You can’t pour from an empty cup
For the past couple of weeks, I haven’t felt like doing much. Sure, I still pay the bills and feed the animals, but other than doing a lot of writing and seeing the occasional client, I’ve hardly been doing much of anything at all. At first, I blamed it on the grey, wet weather that we’ve been having. Then it was the fact that I was getting over an upper respiratory infection.
But none of that explained why I’d suddenly abandoned being mindful of my food and alcohol intake in favor of eating and drinking whatever sounded good at the moment. I started canceling my Pilates classes because I just didn’t have the umph to make myself go, much less really work out. Sometimes I wouldn’t even shower until the early afternoon. I just wanted a break from regular responsible adult life.
“What’s going on?” I kept wondering. I’m not stressed or depressed. In fact, things are probably the smoothest they have been in over 20 years, so what gives here? The funny thing is, my husband James is feeling the same way. He rouses himself to make some pretty spectacular meals, but other than that, he just kind of hangs around, doing a little of this and a little of that.
Our son’s caregiver had the flu and was out for several days, so we had to pick up the slack from that. But one of the reasons that things are going so smoothly is that Hugh is doing really well. He still has a seizure about every 5 weeks, but seems to be getting a lot out of the biofeedback he’s been doing and between that and the CBD oil, he’s a lot less anxious and OCD. That means he’s happier, which in turn means we are happier as well.
James and I commented last night how Hugh seems to be falling asleep at a more normal time and how he doesn’t come into our room in the middle of the night anymore to try to obsessively talk about something that is on his mind. That means we’re getting more rest. Why then are James and I so dog tired? Why do feel like drinking a bottle of wine together nearly every evening?
Yesterday it hit me that James and I haven’t been away together for about 14 months, and in that time we’ve only had a couple of nights to ourselves. We have no energy for our regular lives and are kind of in a half-assed vacation mode because we really need an actual break. Hugh is 21, non-verbal, and on the autism spectrum. He communicates through sign language and a voice-output program on his iPod. Although aside from the seizures, Hugh is doing pretty well right now, it’s been a lot of years of high-intensity parenting, and it’s taken a lot out of us both.
He’s a wonderful young man and we love him more than we can say, but in many ways, it’s been a long grind of caregiving. We still have to help him brush his teeth, get him started in the shower, and take away his electronics at night to get him to go to bed. We have to make sure he gets his medicine three times a day. But even more than that, it’s been 20 years of the emotional intensity of having a child who needs a lot of care and a lot of daily help and intervention in order to regulate himself in the face of sensory overload and stress.
He’s never been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, but that’s not an uncommon co-morbidity with autism. Expending a large chunk of your daily thought and energy to try to help someone who is reflexively contrary is nothing short of exhausting, even though we understand that it comes out of anxiety. It doesn’t make it any less of a beat down to deal with just because we understand.
We are just thrilled to have finally found a combination of interventions that seem to be making a real difference, however. I’ve had to start cutting Hugh’s fingernails for him because he no longer bites them to the quick like he used to. It’s one more thing that I have to do for him, but I’m more than happy to do it because it is a clear indication of how much happier and less anxious he is these days. The sweet, sunny personality that is his natural set-point can finally come out to shine more of the time.
Taking care of Hugh has been a major reason that James and I need to have a break every now and then, but it hasn’t been the reason that we haven’t gotten one. Last May we adopted a former street dog named Lars. In so many ways he as been a great addition to our family and we love everything about him — all except for his terrible separation anxiety. Lars is a big bear, part German Shepherd, and part Great Pyrenees. His muzzle is covered in scars from fights but he is one of the sweetest and most gentle animals I have ever known.
This morning when I went to wake Hugh up, Lars jumped on his bed — a first — and was trying to nuzzle him. This made our other dog Cooper want to get in the act, and poor Hugh went from sound asleep to having his bed and his personal space overrun by canines. It was very sweet and funny. We’ve loved watching Lars go from a lovable but skittish dog to one full of fun and confidence — at least until I need to go somewhere.
He doesn’t like it when James goes away either, but he really gets anxious and upset when I do. We’ve been working on it, and he’s made some improvements but we still can’t really leave Lars at home without any humans. The foster home that Lars lived in when he was first rescued included several of his siblings, and so I think he didn’t have the same experience there because he was still surrounded by his pack even when his people went somewhere. He and Cooper adore each other, but apparently it’s just not the same with only one other dog and some cats for company.
James and I either have to take turns going away, go somewhere that allows dogs or leave Lars with a sitter (that we’ve gotten to keep an eye on Hugh, who can’t be left alone either). This is the real reason that James and I haven’t done any kind of getaway — because it would mean that Hugh and his caregiver would be in the same boat — stuck at home or taking the dogs with them, and that doesn’t really work for his schedule.
We’ve been muddling along with this not terrible but less than ideal situation for 8 or 9 months now, and it’s clear that we need to really make a push to get this under better control. We’ve worked with a trainer, and that helped a lot, but we need to keep up almost daily “missions” to keep stretching his comfort zone, and that takes time, intention, and energy. After a couple of months, bandwidth for that just ran short, but we need to get back at it so that we can actually take some time away without traumatizing our dog, who tends to bite the woodwork when he is distraught.
But at least I’ve finally realized what is going on. We’re kind of acting like we are on vacation at home because we desperately need an actual get-away to recharge. Even though many, many things are going well and the on-going demands on us are less than they have been, you cannot pour from an empty cup, and James and I are pretty tapped out.
The emotional labor of constant caregiving for both our son and our dog is way more taxing than the physical aspects, and we need to have a few days to not have to do that in order to regroup. Trips away are never highly scheduled things for us. If we end up doing site-seeing or some kind of activity on a trip, it’s because we’ve spontaneously decided that it sounds like fun. For James and I, the best kind of vacation is one where we do whatever we feel like in the moment, with no plan to have to adhere to. I really need some of that right about now, and I know James does too.
Understanding the underlying issue allows us to begin to make a plan to address it. I’m still incredibly tired, and not feeling all that motivated for much, but at least I know now what I’m grappling with so that I can begin to face it. I can start to do the things that I need to in order to get where I eventually want to go. In fact, I’m even going to drag myself to Pilates today although I don’t particularly want to go. It’s a cold and rainy day, but it’s a stretching class today and I think I can handle that. It’s a step in the right direction.
I’ve given myself some of what I needed at the moment just to muddle through and now I’m going to do what it takes to give myself what I really need — some real rest and time away.
“She believed that she could, but she was tired. So she rested. And you know what? The world went on and it was okay. She knew she could try again tomorrow.”