Yesterday I gave you some basic strategies to avoid having your irritations and frustrations evolve into anger. Today I’ll tell you the more challenging part, which is how to recover once you’re upset. Before I set the context, fair warning: you might find parts of this story difficult.
In life in general I do attempt to set myself up to do well under challenging circumstances by basically following the same code a Samurai would use for health. I will admit it’s been tough getting enough sleep in these last few years that have included caring for my parents–but I eat pretty well, I have natural exercise built into my life, and I actively care about myself and the world around me.
As this blog is a testament, I always seek and greatly value having a calm, clear, alert awareness in order to achieve a healthy emotional balance and the highest levels of performance. But I can’t do that all the time and the day I’m going to tell you about was preceded by a week of bad food, too little sleep, and a loss of awareness.
Work was extremely busy and it was a very critical time on a long project. My parents had a stomach flu and didn’t want to eat, and what they wanted to eat came right back out one end of them or the other. At 91 they don’t move fast so I was cleaning up all over the place and yes, it was super gross.
I was doing a lot of extra cleaning and wiping and fluid checking (during which I was washing up incessantly to try to avoid catching it too because that would even be worse). Since I generally cook for them and I wasn’t joining them in their dry toast, I wasn’t eating either. I was always often finishing so late that it prevented me from getting enough important work done and that made me think too much. It was a recipe for disaster.
A while ago we had to shift Dad to an adult diaper. It’s just a minor one, mostly for the 10% of the time where he quits peeing just a moment after he puts himself back into his shorts. In those cases you can say, “Dad you should change,” and after he finally hears you he’ll do it fine on his own.
But this day included the flu. I’d just sat down after cleaning up vomit in three different parts of the house when he very notably jumped up off the sofa and then shuffled faster than I’d seen him go since his last stroke. Look, this is where I’m just going to be candid. Dad’s got a liquified stomach, 91 year old legs trying to get him to a toilet 40 feet away, and along the way his only defense is a 91 year old asshole. It’s just not as snug as it was when he was younger, and it’s okay if you laugh.
Sure enough he couldn’t keep it together and whatever happened before I got the door opened I’m not sure, but to put it bluntly there was a lot of poo–including on Dad, the wall, the bathtub, everywhere. It smelled worse than anything I’d ever encountered in my life. I worked to hide my gagging from him.
This is where I felt myself start a rise. My mistake was, I wasn’t fully aware of my father’s vulnerable state or it easily would have moved me to active compassion. No, I made the experience about me, and so rather than being present with him I started thinking about how long it was going to take me to clean everything up.
Dad had his diaper back up and so I gave him a bag to put it in and I asked him to put on a new one. I got to cleaning the bathroom all while thinking about the uncompleted important work sitting on my desk. The smell was brutal, and now my stomach was starting to rumble too.
About halfway through cleaning the bathroom (I’ll save you the horrible details), I stopped thinking about me for a moment and that helped me realise that Dad can’t balance, and so he sits when he changes his pants. I looked at the mess and thought to myself, Dad went in there to change a dirty diaper…!
I leapt up, raced to his bedroom and sure enough, he’d stood up to pull off the old one. It was overfull and didn’t keep it’s contents together, so his ass is still covered in poo. And just as I came in–just after he drops the dirty diaper half on the floor and half into the bag I gave him–he does what’s logical to his Dementia-influenced mind and yes, he sat down on the bed to put on a new diaper. I tried to stop him but it was too late. It was awful. I snapped at him. “Great Dad. Now I’ve got to wash the bedding too!” It did not feel good to say.
I ordered (ordered!?) him back into the bathroom because I had to get him cleaned up before I finished cleaning the bathroom, floor and bed. I had already calmed myself down quite a bit by the time I was helping him get cleaned off. It was an extremely intimate moment for both of us. This wasn’t a baby who doesn’t understand what you’re doing for them. We’re both adults and it was the first time he’d needed that level of help in the bathroom. I could see the shame in his eyes–something I never saw before in my life. My heart immediately broke.
As I stopped thinking about me and started getting present with him and his vulnerability, my rectitude flooded back and I used courage to move past my own shame. I placed my hand warmly on my Dad’s naked back. I looked him in the eyes, and with open honesty and sincerity I said, “I’m sorry for getting upset Dad. You’re more important than my schedule. You’re my Dad and I love you. That was my fault. I’m sorry. I’m learning how to do all this Dementia stuff too. I’ll do better next time.” He liked that.
That helped me shift my own emotional tone even further, and the kindness and respect that I attempt to always to cultivate returned. As I wiped him off and he relaxed into his new reality, I looked him in the eye and we connected in a way we never have in all my life. He was saying thank you with his eyes in a very tender and loving way, and as I rubbed his back I warmly and lovingly responded, “You’re doing great Dad. You’re just sick that’s all. We’ll get through this together. I’m with you through this no matter what. You’ve been a great Dad. I love you and I’m here for you.”
He’ll forget it all happened in twenty minutes. But our experience was real. He started to offer an apology but I told him that it wasn’t necessary. He was sick and I was caring for him and I had not done my duty. My parents had been there for all of my gross kid-parts, I was not going to shy away from them when it was their turn to need the same care. He could count on me. And boy, could I see the comfort that last part gave him.
I cannot tell you how much I respect healthy, professional care workers who do these same things, with the same levels of compassion, all for people who are entirely unknown to them. I now know how they’re able to do those very tough jobs; it’s because, just like everything else in life, if you’re willing to push past some really challenging feelings, you’ll end up experiencing important and meaningful things that too many people miss out on.
As gross and as challenging as it was, I now wouldn’t trade that day for anything. I wouldn’t trade the moment that Dad and I shared for anything. And I was happy to wash those sheets. Yes, I would be late getting work done and people were going to be upset. But my Dad was okay, and I’d been the person I most like to be; comforting. When I finally laid my head down on my pillow I went to sleep feeling like it had been a really good day.
You too can turn your worst days into your best. But it requires an awareness of the present moment and the ability to change your emotional tone by adjusting the focus of your mind. Practice both now. No matter who you are you’ll need it. And when you do, you’ll understand even more why it’s so important. Because if people behave according to their deepest feelings, loving someone in the trenches bonds a relationship together like nothing else.
PS And if you’re wondering–yes–just as they were getting better I did actually catch the flu myself. 🙂
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.