Perhaps you have also reached the point where you involuntarily twitch when someone reminds you to put your own oxygen mask on first.
Do you also feel a little flash of anger when you are subject to this caregiving cliche?
This admonishment never comes with an offer of help. It’s a quick way to dismiss your suffering and act as if you’ve brought it upon yourself. It’s not that there is too much for any one person to possibly do, it’s that you’re doing it wrong. And now they are correcting you, telling you that you should have put your own oxygen mask on first.
This cliche isn’t entirely inappropriate. If you’re hearing it, it is indeed because something in your life has gone suddenly, horrifically wrong. You have done more than hit turbulence, you have lost cabin pressure. You are very likely about to crash and burn. Or fall into the ocean and smash into a million pieces.
That’s as far as this little cliche makes sense. It falls apart pretty quickly, much like an airplane plummeting into the ocean.
We are not on an airplane
If you are on a plane that is in distress, you are not alone. There are probably a hundred people who are all going through this with you.
If you are on a plane that is in distress, you don’t have to do anything besides put the oxygen mask on and wait for instructions. You just have to breathe and do your best to stay calm and conscious until you are told precisely what you need to do to survive. Maybe you will have to brace yourself for an emergency landing. Maybe you will need to evacuate after a crash. But right now you just need to sit there and breathe.
If you are on a plane that is in distress it is probably over in a few minutes. This liminal space of immense anxiety and suffering does not last more than a few hours. Because if there is an oxygen mask hanging down in front of you in the cabin, you will either live or die. How long until an airplane runs out of fuel? Not very long, in the scheme of things.
If you are on a plane that is in distress the world stops to increase your chances of survival. They clear the runway or improvise a runway. All sorts of emergency crews are on standby. The media gathers round. Your family gathers together.
If you are on a plane that is in distress, everyone in your life views you as someone who is about to be in a plane crash. They aren’t only worried about the child sitting next to you, whose oxygen mask should be put on after yours, they are also worried about you.
What’s caregiving like?
Caregiving is nothing like being in an airplane that is about to go down.
Caregiving is not about keeping a cool head for a few hours of adrenaline. Caregiving is not putting a mask on your own face and then the child sitting next to you and holding their hand while the plane undergoes a rocky descent.
If caregiving is like a plane crash, it’s like Alive. Forgotten, without the basic things required to sustain life, freezing to death on the top of a mountain. One wrong move and you will all die. No one will find your bodies for weeks or months or years, because the rest of the world has moved on.
If caregiving is like a plane crash, it’s being married to someone who is forever changed by PTSD in ways that are not noticeable when she tells the riveting story of the crash at parties. No one recognizes how this crash changed everything in your life or gives a shit about the months you took off of work to nurse her back to health. The story of the toll this took on your career, your friendships, your whole life is not riveting — it’s seen as selfish to even bring it up.
If caregiving is like a plane crash, it’s having to provide 24/7 care to the son you raised and put through college and married off, knowing you will do this until you are no longer physically able to and then he will wither away in a government run nursing home. That he will probably never have another visitor again once you die. That he will probably die from some sort of easily preventable thing, the sort of thing you are so vigilante about. It’s choosing between the retirement you planned for or feeling responsible for anything that might happen to your son if you left him in someone else’s care.
If caregiving is like a plane crash, you are the pilot who takes the blame for the crash, even if there was nothing you could have done to prevent it.
There are no oxygen masks here
We are not all in this together.
No one recognizes your suffering.
There is no help coming.
And there is no end in sight.