One of my friends got sick last year and since that time, I have been going over to her house for a couple of hours once a week for tea and a visit. I thought about visiting her this morning, but that is as far as I got. The thinking part, I mean. She is a neighbor, and I usually enjoy her company, but her inability to hear what I am saying is making it more and more difficult to enjoy our visits. I am not talking about a physical hearing disability; I am talking about being able to hear what people say without letting our biases/experiences interfere with what we hear and respond to in others.
My dad moved in with my husband and me in July 2013. We considered several options before moving my dad here from out of state and decided that the best option was to move him into the walk-out basement area of our home. He would have a living area/kitchenette/separate bathroom and bedroom; we would be living together but separate, each with our living area and respectful of the others privacy. My dad is a healthy 86 and is not suffering from dementia, and I know this is a blessing. But, what I didn’t take into account was that having someone here all the time would place a tremendous amount of stress on me. I am an introvert—and I value, no, I NEED time alone. I have none. Another thing about this introvert—I suck as an actress. My thoughts flick across my face. I cannot pretend to be anything other than I am. Well, I can…for a couple of hours at a meeting or even for a week when people come to visit from out of town. But it is not something I can do 24 hours a day, seven days a week indefinitely. And see, this is the part that my friend does not understand. It is not important what you are thinking it would be like to be me right now— if you think I am lucky he is healthy, or that I am lucky that I have a dad because yours died when you were 12 then you are not hearing me either.
My dad does a million things a day that annoy me. I do not want to be this person: I take a deep breath because of the dread I feel every single time he walks in the room. I plan my trips downstairs to the laundry room or freezer when he is in the shower. I work from home, and I moved my office to a concrete walled “cell” from a bedroom with a large window because he would come in and just start talking regardless of whether I was participating in a webinar or typing at the computer. He will come upstairs, sit down and start talking while I am watching television or reading a book. These things might not matter to you or my friend, but they matter to me.
Everything that happens to us we interpret by comparing experiences to our past and you or my friend are not ever going to feel exactly the same about something as I do. Him living here, being a constant stress has affected our relationship. I talked to him more and had more meaningful conversations when he lived out of state. I have to take phone calls in my bedroom because he listens to everything. He will later come and talk to me about something he misheard and has stewed about for days. In the almost two years since he moved in, he has not made one friend or even made an effort to meet anyone. He will not go to the senior center or the library, or volunteer, or go anywhere except the grocery store and to get a haircut. I used to relish that hour alone, but I do not even find joy in that anymore because I know he will RUSH to get back home. The hour instead is filled with the dread of hearing him walk in the door.
I no longer call friends or want to spend time with anyone because I have nothing left to give. I feel mentally exhausted. My husband does not understand this…hell, I don’t understand it, but I am never alone, I feel a constant pressure and I am hopeless as I see no relief. It is not as if I can think…oh, they will be gone in a week, and I can do a happy dance naked in the front room if I want! I have nothing left to give. I don’t want to see friends and make small talk. I want to be alone and soak up the blissful solitude of knowing I am the only one or that my husband and I are the only ones in the house—that no one is going to be listening or walking in uninvited. I want to be able to put on moisturizing lotion and walk into my kitchen wearing underwear and a tank top while the lotion soaks in. I can’t. There is a good chance that when I walk out of my bedroom he will be standing there waiting for me.
I don’t call my brother because I feel like I spend too much time complaining about my dad, and I don’t want to be that person. You know, the person that when you see their number you don’t want to answer because they complain most of the phone call. I love my brother, and I am so fortunate that we get along and that he is just a phone call away. He has always been there for me, I know that. And my sister-in-law has kindly offered her ear when I just need to talk. But, when my brother and sister-in-law visited almost a year ago, I felt like he was abandoning me when he left. Intellectually I know that is stupid—they were here on vacation, and I knew they had to leave. But, we talked about the living situation and bounced around ideas and for just a few days I allowed myself to hope. Hope that I could be happy and feel like I had a home that was mine again…you know, that place where you can be who you are without judgment. While my brother and sister-in-law were here, my mother (parents divorced) was admitted to the hospital with complications from diabetes. So, what ended up happening, as I am hugging my brother good-bye, I felt the weight of everything being dumped back on me. Just me. Going to the hospital to visit my mom, alone. Suffering my dad in a million different ways, alone. And at the same time I would never really be alone where I could rejuvenate my being—how laughable is that? My brother and sister-in-law would drive away, and I would walk back into the house and my dad would be living downstairs and my mom would be in the hospital and this would be my future. A future of feeling like I cannot be comfortable in my home, I cannot talk on the phone in my living room, I can’t leave anything on the kitchen table that I don’t want him reading/looking through. My brother, well, he would be 2,000 miles away living his life and making a phone call to mom or dad once a week or once a month.
