balls, or catch a nap. What rejuvenates me may not do the same for you, but you can figure out what makes you feel better for the long term. (Don’t settle for the temporary fixes of alcohol or drugs because they will quickly drain your peace as soon as they wear off.) If you can’t leave your family member alone, this is the time to call in one of those offers of help others have made. Do something to lift your spirits so afterward you can once again lift someone else’s.
Secondly, allow your friends and family to do things for you and with you that will enrich your emotional well-being. You cannot be expected to be at your best all by yourself. But people cannot read your mind, so clearly tell them a specific way to make a deposit in your tank. If you don’t think you have friends who can improve your life, then pray and ask God to send someone your way. The apostle Paul described how God once sent someone to encourage him at just the right time.
When we arrived in Macedonia, there was no rest for us. We faced conflict from every direction, with battles on the outside and fear on the inside. But God, who encourages those who are discouraged, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus. His presence was a joy. 2 Corinthians 7:5-7
And finally, spend time with God and ask Him to pour into you His supernatural hope, love, strength, and, yes, even peace in the face of caregiving.
The LORD gives his people strength. The LORD blesses them with peace. Psalm 29:11
Whom have I in heaven but you?
I desire you more than anything on earth.
My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak,
but God remains the strength of my heart;
he is mine forever. Psalm 73:25-26
“I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.” Jesus speaking in John 14:27
When your emotional tank needs refilling, you can do it yourself, let others do it, or allow God to do it. But I truly believe you’ll be most fulfilled when you rely on all three. The most loving thing you may do for your loved one today is to be good to yourself.
Cynthia Zahm Siegfried, Cancer Journey: A Caregiver’s View from the Passenger Seat (CZS Books, 2010). For her online support group, f.a.i.t.H. (facing an illness through Him), go to http://faithsupportgroup.com/welcome.html.
(If the music video below doesn’t automatically load, please copy and past this link to enjoy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pEG7reKSf0 )