I’ve never experienced writer’s block whether I’m writing musical or non-musical compositions. In fact, I’ve always enjoyed blazing creativity that stunned the people around me. I could turn out half a dozen good songs in a week, a piano sonata in an evening, and heaps of non-musical compositions on demand. And before the computer, I frequently wrote 20-page letters and kept personal journals, of which I have nearly 60 volumes. What happened? It’s like someone turned off the light. I can concede that my daily blog entry has taken the place of my journals, but when was the last time I really created something? Time to hit the Way-Back machine and find out, because I want my creativity back.
Last piece of music composed: 1992-93. I was working on my opera, living in Denver and taking care of my father who was dying of cancer.
Last real journal entry: Same as above. I couldn’t bring myself to write about the experience though, because I was living it and when I went to bed at night I wanted to get away from it, not relive it. Morning would come in a few short hours and I needed to sleep, to escape the drudgery, fear, and sadness.
Last long, handwritten letter: Same as above. I’d bought a blank book and made it into a long, ongoing letter to a friend who was a fellow writer. Actually, it was like a prose essay and was very creative and introspective.
It doesn’t take a genius to spot the connecting thread between these. The caregiving and death of my father made a huge impact on me. It’s traumatizing having someone die on your watch, and I was really close to my dad. My mother basically disassociated herself and left the task to me while she wasted away in front of the television. I lived in their basement apartment (also caring for my then 22 year-old son who has Asperger’s Syndrome). I had a baby monitor with me at all times, so I heard every moan of pain, every cry. The house reeked of death and I worked hard every day keeping the house clean and cooking the meals. Until Hospice was called in during his last two weeks, I took care of every aspect of my father’s care, including changing diapers, feeding, and bathing. We grew even closer, until the morphine made it impossible for him to even recognize me as his daughter. Meantime, my own health began a slow decline, although I didn’t know it then.
Only four years earlier I had undergone a radical hysterectomy and was in the throes of an early menopause. By moving to Denver, I’d left behind a life of independence and achievement. I was the assistant conductor of a metropolitan orchestra in California, I attended parties and soirees, concerts, and recitals, and my own work was beginning to be performed by symphonies in Spain, Italy, and England. Then Dad got sick and I answered the call to take care of him in the last year of his life. In one year I lost not only my career, I also lost my life’s work, my friends, my contacts, and my lifestyle. But family is family, and my father had sacrificed a lot to me throughout my life. If I were taken back in time I'd do it again although I'd do it very differently where my needs are concerned.
After Dad’s death, I got a job and tried to pick up the pieces of my life, which I found impossible to do. I tried to finish my opera, but couldn’t. In 1995—obviously looking for an escape—I got involved in an emotionally abusive relationship and moved back to California, hoping to pick up where I’d left off. But the symphony had disbanded after the founder and conductor retired, and new, younger talents had taken my place. In the world of music, three years is too long to be away. I attempted composition again and tried to keep a journal, but the penthouse apartment my partner had moved us into required that I work 10 to 12 hour days, six days a week, and by then the Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis that was growing made it impossible to be creative in any off-time I could find.
In 2000 I moved to Oklahoma with a new relationship (we’ve been together ever since and are blissfully happy together). Looking forward to being active in the music department of the university that my partner attended, I was broadsided a mere three months later when my mother had a stroke and had to move in with us. Shortly after that, my partner’s three pre-teen children moved in with us under an emergency custody order that was enacted when we discovered they were being physically abused by their stepmother. This made seven of us living in a three-bedroom house. After we moved into larger quarters my condition grew serious enough that I could no longer work, placing an extreme financial hardship on us which we are still trying to climb out of. I took care of my mother for four years until her death in December of 2004. The good thing about that was, I knew that I was done caregiving my parents; one usually only has two, after all.
I wasn’t diagnosed with Hashimoto’s until 2006, so my own recovery has been slow. It wasn’t until last August that I finally got on the right meds and began to feel human again. Like a tender crocus sprout trying to break through cold spring soil, my creativity is returning, but I’m impatient. At nearly 60 years of age, I feel like I lost the best 12 years of my mental creative ability. I think that over that time I got into the habit of putting others and their needs and projects first (which is all right when done selectively, but when it takes precedence there’s a problem). It’s like I gave all of my creativity to everyone else instead of keeping a little for myself. Is this something I learned while taking care of my father, and did I get into a lazy mental habit as the snowball grew bigger and bigger? I cannot seem to say, “Can this wait? I’m working right now,” when someone wants to talk to me, ask advice, or read something to me while I’m in the middle of something creative. Did the abusive relationship make me afraid to stand up for my own needs?
As caregivers we walk a high wire every moment of the day and night. We put someone else before us, knowing that if we don’t the worst can—and will—happen. When we have to pull back and take care of ourselves so that we can continue our job as a caregiver, we torture ourselves with guilt and worry. When we allow ourselves to feel any grief over what we’re losing—not only the one we’re taking care of, but also our own identity and creativity—we’re thrown back into feelings of guilt. The world doesn't make it easy either. When I've felt well enough, I've looked for work, but employers never like gaps in a resume's work history. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a scornful look in the eyes of an interviewer when I've explained that I was out of work because I was taking care of a dying parent. How dare I throw over the Work Force for a family member! It seems to me that caregiving is the best reference one can claim because it shows loyalty, dedication, and a willingness to work hard. Of course, most interviewers these days are just out of college and have never had to think of anyone but themselves. When their turn comes, will they remember?
I think it’s important to take ownership of what we experience as caregivers. We live daily with the death we know is inevitable, so it’s perfectly all right to feel a sense of relief when it happens. I was incredibly relieved when each of my parents died, relieved that they were at peace and relieved that I’d survived the most difficult phase of my life. Of course, the natural stages of grief came, but not until I’d gotten a little breathing room.
Anger: Yes, it’s in there, and although most of us tuck it down deep so that we can take care of our loved one, it has to be confronted sometime so that it doesn’t make us bitter. My anger is over what I lost: career, friends, lifestyle, energy, creativity, love of life, passion, and health.
Loss: Things will never be the same again and very little can be reclaimed. We have to move on, but we cannot until we own our sadness over what we have lost.
Fear: As hard as it is, we must recognize the fear that we may have to do it all over again. I remember touching this white-knuckling terror after my father died; I knew I was going to have to do it again, I just didn’t know when. I can see now that it forced me into making bad decisions that only added to and propitiated the problems. I may still have to do it again with either my partner or one of our children. We never know what's down the road. Facing that fear gives us courage and at the same time makes us fully enjoy the present.
Joy: We haven’t lost our memories, and we are free to start making new and happy ones. We make new friends, treasure the ones that stuck by us, and we are free to start anew.
Presently, I’m working on reviving my creativity and there is no reason that I shouldn’t be able to. My caregiving days are over, hopefully, the kids are grown and out on their own (except for my son, who is a constant joy and now requires very little of me outside of a peaceful home, food, and people who love him), I’m in a solid, happy relationship, and I have friends. We’re still broke, but I’ve never needed money to be creative. I’m working on a number of projects, which include two books and a musical comedy, and although I’m not at my creative peak, I’m at least wanting to create, which is worlds away from where I was before.
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