Guilt. Everyone feels it. Everyone talks about it. Everyone tries their best to avoid it by doing the right thing. But, no one ever tells you that there really is no way around it. Sometimes, no matter how many good things you do, you still find something to feel guilty about. This is especially true for caregivers. You could do a million things to care for your loved one, but you will still focus on the one thing you didn’t do. You will still end up feeling guilty about something.
As a part-time caregiver for my mom, I know the pervasiveness of guilt all too well. There are times when I’m sitting on my couch, watching a movie with my husband and cuddling with my dogs, and I am suddenly stricken with pangs of guilt. Out of nowhere I will just start thinking about my parents and berating myself for not being there to help them at that very moment. “What time is it? I wonder what they are doing right now. I wonder how their day was. I can’t believe I didn’t go over there to help them out. I can’t believe I’m sitting here watching a movie right now when who knows what is going on at my parents’ house. It’s not like my dad can ever just sit and watch a movie. I’m so selfish.” These are literally the thoughts that come into my mind out of absolutely nowhere when I’m supposed to be having a relaxing night with my husband.
Caregiver guilt can be so pervasive. It can take over and ruin all aspects of your life. I could spend hours at my parents’ house helping my dad take care of my mom, but I will still feel guilty when I have to leave. Of course, it doesn’t help that something always seems to happen as I’m about to walk out the door. My mom needs to use the bathroom. My mom starts giving my dad a hard time for being out all day (even though he was only out for a couple of hours). My dad seems so completely overwhelmed, as if my help has not even alleviated any of his stress. I will ignore the time on the clock and stay for longer than I had intended. I almost never leave their house when I say I’m going to. I always get back home later than I had planned. But, those pangs of guilt will still find me later that night when I’m sitting on my couch watching a movie. Why?
Personally, I think caregiver guilt has a lot to do with the fact that we can’t fix the situation. I want so badly to do something, anything, to fix my mom’s Alzheimer’s, but the reality is that I just can’t. So instead, I convince myself that if I had just done that one more thing or spent that one more hour at my parents’ house, it would have made a world of difference. Deep down I know that isn’t true. I know that no amount of my help is going to make my mom better. No amount of my help is going to make my dad less overwhelmed or less depressed. There is nothing I can do to make any of this go away, but that doesn’t stop the guilt from consuming me at times. It seems that there is nothing I can do to avoid it. No matter how much I do for my parents, I will inevitably feel guilty about something.
It has taken me quite a while to realize how invasive and destructive guilt can be. It can ruin your life if you allow it. I have recently begun to accept the fact that the guilt will most likely never go away. I don’t think there is anything I can do to avoid it. Instead, I have been trying to find better ways to manage it. Since I know those pangs of guilt will come for me at some point, I am now working on being able to recognize it as soon as possible. When I realize that I have allowed the guilt to invade my thoughts, I have to shut it down immediately. I mean, the second that I start having those guilty feelings, I tell myself to knock it off. “Stop thinking about your parents. Focus on the movie. You’re supposed to be having a relaxing night off with your husband. Don’t ruin it by allowing the guilt to creep in.” If that doesn’t work and I continue to feel the guilt, I have to remind myself that I will probably always find something to feel guilty about. “You have done a lot to help your parents. It is ridiculous for you to feel guilty about not doing enough. Feeling this way is not going to fix anything. It is only going to make you feel miserable. Even if you spent every second of every day helping your parents, you would still find something to feel guilty about. Stop it!” These are all things that I say to myself when I start feeling guilty about something. I just repeat them over and over again in my head until I have pushed the guilt out of my mind. It’s always a work in progress, but it definitely helps.
If you don’t talk to yourself and coach yourself through these negative thoughts, then who will? The next time you feel the caregiver guilt start to creep in, try talking to yourself, either in your head or out loud if you feel the need. Sometimes I will even look myself in the mirror and talk to myself out loud, even using my name. Think I’m nuts? Try it!
“(Your name), you have done what you can with what you have right now. You have done enough for today. If you really feel like you haven’t done enough, then just do a little bit more tomorrow. Even if you spent every minute of every day taking care of your mom, you would still feel guilty about something. Feeling guilty is not going to change the past or fix the future. It will only make you hate yourself. You have done enough. Let it go.”
Caregiver guilt is always going to be there. It’s always going to find you. I have learned that it’s not about doing every single little thing you possibly can to avoid the guilt because you will likely feel it anyway. You will just drive yourself crazy doing a million things for your loved one and still end up feeling guilty. Instead, it’s about learning how to manage the guilt and escape from those pervasive thoughts. Sometimes you have to be your own life coach. You have to find a way to dig yourself out from that pile of guilt because it will bury you alive if you let it. So, don’t let it! You are enough. You have done enough. You deserve some time off. Let it go!