Tuesday, May 19, 2015

How to keep climbing with a medically complex child

By Jade Biesinger

My name is Jade and I live in England at the other side of the “pond” with my husband and four lovely children. Heni, one of our daughters, has Trisomy 18.

Heni can’t walk, talk or do everyday tasks and is classified as having profound and multiple learning disorders. She wasn’t expected to live beyond birth but here we are—almost 20 years later—still heading in to uncharted territory.

I've often described our experience raising her as feeling like we are climbing up a mountain. We started out with lots of energy and supplies, only to find that they have been used up along the way—having covered many different terrains. As time has progressed the ascent seems to have steepened and we've got progressively more tired and feel in need of more rest stops.

During this time I feel I've given up lots of “me”
looking after Heni and subjugating my own needs to the bottom of the pile. I’ve encountered “ill” health, “un” sanity (I won’t say insanity because that’s something different) and at times have been bereft of creativity or balance in my life. Perhaps you could describe it as survival mode?

I was stuck. Stuck in the house, stuck in the role of carer, stuck in the mindset of “will life ever be any different?” I was living what sometimes seemed like a monochrome life—one I had never expected to be living for so long, but all the time keeping my head down and continuing to climb.

As I’ve journeyed on experiencing the valleys and peaks, I’ve not only been searching for ways to help my daughter and family and add colour to life’s struggles, I’ve also been looking to improve my own health and wellbeing.

When Heni was younger she used to have the energy to do full days at school but progressively over time I’ve seen her energy wane and her capacity reduce (strangely on par with my own?).

Nowadays she only has the energy to go to college for three-and-a-half hours in the mornings and then comes home to rest, sleeping for about one-and-a-half hours.

My time to accomplish anything has therefore dwindled from a whole day to a few hours.

Making time count is important to me, and I put my health as a high priority. Some of the things I do during that time frame are to go for a walk or run or do some form of exercise (according to how and what I feel I am capable of). I try not to overextend or overdo anything, but to be consistent in my actions. An important learning point for me was:

I can only give out so much before I become depleted. So I have to consistently fill myself before I can give to others.

I liken it to a watering can with a bunch of holes. It’s never going to be full up because it’s continually leaking out. You have to patch the holes up and replenish it before it can give water out of the spout and shower the flowers! I can’t always control every type of energy expenditure (like when my husband works away a lot or when Heni takes a dive for the worse) but I can control the other holes that leak energy.

For me, those include food intolerances, not eating right, sleep problems, negative thinking and too much or the wrong type of exercise.

It wasn’t until about eight years ago that I suddenly realized that I was “toast” and needed to have a break—on my own! My husband virtually forced me to go. I cried all the way to the airport and most of the journey to my destination, by which time I wondered how on earth I had got in to this state.

I had always been an independent person who would do anything and loved exploring and adventure. But I’d become a shadow of my former self. I needed some ME time. Which is the second thing I had to learn:

I’m always too hard on myself and feel guilty for everything and anything. Therefore it’s important to learn to quit the guilt.

How could I leave my daughter? I asked myself. How could my other children cope? What if anything happened to my daughter while I was away and the worst happened: she died? Would I ever forgive myself for leaving?

The week I had away was a wonderful pause in space and time. It made me realize that I needed to be strong, I needed to recharge so I could go back and have something to give back out again. I needed to stop the guilt and realize I wasn’t super human and could only cope with so much. I needed to look after myself too.

It sounds kind of selfish when you read it in the cold light of day—but what is the alternative?

There is a quote that says: “To lift someone else you have to be on higher ground.” How does losing your physical or mental health put you on higher ground?

I returned back from the holiday in a better space, but guess what?

It wasn’t long before that watering can was emptying again…and quicker! For a number of years I did a solo holiday or went away with a girlfriend. I always had fun, enjoyed the change in scenery and always came back feeling recharged and ready to go again. But, it’s surprising how soon you forget, so my lesson 3 was:

Remember the things you’ve already learned! Get up, dust off, try again.

I would forget to take a break and replenish my energies and land back in the same place as I’d previously been!

Even now I’m still resistant to the fact that I need help and I need rest from time to time. I still feel guilty and find it hard to just do nothing!

So what is the consequence of consistently neglecting yourself and not listening to your needs? Probably one of the most frequent occurrences resulting from “dis” ease today is that of chronic stress, which is the precursor to most illness out there.

Which leads me on to lesson four:

I’m in charge of my own health.

Now that doesn’t mean I don’t go to see any one to advise on health matters…on the contrary. I think it’s important to get the best advice possible and that often involves a number of different opinions.

For me that involved getting a series of lab tests done to show me what was happening in my body. I learned I was quite severely depleted in practically everything! All of a sudden I understood why I felt so rubbish! What I had failed to realize was that the constant stress I had been under was using up all my nutrients and leading me to a point where it was a struggle to do anything.

On to lesson five?

By small and simple habits are great things brought to pass!

Everyday consistency of small actions for me means taking supplements, small changes in eating or exercise habits and getting to bed a few minutes earlier. It takes time to get in to a hole and it takes time to get back out again. Often the temptation is to do something a few times and say “well that didn’t work” and move on to something else, without really giving it a chance. Sometimes it takes years for health to return fully. So, I am expectantly hopeful. Which leads me to lesson number six, my most recent:

Be patient, hold on to hope and enjoy the journey.

I read an article recently that described a demonstration. A person held two soda cans, one empty and one full. The empty can was squeezed and began to bend and then collapse under the pressure. The full can withstood far greater pressure and held firm. The demonstration was likened to us needing to be filled with spiritual strength (whatever that looks like for you as an individual). When spiritually fed and “full” we are able to withstand far greater outside pressures and forces. It doesn’t matter how many respite breaks I take or vitamin supplements I pop if I don’t have this type of strength. Without it I would have been crushed a long time ago.

There’s a scripture on a quilt that hangs above my bed, which reads: “I’ll wait on the Lord, be of good courage and he shall strengthen my heart.” I love reading those words and realizing that there is someone who understands the big picture, someone who I can “hope in and hope on,” someone who is teaching me, step by step, to be a better person and who is beside me (and you) every step of the way.

I gain strength in the knowledge that I’m not on this journey alone and that there’s someone higher and far greater than little old me who doesn’t have all the answers.

There are also people like you who are trekking up your own personal mountains, on similar journeys, but experiencing different valleys and peaks. We have to remember that as we climb we are doing so without a map. We don’t know where the peaks and valleys are and sometimes we can’t even see the top of the mountain. My wish is for us all to keep “on the way” and learn to love the terrain. And I hope that when we look back on the view we will see that our journeys were varied, rugged but stunningly beautiful.

Being a carer to my daughter has been one of the most difficult journeys I have ever had to take. It’s still a learning process and there are still peaks to tackle, but little by little I am learning to stop, enjoy the vistas and savour the time I have left with her. My plans for the future, and advice to you? Keep going!

You can follow Jade on her blog Henibean. She describes it as “learning how to live amidst challenges and maintain health, sanity, creativity and balance.” She uses her experiences as mum to Heni and her background as a physical therapist and naturopathic iridologist. “Please drop by and join me.”