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Caring for a Loved One

by Lucille A. Bouchard.

Using the Progoff Intensive Journal method has provided me with stability as primary caregiver for my husband during his recent illness. During all phases of his sickness, I made use of this amazing program, a tool I have implemented consistently over the past five years to maintain my own health and welfare.

Nine months ago, my husband had a heart attack after a busy day working in the yard on one of his projects. He was taken to the Emergency Room where he was stabilized, hospitalized and later transferred to another hospital twenty-five miles from our home. This marked the beginning of a month-long hospitalization that included a very successful bypass surgery. It also marked the beginning of my new job as sole caregiver. I felt apprehensive about this daunting role, as I doubted my ability to rise to the occasion upon his release from the hospital.

Although the role of caregiver increased after the heart attack, I had already been in somewhat of a caregiving role during the time leading up to the incident being responsible for proper diet and being affected by his health issues in general. In retrospect, I in fact found there were many obvious clues to my husband's illness and I was very uncomfortable and frightened with the manner in which he chose to pay attention to the signs and symptoms of his heart problems.

About a year and a half before having his heart attack, my husband suffered from what turned out to be a small stroke (Transient Ischemic Attack - "TIA") one morning during breakfast. At my insistence, he agreed to be checked the next day. He was placed on high blood pressure medication, and underwent a series of tests but required no further treatment. More than a year after the TIA, my husband had become very lethargic. He admitted to "feeling lousy" and blamed it on his medications. It was very upsetting to see him like this. Moreover, he refused to contact his physician and shortly thereafter, he stopped taking his medication against my advice and that of his doctor. His decision wore on me, and I experienced guilt for not challenging this decision. I became very distressed, and as my fears surfaced, I told him of my concern, but he insisted that he was fine. After he pulled away from the doctor's care, I refused to go on our annual vacation and soon realized that in many ways, his poor health controlled my life more than I was willing to admit.

Since I had already been using the Intensive Journal method for a few years, I was better able to cope with the difficulty and stress of his declining health. My workbook was a place where I could diffuse my anger and frustration. All of this was compounded with issues that I was already having with my life in general, which I discovered by using the Intensive Journal process. This discovery came about one year before my husband's heart attack, during a summer workshop series. Using my workbook, I searched for themes throughout my life that I could possibly use to make positive changes and understand the pattern of my life in general. As we were planning on moving, the issue of decluttering the house and our lives came to the forefront. The chaos of the clutter at home stressed me out and kept me stuck in ways from moving on with my life. Also, I have always been solely responsible for keeping track of financial matters in our home, something that takes a lot of time to keep updated and organized.

These issues led me to see a common theme branching throughout various areas of my life. With the help of the Intensive Journal method, I discovered that my ultimate concern is that of simplifying my life. Focusing on this idea of simplicity as a spiritual path provided me with motivation to bulldoze through the trappings that had ensnared me. I also found that being true to myself is a familiar theme, especially when using a section in which one dialogues with wisdom figures in the Inner Wisdom Dialogue section _ I realized that I often do not make changes that are important to me.

Then, on one seemingly ordinary summer evening, my husband was struck with the heart attack. This jolting event changed my life dramatically and presented me not only with the impact of my husband's illness but also with multiple new responsibilities as primary caregiver. It happened in the evening after my husband took a bath and came downstairs reporting breathing problems. At the Emergency Room, he was taken immediately for treatment. While he was under the doctors' care, I sat alone in the waiting room for six hours, not wanting to worry my family and believing that I was the kind of person who could handle things for myself. In the waiting room, I felt a sense of relief and thanked God that finally someone else was taking care of this man, as I knew that the doctors, along with proper adjustments in his medication, would keep him out of any danger. However, I was also in denial about what had just happened, and was angry with him for not taking better care of himself and with the possibility that he could have died that night.

