Tapering Off

Start out slow and taper off”
–Walt Stack, marathoner

My life has always been one of extremes. Drinking to excess. Pulling all-nighters in college. Moving thirty-odd times from island to desert and landing amidst the fjords of Norway along the way.

The excessiveness didn’t stop when I stopped drinking.

The effort I put into most everything I do still tends to be all or nothing. In twenty-plus years of sobriety, I’ve run two dozen marathons and ultramarathons. Written hundreds of blog posts. Published numerous stories and essays and poems. But my energy is not limited to the thud of my feet on a dusty trail or the number of words on a page; my emotions can easily run to extremes, especially as a family caregiver.

Finding emotional balance in caregiving is challenging when you feel everything all at once: Empathy. Terror. Devotion. Fury. Bliss. Agony. Patience. Burnout. Compassion. Now in my third iteration of caregiving—this time for my husband— I’ve reached official overload.

This time, I’m forcing myself to respond differently.

In running, we call it tapering, that seemingly counterintuitive process when we purposely slow down our training two weeks before a big race. This gradual reduction of miles and intensity levels rests both body and mind.

Today, I’m reducing everything from running to writing to housecleaning and errands. Exhausted by the demands of a housebound injured spouse unable to exercise, we both embrace the art of the taper, simultaneously fitting and ironic, since he, a fitness trainer and former marathoner, has coached me through all my races. For better and for worse, he has taught me that slowing down, as difficult as it is in running and in life, is essential to achieving peak performance.

So, as he said to me right before my first marathon so many years ago, we put one foot in front of the other and repeat, one step at a time.

10 Commandments of Caregiving

  1. Find Compassion: Walk a mile in your caree’s shoes
  2. Be Patient: It’s is a positive side-effect of compassion
  3. Stay Positive: The 80/20 rule works here, and sometimes in reverse
  4. Pray. A Lot: To whatever power greater than you propelling you through this wild ride
  5. Ditch the Drama: No one wants to hear about a self-sacrificing martyr, let alone be one
  6. Give & Ye Shall Receive: Being of service isn’t selfish
  7. Treat yourself: Even a half-hour away with a latte is a well-deserved reward
  8. Rest Up: Manadatory for both caregiver and caree
  9. Love Thyself: Daily affirmations remind us of our purpose, value and why we do this
  10. Learn & Share: As you’ve been helped by other caregivers, so shall your wisdom help them

Be gentle. Give freely. Stay real. Because we’re all doing the best we can with situations we’ve never been through before.


Life Lessons from a Former Drama Queen

It began five years ago as I helped my father through his third wife’s death. Almost simultaneously, I plunged headfirst into to the muddled Alzheimer’s world my mother had newly inhabited. Both parents lived on the east Coast and for the next few years I cared for each of them in their separate island homes, leaving my immediate family to fend for themselves three thousand miles away.

When it became clear my parents could no longer live on their own, so began the process of packing up each parent, selling houses, and moving them into their respective senior living communities.

In the midst of that chaos, the Universe decided I could handle more, hurling the sudden suicide of my husband’s daughter into our lives late last year.

Together, we ride the waves of grief—random and epic, with no expiration date—and again unwittingly find ourselves in a trajectory of trauma: a hip injury complete with an aggressively virulent blood infection.

My husband, a fitness trainer, is the healthiest, most active person I know. Suddenly reduced from teaching three cycling classes a week to being housebound on a walker and relying on me to give multiple injections of antibiotics for two months is the uninvited guest at our party, much like my recently-acquired career in caregiving.

It would be easy to resume the role of drama queen, one I relinquished long ago. After years of swimming through the murky haze of an alcoholic life and navigating the even rougher waters of early sobriety, I finally learned that when I stop running the show, I’m free to accept life on life’s terms.

Today, I remain open-minded and willing to do whatever comes next. My caregiving resume has expanded over the years and I continue to engage the essentials of drama-free life: Self-care. Rest. Support Groups. Meditation and exercise. Compassion. Find humor wherever you can. Because, in the immortal words of the Jimmy Buffet song:

“If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.”