Aging, Change, Grief, Letting Go, Love

Letting go of expectations

After a holiday break that was both restful and productive I have had a tough re-entry to work…but it is not the job itself that has been tough.  The holiday lull in professional activity has lingered longer than usual, there aren’t any big issues to be dealt with, and overall things are running really smoothly…and yet I’ve been stressed and out of sorts.

Some of it is just that I really am ready to move on to the next phase of my life, so being at work feels a bit like wearing clothes that don’t quite fit any more.

A bigger part is that I am feeling really torn between work and my responsibilities at home.  Don’s overall health and attitude have been good, but there is no denying that he has mild cognitive impairment and memory loss and that is shifting more responsibility to me.  I’ve always managed our finances, and done pretty much all of the planning activities (from meal planning to travel planning to retirement planning) since that has never been a strength.  He has done a lot of the cleaning, yard chores, and meal cleanup and he still does help with those things, but now I make a weekly and daily schedule and daily to do lists, remind him where he is supposed to be and when he is supposed to be there, follow up on tasks to make sure they have been done and respond to multiple texts and calls each day when he needs has lost something and needs me to talk him through retracing his steps to find it, needs technical help with his devices, or just wants reassurances.  I also find myself redoing things he has done, putting things away that he has left out, hunting down things he has put in the wrong place, and answering the same question multiple times…not to mention being constantly interrupted.  It can be frustrating and exhausting.

I also find that increasingly, doing the things that I need to maintain my sanity (swimming, learning all I can about memory disorders and dementia so that I can prepare myself for what the future might hold, spending time alone, journalling, blogging, counselling) and even doing the things I need to maintain our household (grocery shopping, managing our finances, contacting tradespeople about home maintenance, going with Don to doctor’s appointments) are carved out of work time…and that makes me feel guilty and resentful on top of tired and exhausted.

This morning I snapped.  We woke up to the sound of rain which meant we wouldn’t be able to take our usual 3 mile walk before breakfast, and I know that without that early morning exercise my whole day is usually off kilter.  I decided that instead of a long walk I would go to the gym on my way to work.  I told Don this and asked him to cut up our morning fruit and get the breakfast stuff out while I walked the dog around the block  so that I could grab breakfast and get going.  When I got back he was sitting on the john looking at his phone, and nothing had been prepared for breakfast except two eggs were sitting on the counter.

The trigger of Don’s slowness in preparing breakfast seems so insignificant, and yet it meant I would either have to leave without eating, or skip the morning workout because there was no way I could incur even a 15 minute delay and make it to work on time.

I flipped out, and then we were into our usual vicious cycle.  Don got flustered in the face of my anger, which made him even slower and more disorganized, and when I asked him to just go in the other room so I could cool down while cooking and eating breakfast he would not leave me alone but kept coming back to try to apologize or do things in the kitchen which just made me angrier, and my anger was exacerbated by his apparent refusal to listen to what I was asking of him.

In the end I left angry and upset, with myself as much as with him.  I was cranky all morning and knew I needed to do something to work out my stress, so I made plans to leave work after a lunchtime meeting so I could have a long swim, and then have some time to myself by working in a coffee shop for a couple of hours.  It was the right plan to make given my mental and emotional state and the lack of anything that really required my attention at work, and yet I feel guilty because it is another afternoon when I am not in the office and available for face time with my staff.

I also feel guilty for how I reacted to Don.  No matter how many times I tell myself that he can’t help that he has some kind of (as yet undiagnosed) brain disease and that I need to be understanding and patient and respond with love not anger, I still get triggered way too often.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why this is.  I’ve also been thinking about a question our therapist asked me last week when I got teary when talking about the weight of my responsibilities, which the more I think about it the more I realize is related to why I get triggered by Don’s lapses.  The question that got me thinking was whether the weight of my responsibilities is really any different than if I were single and living on my own.

The short but superficial answer is no, it isn’t much different.  If I were single I would be doing all of the financial management, cooking, cleaning, and household chores.

But the longer, more truthful answer is… I think it is a lot different.  If I were single I would only have myself to worry about and be responsible for.  I wouldn’t worry about getting a nourishing and balanced meal on the table every night and could just eat an egg on toast if I felt like it.  I wouldn’t be responsible for helping plan someone else’s days or weeks, for making schedules and to do lists for someone else, for scheduling medical appointments for someone else and then having to find time to go with them and to follow up afterwards.  I wouldn’t feel guilty for needing time to myself.  So yeah, it’s different and yeah, I often feel that it is unfair that I have to do so much more, which makes me both sad and sometimes angry.

The other reason thinking about all of the responsibilities I am shouldering makes me sad, and sometimes angry, comes down to that old bugaboo – expectations.  I got married because I wanted a partner.  Someone who would share the responsibilities of daily living, who would lift me up when I needed it as I would do for him, who would be my co-adventurer, who would participate in planning our lives and our adventures.

