“If you don’t take care of yourself, the undertaker will overtake that responsibility for you.”

~ Carrie Latet (poet)

You might be thinking, “That’s kind of a brutal way to start a column, Jeremy…” But this is a necessary conversation for us to have.

Consider the 24-year-old bride of six months who becomes, all of a sudden, a full-time caregiver for a triple amputee. Consider the dad of four who is holding down the fort while his wife deploys for the fifth time. And consider the “senior” spouse who is taking care of her elderly parents and was just diagnosed with breast cancer.

Think of the 10 percent of military spouses who have contemplated suicide. Think about the 60-year-old mom who has had to leave her job to care for her son, wounded in Afghanistan. Think about all the volunteers in our community who have been burning the candle at both ends for much too long.

LIVING TO GIVE

For many military spouses, life is built around taking care of other people. You know that spouse… she has four kids, two of whom are sick, and yet she volunteers to help watch the three kids down the street. She just can’t say no, even though it’s what she needs to do. As a culture, we need to acknowledge that saying “no” isn’t always easy. We need to realize that we aren’t invincible, and make sure we take care of ourselves.

Let me provide a little background on the life I know- the one that comes from caring for our daughter, who was born with a number of disabilities. While the research I’m about to share relates to special-needs families like mine, I suspect it translates well to many different family situations. Consider:

  • A study by Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, which gauged stress by the short- ening of the telomeres at the ends of genes, found that raising a child with special needs reduced the parent’s lifespan by approximately nine to 12 years.
  • Another study looked at the levelsofcortisol(anindicator of stress) in mothers who were raising children impacted by autism. Their levels of stress corresponded to similar levels of stress found in soldiers involved in combat.

I’m not suggesting we run from caregiving stress. We are resilient. We are tougher than nails. But even the toughest of nails can be bent out of shape by a strike that comes in at the wrong angle … and it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the nail.

Need help? It’s imperative to ask for it. I recently attended a symposium run by the Code of Support foundation, run by Kristy Kaufman, a military spouse whose mission is to increase the support among the civilian population and highlight the need for appropriate mental health counseling. I’ve never been more impressed than with Kristy’s honesty in a very public forum, explaining that she recently needed counseling to deal with things she was going through.

“We are tougher than nails. But even the toughest of nails can be bent out of shape by a strike that comes in at the wrong angle … and it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the nail.”

We all need to be honest with ourselves: We’ve all probably needed help at times. Some days, talking to your battle buddy just doesn’t cut it. I’ve received professional counseling off and on over the last 10 years. It helps, sometimes a lot. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean you can’t hack it. It doesn’t mean anything other than that you are like everyone else.

So many basics go unmet: sleep (and I mean good sleep… not hospital “sleep”), eating well, relaxing, exercise. Those are just the basics. You also need time off from caregiving. Much like the flight attendant on the plane tells you to put the mask on yourself before your child, you have to take care of yourself if you are ever to take care of those you love most.

Is what I’m asking easy? No. But, please hear me: If you are to ever advocate for others, you must also advocate for yourself.

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