My suggestion is that our life hasn't gone anywhere, but that our life situation has changed and so we must accommodate by keeping ourselves part of the caregiving equation. And that means mindful care of ourselves - body, mind, and soul.
How we are as caregivers is no different from how we were before caregiving: If we have not taken good care of ourselves when everyone was well, then we will not suddenly become good self-caregivers when charged with the wellbeing of a loved one. When we become family caregivers, our own lack of healthful habits comes home to roost: With the extra demands, our bad habits - not life itself - are what drain our energy and cause us to feel frustrated about our lack of time and energy for our own needs.
We feel out of balance not because we've done anything wrong, but because this is a new curriculum at midlife. So the first task in regaining our balance is to understand that we alone are responsible for our own health, and it is good health that will make us good caregivers. This means that job one is actually taking care of ourselves: We cannot give our best care to someone else if we don't know what it entails.
Caregiving is holistic in that all parts of ourselves need our attention.
We need to be mindful of how we treat the body; we need to respect its own innate wisdom. Do we listen to its needs for hunger, for rest, for touch, for thirst, or do we put off eating or taking breaks because we think our loved one's needs are more important?
It is critical to eat well and to hydrate well. Balance is restored with a reasonable mix of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats to provide energy and repair tissue. Whole foods (rather than highly processed, fast and packed foods) and good supplementation are best.
The body also needs both activity and rest. Too much or too little of either, and we burn out. These good habits also mean restful sleep, which allows the body to heal and prepare for the next day.
How much of our energy is drained by self-criticism, judging others, worry, regret, and guilt? Negative thinking can cripple any caregiver.
Balance of mind means being positive, forgiving, and appreciative - and believing that our best is good enough. It means not trying to control or figure out life, but to flow with what life presents. It means allowing our minds to rest by immersing ourselves in silence or in passionate pursuits.
The path of caregiving is not just about being a good giver of care to others, but about having compassion for ourselves as well. As caregivers, we are not called to be martyrs, but to be caring. Caregiving is not about achieving measured goals, but accompanying our loved ones on their journey toward the end of life.
This journey is a path with heart. It is a journey of heart and meaning that can often make us believe that we have lost our lives, but this is an illusion. Nothing is lost in the journey of caregiving; what falls away are the veils to caring more fully and living more joyfully.
And so the answer to the question "Where did my life go when I became a caregiver?" is that our life is right here, where it has always been: in the moment, the only place where love has ever been.
This is the gift of the caregiving journey: to understand that this love, this life, is always available to us. We realize it in the act of caring for ourselves as much as we care for others.
Beth Witrogen of Antioch is a double Pulitzer nominee for her writing, including her book "Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal." Contact her at www.witrogen.com.