For About and By Caregivers

Create Self-Care
By Learning How To Think Like A Soldier
By  Joan Fay


During the ten years that I cared for my partner as she navigated the world of terminal lung cancer, I was often told by well-meaning people to take care of myself. After all, if I didn’t take care of myself, how would I have the energy to take care of anyone else? They dispensed advice like Pez candy, rattling off ways I could make life easier on myself: eat healthy meals, take long walks, meditate, take a bath or go shopping. They had no idea how impractical their suggestions were.

Exercising and eating healthy, let alone meditating or relaxing in a bath, were not even on my radar, especially during the last six months of Vick’s life. Anxiety, exhaustion and stress ruled my days. I was educated as a counselor and understood that I needed to shore up my reserves in order to be there for my partner, but I found myself unable to practice any of the self-care techniques I had been taught. Depleted, I knew I had to find a way to increase my energy and keep my mind alert—if not for my own sake, then for Vick’s.

I wondered who else works the way caregivers do, under such mentally and emotionally taxing conditions? While watching an episode of the Nightly News, the answer came – Soldiers in battle must survive life-threatening encounters and keep their wits about them. How do they do it? And, if it was possible for them, could it also be possible for me? A few clicks of the mouse, and I had the answers and the strategies I needed.

Combat soldiers don’t take the time to eat healthy meals while dodging sniper bullets, nor do they wake early during a mission and meditate to reduce stress. Instead, according to a presentation created by Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, titled “Battlemind Training, Preparing for War: What Soldiers Should Know and Do,” soldiers are taught They learn how to meet challenges head on, how to utilize the support of others and how to develop inner strength to combat their greatest fears.

I could not alter the course of my partner’s illness, anymore than a combat soldier can change the attitudes of those he is fighting against. But I could adopt a few of the mental tricks soldiers learn for dealing with the overwhelming tasks I faced.

Taking my cue from the soldier training, I assessed my situation by creating a list of tasks for which I was responsible. This list included monitoring and dispensing numerous medications, planning and cooking meals, feeding our animals, cleaning the house and maintaining the yard, managing my full-time career and my emotions while making my partner comfortable and safe during her daily seizure episodes and declining oxygen levels.

No wonder I was exhausted! Yet, there was no retreat. I had to face the challenges in front of me; and as I thought it over, I realized it was my choice how I dealt with these many challenges. I could react to each new medical symptom with complaint and drama, or I could meet the challenges head on, as the soldiers are taught to do, and take care of what needed to be taken care of in the moment. This realization stopped my internal whining and allowed a well of strength to rise up from somewhere deep inside, reducing the amount of anxiety I carried. Taking a good look at what I had to do and what I wanted to do did not stop what was happening to Vick, but it did stop some of my anxiety about all the issues we were facing.

The assessment also showed me how insane it was to do all of these items on my own. I knew I needed help and needed it fast. So, when people asked me if there was anything they could do, my answer became “Yes!” I would rattle off the tasks that I needed done, and let the person decide which one suited him or her best. This new declaration resulted in delegating my credit card and grocery shopping to my mother, house cleaning to my sister-in-law, and yard maintenance to our neighbors. I also gave up the need to be a hostess to the numerous people who came to sit with Vick. Utilizing the support of others in this way helped me to fend off some of the exhaustion I had been enduring.

Reducing the level of internal complaining and the number of tasks on my never-ending to-do list allowed me more energy. However, nothing helped as much as the attempt I made to adopt the third tenet of soldier training – trust. Soldiers are taught to trust their military training as a way to help them move through fear and build inner strength. Even before Vick’s health declined to the point of needing hospice care, I was enveloped in fear. As odd as it sounds, I wasn’t afraid of Vick’s inevitable death as much as I was of not being able to ease her suffering. I didn’t trust myself, or my emotional strength, to deal with such outcomes, so I over-compensated by trying to anticipate her every need. I constantly asked her how she was feeling and if she needed water, pain medication, food, or blankets. A part of me believed that I could eliminate her suffering, and thus my own, simply by making her comfortable. Not surprisingly, my attempts resulted in her feeling suffocated and controlled.

Family and friends often underestimate the emotional toil that caregiving places on the individual. When a terminal illness is involved, the emotional issues can feel like a continuous crisis. I knew intellectually that my thoughts were the cause of my increased anxiety and sleepless nights, but it wasn’t until I began meeting the challenges head-on and began using the support of others that I also began to trust myself and Vick. I made a decision to be less vigilant and to allow Vick to ask for what she needed. Then, I began checking in with myself, asking what I needed in any given moment, and trusting the answer. Sometimes my check-in said that I needed to sit quietly with Vick and read. Other times, it told me I needed to take a walk or write an email to a trusted friend and discuss my fears. This small action of checking-in with myself and honoring the response had the greatest impact on my level of fear and feelings of stress. The more I practiced this little ritual, the more I began to trust myself to survive the disease’s equivalent of mortar fire.

As I look back on those last six months, changing my perception and learning to think more like a soldier not only helped me improve self-care, it also gave me cherished moments with Vick that I don’t think I would have had otherwise.

Joan Fay is a freelance writer and instructional designer who lives and works in Port Angeles, Washington. She specializes in topics on caregiving, relationships and distance education. She can be reached at


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