004: Caregiving, Emotional Suppression, and Resisting Societal Expectations

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

A guys caregiving survival guide.



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Episode Summary:

In this episode of the Your Killer Life podcast, Tammey gives the microphone to her co-host, Griff Woodford who talks with guest Michael Baltierra in this special episode that is centered around the caregiver. Whether a cancer diagnosis or any other long-term life-altering disease, the caregiver is the patient’s key ally serving as a person of support and care. Often unassuming and occasionally ignored, we learn firsthand the struggles, triumphs, and needs of our unsung anchors. Griff and Mike share their caregiver stories, unique perspectives, and outline the pressures that are often felt by men as they address fear, emotion, stress, and the often oppressive societal norms that are counter to the valid emotional needs and mental health of the caregiver.


“…there's this big misconception, whether it's with the actual patient or the caregiver, that this is supposed to take a specific amount of time.” -Griff Woodford Click to tweet

Topics in this Episode:

  • Introduction

  • Our caregiver Stories

  • Male perspective and introspection

  • Mission oriented mindset

  • Caregiving and patient partnership

  • Trained to limit emotion

  • Caregiver resources for the workplace and finances and home

  • The hard parts of caregiving

  • Losing acquaintances and gaining friends

  • The rewards of becoming stronger

  • Becoming a resource for others

  • Adapting to the “after”

  • The healthcare experience may not be the same for everyone

  • Signing off

Contact Information and Social Links:

Guest Contact Information and Social Links:

Resources:


Transcript:

Introduction

Griff: Hello and welcome to the Your Killer Life podcast. I am your alternative host, Griff Woodford. I am here with a, a cool guy by the name of Mike Baltierra. Mike, you wanna say hi?


Mike: Hey, how's it going, everybody? Uh, as Griff said, my name is Michael Baltierra. I am located in Covington, Washington, and I used to work with Tammey who is Griff’s significant other a few years ago. And actually a little more than a few years ago, probably about a decade ago. And we've kept in contact ever since. And, I'm glad to be here today. I'm glad to have been asked to do this with Griff, and I'm looking forward to the topic, and whatever it is we want to discuss today.


Griff: Yeah, likewise, man. So for our listeners, what we're discussing today effectively is on on the same cancer, cancer, cancer train.


The difference being from the perspective of the caregiver, and um in a smaller subset… subset for that is the, uh, the male aspect of, of caregiver.


Our caregiver stories

Griff: So. Why is this important? Right? So what we'll typically, well I won’t once they typically, I don't want to generalize, but often cases the, um, the person with the disease, they're the one that gets the focus, right?


Where in order to support that person, well, exactly that, the primary person who's supporting that, is often kind of left in the shadows and that can create problems.


Mike: Just … I am only talking from a parent's perspective, I'm not talking from a partner's perspective or even with my, my dad gone through prostate cancer about 20 years ago.


When you, when you as a parent, have a child that is going through a dreadful disease. And I, unfortunately, um both, my twins have gone through something. My son Zach, who's the oldest twin, he went through a Stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma twice. His younger brother or his twin brother, uh, went through Rasmussen's encephalitis when he was six.


And so we've got, we've actually gone through two, actually three stages cause Zach had cancer twice. Uh, three stages of caregiving, trying to take care of children who went through life threatening illnesses or things that could be pretty catastrophic.


Male perspective and introspection

Mike: And so the female is always expected to be the one that was always going to be there, while the male or the whomever partner, um, however you want to look at, you know, the gender roles today. Goes to work, puts food on the table and make sure that everything's taken care of financially and with insurance and whatever else.


Whereas the mother or whomever is designated as the caregiver is the one who's supposed to be the one left behind who's going to, you know, be providing, uh, initial bedside care when they're not at a medical facility, get the medications needed to whomever. And though you're really, really focused and you really are occupied a great majority of the day at one year, it's your time to take a break, so to speak.


That's the time where you sit there and reflect, and you're wonder what is going on. How am I going to do some self-care? How can I take care of myself and where can I get the support that I need? Because a lot of people think, especially when you're a guy, oh, you should just suck it up. You know, and just put in some intestinal fortitude and just carry on with your day. “Dude you're there to set the example.”


Mission oriented mindset

Mike: When in reality, the whole thing is you're actually crumbling and you're falling apart mentally, emotionally. And if you're spiritual - spiritually as well, cause it makes you question what, you know… well, if there's a, if there's another being outside of this world, why is he picking on my children? And if he's trying to set an example. Did I do something wrong in a previous life or something?