I am the person who feels trapped by commitments and just having a scheduled doctor’s appointment is a constant grating on my psyche. I have panic attacks when I have several business meetings or appointments on my schedule. I quell the sense of panic by telling myself that I can cancel the meeting or appointment if I want—I don’t, but just knowing I could is calming. I have no problem with writing deadlines, so it is not the schedule that gets to me. It is the feeling of being trapped by having another person depending on me, expecting something from me that makes me want to hide under the covers in what used to be the safety and solitude of my home. I do not talk to my husband about this because what is he going to do? The only solution is asking my dad to move out and while I did spend the majority of my childhood disappointing my father it has not gotten any easier to see it in his eyes.
And that brings us back to the visit with my friend, the only friend I still talk to every week—because she is sick, and it is important to her. She is the only friend I have talked to in any detail about my difficulty with my dad. And while sitting there with our tea, last week, she told me about another friend who is dealing with an elderly dad. His father is behaviorally getting a bit difficult, “Jack” has been going (approximately 8 miles) to help his mother (described as “a doll”) deal with his dad. So, Jack’s dad is married and lives in a 500,000 dollar house with his wife. Jack has a sister nearby. Jack is also wealthy, married, and retired. (I only mention the money because the money gives them options that most people dealing with elderly parents do not have). My friend looks at me and says, “Jack is having such a hard time dealing with his dad. Your situation is nothing like what he is dealing with; your dad is a doll.” I wanted to scream—yeah, how great is my life when I feel hopeless, helpless and trapped every single day? I feel the joy has been sucked out of me; I do not want to see or talk to my friends because I don’t want to pretend everything is great, and I don’t want to complain. My life is so freaking great that I daydream about running away and never contacting anyone I know – because I am tired, no I am exhausted from both of my parents expectations and disappointments when I cannot possibly live up to them. I AM NOT THAT PERSON. I cannot be something that I am not in the very core of my being. Sure, I know all about taking control of how you view things…the person cuts you off while driving and instead of going into a rage you tell yourself that you have no idea what is going on in their life. Maybe, they are rushing to the hospital where their kid is dying; maybe they are late for work… ad nauseam. And I can do that, but not all day every day. . . I can’t help but wonder if Jack feels trapped and that he has no options? I wonder if he suffers in silence or if he can talk to his wife and friends about what is going on without them telling him that how he feels about his situation is selfish, unimportant, or an overreaction, or that they think his dad is a doll.
I didn’t scream at my friend; I quietly said that I supposed that depended on where you were sitting. And so, I will not talk to her about it again. No one TRULY listens when you tell them how you feel. They might seem sympathetic and perhaps supportive, but they are silently measuring what they are hearing against what they think you should be feeling. My lesson, when people talk to me, I am going to listen to what they tell me. When people tell me who they are, when they tell me what they feel, I will listen. If they tell me they are hurting, I am going to believe them. If they tear up when they talk about it I am going to know how deep they feel the pain and know how difficult and scary it is to share the things that are so personal that you are even afraid to say them out aloud. And yet, at times we risk whispering them to another human being. I will not belittle their experience, because measuring how I think I would react in their situation is of no value to either of us. There is no way to know everything about a person’s past, to actually understand why they think, feel, or react the way they do. I will believe what they tell me because I cannot imagine when a person is more vulnerable than when they admit they are in pain.