Since my three-year stint as my father’s
caregiver I wrestle with socially unacceptable urges to comfort,
feed, and water just about anybody.
I do not have to know you personally to offer
you a cough drop when you choke. I say “Bless you” before you
finish sneezing, and my right hand will automatically fidget for an
Aloe-enriched, bacteria-killing tissue.
After your third sneeze, I will tell you the
names of cold products you need although these medicines are not
what I think truly promote healing. Sick people need to go to bed
and rest and drink plenty of fluids and be waited on by people like
I am ready to do that. I am a recovering
caregiver always on the lookout for someone who needs caregiving--me.
And I know that my attentions mostly wear on people’s nerves.
My teenage niece is tired of hearing me say,
“Button up. Buckle up. Wash your hands.” Sometimes I tire of
hearing myself, but I cannot stop. It is cold outside, accidents do
happen, and illness-bearing germs should be washed away.
This type of other-oriented watchful vigilance
is not confined to only matters of wellness. Recently stuck in a
bad traffic jam on the interstate, I opened my car trunk where I
store some caregiving supplies and walked up and down the asphalt
giving away free bottles of water to other stuck drivers. It was a
very satisfying experience—so many thirsty people, and me with so
That caregiver urge!—I overflow with it.
On an idling airport shuttle bus the other day,
the driver asked the already seated passengers if we would be
responsible to not let another person on if he left the doors open
so we could have fresh air.
Other passengers nodded politely. I got excited
for no one believes in the benefits of fresh air more than a
recovering caregiver. I watched hard. Two people got on. I asked
the lady beside me, “What are we supposed to do now?”
“It’s not our job to guard that door,” she said,
My jaw dropped. I was envious of that shrug for
I have lost track of the boundaries of socially acceptable
helpfulness, and I know it. I am labeled by others as codependent,
hypervigilent, and addicted--one of those suckers born every
But I wasn’t born in a minute. My condition
evolved over time while I handled medical emergencies for a dying
man and forgot who I was, except as a caregiver. I have emerged from
that experience in hyper-helpful mode. I watch. I warn. I
offer. I am a recovering caregiver and there’s no twelve-step
program to rehabilitate me.
But you could. And you could help others like
me or who may become like me. First, you have to see caregivers.
They live and move among you, but are very adept at being invisible.
To find one, simply look beside a person
suffering from age-related disorders or a debilitating disease.
Beside a chronic patient is a barely alive, almost invisible
caregiver. See that caregiver? Speak to him. To her. Speak
these words slowly: “How are you?”
If she replies, “Fine,” smile reassuringly.
Send fresh fruit to her house anyway. Or maybe a fresh flower.
Drop off fresh milk. Fresh bread. Her life is mostly stale, and she
can’t easily drive to a store for fresh stuff. You get the idea.
Does it seem like a small idea and, therefore,
unnecessary? Think again.
Any gesture or gift of care for a current
caregiver who has forgotten her own needs will become a potent
memory that will surface later like medicine from a dissolving gel
capsule that releases a healing dose of self-recognition and the
restorative message: It’s okay to accept help rather than only give
But don’t over-react. If a recovering caregiver
you know is already loose and roaming around compulsively offering
Band-aids, water, cough drops, and tissues, don’t resist them.
Instead, simply accept everything a former caregiver offers, and
say, “Thank you!” Caregivers haven’t heard those words in ages.
Rather than feed an addiction for approval which
some experts warn is what makes caregivers who they are, that
expression of simple courtesy will help a caregiver exhale and
finally say to someone, “You’re so very welcome.”
The job is done then. See? She is finished.
He can let go. Say good-bye.
I know. Every time I say those words, I say
good-bye to my old caregiver self and breathe hello to the people
who live in the world where I can imagine being on a shuttle bus
sitting near a just-about-to-sneeze, almost-gonna-cough, possibly
thirsty person, and--oh, bliss--simply shrug.