Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Rip van Winkle Syndrome...

Most of us have heard the story of Rip van Winkle, written in 1819 by the American author, Washington Irving. Mr van Winkle was an amiable but somewhat idle and hen-pecked farmer who, one autumn day, walked off into the Catskills Mountains. There he met a group of strangely-dressed men who offered to share their liquor with him. He drank and fell into a deep sleep. Upon awakening, he found that he'd slept for twenty years and that everything had changed. His wife had died, his friends had moved away or gone to war and the Revolutionary War had changed his land from a British territory to a Republic. Nothing was the same ...

This week I facilitated a conversation among an informal group of bereaved family caregivers, each of whom had cared for a seriously ill loved one for many years. I shared with them that while I had recovered from most of the long term effects of caring for my husband, there persisted a large void in my life - the void of all the information I had missed while I was focused on his care and on the quality of our lives together. I said that I felt like Rip van Winkle waking from his long sleep. Around the table, heads nodded immediately in recognition and understanding and we began to share with each other the things we had missed.

For many, especially those who had cared for a long time for people with 24/7 needs, much had gone by the wayside - news events, births and deaths of famous people and institutions, scientific discoveries, technology - especially technology. What is a plasma TV, and a Blue Tooth, and how does one use Power Point? What is a Facebook or a Twitter or a tweet or a text? How does one take pictures with a cell phone? Heck, how does one use a cell phone?

Like old Rip van Winkle, we had returned to a world that had changed, only ours had changed exponentially. Many felt insecure, anxious and embarrassed at their lack of knowledge. It was hard enough to deal with the new rules and roles that accompanied the non-caregiving life let alone to return to a world that felt so unfamiliar. Many still suffered from the slow thinking, poor concentration and forgetfulness that can accompany the normal grief and posttraumatic stress of caregiving and felt overwhelmed at the thought of having to learn so much, so quickly.

But the truth is that we don't have to learn so much, so quickly. We can have patience with ourselves and remember that others have absorbed this information over years. We don't have to know it all at once. We can make a list of the things that will actually have an impact on our lives in the short term, prioritize that list, and then begin taking baby steps toward learning the things we need to know.

We can also let others know what we don't know and ask for their patience and their help. Nothing dispels shame and embarrassment more quickly that sharing our human truths. It's only when we feel a need to keep our "flaws" a secret that they have power over us. (After all, Mr van Winkle went to find help from his daughter who took him in in spite of his long absence and they lived happily ever after.)

Photo by Bigstock Photos

1 comment:

Dorothy Sander said...

I really enjoyed reading your perspective in your post. Although I did not experience such a syndrome to the degree I imagine many did I understand it completely. I have a website and facebook page where I post articles and blogs of interest to the over 50 crowd and I will post this here. People often feel alone and supported when they are in the midst of caregiving but you draw attention to the feelings that linger. I look forward tor reading more from you in the future.