My mother needs reasons to explain her fragmented brain and inexplicable actions. Someone or something to blame. It’s inconceivable for her to blame her own mind. Having been in control all her life, she needs a punch bag to hold her anger, frustration and pain.
I am that punch bag.
I didn’t get much sleep last night: Allegra’s insistent, nagging barking had woken me. Realising my mother must have left her outside, I’d gone downstairs to let her in. In a semi-conscious haze, I’d passed the dining-room door closing silently. Since we lack resident ghosts, I’d correctly surmised that Mom was hiding behind it.
“Come have a cup of tea in the kitchen”, I’d said.
“Have they left?” she’d asked.
She regularly hides away from the wild parties I am apparently guilty of hosting and the drunken crowds I entertain. These bizarre scenes are beyond my comprehension. From what dark recesses of her mind do they arise?
Allegra’s unrelenting panting in my ear and pawing in my nether regions woke me again this afternoon, mercilessly nudging me out of a much-needed nap. My big-galloop-of-a- girl is petrified of thunder. The lioness I depend on to deter criminals is a trembling puddy-tat when faced with Joburg’s elemental storms. She needs my reassurance.
But there was another sound too. A beating at the front door. Mom was huddling on the black plastic chair, the portico partly shielding her from the slanting rain.
“Why are you out here?” I asked.
“You threw me out!” she accused.
I know I’m not alone. I repeatedly hear about loving caregivers being verbally (and sometimes physically) abused. A young child will scream at its mother, giver of unconditional love, “I hate you; I wish you were dead!” The tables turn when the parent becomes the child. We caregivers become handy, available, compliant outlets to be pulped with aggression. To be shredded by the language of dementia.
Our loved ones need us. Despite their hateful words. Which don’t belong to them, but to the disease. But to survive, we need punch bags, too. If you and I can’t bounce back, dementia – not love – will be the winner. Do you have a punch bag? Something at which you can spew forth your anger and frustration?
Writing is my punch bag.
A means to vent, exhale, and push that darned anger out of my body. To rationalise, understand and process it. So that I don’t explode.
I’m mad at my mother for seeing me as her abuser; at her for allowing dementia to invade her; at losing her before she is dead; at the multiple reasons for her multiple silent strokes; at the world of science for not having ‘magicked up’ any remedies; at the toxic medicines with their deadly side-effects; at the sheer, unjust cruelty of this disease.
Ultimately, I’m angry at the discombobulating experience of daily life in a constantly shifting, weird world. Where I have no idea where I stand from one minute to the next.
I envy the expressive talents of Jenny Lawson from Texas and Heather B. Armstrong from Salt Lake City, Utah (of the super-famous websites The Bloggess and Dooce). My kinda gals. Mommy bloggers with a massive difference: non-anaemic, non-conformist, courageously irreverent women. Jenny’s black humour and raw truths help disempower depression. At the drop of a hat, Heather spews out trails of swear words like galloping cowboys. No holds barred. The honesty of these gals is refreshing. Plus, they make me laugh out loud! (And oh boy, do we need laughter in our lives!)
Jenny describes her bestseller, “Furiously Happy”, as a “compendium on how-to-thrive-in-spite-of-your-brain-being-a-real-bastard”. I can’t help but feel inspired when she says:
“… in all of these odd stories – the darkly serious and the strangely baffling – I go back to a simple truth I learned from The Breakfast Club. “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it.” I agree completely. Except go back and scratch out the word “hiding”.
Be bizarre. Be weird. Be proud of the uniquely beautiful way that you are broken.
Be furiously happy.”
And look at how Heather describes herself:
“Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong. When I first wrote a bio for this site I called myself a SAHM—a Stay At Home Mom, or, Shit Ass Ho Motherfucker. More than a decade later I am now what’s referred to as a FTSWM—a Full-Time Single Working Mom, or, Fuck That Shit Where’s Marijuana.”
So, if I also use the foulest swear words you ever did hear, understand that these are punch bag words. Necessary. For sanity. For the survival of my mind.
You and I could do a lot worse than a volcano of swear words.
Anger’s notorious bad friends include:
- Bingeing on food (my bread bin and scale are taunting me, right now!)
- Excessive spending (do I itch to go wild, max out the credit card and pamper myself with reckless indulgences!)
- Gambling (luckily, not my poison)
- Alcohol (ditto – reflux oesophagitis makes this too painful)
- Drugs (very thankfully, get-down-on-my-knees ditto – although now that I think about it, my smoking is a horrendous addiction that’s going to ensure I end up with cancer and vascular dementia)
- Verbal abuse (on the verge)
- Physical violence (just not in my pacifist nature at all)
Okay, so I’m not entirely innocent of all these bad punch bags. However, in the interests of ensuring us caregivers focus on the right outlets, I’ve compiled the following list:
6 Good Dementia Punch Bags
- Take a deep breath and count to ten. When I’ve taken the trouble to do this, I’ve been taken aback at how tightly wound up my body is.
