When to Ask for Help for your Own Health and Well-Being
Whether you are a caregiver for an aging parent with the first signs of dementia or a client with debilitating chronic pain, caregiving is one of the toughest jobs there is. According to the National Caregiver Alliance, more than 40 million people have provided unpaid care to a child or an adult in the last year. Not only is this job physically demanding, but it can be emotionally challenging and mentally stressful as well. From physical exhaustion to feelings of guilt and depression, many caregivers suffer from burnout, which can lead some people to using drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with their pain.
Caregiving can be a very rewarding experience and fulfilling career, but the high-stress lifestyle can put you at risk for alcohol and substance abuse. This not only hurts your health and well-being, but also the life of the person you are caring for. Using alcohol or drugs to cope with stress creates a cycle of negative emotions, leaving you constantly wracked with guilt and frequently returning to those same substances to ease the pain. You may feel isolation (because you think there’s no one to talk to) or shame (because you believe you should be able to handle this), but this is just the pressure and the addiction talking. There is help, and there is hope.
Anxiety, Depression and Asking for Help
If what started as a harmless cocktail to ease your nerves after a particularly rough fit or episode has turned into relying on alcohol to get through the entire day, you are not alone. A study by Cornell University found that 34 percent of caregivers reported using alcohol as a coping mechanism, and that 2.3 percent reported using alcohol regularly to cope. If you feel like you are becoming dependent on drugs or alcohol to manage your caregiving burden, consider talking to friends, family or your patient’s medical professional about how to get help.
You might feel scared at first, thinking they may judge you as weak or neglectful. Just remember: caregiving is often more than a job — it can consume most of your life in a way that can be stressful and difficult, no matter how good your intentions. Well-meaning people sometimes get angry and do or say things they regret. Asking for help shows you deeply care about how your health impacts the person in your care. Some ways you can ask for help include:
- Creating a caregiving team to share the burden of providing care so it doesn’t fall on just you.
- Attending substance abuse group meetings to start building a network of support you can rely on when you want to turn to alcohol or drugs.
- Understanding the underlying cause of your addiction by speaking to a mental health professional.
- Checking into a substance abuse treatment facility so you can focus on your health without added stress or distractions.
It’s important that you reach out as soon as you recognize the symptoms of substance abuse in your life. That overwhelming feeling of duress that led you down this path with only worsen with addiction. Research shows that caregivers with substance abuse issues have a higher risk of:
- Improperly administering medication.
- Delaying calling 911 in an emergency situation.
- Abusing or neglecting the person in their care.
- Showing less tolerance, patience and even violence during an uncooperative incident.
- Suicidal or homicidal thoughts.
Don’t let your responsibilities to the person in your care get in the way of your responsibilities to yourself. It may take some time to find the right solution for you both, but don’t give up. Combat this addiction by getting help to ease your caregiver burden and finding positive, healthy coping strategies for managing your mental health.
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Physical Pain, Mental Stress and the Road to Recovery
Once you have acknowledged the issue and are determined to face your addiction head-on, you have to start making major lifestyle changes — and commit to them. This is no easy task, especially if you’re continuing to provide care during recovery and treatment. A few ways to stay on the path of recovery include:
- Checking into a treatment facility and working with an outpatient addictions counselor to help you manage your addiction and the stress of caregiver burden.
- Checking out every available option for bringing in someone else to help manage your patient’s care. Your addiction counselor may also have resources.
- Making intentional decisions to prioritize your health, such as exercising, eating healthily, attending support groups and picking up new hobbies.
- Including the person in your care in your recovery plan, if appropriate.
- Joining support groups for other caregivers so you can share your emotions with people in similar situations.
If your substance abuse is connected to the medication the person in your care is taking, you may need to:
- Ask a friend, family member or hired caregiver to administer medication and keep it locked in a safe place.
- Ask the patient’s healthcare provider if there is a different medication he or she could take.
- Check into a treatment facility to put time and space between your addiction and the source.
Some people may never be able to face the temptation without a struggle. If that’s the case, you may need to remove yourself entirely from this person’s care team. You’ll want to explore other options.
Being Vulnerable isn’t a Bad Thing
The towering responsibilities that come with caregiving often leave us feeling like we’re not doing our job right if we’re open and honest about our own pain. People caring for an aging loved one with cognitive impairments may feel like they have to stay strong so that everyone else can, too. The parent of a child with a developmental disability may hold back tears so their child doesn’t see their sadness. Providing care to someone who needs help is a noble and heartfelt way to dedicate your life. But that doesn’t mean your life shouldn’t be yours. That’s why you have to open up.
Talking not only helps you, but it will also help the person in your care. They have likely noticed the change in your personality and quality of care, even in cases of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Be as open as you can be, and don’t be afraid to ask for their help. If you aren’t getting enough sleep at night, ask them if they mind going to bed an hour earlier or pushing breakfast back a bit so you can sleep in a little later. If you need to focus on exercise, see if they are willing to go to a gym with you, or sit in a park and read while you run a few laps. You can work together to find activities that help promote your health and reduce your stress.
Caregivers are under an intense amount of pressure, especially if there are times when you feel like you’re in over your head or your life is no longer your own. Turning to drugs and alcohol might temporarily ease these negative emotions, but in the long run, they’ll only continue to deepen and grow. You may become resentful of the person in your care or the family and friends who aren’t helping out as much as you are.
Hiding your stress and pain will only strain the caregiving relationship and possibly lead you down a path of self-destruction. Caregivers often report worse physical health, like trouble sleeping, headaches and weight loss, so adding addiction to that list will only make your life harder. Don’t wait until a tragedy occurs. You can and should try to find help as you as soon feel ready.
- Family Caregiver Alliance – Caregiver Statistics: Demographics, Support Groups
- Daily Caregiving – Two Steps To Recover From Caregiver Burnout
- National Institutes of Health – Alcohol Facts and Statistics, Caregiver Burden and Alcohol Use in a Community Sample, Caregiving Burden, Stress, and Health Effects Among Family Caregivers of Adult Cancer Patients,
- American Psychological Association – Family Members of Adults with Substance Abuse Problems, Open Up! Writing About Trauma Reduces Stress, Aids Immunity
- SAMHSA – Mental And Substance Use Disorders
- Psychology Today – When Caregivers Care Too Much
- New York Times – How Exercise Can Prime the Brain for Addiction
- Divorced Moms.com – Single Moms and Addiction: The Problem No One Is Talking About
- HelpGuide.com – Caregiver Stress and Burnout, Stress Management
- American Family Physician – A Practical Guide to Caring for Caregivers