image_galleryI’ve been in a dark place lately. For the past week and a half, I’ve been avoiding both my blogs. On Freud’s Butcher, where I discuss my mother’s family history in Vienna, all roads seem to lead to the Holocaust. Here, I usually end up at Canine Cognitive Dysfunction junction.

So it was a bit of luck that a title on I Still Want More Puppies, Your Dog Agrees: You Cannot Be Replaced, grabbed my attention.  I discovered it was an allusion to the You Cannot Be Replaced campaign, created for National Suicide Prevention week.

It got me thinking — and writing.

Just to clarify. I’ve suffered from mild to moderate depression for as long as I can remember, and in recent years have taken medication for it. But I’ve never been suicidal in any kind of active way; my thoughts tend to be more of the “It would be nice if I could just disappear off the face of the earth” variety, rather than “How could I make that happen?”

Although I can’t write him off my taxes, I have a dependent

But it’s not just laziness that keeps me from trying to do myself in. I know that my dog’s life and well-being depend on my existence.

Frankie needs his insulin shots and his food at a regular 12-hour intervals; 5:30 am and 5:30 pm are the ones that work best for me.  It’s not a burden for me to get up early; I’m often awake before Frankie is. And I can adjust my happy hour get togethers with friends to the schedule of Frankie’s insulin shots.

More than good scheduling is involved, though. It’s essential that Frankie eat before I give him his shot and he can be pretty finicky. His preferences also change. So I do a lot of tinkering to find something His Frankiness will deign to eat and that will give him all the nutrients he needs. I also adjust his insulin dosage according to the urine tests I do at mealtimes, and am aware of physical changes that could signal hypoglycemia.

I’m attuned to other nuances of Frankie’s behavior; it changes frequently since he’s been diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. These days, running around quickly means he has to go out and poop;  the more leisurely lope towards the door signals a need to pee. I also know there’s  fine line between Frankie’s desire to be independent and his frustration with being confused. I allow him to find his own way out to the back yard and to run around on his own after I open the door; when it’s clear he’s stuck and getting frightened, I intervene and guide him back inside. I’m sure my neighbors on the other side of the fence are sick of hearing me say, over and over in my best high-pitched Barbara Woodhouse voice, “This way, Frankie, this way.”

I also know when he wants to play with his squeaky carrot, if only for half a minute, and I’ve gotten used to trying to body block him in order to prevent him from running full tilt into the furniture (it’s really quite terrifying, and it’s a relief that he forgets that he wanted to play very quickly).

Frankie has always been a one person dog and, even though he has taken to sleeping in a separate room, he is still devoted to me. Some dogs’ dementia robs them of the ability to recognize their people. I am extremely grateful that this hasn’t happened with us.

The Burden of Being Irreplaceable

But the bond also makes leaving Frankie with anyone else really difficult, even for short periods.

One pet sitter I tried — and trusted because she is a tech in my vet’s office — left Frankie alone for such long periods that he had begun to lose his housetraining by the time I returned from my trip, a week later.

My usual petsitter is very responsible but she is too freaked out by Frankie’s confusion to allow him to meander around the back yard on his own; she always takes him on a leash. And though she takes good care of him and tries hard to engage with him, he acts depressed around her until I return. She tries not to show it but I know she feels bad at how he gets the zoomies and licks my face fervently when I return. (Of course, this is not new or CCD-related, just Frankie-related.)

I was a full time travel writer before I got He Who Hates Car Rides and New Situations of All Sorts. I adjusted to a more limited travel schedule, especially after Frankie got diabetes, and focused more on writing about dogs. But more recently, when I started researching my family’s history, I tried to figure out a way to get to Vienna and do first-hand research without causing Frankie too much distress.

I have a nice, self contained guest room, so I searched around the pet community for someone who might be willing to live here at a low rent — or even no rent–  in exchange for Frankie care when I was away. I figured if Frankie had two mommies, he would eventually get used to the second one and not get upset when I left. But there were no takers and, after a while, I realized I was relieved. I didn’t want another mommy in my personal space on a permanent basis.

And so I often feel like my life is on hold. I want this phase to be over — but I also  want Frankie to be with me forever. This disconnect often results in depression, as it did this past week and a half.

It’s a good thing I have the pet blogging community for support. Otherwise my depression might be compounded by the conviction that I am insane for allowing a small dog to play such a large role in life.

Caretaker Burnout Alert

Which brings me back to You Cannot Be Replaced campaign. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that being single-handedly responsible for taking care of a human or a pet isn’t burdensome at times. Everyone needs a break.

According to the Family Caregiver Alliance:

A conservative estimate reports that 20% of family caregivers suffer from depression, twice the rate of the general population. Of clients of California’s Caregiver Resource Centers, nearly 60% show clinical signs of depression. And former caregivers may not escape the tentacles of this condition after caregiving ends. A recent study found that 41% of former caregivers of a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia experienced mild to severe depression up to three years after their spouse had died. In general, women caregivers experience depression at a higher rate than men.