And we always have these doubts and these questions, and you don't have an answer for it.


And you don't have anybody who you can, I mean, you have friends or you have buddies or you may have hobbies with, or you may have something in common with. But the problem is when none of them have ever gone through any of this, they have no idea how to, how to react when you reach out for help.


“That's the time where you sit there and reflect, and you're wonder what is going on. How am I going to do some self-care? How can I take care of myself and where can I get the support that I need? Because a lot of people think, especially when you're a guy, oh, you should just suck it up. You know, and just put in some intestinal fortitude and just carry on with your day. “Dude you're there to set the example.” When in reality, the whole thing is you're actually crumbling and you're falling apart…” -Michael Baltierra Click to tweet

Griff: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, and my, my experience with caregiving, obviously it's certainly different than yours, not from a parent perspective, but as you mentioned, a significant other, you know, my brief background and what I did has been effectively in the combat field my entire adult life, aside from the last four years, really, which was effectively Tammey's diagnosis, the, uh, the high stress career, that type of thing.


It attracts a certain personality type, which. To your point, always kind of expecting that the feminine element of a relationship or a unit is the one in charge of caregiving. You know, I mean, it often feels like the masculine has a disadvantage in that, you know, we're not necessarily, I wouldn't say built, but our, our biology doesn't necessarily reflect that, um, that shepherding aspect.


It's the, the hunter gatherer, right? Just as exactly as you said, you know, the one going out, providing, making sure that the caretaker is taken care of. You know, the person that needs care has the appropriate financial stability and that type of thing.


Patient partnership

Mike: Also, from a younger age too. We're also, as men, we're ingrained from society, even from family members that you know… you're not allowed to show emotion. You're not allowed to be upset. You're not allowed to wear your heart on your sleeve.


You know, you're a guy. You know, you're, you're the, you're the rock. You have to be concrete. You have to be the one who sets the example for everybody else. If you want to make through, make it through these difficult times, then you gotta like I said earlier, you gotta suck it up.


You know? And that's not fair because that's why people. I found a lot of my friends who suffer, suffer from depression or anxiety because they've never had an outlet to be able to, they don't have that safety valve that most people may have, whether it's going to train martial arts or going to the gym or whatever else.


A lot of these people are also, they're not introverted, they're very introverted. They're not extroverts. So, they have a hard time showing their emotion. So, they have a hard time expressing themselves to others? And so, that's why, you know, a great majority of the people I know who have done any type of, uh, oncology care or any type of caregiver services for their loved ones, they are suffering and they're suffering in silence and there's no one out there to listen to them.


Griff: Yeah, I would completely agree with that. I mean it from a young age and, uh, you know, my, my personal career path, I mean, that was just a staple that was not negotiable. You, you are mission oriented all the time. Uh, it's not saying that you can't have emotion, but the job always comes first. You know, there, there is not that, “this is your, allotted decompression or, um, you know, self-introspection time”, it is mission first. When you're done, you take the time that you can, then you move on, right back to mission. And you know, the, the reality is, is that there's a lot of far reaching implications in that mindset. And it does develop into the caregiver mindset, particularly for male caregivers.


Uh, again, I don't like to generalize, but you know, uh, from the breast cancer perspective, you know, that's obviously the, the majority of that is as women. And to me now anyway, it's a pretty obvious parallel why the divorce rate is so incredibly high between husband and wife who experienced that, you know, really any oncology type, uh, treatment or, um, cancer oriented disease.


Because there is that. I won't say one sided, but I will in some cases say unfair expectation of both parties to not just have to go through this horrifying and traumatic disease, but also maintain a societal and social norm of a “gender role,” for lack of a better term, right?


Trained to limit emotion

Griff: When in reality, this is a, this is a communal partnership. It's not about race or gender. It's about what each person needs in that moment in order to be successful.


I would say the reason why it's not more common knowledge to that is because it's freaking hard, man. Like it's, it's difficult to be vulnerable with someone who is already vulnerable in a vulnerable state.


Caregiver resources for the workplace and finance and home

Griff: And as a guy, and I, I'll speak for myself and myself alone in this one, you know, when I would see Tammey hurting. In any capacity, whether it was physical care or psychological care. My stuff goes out the window. I do not care about what I'm feeling right now. My job is to make her better, at least as better as I possibly can with the skillsets that I have and the experience that I have.


You know, it was about a year and a half of that, of just powering through and then, holy crap, man, like it was just about, you know, cut the parachute time. You know, I mean, really, I have no one to blame myself on that. And fortunately, you know, we, within that year and a half, we developed the, the strengthened bond of a, of a relationship that, that allowed for kind of that effective meltdown, right.