These anxious feelings awoke me at 4 a.m. one morning a few days later. I needed an outlet for intense feelings of fear and helplessness and I relied on my Intensive Journal workbook to calm me and bring clarity. The words that came forth gave witness to the numerous ways my life was turned upside-down. As a new primary caregiver, there were so many things going on, new people to deal with, new information, and new duties to perform. The waters of my life had become muddy.

In his book, At a Journal Workshop, Ira Progoff takes the saying of Lao Tse, "Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear," to emphasize the importance of stillness and the resulting phenomenon. He states:

When we were actively engaged in our life, many things accumulated in the water of our inner being until those waters became muddied. The psychological equivalent of that is simply to say that we became confused (p. 320)...Since activity has muddied our life, we now become inactive. We take a passive, a waiting stance toward life so that the muddy water can settle and become clear...We were brought to the condition of stillness by a stoppage, a confusion, an apparent failure in the conduct of our life (p. 321-2).

I came to realize that I needed to be still and let the muddy waters clear. Through the Intensive Journal process, I recognized that this major life change scared me. I felt trapped, thinking that I would never get out from under this caregiver role, and that I wanted our lives back to the way they were before the health problems began. Thankfully, writing in my Intensive Journal workbook brought tranquility, cleared the muddy waters and gave me the encouragement to regain control over my personal life.

During my husband's month-long hospitalization and despite being concerned with his recovery, I experienced a sense of freedom in that I could now take a break from feeling responsible for his questionable health. I could return home and not have to deal with it again until my return visit the next day. I no longer had to observe him at home during the time leading up to the heart attack while he dealt with his symptoms on his own terms. I felt a heavy load drop from my shoulders. I found writing in my Intensive Journal workbook regularly on the train trips to the hospital and in waiting rooms helped me to access and cope with my apprehensions, thoughts, and fears about this strange and uncertain situation. Poignant examples include excerpts such as, "I don't want to be the only caregiver," "I hate seeing him all hooked up," and "I dread today."

There is a huge contrast in the way I handled the stress of the heart attack while he was hospitalized compared to the feelings that surfaced during the weeks of recovery after he was discharged. Because he was released quickly and unexpectedly, the people who I had assumed would be around for support were not available. This made me very upset and angry, and then the reality of my many newfound responsibilities sunk in. Writing in my Intensive Journal workbook helped me process the strong emotions for awhile but this was just the tip of the iceberg in that this event also encroached on other changes I had made in the prior few weeks. I was surprised at the degree of my anger, and everything that was going on led me to feeling very disconnected from myself, God and others, and very much on my own with my husband's recovery at home. I wanted my old self back, the woman who felt so much freedom during the hospital period. This led me to work in sections of the workbook that helped me to reestablish bonds with my faith, my old self and well-being. Also, as I reconnected with people I had pulled away from, my uncomfortable feelings of isolation were alleviated. I then vowed to myself to live my life differently, to resume my normal activities and to make new friends.

Another very helpful factor that has helped me to adjust to my new duties as caregiver is the Intensive Journal workshop. The workshops are important to me because of my strong belief in the method. The atmosphere of the workshop is conducive to deeper levels of writing and life examination, and they provide me with a connection to others who are also committed to the method as a way of life. At various points during a workshop, I may go through feelings of sadness, fear, frustration, and elation and joy. Additionally, I rely on the integrity of the leaders conducting the workshops, who provide an air of safety and trust in which I process the entries.

Now, nine months later, my husband is dedicated to his routine of diet and exercise and I continue to work in my Intensive Journal workbook. For me, writing is a spiritual practice and therefore deepens my commitment to my spiritual growth. That is why the Intensive Journal process has been the health maintenance tool that I have stayed with on a consistent basis for such a long period of time, and why it continues to provide me with personal growth at different stages of my life.

"Intensive Journal" is a registered trademark of Jon Progoff and licensed to Dialogue House. © Copyright 2019. Reprinted with permission of the author.