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Diana B. Denholm, Ph.D, LMHC
Diana B. Denholm Ph.D, L.M.H.C.

May Is Mental Health Month: What to Do When Caregiving Threatens to Destroy Yours

Who is this angry person who lives in my body?

I have spoken to many wives who are caregivers for seriously ill husbands, and they often express a kind of shock and disbelief at the person they have become. "Who is this angry, mean, guilt-ridden person who lives in my body?"

Caring for a seriously ill husband can bring up many unexpected emotions, and it's no wonder. You feel angry because others offer to help him, but your husband turns them down. Not only do you wait on him hand and foot, but you are also the one who bears the brunt of his frustration and bad temper. He expects you to be his servant AND the sole provider for the family, and he complains when you come up short in either role. To make matters worse, while you're off working long, hard hours, he manages to rally the energy to get out of the house and go to the baseball field with his buddies. No matter what you do, he doesn't seem to appreciate you.

For the caregiving wife, stress and anger can spill over into everything she does, causing problems at work and affecting her ability to be compassionate. I've heard even the most kind-hearted wives confess that they yell at their dying husbands, delay giving them meals, cook food they dislike, and even throw plates at them when they complain. It's not atypical for wives in these kinds of situations to sometimes wish he would hurry up and die.

But more often than not, the caregiving wife wonders what became of the sweet lady she used to be. The person she's become frightens her.

There is hope and help for wives who find themselves in this situation. Caregiving does not have to destroy you, your life, or your marriage. When difficult emotions threaten your mental well-being, here are some strategies.

Understand your emotions.

Sometimes you feel guilty because you have bad thoughts, and sometimes you feel guilty because you have happy thoughts. This inner dialogue helps you survive because it allows you to let off small bursts of steam and keeps you from screaming things out loud or acting on them. Emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are. But too much pent-up anger or too many disturbing thoughts not only create negative outcomes, they also steal your energy. Among many healthy ways to release anger, try simply writing down, for your eyes only, all the things you'd really like to say but won't—just to get them out of your system.

Avoid enabling.

A common mistake caregivers make is thinking that everything is their responsibility. This makes you resentful and makes you angry at those who aren't doing things, or aren't doing things your way. It steals your spare time, which keeps you from caring for yourself. To avoid this trap, don't do for the cared ones what they really can and should do for themselves. This enabling, or controlling the ill person, creates invalids. Don't micromanage what they are able to do, even though it may be far from perfect. The less you enable, manage, or control, the more likely you are to reclaim that "nice person" you know you are.

Establish expectations.

First and foremost, get on the same page as the ill person in terms of expectations for everyone involved in their care—including those "helpful" friends. Discuss and agree on what you'll expect of each other and what you are willing to do and not do. Topics can include the type of care and who will perform it, legal and financial matters, household management, visitors, sleep, and sex and intimacy, among others.

Use learned communication tools.

In my book, you'll learn how to raise issues, have problem-solving discussions with the ill person, and create agreements about expectations. Once these agreements are created, household battles and stress will greatly diminish, leaving a more peaceful and happier environment in its place. Because effective communication with the ill person produces these agreements, it is the single most helpful way to improve your mental health.

Give yourself permission for self-care.

Once you've manufactured more time by not enabling, give yourself permission to get away from caregiving. It's okay to have fun, even if your loved one is suffering. Start small. Give yourself permission to enjoy one simple thing, whether it's a short walk in the fresh air, sitting in the bathroom meditating, or spending a little time with a friend. As you become comfortable with small steps, branch out to other self-care activities.

Get help if you're near the edge.

While it IS your job to keep your loved ones safe, if they aren't able to, it is NOT your job to make them happy. Only they can do that. But if you sense your emotions are out of control, you need to get help before YOU become the threat to your loved one's safety.

About the Author
Diana B. Denholm, Ph.D, LMHC

Diana B. Denholm, Ph.D., L.M.H.C., is a medical psychotherapist and the author of The Caregiving Wife's Handbook.

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