I’m not downplaying my stress and sense of feeling trapped, but I know that things are relatively good for me. Although I can’t go back to being a full time travel writer or spend a month doing research in Vienna right now, I have lots of great writing assignments that don’t require me to leave Tucson or southern Arizona. I also know I can go away for a few days or a week without dire consequences. I managed to get Frankie house-trained again after the awful vet tech screwed up his routine. He’s also gotten over the indignity of being taken into his backyard on a leash and over the depression that my departures engender.

Some people with full time jobs and few financial or social resources who are taking care of spouses, children or siblings have it far worse than I do.

So I have a modest amendment to the You Cannot Be Replaced campaign, a nod to the many caretakers who are in despair over their burden of responsibility: Although you cannot be replaced permanently, it’s okay — make that essential — to take a break from being irreplaceable.

23 thoughts on “National Suicide Prevention Week: The Burden of Being Irreplaceable (Yes, Even to Your Pet)”

  1. Great post, Edie. I think I’d been viewing the replacement in question as permanent in nature (and that’s how I meant it in my post), but I hadn’t really considered it in the sense you’ve discussed here.

    I’m glad that my post played some small part in inspiring your post today. It’s thoughtful and so very true – I completely agree that although none of us can be permanently replaced, it’s more than okay (as well as essential and encouraged) to take some time for yourself and to take a break from being the caregiver (whether of a dog or human) every now and then.

    I really like your amendment. 🙂

    1. You’re proof that there’s no underestimating the importance of a catchy title — and that pet blogs aren’t frivolous! You didn’t play a small part in inspiring the post, you played the key role, though it took me a while to know what it was I wanted to say about the topic (which is typical). So thank YOU.

  2. Edie, I have an amazing Mother-daughter pet sitter team (they now have additional staff) that you might want to try. They are very affordable (as you’ll see from their website) and serve all of Tucson: bonded, insured, certified in pet CPR, etc.

    here’s a link to their website:

    They email or text me after every visit, and once reported that one cat had a swollen cheek, and took him to the vet for us, since we were away, then brought him to their home, so they could keep a closer eye on him.

    Respite care is important for ANY caregiver, even if you have them come in while you are in town, to give him his evening shot, and help him get used to an additional “Mommy.”

    Thinking of you…!

  3. This girl needs a break from the caretaking, but there isn’t one coming for a while. Lilly’s needs are truly far too complicated to hand over, and now Ginko is seeing a cardiologist tomorrow. Things are a bit less brutal now that I’m not giving part of three days each week to my Mom, but her loss weighs heavily. I know it’ll get better, but 10 weeks in? Not so much … yet.

    1. I hear you. You do, however, have the wonderful Tom as a support system, emotional and otherwise. I’m not downplaying your difficulties, but I would contend that going it alone is a bit more difficult.

      1. Agreed. I’m lucky to have him. Still tough, though. These last 5 years with everyone in my life sick and/or dying (including nearly being widowed in June 2010) have taken a toll on us both. I don’t get him back in earnest for potentially another year. As “the last one standing,” it’s very hard.

    2. Really excellent post. I think the most draining thing about taking care of a loved one of any species is that feeling of being unable to take a break. Which can lead to exhaustion, and resentment, and guilt over feeling the resentment, and…..But mostly, I just feel so damn bad I can’t somehow give my aging pup his youth back.

      1. Thanks, Rebecca! I agree; no matter how great our pet care, we can’t reverse the laws of physics and turn back time — which is the ultimate frustration.

  4. I like this post, Edie.
    I don’t know how much you have caught on Facebook about my position but my grandmother, whom I cared for since my granddad died six years ago recently passed. I can honestly say that the gap between the relief I feel at her being out of pain and the sadness I feel at her loss is all confused even more by the relief I feel at being let out of those duties. For those years I have felt my life was on hold. We passed up moving opportunities, volunteer jobs, new houses we could have bought, all because I wasn’t sure what she would need when. Now, I feel as though I have freedom but it’s overwhelming. I had a slight panic attack yesterday. I got the house so while I have freedom for the first time in years I also have suddenly gotten more roots than ever. It’s all thoroughly overwhelming.

    On top of all that I still have the diabetic mother the daughter with Asperger’s and the dachsie with ivdd. So my primary job is still one of caretaker. I am scared most days. I am scared about something happening to me and I’m scared I won’t handle my duties well, even though I always have. I had many issues with depression early on in life. Since then I have learned to handle my emotions better but it has been a long road of behavior mod and therapy did not help me. Having someone who needed me was initially a relief, a way to keep me focused on being here. Now I fantasize about packing up my pups and leaving everyone. All the emotions simply cause guilt which causes more emotions, it’s a never-ending cycle. There are many days I simply don’t feel anything- which isn’t good either. I have no advice for us, but I am glad to know someone shares my view that being irreplaceable can be exhausting.

    1. I knew your grandmother had died, Jenni, but I had no idea that you were her primary caretaker or that you had all these other family caretaking responsibilities — yikes!