And understanding that, um, you know, well, it's about time, dude.


You know, I think that was pretty much her, her exact statement is like, well, where have you been the whole time? You know, I mean, you, you have this ability, you just need to talk to me about it right.


Mike: Well, in order to keep my son motivated throughout his, you know, um, first his chemotherapy treatments, and then eventually his bone marrow transplant. I wouldn't show any emotion in front of him at all.


I would say that for the sounds really lame, just let me go in the shower for 20 minutes and just let, just cry, you know?


Griff: Yeah.


Mike: What can you do? My son and I, we both train Brazilian jujitsu. So at the times I would go to the gym, I would be able to sit with my friends and talk to them and you know, they would always offer encouragement and, you know, I’m sorry, I'm getting a little emotional here, but you know, it just was hard, it was our time.


And…


Griff: That's the point of the podcast man. I mean, we're, we're looking for that emotion and that it's, that is not just an okay thing, but the appropriate thing to display when you're talking about something like this. I mean, it's, it's critical.


And, what, we're both experiencing right now. I mean, that's, that's the primary catalyst of success or failure in a caregiving relationship. Is being able to show that and, you know, realize that it's not, again, it's not just, okay, it's mandatory.


You have to do this or you, it destroys you. I mean, it's just that simple.


Mike: And then the hard part too is when you have to go and explain to your employer like, “Hey, I need all this time off,” or “I need to take care of myself.” And then they don't quite understand what you're going through. So they really aren't too willing to be flexible, so to speak, or, or accommodating.


And you know, when my son first went through cancer the first time, the people that I was working with at the time, they were like, you know, “take the time that you need. The work will always be here. You know, do what you can. If you do remotely from, home…” So I had a lot of downtime with them at the hospital, so I would just log in and get my work done and piece of cake, you know?


And then when I come back, it's like, “okay, you're all your projects are caught up. What happened?” Well, what am I going to do during this 48-hour stay during chemotherapy? I'm just gonna log in and do my work, you know? And, um, I mean, keep me occupied. And then, you know, the second time it wasn't, unfortunately, it wasn't as accommodating.


Oh, excuse me for a second.


Griff: Yep.


Mike: Oh, man. Okay. Allergies. (laughter)


Griff: Yeah right. Yeah, like getting hit in the face with a rock (laughter)


Mike: So anyway, yeah, yeah. It's challenging. It's a real, it's a hard challenge. Just uh…


Griff: It is. Well… absolutely. And it's, it's really not just interesting, but kind of cool, what you just brought up is kind of that, um, short term; “I can do it. I'll do anything you need type thing.”

I have not like, with employers or family or friends or something like that, but I've noticed, you know, at least in my case, families, uh, they're, they're pretty, they're pretty into it. Like they're there for the long term. But there's this big misconception, whether it's with the actual patient or the caregiver, that this is supposed to take a specific amount of time.

And usually like that, that overwhelming volume of support, whether it's through social media or through, uh, you know, personal interaction or relationships. It's like two months, you know, you get like two months of, oh, this, this flood of anything that you need, anything we can do, we're there for you. And then, It just kind of drops off.


And you know, my, my, just my experiences, it took us four years from diagnosis to getting back to a semblance of positive control over our own lives where we're not having to deal with the hospital visits, the recovery times, the, the psychological aspects of this. It was four years, man.


You know? So. And that's, you know, directing that at, even just the patient, you know, let alone the, the caregiver aspect is, in that sense, you're not even on the radar.


You know, the, the patient is the one that, that is getting that, that support. Once that drops off and then it's just the, it's not your, you're expected to go back to business as normal.


And you know, fortunately for Tammey and I, we were both in professions where we really could set our own hours and control the amount of workload that we had without, you know, missing a mortgage payment or something like that. But. You know, God, there’s so, the overwhelming majority cannot do that. And I would say that's one of the hardest parts, and not just my own experience, but the observed experience of others.


You know, the other, other kind of cancer buddies that we have of, that is a huge contribution to just the overall psychological stress of, of the disease. And you know, any, any long term disease, not just oncology related. But that kind of expectation that, okay, well it's been X months or a year, or something like that, like, why are you not back in the office type thing? You know?


Mike: Right. Exactly.


Griff: That's, that's not how that works, man. You know, the, this is a long-term process, right?


Mike: Not to, not to discredit any of the companies. I understand. They have, you know, they have products and they have revenue and they need to generate. But you know, as we're seeing today, given the people the ability to work remotely at paramount. Especially right now with what's going on, you know. It just, I’m glad the mind and the mindset is shifting to, instead of having asses as seats, you can have people work from the house and they can still be just as productive.


