Self Caring

Gail Sheehy, Part 2: In Charge"¦But Not in Control

Last updated:

July 07, 2010
Serenity Prayer

You'd think someone like Gail Sheehy would be too clever to fall into the #1 trap of caregiving: Overdoing the job to the point of thinking it's all up to you. After all, she's written numerous books about how to navigate life's important junctures (Passages, Pathfinders, The Silent Passage). A longtime journalist (contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Parade), she knows how to ask questions and get answers. She's a quick study.

But fall she did.

By the time her husband, editor Clay Felker, faced the final stages of a 17-year, off-and-on cancer battle, Sheehy was successfully lasering so much care and energy toward him, she was like Luke Skywalker in full battle mode. "I'd become good enough at caregiving and knew enough to become cheeky with doctors," she says. "You begin to think, "˜I saved him from the wrong medicine"¦I got him walking in the hospital"¦I got him into the right rehab"¦.' You think that you're the only one responsible for warding off disaster and death day by day."

Just like Luke Skywalker"¦or an even higher power. "I didn't know it, but I was playing God," she says. Playing God is very common among hands-on caregivers, she says in her perceptive new book, Passages in Caregiving.

"If everything goes right "“ good. You feel responsible for keeping your loved one alive," she says. "If something goes wrong, and it will, then you feel like it's your fault. That's where the guilt comes in."

Careening between agitation and depression, Sheehy also developed shingles. She ignored the itchy rash at first. ("No time for doctor visits for me. I couldn't afford to be sick.")

Her doctor finally laid it on the line: "You've been exercising [she'd tried yoga classes for stress relief] but you haven't been doing any spiritual conditioning." Full of egotism but lacking an active faith, she says, caused her to bottom out. She had nothing but herself to support her through her fears and worries. "I had become powerless over my fears," she recalls.

It might sound odd for a doctor to prescribe faith as a remedy for fear. But this was a good friend. And Sheehy says the advice was a wake-up call that saved her. Her rather unusual way of jump-starting her faith was to join a 12-step program, not a church -- but the takeaway message isn't how to surrender to a higher power; it's simply to do so. Let go, through whatever form of spirituality works for you, of the misguided notion that the buck stops with you.

Sheehy says her caregiving became easier after she lived by the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Whatever form of "spiritual conditioning" you favor, it's a message worth leaning on.