I went on a bike ride today, and as I pounded up the familiar steep hill, I found myself crying, and then sobbing, while weaving up the road through blinding tears and gagging on my own snot.
I love riding my bike, really. It’s just that I haven’t done it much lately, and the reasons for that are why I am now breaking down. Now, while things have finally calmed down, because during the thick of it, I just put my head down and get ‘er done—no matter how hard it is.
I get it, you’re supposed to take care of yourself when you’re overwhelmed, but there’s not always that opportunity. If you are a bystander, and it makes you uncomfortable to watch someone struggling, you’re going to have to offer more than, “You know, you really need to take care of yourself,” or “Is there anything I can do?”
While those are really sweet intentions, when a person is clearly drowning, you throw them a lifeline and drag them back to the boat. You do not shout across the river at them with well-meaning advice on how to save themselves, to be more careful next time, or, even worse, “Hey, do you need help??”
My 89-year-old father has anxiety, the beginnings of dementia, and I am the only one who can calm him down. His motor skills have been unraveling like a toddler in reverse.
Simultaneously, my teenager has been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, and then that medication caused a heart condition requiring hospitalization. I am at a doctor’s office twice a week, but never for my own health.
My father fell, requiring a full eight hours in the ER, and soon thereafter he underwent hernia repair surgery, and he is currently in a skilled nursing facility before he can go back home to an apartment where he will require full-time babysitters.
I am a single parent of two boys, just months out of a tumultuous marriage with full-on heartbreak. I run a business—a private practice doing therapeutic and rehabilitative bodywork. I have canceled on so many clients that I am giving free sessions in return, and I have been too busy to make new appointments.
When the phone calls come in at 9 p.m., as I am throwing in the towel and literally crawling into bed after a glass of bourbon, I am forced to speed across town because my father has called me to say that he has fallen down, hit his head, and is in the midst of a dementia panic attack—and the nurses are saying in broken English, “No, I don’t think he has fallen down…” even though he really has, and he is begging me to take him out of this place where the nurses are out to get him. His lack of sleep has him delusional and paranoid. Every time the phone rings, it is an emergency.
I have left my kids home alone and have no idea how long this will take.
This is no time for delegation. I am lucky to feed myself and drink enough water. Exercise is out of the question, even though I know it will reset my head. I don my running shoes so that I can run while I wait for an oil change, and I get two lengthy phone calls from doctor’s offices and end up walking home to get my bike because the only running I’ve done is running out of time.
If you really want to help, here are some ideas on how to jump in:
1. Take the kids to do something fun. Maybe even just a short hike. Get them out of the house and off of their phones. Not only is she not spending quality time with them, when she finally has time with them, she is distracted, exhausted, short-tempered, and probably on the phone resolving issues.
2. Send a massage therapist to her house. She can’t leave for another appointment, she doesn’t have time to make one, and she needs nurturing.
3. Have her house cleaned. In fact, come over and get her children to help. It will teach them how to pitch in when mom needs it most. It is hard to feel settled or to rest when the house is covered in dirty dishes, dog hair, and the laundry is piled up.
4. Bring her meals that are easy to serve. Don’t have her pick them up or make appointments to get the food. Drop the food and leave, even if she isn’t there. She probably doesn’t have the time or energy to socialize or entertain.
5. Ask her how things are going, or how her day was, so that she can vent throughout the process. It helps to talk about the unbelievable amount of craziness that is happening. When doing this, say things like, “That sounds like a lot,” or “You sound overwhelmed,” rather than, “Oh, been there, done that!” or “Well, you should hear what it’s like with my…”
6. Tell her you are picking the kids up from school. That will buy her at least an hour of time to either stick with a task or breathe.
7. Check her car for oil, gas, tire pressure, and cleanliness. Those are not things that can be handled when she’s under duress, but something as small as an oil light flicking on can be the actual straw that breaks her back.
8. Take over her reality for an hour so that she can exercise. Even just wandering around in the sunshine can revive her.
9. Do what you promise. If you are offering help, show up. On time. She doesn’t have time to follow up, and she certainly doesn’t have the energy to comfort you when you are apologetic for blowing her off.
10. When things calm down, take her out to socialize. She probably misses her life, her friends, and laughing. Plan to drive her home. She’s a lightweight now.