      Maybe you can find a drug that works for you. The problems are real, of course, but a lot of the worst reactions are due to brain chemistry imbalance. It’s too bad there’s still a stigma surrounding mental issues (even though they are also physical issues). A few years ago I decided to try and found something (generic Wellbutrin) that takes the edge off the depression without making me feel dopey, sleepy or any of the other dwarves. It didn’t get rid of the anxiety and guilt entirely — that’s just life — but it often gets me feeling more optimistic.

  5. Thank you for writing such an honest post. I know I’m lucky. No one in my herd has experienced a chronic or degenerative problem like Frankie’s – or Lilly’s – and I haven’t been in the position to be the primary caretaker of someone going through anything like that. I know. I’m lucky. However, during my year of chemo, I was on the other side, and I felt intense guilt that I drained so much from my mom and my husband. (It’s my fervent hope that our pets never feel that guilt or feel like a burden!!) Even though I knew without a doubt and wholeheartedly that they would get up and drive me to the ER at 2 am… I also knew that it took it out of them. That when John had to then go in for a full day of work a mere 45 minutes after getting back from the hospital, he was wrecked. All this is to say that I think there’s a lack of support in our caretaking systems – for pets and people – for the mental wellness of all involved. Caretakers need support, whether they’re caring for a furry friend or a human one. Your post does an excellent job calling attention to that and could maybe serve to coalesce a supportive community!

    1. I think we can count on our pets to believe that anything we do for them, no matter how inconvenient, is their due! I also think that a short term treatment regimen like yours that has the promise of a good outcome is far less draining on caretakers than a chronic illness where there’s no hope of improvement. In your case, I’m sure your loved ones were glad to be able to do something concrete, even if it was at 2am, rather than sitting around and feeling helpless. That said, I appreciate how you must have felt. It’s difficult for most of us to accept help.

      If nothing else, I’m glad I could start a conversation on this topic.

  6. Well, this hit home in a big way. After being the caretaker for my mom for 10 years and having 3 dogs die in that timeframe, I hear you loud and clear! I kept telling myself I didn’t have time to be depressed, which of course does no good at all. Friends are wonderful support to have, even when it’s on the phone — it’s takes you out of yourself for a little while. But you are right about doing it on your own — it’s incredibly rough.

    In the last year of my mother’s life, the hospice care people who came to the house told me to take a break, that they would sit with my mom and have a nice chat and I could get a little time to recharge. So I did the grocery shopping and picked up the mail at the post office (lived in the country then) and raced to get back. Point being, it was not so much of a break — more like a moveable feast of guilt.

    I venture to say that if you did find someone to watch Frankie who was capable of caring for his multiple needs, and went to Vienna (great place!) you might not be able to stick it out for a month!

    I think “taking a break”, one where you actually feel refreshed, must be a learned skill.

    1. I was lucky in my human caretaking — or lack thereof. My father died suddenly and my mother was able to stay in her home until two weeks before she died after a year-long illness. I can’t even imagine the 10 years that you experienced. It doesn’t sound like you had much of a break at all — moveable feast of guilt indeed!

      No, definitely a month-long trip is not going to happen — that was my Frankie has two-mommy fantasy scenario. I agree that taking the type of break that allows you to feel refreshed is an art form.

  7. Glad to hear you found a new routine that works best for the two of you, and you can dodge that vicious circle many caretakers fall into. I’ll join you in that nod.

  8. Such honest conversation within your post and the following comments. I won’t touch your depressions except to say I’ve had situational depressions and don’t hesitate to ask for meds and counseling; they work faster than they physiologically should so I know I’m relieved to just be helping myself. I’m glad you’re able to share your situation as well as dear Frankie’s.

    However, on dog care, I face a different dilemma. Finding very good dog sitters for 20 dogs for a stretch of time is very hard, but I’m also, for my dogs, wanting to avoid vaccinating every year unless needed…I prefer to titer. Yet, when I go out of town and board my dogs (if I do), any kennel needs up to date shots. I haven’t asked about titers, if they are acceptable.

    A paltry dilemma in comparison. I appreciate the conversation, though, especially as an RN needing to help patients and families make sometimes tough decisions – and telling people to go home and rest…

    1. Not a paltry dilemma at all, Roberta, especially given how many dogs you are saving through your excellent care! I’m very glad this conversation was meaningful to you in whatever context.

      I know what you mean about the healing effect of helping yourself. I think just giving yourself permission to take meds is a huge mood lifter!

  9. All Hail Wellbutrin!
    Churchill’s Black Dog of Depression adopted me long ago. I rarely talk about it because of the (still) social stigma the swirls around all illnesses not corporeal. Feeling overwhelmed and conflicted does spur on “The Dog” for me also. Our beloved pets can get us out of funks, even the ones that they help cause. How’s that for a circle of life?
    Thanks for this post, it does help to remember that we all have meaning to others and cannot be replaced. Try to be as kind to yourself as you are to the Frankster! This too will pass…

    1. I always wondered how Churchill managed to get as much done as he did. But he had real dogs too, miniature poodles. Maybe they helped. Thanks for the good wishes — backatcha. And I think the worst part is over — the cycle on its upswing. I’ll give Frankie credit — why not?

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