“Caring for my mother is teaching me to let go of perfectionism and be in the flow,” a friend recently told me. Learning to occasionally surrender control and move with the flow has been one of the gifts caregiving brought me. But it didn’t happen instantly.
I stopped being in the flow and I stopped having fun when my mother was diagnosed with dementia.
I didn’t have time for flow or fun because I had to spend every spare moment thinking about Mom, wondering how I could help her, talking to my dad, wondering how I could help him, and worrying about the future, including fretting over whether I, too, was losing my mind.
Then one day, I asked my mother what it was like, living in such confusion.
“I can’t worry over it too much,” she told me. “When I lose a thought or a word, I try to laugh and let it go.”
I realized that’s what I needed to do: acknowledge that Mom had dementia, appreciate her, and then laugh and let go.
To help myself, I made a list of quick activities that renewed me. My “Play-List” included reading fascinating fiction, eating dark chocolate, talking with a friend, walking outdoors, and striking a few yoga poses. And when I started feeling way too busy or responsible to take ten minutes for myself, I took a breathe and practiced surrendering and being in the flow.
Here’s a story I wrote about the art form of surrender, an art form I’m still working on.
Waving the White Flag
First, I lost the freelance job that would have supported me for the next two months. Then I discovered I needed outpatient surgery only minimally covered by my insurance. Next, a torrential downpour made archipelagos of my basement furniture. Instead of spending the evening creating a stunning new resume, I was duct taping trash sacks to the dribbling basement walls and sopping up the puddles with towels. I started upstairs to search for more trash sacks and tripped over a stray board, left over from the rascals who water proofed my basement! I picked up the board and was instantly stabbed with a splinter. Grabbing a sodden white towel to stem, I stomped up the stairs.
“I give up,” I said to the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. “I can’t take anymore,” I said to the pile of unopened bills cluttering the kitchen table. I shook the white towel and water flew across the counter tops. Then I remembered the old westerns, when the bullet-riddled good guys tie a handkerchief on a rifle butt and waved it at the enemy, just to get a moment’s respite.
It was time for me to officially throw in my towel.
I went outside and tied the towel to the board. I walked into the yard and waved my flag at the sky and said, “I surrender.” It was a good thing too, because I suddenly realized I was ankle deep in water. And I was wearing my good shoes.
I leaned the flag against the porch and dragged myself up to bed.
The next morning, the beat-up-looking flag made me smile. I felt better now that I had officially let go of control. Every time I came in and out of the house, I saw the flag. Despite that constant reminder, I still struggled. Sure, my basement dried up and yes, I got a new client. But I felt “on the edge” rather than brimming with abundance.
“Will you make a white flag for me for my birthday?” I asked my daughter Sarah.
As soon as I spoke those words, I worried: What if I don’t like the way the flag looks? What if it simply isn’t what I envisioned? What if it’s too large or too small? Then I had to laugh at myself: I wanted control over everything, even the shape of my surrender!
The morning of my birthday, Sarah put a long pole in my hands. It was spray painted gold, with an elegant carved top and held a beautifully proportioned, dazzling white flag. The flag was aesthetic, dramatic and elegant. Slowly I walked outside and hung the flag near my porch light, where it was fully visible yet sheltered from the rain. The flag tilted a little to the right. I climbed onto a chair to straighten it and by the time I climbed down, it tilted again. I tried again, perfect, and yet, the moment I stepped off the chair, the flag became askew.
Then I realized, the flag was already working, reminding me to flow with imperfection, to enjoy what was offered. I saluted my crooked flag and went inside to make a birthday wish.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey. Her newest book, Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together, emerges in September 2016. Visit her at DementiaJourney.Org.