The house was quiet and I was all alone, something which I was accustomed to as my husband, Eric, worked out of town at the time. I was settled in my bed ready to go to sleep. Feeling peaceful and even excited for a good night’s rest, I closed my eyes. Then, a thought. A new thought. “What if the smoke alarm goes off in the middle of the night?”
My eyes shot open. I felt a visceral discomfort and a wave of dread move through me. I had been feeling so relaxed that I was disappointed at the potential that the smoke alarm could indeed go off in the middle of the night. It wasn’t a fire that I was afraid of, it was the piercing sound of the alarm startling me that I was dreading. I wondered “where in the hell did this thought come from?!” After 36 years of sleeping without worry of a smoke alarm going off and now this thought creeps in and is somehow troubling. Then, it hit me…
This night was the first night where I was totally alone as my husband was out of town and my beloved four-legged companion, Guinness had passed away from cancer two weeks earlier. The six weeks from diagnosis to death had been filled with sleepless nights. Multiple times throughout the evening I would awaken to any sound Guinness made. I would spring out of bed at his call and ensure his comfort. As my mother said, I was sleeping with my head three inches off the pillow. Honestly, I was happy to do it. I loved my pup with every ounce of my being and I would do it all again.
The months after his passing I noticed that I was high-strung. I had experienced a few panicky moments one of which was even triggered by the harmlessness of Eric cheering in delight at a goal scored during a hockey game on TV. The loudness and suddenness of his cheer shot through me like lightning and I had to sit down and compose myself. As a Canadian who grew up with a hockey fan mother (who is not a quiet cheerer) my reaction was new. I knew in that moment that something was askew.
It wasn’t grief. The grief over Guinness passing was subsiding each day and I had also never been troubled by death. To me, death is not an end but a change and although I missed Guinness desperately, I was not angered by his passing. He was old and had cancer, it was all quite simple to me. My genuine acceptance of Guinness’ passing added to my confusion about why I was feeling so antsy. I recall saying to my sister, “I don’t know why I’m so anxious! I feel fine. There is nothing wrong in my life. Nothing at all. I don’t get it.” For months I described my mental state as, “I know nothing is wrong but it’s like an unhealed part of my unconscious mind is rising to the surface.” I couldn’t reconcile why I felt so agitated. Life was good.
By the time November hit, the anxiety was prominent. When I felt anxious, I had turned to snacking on a few dark chocolate chips to calm myself. For someone who doesn’t have a sweet tooth, I was getting pretty uncomfortable with the amount of times I reached frantically for the chocolate chips. My realization that just how bad things had gotten came to me on one occasion when I brought the chocolate chips to my mouth with such haste that they mostly spilled all around me. “This is not me.” I said to myself. “I don’t do this.” Not only that, but the few chocolate chips at a time just didn’t seem to be therapeutic as they had been in the past when I would eat a few to calm my PMS symptoms. There was no relief at all this time.
I decided to reflect on the previous months since Guinness passing. I had been sick at least once every month since July, which was not like me. The anxiety had amped up big time and I had experienced multiple panic attacks. I was experiencing sleep paralysis and horrible nightmares. At this point I had stopped drinking coffee as it made me feel panicky. My workouts were now basically stretching sessions as I didn’t want to get my heart rate up. And I also seriously wanted to put a bell on my husband so he didn’t surprise me whenever he came down the stairs or turned a corner. Where the panic really showed up though was when we were driving. I didn’t mind driving but when I was the passenger, I seriously could not handle someone merging or yielding into the lane next to us. I would grab Eric’s leg and try and make eye contact with the other driver so, just in case they didn’t notice, we were right beside them so please don’t bump into us.
In December, I had a panic attack that was so strong that I didn’t even recognize it as panic. I thought that I had come down with something and felt very weak because of it. After an hour of laying down, I just wasn’t feeling better so I found the strength to get up to take an Ativan. Staring at myself in the mirror, I seriously did not recognize the woman I saw. Terrified and pale, I looked like a troubled ghost in a horror movie. I don’t typically take medications, so I was apprehensive about the Ativan. I stared at it and it was a force outside of myself which brought it to my mouth. It didn’t seem to be my hand. I felt disembodied.
In January, I had my first psychology appointment. Panic Disorder was my diagnosis. Sounded about right. Knowing the diagnosis was incredibly relieving as it helped me to reconcile all that the past few months had held. As a spiritual person, I did what I always do when faced with something that needs to be healed, I use the healing meditation from Gary Renard’s book, Love Has Forgotten No One. I cannot stress the importance of this meditation enough when it comes to healing! Thankfully, three days of implementing the healing meditation and practicing the Course’s version of True Forgiveness every time I felt afraid, the panic was gone. Just gone. The entire month of December I woke up in such a state and with a massive knot in my stomach, and now all of that was gone.
