So Many Straws: Reflections on Self Care, and the Lack Thereof

“You’d better be careful, Sam. You’re going to burn out like this.”

These were words from my CPE supervisor several years ago. At the time I was a bit taken aback. After all my schedule certainly seemed manageable, and I felt I was doing OK at work and at home. Sure I had my struggles, but found a way to pick up and keep going every time. This March I realized he was right.

Several things coming together brought me to that point. I had two patients come on, both with end-stage liver disease, and both around my age. One woman was in her thirties, the other in his late forties. I’m forty-three. In both cases I felt like I wasn’t able to help. In the first case the woman’s mother was extremely protective and in the middle of a great deal of family turmoil. While I could be with her and talk with her, the tension in the room was heavy and I never felt like I could be much help to her: the layers of defense were high and hot. In the second case the man’s family were deeply upset at him for drinking himself into liver failure. He was unresponsive when he came on service, and his brother and sister were both struggling with anger in different ways. I felt I was more of a help to them, but having to deal with two patients about my age dying of a grotesque disease hit me hard. I felt helpless.

The last time I felt that helpless was several years ago when I cared for a young teen on hospice who had end-stage cancer in his head. He had been to so many doctors and specialists, and through so many painful treatments, that he was afraid to talk to most everybody who wasn’t direct family. Seeing this young boy, just a bit older than my oldest son, going through so much while I felt I could do so little hit me like a punch in the gut. The two patients with liver disease brought all that helplessness and hopelessness back. Couple that with the fact that my own mother recently went on hospice and you could see disaster brewing.

I found myself utterly burned out, frustrated, angry and depressed, and felt unable to share that burden with anyone.

I likened it to having a glass filled with water and a straw. When you’re drinking through a straw you feel like you have plenty of water. So you add another straw. Sure the water goes down faster, but you still have plenty. Plus I’m doing a little here and there to keep it filled up. More straws are added, and some of those things you think are adding to the glass turn out to be straws too. Soon the water is getting sucked out at a pace where whatever you’re doing to try to keep it filled isn’t working any more. By the way, you weren’t really filling it yourself – you just kept waiting for the waiter (God) to come around and fill you up, because that’s what waiters do.

That sucking sound you hear as the straws try to grab up the last bit of water is the sound of your joy being sucked away.

The reason I bottomed out I think is that I had two many straws in my glass with nothing filling it up. Over the years I had become accustomed to taking on more and more responsibilities, feeling like I would gain satisfaction and significance from my effort. I led small groups, led my youngest son’s Cub Scout pack, and even tried to start a small business. Rather than satisfaction I found mostly frustration. I had thought that these things would help to fill my glass while I found that they were only adding straws that emptied it even faster.

I’m finding that I, along with many other caregivers, have a very hard time moving out of that role. At work I take care of others. In small group I take care of others as well, trying to make sure we have a good study and that everyone is happy. In Scouts I tried to do most everything myself, even as I begged for people to help me. At home I cleaned up after everyone and tried to keep everyone else happy as well. At work people vented to me about their problems and I listened sympathetically, even though I had no interest in hearing them. I’m finding now that I had let my role work it’s way into too many areas and aspects of my life. I had become a caregiver not just to my patients, but to everyone. The flip side was that I had no expectations that anyone would help me. I had forgotten to take care of myself.

This neglect was across the board. I rarely prayed or read the bible. What reading I did was mostly intellectual and had little impact on my heart. My sleep schedule was a wreck, as I felt I could only do what I wanted to do once everyone was in bed. I didn’t reach out to friends, because I felt they were all to busy. I didn’t exercise, or even relax, because I felt I didn’t have the time.

I’m in the process now of examining and recovering from all this. I’m seeing a counselor and looking at what’s pushed me into this corner. I’m getting rid of some of the straws in my glass. Most importantly, I’m remembering what it is to fill up my glass.

The fruits of the Spirit are not stress, anger, depression, despair, loneliness and helplessness. If whatever you’re doing, even if you feel it’s the call of God, is leading you to those places then it’s past time to re-examine what’s going on. That’s what I’m doing.


3 thoughts on “So Many Straws: Reflections on Self Care, and the Lack Thereof

  1. Well said. I’m glad to see that you are getting help identifying what’s pushed you into your corner.

    It seems that often times caregivers that are experiencing the darker side of life (the end of it) get wrapped up into the fears and depression that their patients are going through. It seeps into their bones like water to a sponge. If they’re not careful and ever on guard for it, it can overcome them. This causes the caregiver to not “practice what they preach”. They instruct their patient to dig deeper into scripture and prayer. They instruct their patient to call upon the Lord. They end up not following their own advice. They end up not seeing the forest for the trees.

    The good news is if you dig deeper into the word, if you begin talking to God more faithfully in prayer, if you call upon His name, the good Lord will bring you the peace you need. But you already knew that, you just needed someone to tell you.

    Be encouraged. You are loved.

    • Thanks very much for your kind and encouraging response. There’s a lot to talk about regarding caregiver burnout – something I hope to write about more in the future!

      One thing that I often see in caregivers, myself included, is that they become over-responsible. That is if a need crosses their path, they feel compelled to at least address it. They take on more than they need to because they feel that they have to.

      • Isn’t that the truth!

        Caregivers tend to be “fix it” people. We see a problem, we see someone in distress, we are compelled to fix it. I’ve always related it to (albeit romanticized) mid-evil times when a knight in shining armor would show up to save the damsel in distress.

        What I’ve found in my own spiritual growth, and what I have to work on nearly every day, is that God has way more power and ability to fix problems than I do. At times I have to stop myself from jumping into the mix of a situation, pause, and turn it all over to Him. When I do this my own personal stress and anxiety level drops and the outcome is better than me fighting the uphill battle alone.

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