Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Lessons From the Well Spouse - Part 1, Pre-Crisis

I've been a "well spouse" for 2 years now.

Actually,  I've been a "well spouse" for almost 7 years now. I never thought of myself that way until the cancer, but it was just as true then as it is now.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the term "well spouse" it's the common name for someone who is married to someone who is in some way incapacitated. The other person may be ill, have a chronic disease, a long-term injury or a disability, doesn't matter. What matters is that one spouse is unable to do what are considered normal and necessary activities and the well spouse makes up for it one way or another.

In the beginning all I really made up for was Chris's bad knees and lack of mobility. If it required lots of walking, I did it. If it required repetitive lifting, I did it. If it required crawling around the floor for whatever reason, I did it. If it required standing for any extended period of time, I did it. Grocery shopping, Costco, at-home oil changes, hooking up cables, hauling in groceries, laundry, whatever.

By the time Chris got REALLY sick I was already quite used to picking up whatever he couldn't do. It helped that he earned the income and could still lift the really heavy things, it's not like I was attempting to do everything in our lives by myself. I had more than enough time to make sure everything got done.

Not that everything got done. Certainly depression and anxiety and ADHD got in the way. But I could have gotten it all done.

I never expected to be in the position I've been in lately.

Knee problems are pretty predictable. Sure the pain can change from day to day but there were certain things I could always depend on. Chris would be smart and working hard. Chris would be fairly able to take care of himself no matter what.

Diagnosing cancer and going through cancer treatment is completely different. Nothing about Chris's symptoms is dependable. He can be completely awake and energetic and raring to go one day, and unable to move the next. There's no rhyme or reason, nor is there any way of preventing the bad days. The tasks he needs me to do change constantly.

Such undependability and chaos takes a lot out of a person. Worry takes a lot out too, as does financial stress and emotional stress. And then you add in a surprise pregnancy and...

Yeah. Exhaustion is too tame a word for what I'm experiencing at the moment. Completely tapped out is more like it.

So with that in mind, here's some lessons I wish I'd learned BEFORE the crisis.

1. Life is composed of creation, order, entropy, chaos, and divine grace. At any point the ratio of those forces can change. Just because life is humming along fine doesn't mean chaos and entropy can't hit and destroy everything. Conversely, just because chaos and entropy are kicking your ass doesn't mean creation and divine grace aren't coming around the corner. At any point things can change for good or ill.

2. Never, ever, EVER live at 100% of your resources. Obviously this applies to money, but it also applies to other areas. You have a finite amount of mental energy, emotional energy, physical energy, and time every day. You can borrow against tomorrow, but you CANNOT run at 110% forever without burnout. Also, your resources can be reduced at any moment. Lay-offs happen. Stressful events happen, sapping your emotional and mental energy. Stress will reduce your physical energy as well. Sudden illness or pregnancy can also deplete your energy levels. Oddly enough, crises and surprises also tend to require more resources from you while reducing the amount of resources available. Life's funny that way. Don't set up your life to take everything you have.

3. Streamline your life as much as possible. This means reducing your number of expenses, worries, and obligations as much as possible. It also means streamlining your work processes so that you're as efficient as possible. Sure you don't "need" to right now, but when you need to you will be dealing with other issues. There's no time better than now.

4. Now that you've reduced a much as possible, only add obligations that you can drop at a moment's notice. Sure you can handle it all now, but if you were to lose 20% of your time every day and 20% of your energy could you still handle it? Sure livestock farming looks like an awesome hobby and is fun for you but if you suddenly became ill could you devote as much time to it? Or would you have an obligation you'd be unable to meet?

5. Lazy isn't always a bad word. Laziness, not necessity, is the true mother of invention. You'll appreciate being able to devote the absolute minimum amount of time to life's necessities when you no longer have free time. Designing life so that you take as few steps as possible is greatly appreciated when you can't get further than 3 feet away from the toilet due to morning sickness.

6. Don't feel guilty or apologize for your massive amounts of free time. If you're healthy and life is going smoothly then you should have a ton of free time. You do not need to fill that time with something "productive". You are not "available" unless its something you actually want or need to do. You are not being "lazy" if what life requires is taken care of and you choose to indulge in doing nothing or only doing things you enjoy. If you ever have a crisis you will need that free time and miss being able to do nothing.

7. Specialization is for insects. Knowing how to do things for yourself can often save precious resources and prevent worry. Knowing how to pay the bills is important even if that's your spouses job. Knowing how to fix plumbing leaks is useful when you're limited on time and money. Being able to read the trouble codes on your truck can save you half an hour or more and a tremendous amount of hassle. Time spent learning how to do common household maintenance can save tons of time and money when you put the learning to use.

8. Don't tolerate toxic people, not even when you can handle it. The time to cut them out of your life is before you absolutely have to. When a crisis hits and all of your resources are taken up you don't want to waste a single resource on people who actively hurt you. Not even the amount of energy it takes to kick them out of your life.

9. Cultivate your enjoyment of the small things in life. Yes you may hate the girl in the office that gets excited about every.little.thing. Or look down on someone who squees over tiny little inconsequential things like getting a free mint from the restaurant. That is, until you're in the middle of a crisis and realize that being able to glean happiness from small things is an indispensable life skill. It may be that one day you'll be in the makeup aisle and realize that $2 worth of lip gloss lifted your spirits when everything else was going wrong, or that the best part of your day was homemade coffee with whipped cream. If you can teach yourself to be happy over small things you'll be much better off when life brings really bad news. When you have little in the way of resources left being able to bring yourself happiness using little is an awesome, awesome skill.