With incredible relief, I felt the strength to keep on healing. Something still lingered though. It wasn’t panic, it was something else. The time came one evening as I was making dinner that whatever was lingering, showed itself. I saw Eric meditating on the couch so I went into the kitchen to check on the chicken roasting in the oven. Putting the meat thermometer in the chicken I suddenly heard a very gentle, “Hi.” Without even looking up from the chicken I reached my arm out and grabbed the collar of Eric’s shirt. We were both astonished by my cat-like swiftness and disappointed that I felt the need to do that. If there was one time a husband could tell his wife she was overreacting without offense being taken, it was in that moment.
Hypervigilance. It had been prominent throughout this whole experience. From making sure another car wouldn’t sideswipe us or that the smoke detector didn’t go off in the middle of the night, I was on high alert. I told Eric that I felt like I a ninja ready to spring into action if need be.
Intuitively, I wondered if I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so I decided to research it. Sure enough, I was experiencing a number of the symptoms. I brought these up with my psychologist and she agreed. Specifically, I was experiencing what is known as Caregiver’s PTSD. The symptoms I had and which you may be experiencing are:
The PTSD showed up for me because my startle reflex was overstimulated. As I mentioned, every night for six weeks, I got up multiple times in the evening in shock as a response to a sound Guinness had made. One particular evening he started choking on his own mucous and I had to shove my hand down his throat to get the mucous out so as to relieve his airway. Another reason I ended up with Caregiver’s PTSD is because I watched Guinness pass out and die from a heart attack right in front of me. As he was dying, I was rushing him to the vet’s office. PTSD can occur if you’ve seen a dead body and witnessed death. Although he was an animal and not a human, he was my darling companion for ten years and as I do not have children, all of my maternal energy went into him. So, it was very traumatizing to watch him pass away as I know many of you who have animal companions would agree would be a terrifying experience.
If you have cared for someone who is ill, chances are your startle reflex also has been overstimulated to some extent. Tending to one you love so dearly triggers so much within you. Your sense of responsibility, a sense of duty, your immense love for them and also, guilt. It is the guilt which really does us in. Questions pop in like, “Am I doing enough?” “How can I make them more comfortable?” or you can even have feelings like, “I have to fix this!” “I have to think of only them. They are my only priority right now!”
I’m here to say, I know how you feel. Caring for an ailing loved one (whether human or animal) is a heartfelt journey. A sentient being in need is a call that naturally pulls at us. It is important though that you also care for yourself. As my mother has always said, you can’t give what you don’t have. To love and care for them, you need to love and care for yourself. Whatever this looks like for you, ensure that your sense of peace and health is also top of mind.
The truth is, these experiences of caring for others when they are ill are going to bring up certain things for each of us. It is a truly personal experience and not everyone may understand you or what you are going through. I understand. And what I can share with you is that it is vital to your mental health that you:
Sickness, death and caring for others is part of our physical experience and is something to accept, not lament. I truly believe that we can at least try to bring calmness and awareness to each moment and practice doing so. We may not always do it perfectly, but we and those we are caring for, deserve for us to at least try.
As a caregiver, you are worth everything just as your loved one is! Trust that the path from sickness to death is a path you have chosen to go through together and you can bring the purpose of loving each other to this path. It is filled with its trying moments, but you have a choice on how you move through those moments.
PTSD and Caregiver’s PTSD require a great deal of compassion. It is important to note that those who are going through it are dealing with unconscious responses, so as painful as it may be, they may not be consciously aware of why they feel the way they feel. As I shared with you earlier, I had trouble understanding why I felt so amped up. Consciously, I knew that my life was good but I was experiencing something else. Turns out that it was the unconscious mind sending out signals which were averse to my conscious experience. This led to a great deal of confusion. So, trust that if you or someone you know is going through PTSD, there may be that level of confusion as to why you or they feel so triggered yet the world around you or them is safe.
To learn more about this unconscious response, please check out this incredible article! https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/how-to-help-someone-with-posttraumatic-stress-ptsd-0725165
As I specifically have been recovering from a form of PTSD known as Caregiver’s PTSD, I wanted to share with you an article that was very enlightening for me. I’m certain that many of you may be on the path of caring for an ailing loved one, so there are some things you should be aware of.
There will be a follow-up to this blog where I will share about this experience through a spiritual perspective. I will highlight where the ego was showing up and which spiritual principles have helped me through.
Much Love and Healthy Thinking,
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