Soul Exhaustion

It’s been four years since my mom had the fall that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. And even before that, she went through chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. So, I’ve spent most of my retirement taking care of my parents. No, not 100%. Before her fall, they were living in their house and (we thought) doing fine. Until the fall.

Since then, I’ve been responsible for all their financial stuff. My dad threw up his hands and became completely dependent on my sister and me. He lived with each of us for a while and then moved to assisted living because we thought he and my mom could be there together. And all of this was during COVID. But that didn’t work out as we planned.

We had to navigate through a lot that year: finding a place for my mom, going back and forth to the hospital, dealing with insurance and long-term care, cleaning out their house, selling it, and my mom’s death. Sometimes I look back and wonder how we managed it.

What is soul exhaustion?

Have you heard of something called soul exhaustion? Here’s a definition I like:

Soul exhaustion can feel as if you’re running a marathon without an end. It can seem as if you’re treading water for hours in the middle of the ocean — soul exhaustion can feel like you have no more tears left to cry, that your tear ducts are permanently empty, as is your spirit.

This article lists 15 signs of soul exhaustion. I assume you don’t have to exhibit all of these for it to apply, but I find myself struggling with most of them. I’ll briefly discuss those.

  • Feeling physically exhausted. It’s terrible when you get up in the morning and still feel tired. It affects my day so much and I can’t help thinking, I can’t wait to go to bed again tonight. Sleeping is very inconsistent. I have many nights when I either can’t get to sleep or wake up around 2:00 am and can’t get back to sleep. This also makes my days difficult.
  • Feeling numb or empty. It’s sometimes tough to feel I have something to look forward to, even when I do. I want to be excited about the things in my life, but it isn’t always easy.
  • Not feeling like myself. This goes along with everything else because I’m tired and nothing excites me. I didn’t used to feel this way, although I do remember dreading certain things I had to do before I could do the fun stuff.
  • Lacking motivation. This is a big one for me. It’s easier for me to sit in my chair and play games on my iPad than get up and do the things I love to do. I have no motivation for exercise and it’s easy to let things go around the house. It also affects my interest in doing things outside the house.
  • Physical pain and discomfort. For me, this seems to manifest itself as vertigo. I can tell when I’m stressed because my head just doesn’t feel right and I will typically have an episode of some sort. And then this leads me to feeling empty because I don’t feel like a “normal” person.
  • Feeling disoriented. Some days I do feel as though I’m just going through the motions and doing what’s expected of me. But it brings me no joy.
  • Feeling unstable. I find myself less patient and more likely to let little things upset me. I know I’m more irritable and want to be left alone. (Just ask Tim.)
  • Can’t eat or can’t stop eating. I fall into the “can’t stop eating” category. I eat all the worst things, even though I hate my weight right now and I need to watch my diet to avoid diabetes. I know what I should do. I just don’t do it. 

Why do I feel this way?

The last few years have been tough for me and I’m not sure why. Other people seem to handle these things in their lives without any trouble. Or does it just seem that way?

I have been so independent my whole life but I never had anyone else to take care of besides me. Like some people don’t know how to be alone, I’m not sure I know how to take care of someone. And I mean, really take care of someone. Does that make me selfish?

My sister tells me I didn’t get the empathy gene. Maybe she’s right but maybe I feel too much empathy. It’s so hard some days to look at my dad and imagine him the way he used to be. He’s so unhappy and it makes me so sad. It can make it challenging to be around him.

I don’t know what I would do without Tim, as he’s my reality check and forces me out of my shell. I can’t imagine how things would be if I were alone. He’s also great support when I need to talk or escape for a while.

My problem might be that I don’t express my empathy in the same way others do. I’m much better at the tasks that need to be done. They have a beginning and an end. But there are so many thoughts and feelings constantly in my head. I have very deep feelings that I can’t easily express. 

I find myself looking at ordinary things and thinking, my dad will never see those again. Or he’ll never have simple experiences like going to the grocery store. His life has boiled down to sitting in a recliner all day. Who would be happy like that?

I wonder if part of my problem is I see my own future and it scares me. I know I felt this initially, and I think I’ve moved past it. But it’s always in the back of my mind. How many years do I have left and what am I doing with them? What will my life be like when I’m his age? I am also an overthinker!!

Being an introvert

Certain aspects of being an introvert can also make dealing with life more difficult.

  • Task-oriented, introverted people find constantly dealing with new tasks difficult because they want to do them properly. When something new comes up, I immediately tense before I rationally think through what it means.
  • Fear of failure or underperforming. I don’t want to disappoint anyone. It has sometimes made me second-guess myself, even when I know I’m right. Could some of that be because I’m the oldest daughter?
  • Easily distracted by interruptions that make me lose concentration. Things like phone calls and dealing with issues right then can be tough. I also find myself irritated at the incompetence of so many people.
  • I prefer to stay in the background. Too much social interaction wears me out.
  • Introverts are vulnerable to depressive symptoms.
  • While I’m a responsible person and will take a lot on, I have always been pretty passive in asking for what I want or need, including saying no to things. I try to avoid conflict. I rarely share an opinion. But I feel a ton of responsibility, even if it’s not all mine.
  • Needing alone time. I spend around 12 hours a week with my dad, in addition to doing his laundry and taking care of his finances, among other things. This is typically during my most productive time of the day (2:00 to 5:00). My creative outlets aren’t getting my attention.

