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I Don’t Know Who I Am Anymore: Losing and Finding Your Caregiver Identity

Posted Mar 05 2012 12:13pm

“When will I feel like me again?”

Sometimes I get asked this question by someone whose care partner has recently died and they’re reeling from grief while trying to figure out a new direction for their life. Other times it’s in the midst of the valley of care–when there’s no end in sight.

I see their desperate eyes and I wish that I could give them a simple, “soon,” but the truth is, none of us can go back, not even a moment or day, to who we were, to what life was.

I experienced this as well. I left one life–a busy mom/director of a school, a writer with publishing dreams, and then within a matter of months I was my mother’s daughter, caregiver, driver, health advocate, cook and could barely leave her side without being called back. I used to say I’m the dog in the front yard–the one with a choke collar on a very short chain. I chose to care for her, but I had no idea where it would take me. In time, I lost and found more of me. I had to figure out how to compartmentalize the many facets of identity.

Caregiving changes you. It has to. It’s too all-encompassing not to. Some of those changes make you a better person. Sometimes you don’t think you passed “the test.” You see how ugly, selfish, degrading, bullying, manipulative, resentful, and angry you are. And most of the time you don’t even know what triggered it. It gives you a chance to take a long hard look at who you are, but most of the time you’re too exhausted and frustrated to feel like you can do much about it. Every day exploded with doctor appointments, prescriptions to pick up, sheets to wash and calls to make.

Besides, I don’t think we have to be aware of change in order to change. Life teaches us, like it or not, willing or not. Being exposed to pain and suffering (for most of us) teaches us compassion. Being exposed to the dying process allows us to contemplate life and purpose. It doesn’t have to be profound, understanding weaves its way into our ordinary days, and I have to believe that in that small moment where we slip past our vices, when we extend kindness, humor, and tenderness–in spite of our own issues and our own needs–and we touch, truly touch another–that is the gift.

In  Finding Your Own North Star, author and life coach Martha Beck reminds us that many cultures value the times in our lives when we lose one identity and have yet to pick up another. Indians go on spirit walks. They leave their tribe and wander without knowing if they will ever make it back, and in that no man’s land, they encounter something magical. Those who return are barely recognizable. Only remnants of their former selves remain. Cleansed by a holy fire, this human metamorphosis is part of our journey and especially true for caregivers.

I guess the only way to get there is to be stripped of identity and to learn to somehow be okay with not knowing who we are or where we are. To be willing to strike out, nameless, faceless, and to give our all and have no idea of who we’ll be when it’s over and trust that whatever lessons needed to be learned were learned, and if not, they’ll come around again.

Let the riptide take you and see what shore you wash up on.

Faith is what makes life bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys.
Madeleine L’Engle 

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