A heroine should never lie, except perhaps to herself. So I’ll call it like it is, and tell it like it was for a very long time:
I was Superwoman. I’m talking about the whole brigade: body-suit made of full lycra, eye mask, and a great big “C” on my chest that stood for caregiver. I bought into the story that I had become Wonder Woman. I believed there was no limit to my ability to keep on, keeping on.
I was woefully mislead by… well, myself.
Looking back, I guess I just didn’t believe that the laws of nature and physics applied to me. Those pesky inconveniences like sleep and rest, support and relaxation? They only distracted me from my goals and my focus. I told myself that Love could replace all of those forces of nature. Love could be my food, rest, exercise, strength, support, relaxation… my everything. It was my frustrated idealism, alive and working at its best.
I was an unstoppable rebel force, leaping from tall buildings of surgery and therapy, running faster than the speedy seizure, more powerful than the locomotive of insurance companies. I kept my cape tucked into my pocket, ready to throw it on at a moment’s notice, with only a quick change in the nearest doctor’s office.
Eventually though, in order to save time, I stopped changing in and out of my alter-ego. As a result, the line between my caregiving role and personal autonomy started to blur. I began wearing the uniform all the time under my leggings and sweatshirts, and beneath my unkempt hair, puffy face, and aching head. The bags under my eyes easily disappeared beneath a swipe of concealer, and with it also went any real acknowledgement of my own mortality. I thought I was unstoppable.
Now, let’s be clear about something: this was never how I wanted it to be. I wasn’t window shopping at superhero stores, “oo-ing” and “ah-ing” over capes before my boyfriend’s Traumatic Brain Injury. And after it happened, I wasn’t rejecting help left and right, and trying to be the sole provider and support for him. It was simply the situation I found myself in. So I embraced it with my whole heart, allowing the purity of my hope, and single-mindedness towards his recovery to consume everything else.
I got the wind knocked out of me countless times by TBI; a villain so terrifying, mean, powerful and unrelenting that every comic book character pales in comparison. Every single time I got back up on my feet and kept going. But as the days turned to weeks, and the weeks to months, and the months into three years, a change was sneakily occurring: I was spending more time with my face on the pavement. It was taking me longer to get back up. In fact, with every face-plant, the energy ratio shifted out of my favor, and it became harder for me to go on.
I went on anyway.
At some point, I began to see what was happening, but I was too far in to stop the machine that I had set in motion. And the results… “Look at the results!” I would say to myself. It was magnificent watching my boyfriend recover. Every single new step forward was like watching the miracle of birth. I didn’t remember how to engage the brakes, and if I stepped off the train even for a moment, who would drive it forward? I simply had to push on. Besides, every time I got up and found my feet on the ground again, I dusted off the dirt from my shoulders and told myself what I already believed:
I was superwoman, and I could do it.
Then one day, which felt out of nowhere, I awoke and realized that if I was indeed a superhero, I certainly wasn’t embodying Wonder Woman. I more resembled Will Smith’s character from the movie “Hancock;” bleary-eyed, grouchy and emotionally defeated. It was sobering and confusing, and it felt like a betrayal to everything I believed in. Things were going so well with Patrick’s TBI. He was the best he had been, ever since he had gotten hit by a car. Now was the time to celebrate the fruits of such hard labor…so why did I feel so awful?
I began to see that the reason I couldn’t shake the prolonged feelings of sadness or defeat, was because I had actually never gotten back up from a knock-out that had happened weeks prior. I was still laying down, face-first on the pavement. And this wasn’t the first time. In truth, I could no longer boot and rally like I used to; whereas the referee had once only counted seconds or minutes before I was up and ready to fight, he was now counting days, and all while the villain bounced in the ring, with his gloves in the air and the audience roaring in the background. I wanted to get up, but for the first time, I couldn’t.
It turned out that nothing, not even Love, could get me up and ready to fight, until my body, mind and spirit were damn well ready.
Superwoman, whoever she was, had finally met her kryptonite, and its name was exhaustion.
It’s an amazing thing, a humbling thing, to be brought to your knees by your own humanity. To realize that your own will, inevitably must bow and bend to the needs of your body and mind. I didn’t think it would happen to me, but it did. So for the past two months, I’ve been working on trying to explore how to replenish myself, not with a little restoration, but back to a place of real health.
I am officially dubbing myself the carrier pigeon of sobering news: Caregivers are not a superheroes. They are not immortals. Yes, they accomplish super-human tasks, but they are still subject to the same laws that hold the rest of humanity accountable. If you are a caregiver, please heed my words: You must, MUST, find a way to keep from hitting the proverbial wall. Take it from me, it’s much harder to recover after hitting the wall, as opposed to slowing down when you see it coming towards you at 100 mph.
The beauty of recognizing your own mortality, however, is in the surrender of it. Superheroes can do it all, and that is the expectation of them, but mere mortals like you and me have our limitations. There is a freedom in it all; the handing over of the ultimate fate of your loved one and of yourself to a higher power. There’s a peace in saying “I can’t fix it,” and believing that mantra not with a pessimism but rather with a stillness and gratitude. There is so much that we as caregivers can do to make things better, and to cultivate recovery for our loved ones. But at some point, we have to take off our capes, and recognize that we are only made of flesh and blood. It’s not easy to do, but it’s very necessary.
As for me… I’m officially resigning as Wonder Woman. I’m trading in my unitard and mask, for a shot at experiencing mere mortality again.
I think I’ll save the cape, though. I’ll tuck it away in my top dresser drawer… just in case I ever need it.
Maybe that’s a mistake! But hey, I’m just a human being. Imperfection comes with the territory 🙂
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Thank you. All our love, Anj & Patrick)