Tuesday, 31 January 2017
In my faith as a Buddhist I spend a lot of time examining the ‘self’ so you would think that I am ok with my own company but in fact I am not.
Years of being a Carer have left me lacking in self-esteem, and without the daily 9 to 5 grind of work I am isolated and alone in the house most days. I feel like ‘Shirley Valentine’ having a conversation with the wall. Ordinary household objects become your new best friend.
The nature of my twin’s disabilities means that holding down a full-time job is pretty much impossible. The cost of specialist afternoon childcare or during the school holidays would cost more than any wage I earned. The average cost of a private Carer these days is around £12.00 per hour.
While my husband might complain about his job, I cry inside with envy. I miss work, I really miss work. I miss feeling needed for more than incontinence pad changes, and tube feeds. I miss being with a group of people and the conversations I had with both colleagues and customers. Now most days all I have is my own reflection to look at. I stare at my ever increasing grey hairs and the baby belly that never really seemed to go away. I am forty-five, peri-menopausal and wishing I had done more with my life while I still had the chance.
But can you hear my moaning? It is all about the ‘what might have beens’ and the past. Now my lessons in Buddhism tell me to catch myself at this point, because my moaning will quickly spiral in to emotional suffering. The remedy for my emotional wobble is to be in the present moment. When I ‘check in’ with myself I can ask the question ‘Why do I feel this way today?’
When we internalize our suffering and pain it simply keeps growing, it is like a vine weed that works its way through every corner of our being. If these negative feelings are allowed to grow then we create the perfect cocktail of chemicals for an explosion. The bomb goes off when the person we care for says or does something that feels as though they aren’t grateful for what we do. Or when our partners come home from work and tell us about their amazing day whilst we have been staring at the same four walls all day without a single person to speak to.
Eventually our anger flare ups can increase to the point where our isolation only increases as family members and friends no longer feel able to have a conversation for fear of an explosion of emotions.
The Buddhist practice of ‘deep listening’ and being mindful of the breath can really help in these moments of anger and isolation. You can sit with your breath and say ‘Breathing In, I know that I am breathing in’ ‘Breathing Out I know that I am breathing Out’ ‘Breathing In I feel my anger in my chest (for example) Breathing out I release it’.
In this process we are acknowledging our own suffering and we are also giving ourselves the space to cultivate compassion for ourselves. Meditating doesn’t have to be a sitting practice. You can try walking in mindfulness. If you can manage to get out in to a local park, or just in to your own garden, a few steps of walking with awareness of the process will bring you back to the present moment. You will see the sky more clearly and hear the birds like you have never heard them before. Everything around you seems to be magnified to a greater intensity and in making the connection you realise you are not alone.
This practice takes time, its not a quick fix, but slowly the knot of sadness in the pit of your stomach will begin to unravel and you will feel that the negative energies will be washed over by feelings of joy.
As Carers we often don’t take care of ourselves first. It can feel like there isn’t space to. But the cold hard facts of the situation are this:
IF YOU ARE NOT ABLE TO CARE FOR YOURSELF, IF YOU CANNOT ACCEPT YOURSELF, THEN HOW CAN YOU EXPECT TO CARE FOR YOUR ANYONE ELSE?
This goes for any relationship, whether it is with a partner, a parent, a child or a friend. We have a habit of expecting the people around us who we care about to help us change in to the people we want to be, but only by working on ourselves can we truly create the kind of transformation we desire.
If we can cultivate peace and harmony in ourselves then helping another person under the most challenging of situations as a Carer will be much easier than if we hold on to our anger and suffering.
On the days where I feel isolated and lonely I try and be more mindful. While my children are at school I give myself the space the practice meditation in its many forms. On the days where I am able to connect with friends and get out of the house I try to be mindful with my activities, I soak up the love and friendship found in conversations and experience so that during the lows I can draw on the emotion of remembered highs.
On the occasions when I have the space to work on my writing and photography I try to be as fully present as possible. There is no time to let my mind drift off to the past or the future. The here and now is all that I have. I have to enjoy the time I have with my camera, and I can’t plan for the next day, because the next day might not come when I want it to! Children off sick from school or hospital appointments to attend can set my work back by days or weeks. Better to enjoy each second of each photograph I take than spend time wishing I could take more. These days I see taking photographs as a mindful process. I am aware that my breath slows down and I see the tiniest details, which a rushed mind would never capture.
When you feel alone and you are suffering, there is the temptation to stick on the television and do nothing in the hope that you will distract yourself from those negative emotions. Instead you are just feeding them. Remember the vine weed that just keeps growing? We have all been there. But distractions don’t take the pain away. Cultivate love and compassion for yourself and slowly and gently the joy will return, and in the quiet aloneness of meditation you will find there is no place for feeling down.
While mindfulness practice will not remove your loneliness it will help you to appreciate more the times when you are not alone. It will also help you to accept that there are times of ‘Aloneness’ that are okay. This is very different from the state of feeling alone. They are two separate things that are easily confused. In the space of aloneness you recognise that actually it is okay to be with your own company. Perhaps in the creation of a painting or photograph, or when you are reading a book. Life as a Carer becomes a fine balance between craving states of aloneness where you can enjoy activities by yourself and craving the company of others to stop your feelings of loneliness.
Caring limits our choices and when we do get a few hours respite it can be a challenge to decide whether or not to take the time to be alone and do something you have been desperate to do for ages, or spend time with friends catching up on conversations over a much needed cake and coffee. The answer is often to try and do both. I try to get out of the house and see a friend at least once a fortnight and although I can’t hold down a full time job I volunteer at my local hospice once a week, I divide the rest of my week up in to one day taking pictures and another catching up on post-production and writing. Both of which transform time in to spaces of aloneness rather than loneliness.
In reading this I hope that some of you will feel less alone, less angry, less sad. Our Caring stories are all different; our lives might not have the narrative we hoped for. But the end of our stories is still unwritten. We have the chance to change our narrative, but the dialogue we create with the world must start at the heart, it must start with learning to love ourselves again.