The reality has been somewhat different.  I love Don dearly, and he has been my co-adventurer and partner in fun and my best friend for over 30 years, but he has never really been an equal partner in planning and managing our lives.  His inability to meet my expectations in this area has a source of tension throughout our marriage…and secretly, I kept hoping that if I just nagged and noodged him enough, he would change.

 

I’ve always known in my head that trying to change someone else is a fool’s errand, but my heart kept hoping and I kept trying.  His cognitive impairment has made absolutely clear what my head has always known.  Not only is he not going to miraculously become a planner and organizer, he is almost certainly going to get worse in this area.

When I get sad about this it is because I am mourning the loss of a vision of life that only ever really existed in my head.  I need to let myself mourn…but I also need to remember that the life we do have and will have is pretty darned good.  Don is still able to travel and we have several trips on the horizon.  We live in a beautiful place, so when travel becomes too difficult we will enjoy our home, the beach and ocean, the ability be outside all year.  We have friends and family that will stand by us even when things get tough.  We still laugh together.  We still like spending time together.  We still desire each other.  As our therapist keeps telling us, it is obvious that we have a deep love for each other. We are blessed in so many ways, and these blessings will not disappear no matter what the future brings.

I think I am ready to start letting go of my expectations of what my life should be like.  What I need to work on is accepting the life I have and not letting Don’s every lapse trigger my hurt and anger.  I can’t have another morning like this morning…and the ball is in my court.

 

 

Gratitude, Reflections, Therapy

Expectations…again

William Shakespeare wrote that “Expectation is the root of all heartache” – a lesson that I just can’t seem to learn.

Just two short weeks ago I wrote about expectations and gratitude, citing Ray Wylie Hubbard’s statement that “The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.”

Yesterday Don and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary, and I managed to keep my expectations way higher than my gratitude, making for a miserable day for both of us.

Following our therapist’s advice we’ve been working on understanding and acting on one another’s “love languages” based on The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.  An overly simplified explanation is that people differ in how we express and receive love, and that these differences can be broadly categorized into five “love languages”.   If someone expresses love to us in a way that does not align with our love language we might not even interpret the behavior as loving, leading to misunderstandings, confusion, and heartache.

My primary love language is “receiving gifts.”  To quote from the Five Love Languages website “If you speak this language, the perfect gift or gesture shows that you are known, you are cared for, and you are prized above whatever was sacrificed to bring the gift to you. A missed birthday, anniversary, or a hasty, thoughtless gift would be disastrous – so would the absence of everyday gestures. Gifts are visual representations of love and are treasured greatly.”

Don’s primary love languages are “acts of service” (which is pretty much what it sounds like – having someone do things that ease their burden of responsibilities) and “words of affirmation.  According to the website “If this is your love language, unsolicited compliments mean the world to you. Hearing the words, “I love you,” are important – hearing the reasons behind that love sends your spirits skyward. Insults can leave you shattered and are not easily forgotten. Kind, encouraging, and positive words are truly life-giving.”

The challenge for us comes with the understanding that, while “acts of service” are pretty important to me, “words of affirmation” is way down my list of preferences, while for Don “receiving gifts” is at the bottom of his list.  I have to make a conscious effort to remember to affirm him and his actions to reinforce that I love him, while he really struggles (and has throughout our marriage) with gift giving which has been the source of much tension and meltdowns throughout our marriage.

It doesn’t help that  because of childhood experiences with words that were never backed by action or real demonstrations of love, for me “words of affirmation” ring false and usually trigger anger and a profound sense of loss.  And I have my own theories about childhood traumas that make giving gifts so very hard for him…

We’d actually read The Five Love Languages a few years ago on our own and didn’t really follow through on applying the concepts, but have been making an effort to put the ideas into practice over the past couple of weeks as our therapist suggested in the hopes that we could move past the hurt and start to show each other the love we each feel in ways that are meaningful to the other person.

Which brings us to yesterday, our 30th wedding anniversary…

I’m not going to go into all of the gory details (we do have a personal life after all!) but suffice it to say that I had put some effort into picking out a card that really expressed my love in his “words of affirmation” love language, and included a small gift because that is my preferred way of expressing love.

I had left him a reminder about my preferred love language on his daily “honey do” list, and while I wasn’t expecting anything extravagant I was expecting a gift of some kind.  What I got was a “card” that he had printed on the computer with a single line of text saying he loved me.

I tried to say thank you but my disappointment was obvious, and when he noticed and realized that he had hurt me I dissolved into tears that turned into sobs.  He really can’t cope when I get upset, so he panics and shuts down…and that is what happened.  What I wanted was for him to try to make it right – to go out and buy a gift or take some other action that would let me know that he understood why I was hurt.  What I got was  verbal apologies and hand-wringing…but no action.

