Sometimes Life Goes Sideways

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Hello friend. It's been quite some time since you've heard from me. Where have I been, and why the radio silence? In order for you to let me back into your inbox, I feel I owe you an explanation. It seems appropriate timing, as January is "Mental Wellness Month."

As I've referenced many times in these missives, my family and I live on the east coast. My highly autonomous mother, on the other hand, had been living alone on a 340-acre ranch in remote Colorado with three dogs, six horses, and 25 head of cattle. At 78, she'd been diagnosed with the early stages of dementia, but with the help of a trusted ranch hand, she'd been able to maintain her fierce independence. We spoke and texted often, and while I knew the clock was ticking, all seemed semi-okay.

When I arrived for a visit over the summer, however, I quickly realized something was off. The rapidly accelerating dementia was now compounded by a traumatic brain injury. Brain surgery and a long stay in the ICU resulted in the decision to bring her back east to spend some time with our family and recuperate. If you've managed a family member with Alzheimers or dementia, you can likely guess what follows. 

We thought she would spend the summer with us and reconnect with her grandchildren and friends back east, and we moved forward with having an apartment finished over the garage at her ranch so a caregiver could live with her, and each would retain their privacy.

One of the first weekends home, my husband and I took Mom to our Catskills home for an August weekend with our two older children and their significant others. We knew we needed to make sure she didn't wander, yet as not one, not two, but six fully capable adults were preparing dinner and keeping watch, she made off. She took my prescription glasses, a cell phone, every piece of ID she had, and our dog, Aspen. And thus ensued a frantic, overnight, 40-person search and rescue effort, complete with both the New York State Police Canine and Heat-seeking Drone Units. 

She was found around 1 am, and the smile on her face as she was escorted out of the woods by a tall, dark, and handsome ranger and a State Trooper showed that the experience was the highlight of her summer.

It took another seven hours to find our dog. The rest of the items she took on her adventure are lost in the woods. And our decision had been made for us.

We couldn't keep her safe. And that meant we couldn't keep her home. 

Even after having her admitted to six different hospital systems, trying a handful of unsuccessful home care provider situations, and applying to three assisted living facilities, we still hoped to avoid having to admit her to a facility. But life is unpredictable.

The "flight or fight response" is referenced often, but another response, when faced with an acute dilemma, is "freeze." I freeze. I am disconcertingly devoid of emotion, and I go into what I call "mission-critical mode." There's the immediate crisis at hand and the fact that the rest of life marches on – the pets and family still need food, students still need to have their applications completed and submitted, the kids' doctor and dentist visits need to happen... my list goes on and on. There's no time to unpack the emotional component, and so I don't.

In the end – or rather the beginning of a new normal – Mom was admitted in September to a full-security facility near us in New Jersey. And once she was finally safe, I began to actually process how I felt about the entire experience. In many ways, allowing myself space to deal with my own emotions was more of a lift than managing the crisis in the moment. 

Mom is adjusting, as are those that love her. Here is a snapshot of our nursing home Christmas 2022. 

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As I mentioned, January is Mental Wellness Month and having been through the experience above, I was acutely aware of my students this application cycle in a whole new way. I was aware of their lack of time. Teen's schedules today are packed, and when there is downtime, social lurks: TikToks, Snaps, Insta Reels, and a never-ending flow of streaming content. Taking time to recharge – or even just attend to mission-critical items and let other things slide – can be downright terrifying. As I was reminded in spectacular fashion, to-do lists and being productive is critical, but taking time to recharge and connect with yourself and the people around you is also mission-critical. 

Can you spare five minutes today to extend a bit of time and space to someone, maybe yourself? To stop and listen to your teen or your spouse talk about their day? To allow yourself to just breathe and realize that life is not won in a rush. And, to remember when life goes sideways because it will, that part of the deal of staying mentally well is giving ourselves permission to honestly feel what is happening.

It's not always comfortable nor convenient. But we'll come out on the other side as better humans. 

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