Tuesday, August 28, 2012

When Long Term Caregiving Ends IV: The Neutral Zone ...

It's like being in between trapezes. It's Linus 
when his blanket is in the dryer. 
There's nothing to hold on to.

Marilyn Ferguson

Hi everyone - I'll apologize in advance for another long post. There's just so much to say! (If I ever finish my first book, maybe this should be the second one ...).

Today, we're exploring the neutral zone, the middle stage in the transition between caregiving and post-caregiving. The neutral zone is typically a time of anxiety, worry, insecurity, uncertainty, frustration, low motivation, disorientation and self-doubt. Old issues and concerns, long patched over or compensated for, may rise to the surface. We overreact or react sluggishly, are easily confused and have trouble getting organized to complete necessary tasks.

What is going on? Well, basically, we're in limbo. The life we've known has gone and the new one hasn't yet arrived. Everything seems ambiguous. We have no sense of direction. And this in-between world does not resolve over night. As French novelist, Andre Gide, wrote:
One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.
The neutral zone is a difficult time. Former caregivers may struggle with the realities of loneliness, lack of structure in their days, financial depletion, poor health, new technologies, difficulty becoming employed, doubts about purpose and meaning, crises of faith, and continuing grief. However, if we can wait it out, the neutral zone can also be a time of creativity. 

Change and transition expert, Bill Bridges, puts it this way:
The neutral zone isn't just meaningless waiting and confusion - it is a time when a necessary reorientation and redefinition is taking place, and people need to understand that. It is the winter during which the spring's new growth is taking shape. ... The outlook, attitudes, values, self-images, ways of thinking that had been functional in the past have to  "die" before people are ready for life in the present.
So, we need the neutral zone, as uncomfortable as it is. One way to reduce the discomfort is to build some "temporary systems" for coping with the uncertainty and turmoil of this in-between stage:

1.  Coping with loneliness: 
Whether your loneliness is the unremitting, all consuming loneliness of widow(er)hood or the distance and alienation of a relationship altered by long term illness or injury, it is profoundly painful. And rather than reaching out, many former caregivers, too exhausted, too ashamed of their loneliness, or aware that no one will ever replace their lost loved one, withdraw farther and farther into isolation. And that isolation leads to more isolation. (Perversely, the more lonely you feel, the more you may stay alone.)
Even if you don't actually isolate physically, you may find yourself searching for connection in all the wrong places - telling complete strangers about your loved one's illness or death; becoming extremely busy with activities of all kinds; or losing yourself in TV, alcohol, the overuse of prescription drugs, sex, overeating or other compulsive behaviours. What is needed, instead, is the courage and strength to reach out, at your own pace, to people you know you can trust to be with you without trying to "fix" you.
These people may be kind friends who understand the neutral zone experience, caring acquaintances from a grief support or caregiving group, pastoral care or hospice volunteers, or helping professionals like clergy, counsellors or coaches. If your partner has recovered from his or her illness or injury, he or she may be the person with whom you most need to reconnect and share your true feelings and concerns.  Author and psychotherapist, Rachael Freed calls this "re-pairing the heartmate relationship" and writes about it in her book, Heartmates.
Once you have a core support system in place you can use it as a secure base from which to manage the uncertainties of the neutral zone.
2.  Managing stress:
The neutral zone, as you can see, brings its own stressors, different from but just as potent as those encountered during caregiving. Many of the same skills and practices that got you through the caregiving life will be useful again here - centering, regulating your breathing, avoiding worry and catastrophizing, embracing the present moment, appropriate contingency planning, walking and getting aerobic exercise, practicing good self care, journalling - particularly gratitude journalling, practicing taking in the good, and focusing on your daily spiritual practice. 
An excellent small book for practical reminders on how to manage stress is Edmund Bourne's, Coping With Anxiety. And Pema Chodren writes beautifully, from a Buddhist perspective, about becoming Comfortable With Uncertainty.
3.  Doing a life review:
This might also be a time to engage in a life review group, following the guidelines of James Birren's autobiography groups. If there is not a trained facilitator in your area, you could purchase a copy of Where to Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life's Wisdom in Your Second Fifty and work through it with a coach or therapist. Or you could look for a helping professional willing to read the leaders material and facilitate a group. 
Although the book is aimed at those in the second half of life, I find the questions helpful for adults during any major transition. Provided you have recovered sufficiently, physically, and have the energy and focus to think reasonably clearly, the neutral zone can be a perfect time to take stock of life so far, and and to consider new directions for the future.    

These are just a few ways of structuring the neutral zone to make it more tolerable as you wait for the first whispers of new beginnings to appear. If other things have helped you during a neutral zone, please do take a moment to share them with us.


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