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June 12, 2014 / Mark Kerrigan

4 Relationships for Survivors and Caregivers to Be Careful Of

Clownfish and anemoneRelationships, as most adults know, are a symbiotic balance of give and take–a two-way street, if you will. Where the relationship becomes a problem is when it goes from being a two-way street to becoming a one-way major thoroughfare. Like the clownfish protecting and cleaning the sea anemone. The clownfish, in return, is protected from predators by the anemone’s stinging cells, to which the clownfish is immune. That is a symbiotic relationship. Imagine now, if you will, that the clownfish sometimes wants and even craves the tasty delight of snacking on the anemone’s protective tentacles. Without warning, the clownfish starts to destroy the relationship by satisfying an immediate desire or need. That is what often occurs to families when a member suddenly goes through some sort of trauma.

Those who have suffered some sort of trauma, such as a TBI, PTSD, a stroke, Alzheimer’s, dementia, or any other condition which affects the neurological health of the survivor are particularly at risk of becoming relationship “Vampires.”

  1. The first sign that the survivor (or the caregiver) is not contributing to the relationship is that one person is not allowed to flourish. For example, many parents may find themselves putting their lives on hold when their child is injured in a car wreck. They become immediate caregivers, even if it means putting a career, education or writing a book on hold indefinitely. The problem is when the survivor keeps expecting to be treated as if he or she is the center of the world. In my case, I can remember being the deciding vote as to where or what my family would have for dinner. If I wanted to go to Houston’s, that’s where we went. If I wanted to have tacos four nights a week, guess what we had four nights a week. But now, some 25 years after my TBI, it would be unreasonable for me to expect to have those same expectations placed on my parents and sisters. But I know that occurs, and it occurs within communities which are not trying to recover.
  2. If you, the caregiver or the spouse of someone with PTSD, find that the needs of the other party seem to always come before your own, you may need to find a way to satisfy yourself emotionally. It’s kinda like having a cup of coffee. You are happy to share your coffee, but the more you give, if you don’t put anything back into it, you will eventually run out. You have to sit your cup upright, and then replenish the contents. The more you do that, the more you can give. Not only can you give more, but you also give better quality. I’m a caregiver by profession, and when I feel like I’m approaching burnout, I just excuse myself and go outside to make a phone call. When I return to my client, I have more energy and a better attitude than I did when I left.
  3. Survivors need to understand that it’s not all your fault. You, the caregiver, didn’t decide to have the snack bar close just so the survivor couldn’t get the treat he wanted. I know it’s difficult for the survivor to understand this, but not everything is someone else’s fault. Sometimes life just happens. Survivors often blame their current circumstances on the ones who are closest to them, such as a parent or siblings. However, they need to know that they are the only ones who have power over themselves. I read a book last year call Choice Theory, by Dr. William Glasser. Choice Theory states that we as individuals actually choose to do or feel or think about a particular way. Like if you are depressed, Glasser says that you are choosing that emotion. If you are anxious, Glassser says that you are anxiety-ing. You are choosing to feel anxious. No one else, no circumstance can make you feel that way. The survivor needs to understand that. I can think of a soldier returning from combat overseas blaming his/her spouse for making them feel depressed or anxious, but, in reality, the soldier is choosing that behavior or emotion.
  4. Another condition for the caregiver to be aware of is being needed. As a caregiver professionally, I know it makes me feel good when I help one of my clients get dressed or shave. They are able to do it themselves, but I realized that I feel better, like I’m needed, when I do it for them. I can remember when I was in in-patient rehab my mother tied my shoe after a PT session. I immediately untied it and said, “I love you, but I wanted to do it.” She wanted to help me, although I could do it myself. (Well, that part is debatable.) The caregiver needs to be careful not to become codependent and need to feel needed.



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