Taking on the role of a caregiver for a loved one seems like an easy choice. Most caregivers are willing to drop everything to make a loved one’s situation as bearable and uncomplicated as possible. From the outside, caregivers are seen helping with chores, providing company in cold waiting rooms, and offering support. However, anyone who has taken on the role of a caregiver can agree that such a task takes on a much heavier toll than expected. When Autumn Chaptini’s husband Ray was diagnosed with stomach cancer, she didn’t hesitate to leap into caregiver mode. Over the eight months that Ray battled cancer, Autumn learned that it’s impossible to help someone else without looking out for one’s own wellbeing.
“I studied psychology at the University of Michigan and then onto grad school to study counseling,” Autumn shared. “I met and married Ray and had two girls within a short time. That is when the fairytale all changed. Life from that point was not what I ever thought it would be.”
Fall of 2009 was a hectic time in the Chaptini household. The 30-year-old couple had their careers, social lives, and two girls under the age of three keeping them busy. On top of that, Ray was experiencing immobilizing stomach pain. Each doctor he visited had a different diagnosis. After an appendectomy, IBS medication, a diagnosis of severe gas, and several fruitless appointments, Autumn and Ray grew more frustrated as he grew visibly more ill.
“Around Christmas, we were at our primary care doctor and she was as convinced as we were that something was majorly wrong,” Autumn recalled. “He was constantly running a fever, missing work, had no strength, was white in color, and losing weight despite his waistline growing. The doctor called ahead to the hospital and told them not to discharge without a diagnosis.”
After months of struggling, they finally had an answer: Ray was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer and Autumn was thrust into a caregiver’s role. Her wake up routine and bedtime routine were adjusted to manage his food bag care. Her days were filled with doctor appointments, filling prescriptions, emotionally supporting her husband, and providing a constant supply of the only food Ray could eat: Slurpees. She knew she needed to stay strong for him and their girls, so she focused all of her energy on their wellbeing until the stress caught up with her.
“Soon after his diagnosis I had an anxiety attack,” Autumn recalled. “I knew what it was and even with experience on how to de-escalate one, I couldn’t help myself. I ended up going to the urgent care and was given anxiety medication.”
The anxiety attack seemed to be a sign for Autumn to take care of herself while she took care of her husband. She continued to act as a full-time caregiver, but she found ways to keep a sense of normalcy in everyday life. Though she battled constant guilt almost any time she was apart from Ray or the girls, Autumn made sure to get herself out of the house from time to time. From wandering around the mall to weekly cake decorating classes, carving out some alone time was essential for her mental wellbeing. Autumn’s parents also took on an active role with the two young girls, taking as much as they could off of Autumn and Ray’s plate.
“Nothing prepares you for this,” Autumn expressed. “You can’t take away their pain. Your life revolves around sickness. You are almost in a state of not being able to move. Life is just on hold. But you can’t help anyone else if you aren’t ok. Talk about it, ask for help, and take time for you. It isn’t selfish, it’s healthy. Everyone needs a break.”
It is easy to get swept up in caring for an ill family member or friend and forget about caring for one’s own wellbeing. However, as Autumn learned, it is nearly impossible to provide appropriate care for someone else if one’s own wellbeing isn’t considered. National Caregivers Month aims to spread appreciation of all caregivers and to remind them to practice self-love and mental wellbeing. For those who know a caregiver, this special month is a perfect opportunity to check in, offer a helping hand, or offer a compassionate ear. Caregiving is not an easy role and taking it on is an incredible feat in itself.