Unless you are a complete loner, at some point, your life is going to be hijacked. It may come gradually, like when you learn you are going to be a parent. It may come with great celebration, like when your daughter gets engaged and you become enmeshed in wedding planning. It may come suddenly, like when someone you love has a medical emergency.
I am submerged in the third of the above-mentioned scenarios. My boyfriend fell playing tennis last week and broke his wrist in “several” places. He will have surgery later this week, after which he will be in a cast for three months, maybe more. For the foreseeable future, he will need me to drive him to his appointments, tie his shoes, and yes, cut his meat.
And that means, of course, that the things I was going to do in my own life are going to get at least postponed and more often erased. It also means that when his needs veer in an unanticipated direction, what I’ve committed to for myself gets cancelled on short notice. It really does feel like a hijacking.
I was raised in a family that values helping. I do like to make a positive difference in others’ lives. But I will not pretend I’m delighted with this turn of events. I’ve been riding shotgun on his cancer detour for the last two years. Before that, there were other situations where he needed my help because of health challenges. Just how often am I supposed to let this guy’s problems take over my life? Am I enabling a “drama queen” with all this helping?
He was not looking for this kind of attention, I am certain of that. He does all he can on his own and tries to help with chores even with one arm wrapped in fiberglass. So no, I don’t think this is a situation that demands the tough love of walking away. It’s life–at it’s most maddening. My life. And his life. Intertwined as they should be when you are blessed to have in your life people you care about and spend a lot of time with.
When things happen to me more than once, I see them as lessons I didn’t learn well the first time. This is one of those situations. Maybe you can learn for me. So what’s to learn (and do/no do) when your life gets hijacked?
- Forego the martyr routine. It’s highly over-rated. Sure, you can’t do what you had wanted to do with your time. But you still need to take care of yourself along with meeting the other person’s needs. If you literally have no time for yourself, you can maintain your posture and make an effort to breath deeply. Maybe a 5-minute meditation or a 20-minute nap is feasible. I do laps around the hospital when I end up waiting there. Find the things you can do for yourself and do them. You are the only person who can totally deny yourself what you need. Don’t do that.
- Expect whoever has stolen your life to do as much as he/she can for themselves. That gives them as much dignity and sense of worth as possible and you a breather. It’s tempting to scurry around trying to make everything right for that person, but that doesn’t serve either of you as well. Even with children, this is the case. A newborn is helpless and pretty demanding. But babies who have alone time (in an infant-safe place, of course) learn faster than those whose parents haul them around and entertain them every waking minute.
- Find the balance points. If you are doing all the giving in this context, look for receiving in other contexts. Maybe you get to watch the TV show you want together instead of letting him have his preference. Maybe what you have for dinner is your preference instead of his (or hers). This feels “wrong” because so much of the focus is on the “sick person” but trying to balance things where you can does a lot to forestall resentment and burnout.
When a loved one hijacks your life, respect your own feelings about that. Yes, you want to give the care that’s needed. No, it’s not automatically what you want to do at a specific moment. When it isn’t, feeling frustrated or just plain angry is normal. Find safe ways to channel that away. (I yell in the shower but also find moving dirt helps.)
And see it for the gift it is. Yes, your life has been hijacked. That means someone trusts you enough to ask your help. You are a good person. But please, be good to yourself, too.
Mary Lloyd is a speaker and consultant and author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love. For more, see her website.