by Daphne Simpkins
Since my three-year stint as my father’s caregiver, I wrestle with socially unacceptable urges to comfort, feed and water just about anybody. I do not have to know you personally to offer you a cough drop when you choke. I say “Bless you” before you finish sneezing, and my right hand will automatically fidget for an Aloe-enriched, bacteria-killing tissue.
After your third sneeze, I will tell you the names of cold products you need, although these medicines are not what I think truly promote healing. Sick people need to go to bed and rest and drink plenty of fluids and be waited on by people like me.
I am ready to do that. I am a recovering caregiver always on the lookout for someone who needs caregiving — me. Sometimes I tire of hearing myself, but I cannot stop. That caregiver urge! I overflow with it.
On an idling airport shuttle bus the other day, the driver asked passengers if we would be responsible to not let another person on if he left the doors open so we could have fresh air. Other passengers nodded politely. I got excited for no one believes in the benefits of fresh air more than a recovering caregiver.
I watched hard. Two people got on. I asked the lady beside me, “What are we supposed to do now?” “It’s not our job to guard that door,” she said, shrugging.
My jaw dropped. I was envious of that shrug for I have lost track of the boundaries of socially acceptable helpfulness, and I know it. I am labeled by others as co-dependent, hypervigilant and addicted — one of those suckers born every minute.
But I wasn’t born in a minute. My condition evolved over time while I handled medical emergencies for a dying man and forgot who I was, except as a caregiver. I have emerged from that experience in hyper-helpful mode. I watch. I warn. I offer. I m a recovering caregiver and there’s no 12-step program to rehabilitate me.
But you could. And you could help others like me or who may become like me. First, you have to see caregivers. They live and move among you, but are very adept at being invisible. To find one, simply look.
Beside a chronic patient is a barely alive, almost-invisible caregiver. Speak to him. To her. Speak these words slowly: “How are you?” If she replies, “fine,” smile reassuringly. Send fresh fruit to her house anyway. Or maybe a fresh flower. Drop off fresh milk. Fresh bread. Her life is mostly stale, and she can’t easily drive to a store for fresh stuff. You get the idea.
Any gesture or gift of care for a current caregiver who has forgotten her own needs will become a potent memory that will surface later like medicine from a dissolving gel capsule that releases a healing dose of self-recognition and the restorative message: It’s OK to accept help rather than only give it.
But don’t overreact. If a recovering caregiver you know is already loose and roaming around compulsively offering Band-aids, water, cough drops, and tissues, don’t resist them. Instead, simply accept everything a former caregiver offers, and say, “Thank you!”
Caregivers haven’t heard those words in ages. Rather than feed an addiction for approval, which some experts warn is what makes caregivers who they are, that expression of simple courtesy will help a caregiver exhale and finally say to someone, “You’re so very welcome.” The job is done then. See? She is finished. He can let go. Say goodbye.
I know. Every time I say those words, I say goodbye to my old caregiver self and breathe hello to the people who live in the world where I can imagine being on a shuttle bus sitting near a just-about-to-sneeze, almost-gonna-cough, possibly-thirsty person, and — oh, bliss — simply shrug.
Daphne Simpkins is the author of The Long Good Night (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), a family memoir about caregiving.
(Excerpted with permission from Today’s Caregiver .)