Navigating the Twilight Zone of Caring

It’s 4 A.M. The phone rings.  Your mind jumps into hyperspeed. Do you know where your child is? Your ailing parent? Your spouse or best friend?  Although you get to the phone before the answering machine picks up at ring five, the trip seems like slow-mo underwater ballet. You receive the dreaded news. This is bad. Real bad. Maybe you go to the room at the hospital with the puffy couches before they tell you how bad. But at some point soon it’s clear that someone will need to be fully available to manage the emergency for the foreseeable future.

You have just entered the Twilight Zone of Caring (TZC) that most of us will visit in our lives more often than we like to believe. Your world suddenly has nothing in common with the mild-mannered life you had been navigating only the day before.  All you know is that, for a time, you will need your best wits about you, perhaps served up with a little divine intervention, to be able to do truly help someone you love.

I’ve been to this netherworld more than once in my life. In fact, I’ve found myself there way more than you want to know. And in the process I’ve discovered amazing pools of reserves, a deep and calm wisdom, and a lot of good news in the middle of crises. The last time I made the trip was just this year, when my single twenty-something son was badly burned and lost everything in an apartment fire. When I first talked to the doctor at the Burn Center, he said we were about to begin a marathon. A marathon? I thought. Don’t people usually train for those?

What I discovered is that I had been in training. Although  it’s true that I had been taking a low-key strength conditioning class and I’d been walking almost every day, I had a hunch that this probably wasn’t enough. It turns out that the real training happened each time I had visited TZC before—and trusted my gut. I had developed a sense of the terrain. I had internalized a map of fiery pits to avoid and a knack for finding and recognizing magical helpers when they come along. I was no longer a stranger in a strange world. I knew I could find my way.
And so can you. Here’s a brief traveler’s guide to the Twilight Zone of Caring for the next time you find yourself assisting loved ones in life-threatening emergencies, whether it’s a 5K run or a triathlon.

• Remember that stress is your friend.  The first piece of good news comes from your body’s stress response. Remember how long it took you to get to the phone? This is due to adrenaline, which is only an evil villain when it’s over-functioning in stalled traffic or in other pseudo-challenges of daily life. According to Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, a leading expert on stress, adrenaline in time of crisis gives immediate energy and a kind of tunnel vision, and it also shuts down pain. Your body goes into a “fight” response (or flight, but we’re not going there.) Your heart rate goes up, and everything not essential in your body shuts down, including planning and worrying. An early response to adrenaline is often unusual clarity. So you can rely on your body’s natural response to help you move through the maze with a minimum of freak-outs.

• Decide your role. A likely first impulse is to engage full-throttle, especially with all those stress hormones coursing through your body. But before going further, STOP. Take a breath and ask your own inner counsel how much of the crisis is yours to manage. If you’re convinced that you’re being called to this journey, begin your trip plan.

• Draw strength from religious or spiritual practices. Entrance into the TZC requires a deep surrender to the unknown. Each time we let go to the things we can’t possibly understand, we instantly skirt the fiery pit of fear and worry. According to spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, “when you surrender, a new dimension of consciousness opens up. Circumstances and people become helpful, cooperative. Coincidences happen. If no action is possible, you rest in the peace and inner stillness that come with surrender.” Pray, meditate, light candles, ask the chaplain for guidance. Most faith traditions also actively send healing prayer to those in need.

• Gather information. Ask doctors, social workers, nurses, other patient’s families. These are often magical (and practical) helpers, people who have just the piece of information you need at just the right time. Get an idea of likely scenarios: three weeks or six months? Years? You need this information to pace yourself. Ask, “How would you plan if this were your loved one? Depending on how serious the situation is, the kindest thing you can do for yourself may be to resign from Life as You Know It for the time being. This decision will give you the peace of mind to be truly present with your loved one.

• Decide what responsibilities you can eliminate. Divide a piece of paper into two columns. In the first, write everything you do in a typical week. Next, add anything you imagine might help during this critical time. Include everything from making soup to yard maintenance to cookies for the staff at the hospital. (Cookies equal instant camaraderie.) On the right, list who else might do it…besides you.

• Ask for help. You’ll be amazed. People you may not even know will show up to help, especially when there’s a specific task. If it looks like a long haul, ask a friend (or friends) to coordinate needs.

• Put things in order. Pay bills. Cut off the paper. Pack your local phone book and anything you find comforting: relaxing CDs, your iPod, tea. A laptop computer is a godsend for communicating and recording information. A small journal can be priceless. If looks to be a long stay, plan ahead for times to go home and take care of business.

• Decide how you will communicate with friends, family and well-wishers. It’s a tremendous drain of your energy to be answering random phone calls to inform or reassure. Delegate a friend to manage a phone tree. Caringbrige.org is an invaluable and easy-to-use website for posting information and collecting messages from guests.

Keep the long view. A journal can be a helpful tool for perspective. Keep lists to leave yourself some breadcrumbs to follow and remember that you will return. Although it may seem like endless twilight, you will pass through to the other side. Journeys to the TZC do end.

Because it’s a gradual process, it’s not always clear when the return is complete.  But it’s been six months now since the fire that almost claimed my son’s life. He’s beginning a new one. We’ve forged a stronger family connection and a deeper respect for life. I’m navigating the ordinary daylight world once again, but peace, stillness, and a renewed faith in the kindness of strangers; all gifts from the twilight journey, are with me still.

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