When I use to hear men or women say they left their marriage because “I’m just not happy,” or “This isn’t what I signed up for,” would make me cringe. I never did ask what they expected, or ask to read the contract they signed, but I probably should have. Then there are the couples that would divorce because “He doesn’t do anything around here!” or “I haven’t had sex with her in six months.” I had to bite my tongue because I wanted to point out that the garage was clean; the cars were all maintained; the lawn was mowed; and the household income is $80,000 more than they’d have if he was doing nothing.
I suppose if I was not dealt the cards that I have, I may be able to relate. Honestly, I hope not; but, I do know that being a caregiver to a spouse that is chronically ill takes stress, hardships, mental strength, problem solving, and the necessity to be creative to a whole new level. Many caregivers develop serious health issues, and often die before their ill spouse.
Caregivers have to watch their loved one decline daily, experience guilt when they enjoy themselves, have to quit or are fired from their job(s), suffer terrible depression and feelings of isolation, experience rejection and judgment from their family and friends, and have to accept they won’t have their golden years together. With all of that said, studies have shown that caregivers experience PTSD.
Yes, I said PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Yes, that is what you hear about in the news about our men and women returning from the Middle East. Shell shock, psychosis, and mental illness are terms used before “PTSD”. Studies about those constantly under the stress that caregivers endure are showing they too suffer from PTSD.
Barry Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers (The Guilford Press, 2006), often sees caregivers who struggle with intrusive thoughts and memories months and even years after a loved one has died. “Many people find themselves unable to stop thinking about the suffering they witnessed, which is so powerfully seared into their brains that they cannot push it away,” Dr. Jacobs said.
Flashbacks are a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, along with feelings of numbness, anxiety, guilt, dread, depression, irritability, apathy, tension and more. Though one symptom or several do not prove that such a condition exists — that’s up to an expert to determine — these issues are a “very common problem for caregivers,” Dr. Jacobs said.
Research is being done because scans are showing that changes in the brain of a caregiver are the same as our military troops returning from combat. I don’t even begin to pretend I know what hell our soldiers go through, but I am sure I suffer from the syndrome.
In the words of a Ranger from Victoria, Texas….”Caregiving can most definitely be as trauma producing as a military deployment to a combat zone. I don’t state this lightly, but as a veteran of the US Army Special Forces and Rangers. Now my battle is one you know too well, the daily trying and often failing to do the best I can for my mother, after a decade long struggle with cancer and increasing chronic illness and frailty. This is a deployment that has no completion date.
On behalf of all caregivers who struggle without any of the recognition afforded our military warriors, I honor your extraordinary sacrifice, and your effort here to ease the burden of others. I would award you the highest medal available for valorous caregiver conduct, if only such a medal existed.”
As I paint a picture of how difficult it is to be a caregiver, our unselfish population is growing rapidly. Home health care is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States right now. Why stay when suffering the same disorders as men and women returning from war? If something is so difficult, and brings so much pain, why do spouses stay with their partner who is chronically ill or disabled?
In the words of C. Camille Lau, of Eagle River, AK, “After caring for five relatives in their last years – regrets? Yes. Wish I had known then what I know now? Yes. Could I have done so much better? Yes. But my advice to any struggling, devoted, weary caregiver and my advice to myself: Remember the seriously good differences you made, again and again, for the benefit, again and again, of your loved one.”
“I tell myself I did not design, I did not create this life and its cruel realities. I did what I could, I wish it was more, I wish it was better, it was my best.”