We Need Our Own Sirens

2017 July 5


You feel alone. Exhausted. Calm one moment and overwhelmed the next. Certain that you could never have prepared for what you are now experiencing. You want to reach out and find comfort—but how and to whom? Before long, the desire to find someone who understands is replaced by the belief that no one understands and no one needs to understand what you are experiencing.

There has to be something between yelling out “I need help” and responding to earnest queries from others with a poised, “I’m fine.”

We unquestionably pull over for emergency vehicles as they race us by, sirens blaring, lights flashing to rescue and help someone in need. Yet, at the same time, our ritualized appreciation of acute emergencies has also desensitized us to our everyday uncertainties and concerns that too often go unnoticed, discarded not by intention but because chronic challenges of care don’t fit in a culture that recognizes emergencies but little else, because…

Physical emergencies call for immediate action, everyday needs are messy and ambiguous. Our culture plans for emergencies. We drill. We talk about how we might respond. We strategize about whom we might call and where we will meet. Emergencies call us all into action—out of our everyday routine and into response mode that is singularly focused.  Chronic care and relational needs, on the other hand, just don’t work that way.

Ongoing challenges are messy because they are often invisible and unknown to others. They don’t call attention to themselves unless we call attention to them ourselves. Who wants to be their own PR person for our privatized feelings and angst?

“I’m really struggling but I don’t want to make a bigger deal of it than it is. I mean, it’s not an emergency.”

“I am so in over my head that I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I’m so embarrassed that it’s gotten to this point that I wouldn’t even know how to reach out.”

“I don’t even get what’s going on with me—how could I begin to think about explaining it to someone else?”

How many of our everyday struggles and doubts and uncertainties get lost right here—in this moment, when we censor ourselves because we mistakenly believe that since what we are experiencing isn’t necessarily an emergency, it shouldn’t be shared, can’t be shared, won’t be understood, and won’t be cared about?

Unlike an emergency, when it comes to our everyday needs, there is no universal audience that will immediately get what’s going on. We have to create our own audiences when it comes to sharing our everyday needs and that requires choices and effort and too often . . . silence.  We don’t have a siren. And if we did, people would probably tell us to turn it off because our concerns don’t have clear beginning and ending points—they linger, taking their own time, disrupting our lives in ways that defy speed and closure and containment.

Emergencies ask us to get out of the way and find help. The sharing of everyday needs calls us close and always changes everyone involved.  An emergency, by definition, necessitates immediate action and response. Most of us respect the nature of emergencies by getting out of the way so professionals can do their thing. They know what they are doing—we don’t. Everyday, chronic needs don’t ask us to be spectators—they implicate everyone involved and require us to be in the way.

When we seek to share our own concerns, those closest to us become implicated. There are no spectators because we are really talking about ourselves and those closest to us. Our vulnerabilities. Our fears. Our biases. Our expectations. Our histories. Our futures. Our reputations. Our relationships.

“What do you mean you’re no longer happy? What does that mean for us?”

“I know you are overwhelmed caring for Mom, but I don’t live near her, so what do you want me to do about it?”

 “My illness isn’t just mine, it’s going to affect us and our entire family.”

 “I’m worried about Dad. Do you think we should talk to him? We’ve avoided the situation for this long, but I don’t think we can any longer.”

 Flashing lights and screaming sirens don’t accompany our chronic needs. No one pulls over for them. No, these ongoing challenges are quietly integrated into our relationships. Hinted at. Teased out in subtleties and reserved for those we most trust.

As we become ever more skilled at talking about the spectacle of public emergencies, our ongoing struggles are being pushed out to the margins of view ever farther outward

Not worthy of a ‘like’ on Facebook.” Ever farther outward. “Not appropriate for dinner conversations.” Ever farther outward. “Not fun enough to talk about when out with friends.” Ever farther outward. “Too revealing to open up about at work.” Ever farther outward. “Leaders are supposed to show strength, not vulnerability.” Ever farther outward. “Don’t burden them, they’re your kids.” Ever farther outward. “Not now, it isn’t the right time to bring it up.” Ever farther outward. “I don’t want my family to worry.” Ever farther outward.

What would happen if amidst the sounding screams of sirens, we also paused long enough to listen to the whispers of the everyday needs and concerns of those nearest to us who don’t call out to be saved, but to connect? Don’t just pull over, listen closer.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. July 6, 2017

    This is so insightful. You have captured what I feel about my life experience and I know that I’m not alone. This is a shared experience of all caregivers – I absolutely LOVE the last paragraph. Thank you, Dr. Zachary White!

  2. Deirdre Hill Brown permalink
    July 6, 2017

    I SO “get” what you are saying! I took care of my husband for 24 of the 28 years we were married. He passed away 7 years ago, but those feelings run so very deep in my soul now. I feel it was the journey we were meant to have together and the journey I was meant for, in my own life. Even with all this happening, we had a good marriage. However, this journey is a long and lonely one. The one huge thing that helped me was: One night, at about 2am I was so desperate for someone who truly understood what was going on in my life. I did an online search and found WellSpouse.org They had forums which, at the time, were free (not sure they are free now, but would say, whatever they charge now, would be THE best money a caregiver could ever spend!!!) I could go online at 3am and know without a doubt, someone there could either give me advice or had a kind ear and a kind shoulder for me. Thank you for writing the words of my life and so many other lives.

  3. Janet permalink
    July 6, 2017

    I was startled recently when, trying to explain that caregivers can feel patronized and their needs trivialized, I was asked to “prove it”. Finding this article was just what I needed, and made sure that I didn’t act out on my first reaction, which was MURDER!

    I later reflected on this and realized the incident was a mirror of what happens all the time in the caregiving reality. The caregiver might admit to the stress or fear or anxiety or crashing fatigue or whatever…and ignorant outsiders might assume that it can’t be real, (ie. you are exaggerating) and how it feels to be on the receiving end when that happens, (belittled) and what it leads to, (silence and a feeling of guilt for “whining” in the caregiver)

    this article names the vicious circle and suggests how it happens and what thought shift might be a defence. So thanks for the insight.

  4. July 7, 2017

    Thanks, Janet. You are so right about the ongoing challenge (but vital need) of communicating our care in a way that makes sense to outsiders.

  5. July 7, 2017

    Thank you for the comment. You are so right, the caregiver journey is a life-altering experience, but too often it is, as you say, a “long and lonely one.” And yes, WellSpouse.org is an incredible resource for spousal caregivers. I highly recommend it as well!

  6. July 7, 2017

    Thank you, Donna! Given your experiences and tireless advocacy work on behalf of family caregivers, I am humbled by your compliment.

  7. July 15, 2017

    Dear Zachary,

    As usual, I find your insights in here applicable not just to caregivers’ experiences, but to the experiences of all of us. This time I found particularly helpful in my life your statement that “There has to be something between yelling out “I need help” and responding to earnest queries from others with a poised, “I’m fine.””

    Thank you!


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