- You can also take deep breathing a step further by finding a quiet corner where you can mentally remove yourself from the world and meditate. (Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough, because this doesn’t do it for me. I’m mentioning it for you because so many extol the benefits of meditation. It may just end up being your go-to solution.)
- Exercise is universally acknowledged as one of the best ways to deal with anger and stress. If you suffer from gym-phobia, like me, go for a brisk walk or jog around the block.
- Forced to stay home, because there’s no-one else to care for your dementia loved one? Get a pillow and punch it with all your might! Or, even better, put on some music and dance. I have been known to (sort-of successfully) teach Allegra and Bruno to “Sit! Stay!” While dancing like an uncoordinated banshee before them. They think their mother is bonkers.
- Nothing beats a good therapist, psychologist or counsellor. The sheer release of ranting to a professional confidante in a sacred, safe space is immeasurable. I wouldn’t survive without seeing Linda once a week. She helps me put things in perspective and suggests coping strategies.
- If you can’t afford therapy, or your medical aid/insurance won’t pay for counselling, look for dementia support groups, where you can share with others in a similar situation. In South Africa, the Alzheimer’s Society will assist you in finding the nearest group.
- Dementia support groups exist on Facebook too. I joined a wonderful, non-judgemental, closed group, which has more than 17,000 members from across the globe. Posts made within the group are seen only by group members. No posts appear on my timeline or wall. Even if you vent in the middle of the night, there’s bound to be a compassionate ear in another time zone, possibly on another continent, to provide emotional support. Virtual hugs help!
- Any creative outlet that gives you joy will help decrease stress and defuse anger. Examples include the visual and decorative arts (drawing, painting, pottery, sculpting, photography, designing), writing (journalling, story-telling, poetry), the performing arts (music – playing an instrument or singing, drama, dancing), and crafts (knitting, scrap-booking, metal-working, woodworking, baking).
- By focusing on your creation, you enter the creative zone, which has been likened to meditation. According to James Clear, “In our always-on, always-connected world of television, social media, and on-demand everything, it can be stupidly easy to spend your entire day consuming information and simply responding to all of the inputs that bombard your life. Art offers an outlet and a release from all of that.”
- The outcome is not as important as enjoying the process. So what if you’ll never sell a single painting in your lifetime! Did you have fun? Did you forget about your anger? Did you lose sense of time? Read Nicola Vanlint and Cathy Malchiodi’s posts to understand how getting lost in creativity can bring about immense benefits.
- Embrace Nature!
- Touch the earth, hug a tree, rant at nodding flowers, prune the hell out of an overgrown bush, lie on the lawn, rub up against a lavender bush or lemon verbena (their scents will transport you to another universe), go for a hike in the wilds or a stroll through your nearest public park.
- I’m a great believer in the healing power of nature. It’s not only that I’ve personally experienced the effects of gardening. A wealth of scientific data has been amassed by researchers over the years, covering both the mental and physical benefits.
- Embracing nature is a passion of mine, so I’m going to have to devote a whole post to it. For now, take my word for it: this unexpected punch bag has been proven to release tension, calm anger, reduce depression and boost self-esteem. So, get gardening or urgently buy some pot plants to nurture!
- The idea of laughter sounds crazy, when all we want to do is rage against the injustice of dementia. But laughing can help us release tension and switch gear into a happier frame of mind. According to Dr. Lee Berk, an associate professor at Loma Linda University in California, who was quoted by Time.com, “laughter shuts down the release of stress hormones like cortisol. It also triggers the production of feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine, which have all kinds of calming, anti-anxiety benefits.”
- Laughter has such serious benefits, that Dr. Madan Kataria developed an exercise routine , which has spread to 100 countries. You can find social laughter clubs around the world via his website, Laughter Yoga. In South Africa, contact Laughter Coaching, Laughter 4 Africa, and LaughSA for workshops.
- Indulge in comedy shows, phone a friend who makes you laugh, watch cute animal videos to make you smile on YouTube (puppies, kittens and kid goats are bound to melt my heart).
- And don’t feel guilty when you find the funnies in dementia! There are times when our loved ones make us smile or even laugh, and that’s okay. One of my Facebook friends related how every time she visits the old age home, her grandmother tells her she can see naked Mexican soldiers running around outside her window! I burst out laughing at this vision. (My naked army would hopefully include some of Hollywood’s sexiest actors of Hispanic descent. I’m not going to name them, for fear of embarrassing them.) I still smile when I remember this story. Dementia can have its funny side, without in any way diminishing our love and respect for our loved ones.
Tell me, what’s your punch bag? What have you tried and what works best for you? Do share, I would love to hear from you!
PS: I’m awesome at dishing out advice. Not so good at always following it…!