Feeling better

Before you say anything about this being depression, I accept that. I have had some counseling and I am on an antidepressant. What I’m currently finding the most helpful, however, is accepting my life right now and limiting what I expect of myself. My expectations for what I accomplish in a day are pretty low and I don’t stress if I feel like doing nothing. I know that sounds simple, but for someone like me, it’s not.

Ever since we got past Christmas, I’ve felt so much better. There are many things I don’t do anymore or very often – sewing, cooking, baking, blogging. I miss them, but they’ll come back when I can handle them. I have other priorities and I’m learning to accept that.

We changed our Florida plans this winter so instead of staying for six weeks, we’re only going for two. In fact, we’re in Florida right now. This change has definitely helped with the feelings of guilt and pressure.

I know this is just one phase of my life and it will end. I hate to think it means losing my dad but many days, that seems preferable to watching him suffer. I will survive.

In the meantime, I will make the most of what I have time for and let myself off the hook when I’m not as productive as I’d like to be. For now, I’m going to enjoy my two weeks in Florida and relax. Too bad it isn’t a little warmer!!

16 thoughts on “Soul Exhaustion”

  1. Wow, can I relate. I do not have children and have never had to care for anyone but myself until my childless aunt broke her hip and I became her “person”. My sister and I moved her closer to me and I suddenly took on a whole new role in life. After alcoholism and dementia put in her memory care she now chooses to stay in bed most of the time. This is a woman who was a world traveler! Her days are mundane; she is always encouraged to attend events within the memory care wing but she chooses to stay in her room. I am the only person who takes her out and that is becoming a challenge but it’s the only thing that seems to make her happy. I, too, watch this and wonder what will become of me one day. Yikes!

    1. It’s something you have to experience before you can understand. I always hate it when people say that to me, but I know it’s definitely true in this case. And everyone handles it differently. Sometimes I feel like such a whiner but it’s been tough for me. I’m sorry I missed replying to this when you first wrote it.

  2. Linda, caring for the elderly in their final years is not for the faint of heart. It feels like life is on hold, waiting for the end. Then there’s the grief. The phone rings. Alarm bells go off; is this another call from care staff reporting a health concern; another round of deterioration? Even in moments, hours, days, weeks of self care it feels like the proverbial albatross around one’s neck. It’s always there. And yet this is life, the coming and the going.

  3. Great post! I experienced this while taking care of my wife during her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment over a two year period. I experienced everything you list and it was a tough time. Now that we are past that, it seems like it was all a bad dream. Hang in there, things are bound to get better at some point.

    1. I’m looking forward to the bad dream part, but in a way, some of it already feels like that. Time does take care of a lot. Yes, things will definitely get better and much of it is my own reaction to things. I’ll be fine. I have a great support system.

  4. You are definitely not alone! My experience is very similar to yours and I’m beginning to think it’s more universal than I realized.
    Besides coping with the pandemic, I navigated losing both parents with dementia and other health issues, plus losing a step parent, cleaning out and selling a house, dealing with an impossible living step parent, all as a childless only child with a super supportive husband who, just when I thought it was over, was diagnosed with cancer. I tell you this, not for sympathy, but to agree that it feels like it will never end and it’s very scary and nothing and no one ever prepares us for this phase of life. I know many people have far worse problems and circumstances than mine, but some days it’s really hard to convince myself that this too shall pass. But that said, I remain hopeful and it sounds like you do too!

    1. Oh Bobi, this sounds way too familiar. I didn’t even mention that also through this, my husband had four surgeries and I lost two friends unexpectedly. But I have so many good things in my life as well and I need to focus on those. I tell myself too that others have worse problems than I do, but have been told we can’t let that keep us from accepting what we feel. Yes, I remain hopeful and know I’ll get through it. Good luck to you!!

  5. I love this post! I can relate to everything in the article and I agree that I have soul exhaustion 100% right now. This is something I will need to really think on including reading this article again and again to pull out all that I missed in the first read. Thank you for sharing this and I hope that your soul continues to revive.

    1. Thanks Ellen. I’m sure this is more common than we know. Life throws so many challenges and we feel we can’t take any more. I have faith I will be fine and will get my soul back. Good luck with yours.

  6. I feel for you. I will always admire you Linda. You made a very positive change in my career by hiring me into “GFR”. Your mentorship and confidence, in me, also made a good change in my life (when I was going thru a very tough time). Thank you

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this. I relate to so much of this.
    Enjoy your time in Florida and hopefully, we’ll see you at the class reunion this summer. That’s something to look forward to…seeing all the other old people. LOL Take care of yourself.

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