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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Fixing the Fix-It Stress

I’m a guy. I like to fix things. Whenever there is something wrong in the house or the family, my gut reaction is to try to fix it. Case in point: our automatic litter box.

When one of the cats does her business and leaves, she breaks an electronic beam that tells the machine she was in there and ten minutes later a rake automatically moves through the litter, sifts out the clumps, and deposits them into a covered receptacle. Neat huh?

Except when it doesn’t work.

Recently the litter box machine decided to take a vacation and, of course, I wanted to fix it. I needed to fix it, or at least try. I’m not savvy in the ways of electronics and can’t fix any circuitry, but I CAN look for obvious problems such as broken or disconnected wires, obstructions, etc. I spent the better part of an hour taking the thing apart, marveling at the complexity required to perform such a simple task, and finding nothing obviously wrong. At least I tried, right?

The same goes for other types of situations. When my friend calls me to say he lost his biggest client, I know I can’t get his client back but I can “fix it” by helping him feel better, so I take him to dinner. If my wife, Chris, is upset because she dropped a glass and it shattered all over the kitchen floor, I can “fix it” by helping her clean it up.

When Chris was diagnosed with breast cancer I needed to fix that too.

Oops. “Houston, we have a problem…”

It didn’t take long to figure out that I couldn’t fix it, and that was very frustrating. The diagnosis and resulting worry and scrambling were stressful enough, and I realized that my inability to make it go away was making it much worse. I couldn’t fix that either.

I realized that my inability to make her cancer go away was causing me great stress, which was a milestone in my caregiving journey. It was very helpful, though difficult, to face the reality of the situation and as a result, I was able to resign myself to putting out some of the spot fires and leaving the main fire line to the professionals.

I’m not the only one that feels this way; as I travel the country talking to patients, caregivers, and medical professionals I am learning that this scenario is quite common among caregivers — especially the men. It is unfortunate, because it generates a lot of unnecessary stress, frustration, and anxiety on top of everything else they are dealing with.

My advice: you can’t fix this. Deal with it.

I know it sounds harsh; sometimes the truth has to slap you in the face in order to be noticed.

This is not to say, however, that you are powerless. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There are plenty of things you can do; making the problem go away is just not one of them. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can focus on the things that you CAN do.

Let me say it again: you can’t make the cancer go away, but you CAN fix some of the problems CAUSED by the cancer. For example, you can help with practical items such as housework, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, scheduling appointments, bathing, and driving. You can help emotionally by establishing some sense of normalcy when her world is upside down, helping her feel feminine in spite of new scars, hair loss, etc., and making sure that she knows she is still your honey no matter what.

The bottom line: focus on what you CAN do and not on what you CANNOT do.

By the way, I couldn’t fix the litter box so I threw it in the trash and bought another one. I thought you’d want to know; I am NOT suggesting that you apply this analogy to your situation!

Posted by: Dave Balch at 7:52 am

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