This was a huge trigger and the longer it went on the more hurt and upset I got, and the more upset I got the less capable he became of taking action…all because of my expectations that Don didn’t, and probably wasn’t able to, meet.

This is not a new dance for us…

Fortunately, we had scheduled an appointment for our therapist for yesterday afternoon, figuring our anniversary was as good a time as any to work on our relationship.  As we talked about what was happening I learned that Don had set out to buy me a gift, but got so anxious about finding just the right thing that he panicked and never made it out of the car.  While this gave me some empathy, it didn’t actually relieve the hurt and it meant a lot to me that our therapist acknowledged that feeling hurt was not an unreasonable response.  She also gave Don some ideas about managing his anxiety, and about gift giving…although between his emotional state and his mild cognitive impairment I don’t think he retained much of this.

After our session she (bless her) took her own time to go with Don to buy a gift for me while I went home.

The gift helped assuage some of the hurt, but unfortunately while I was home walking the dog I again built up expectations that this would be a turning point and that he would truly understand why I need him to “speak my love language” even though it is hard and not natural for him and even though his cognitive issues make it even harder.

We headed off to watch the sunset and have dinner, but I could not let go of those expectations and kept pressing him (drilling him, really) about my love language and what he could do to meet my needs and expectations.  Let’s just say the evening was full of tension and less than a success…again due to unrealistic expectations on my part.

I still wasn’t able to let go of these expectations this morning so I left for work on a sour note, but he actually came to my office and brought me a little gift, which went a long way towards making me feel heard, appreciated, and loved.  The fact remains, however,  that my expectations may have been understandable, but they were also unrealistic given our history (and our individual histories), how early we are on our therapy journey, and Don’s cognitive issues….and the result, as Shakespeare so wisely predicted all those centuries ago, was heartache.

As we move forward I am realizing that, fair or not, my ability to manage my expectations and my reactions to how those expectations are met is going to determine whether I/we are miserable or are able to navigate this journey through the next phases of our life with some semblance of grace.

The path ahead lies in finding ways to help Don give me the love I need in the way I crave it (and when he can’t, finding healthy ways to give it to myself), in giving him the love he deserves in his love languages, in making the investment in therapy even though it gives me budget anxiety, in carving out time to swim, meditate, and reflect, in staying connected with friends and maybe even being more honest with them about what is going on in our lives and, most of all, in keeping my gratitude higher than my expectations.  Given my personality I think it will be a pretty steep climb, but I’m lacing up my hiking boots and hoping I am ready to take it on.

 

 

Gratitude, Reflections

Expectations and Gratitude

“The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.” Ray Wylie Hubbard

This was posted on The Hammock Papers today and it literally took my breath away when I read it.

One of the things I struggle with most is my expectations – of how things should be, of what other people should do and how they should be, and of myself – and my reactions when those expectations aren’t met.

The self-inflicted hurt of unmet expectations has had a particularly corrosive affect on my marriage over many years, and this is at the top of my list of things to work on.

I’ve found a quote from Johanne Wolgang von Goethe to be particularly helpful in this quest – so much so that I write it in the front of every journal as I start a new one to remind me of its message:

“I have come to the frightening conclusions that I am the decisive element.  It is my personal approach that makes the climate.  It is my daily mood that makes the weather.  I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous, I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of  inspiration.  I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.  In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and person is humanized or de-humanized.  If we treat people as they are, we make them worse.  If we treat people as they ought to be, we make them become what they are capable of becoming.”

This has proven true time and time again, and never more true than when I reflect on how I react when my expectations aren’t met.  When I react in hurt and anger, I escalate the situation and make myself and everyone else involved miserable.  In treating people as they are (at least as seen through the distorted filter of my expectations), I make them worse.

When Don does not meet my (almost always unreasonable) expectations I’ve been trying to develop a practice of taking a deep breath, putting things into context by asking myself if it will matter in five years (or even five weeks or days or minutes), and then reminding myself that whatever it is, he didn’t do it on purpose, and consciously thinking about all the things that I love and appreciate about him.  This helps we me see him as he is capable of being, and I can almost feel the pressure being lifted from both of us.

This sounds straightforward, but it is really hard to put into practice.  It’s even harder when I am tired, frazzled, and stressed, which pretty much describes my life these days…and harder still by the reality that sometimes what used to be reasonable expectations are no longer reasonable as Don ages.  Suffice it to say I fail more often than I succeed.

Thanks to Mr. Hubbard I have a new mantra.  When I start to get angry or hurt that something or someone hasn’t met my expectations I’m going try to remind myself to “keep my gratitude higher than my expectations.”  I’m pretty sure that if I can do that, we too will have some really good days ahead.