And, I think some of it has to do with people wanting just to micromanage others. I'm not saying one particular person, but I know it could just be a whole span of people just they have to be in the know. They have to be in their hands and everything. But you trust your, your troops, so to speak.


You sound like you're a military guy. You prior service?


Griff: Uh, yeah. Yeah, and a bunch of other stuff after that. Yeah.


Mike: So, I was in the Marine Corps and one of the things they always taught us was leadership. You know, you have to put your faith in your troops, trust them enough to do the work. If they screw up. You know, the first time you're emphatic, you're just like, “Hey, you know what? You did a real, you did a decent effort. You know, but you did this wrong. Let's try and correct it.” The next time. But if they keep screwing up, that's when you counsel them.


You know, you know and that, that needs to transfer over and then, you know, I know, I understand a lot of people hate the military. I get it. But when you have people who don't have any idea of how to be a leader, but they're a boss, then it causes friction and then that…


Griff: Yes, it does.


Mike: Then the one thing… I mean wha what branch were you in, if you don’t mind me asking?


Griff: Army, I was Army.


Mike: Okay, so you may have a code of ethics or you may have the, like we had the Rifleman's credo, we had the brotherhood, we had the esprit de corps. It doesn't matter how much you hate someone, it doesn't matter how much you love one of your fellow men. We're all on the same team. You kick me or if somebody gets kicked, gets knocked down, you help them up.


You're only as fast as your slowest guy. And that's, I think, you know, once people start understanding those leadership principles and then it actually makes them a better person.


So it just… I honestly believe that once people start to come to the realization that, you know, you don't have to sit there and watch what people are doing all the time, just have a ch, you know, check in maybe once or twice a month. They may be three times important, you know, once a week, whatever the case may be, to make sure the person is on track. That's all that matters.


Griff: End state focus.


Mike: Exactly. And then I can use that person, whomever, whether it's a father or mother or you know, whomever that they're taking care of their significant other, their children.


Then they can take care of business during the day, and then when they have a downtime, they can get focused on work. Cause, I don’t know about you man sitting in the office eight hours of the day, half the day spent in meetings anyway. So that's a big time sucks. (laughter)


Griff: Exactly, exactly. Workplace efficiency. You know, that's another thing that really does contribute, not just to caregiver and um, um, the, the patient, but the family of that as well, you know what I mean? The… the… just the unit period, you know? Cause, I mean, we all have to work. That's, that's it. You know, that, that's not negotiable. Particularly going through a disease like that where even with, you know, really high-test insurance it's exceptionally expensive, out-of-pocket type thing.


So, you know, also the workplace efficiency, you know, how, how able is that, you know, in your case in particular, how able are you to actually focus on work that needs to be done as opposed to what is just kind of being mixed in the pot as it were, just to just to kill time, you know, to check the block on time in, in office type thing.


So there's, this is a multifaceted thing and it’s certainly not going to be one episode. I think we'll probably end up revisiting this as well.


Mike: And then another thing too is, um, you were talking about the financial responsibilities as well as time in the office. So, I know this is going to sound really, really bad or morbid, but… but, after my son was considered in remission in 2006, something in the back of my mind told me like, you know what, Just be prepared.


And so I didn't take vacation time or any PTO. So when the time came for him to spend the month at Seattle Children's Hospital for his bone marrow transplant recovery, I had enough time on the books where I can just take time off and not worry about, you know, “Hey, are you gonna be back in the office?”


So… that was taken care of. One thing that people don't know either, and they don't know unless you're, unless you tell them or unless they have the, you know, the smart to go look for it themselves is. Financial assistance. People don't know that every hospital out there has got resources for those who can't afford to pay their bills.


All you have to do is just go to the finance department and say, “Hey, you know what? I may have a single income, or I just lost my job, or I'm put on FMLA. I don't have a source of income. What can I do?”


And then chances are they're going to give you an application for financial assistance. Luckily, my children. Uh, well, especially Zach. He was using adult, so technically he had no income, so he got approved for financial assistance. So… whatever the insurance didn’t pay, it was all taken care of through, through grants and funds at the hospital had in reserve.


People need her to literally look for that, because the last thing you want to do is go bankrupt because you can't afford your, your hospital bills, or you want some overzealot 21 year old out of college, who is working for a credit collector coming after you for a $5 copay he couldn't afford.


Griff: Right, right. Absolutely. You know, that was, in our case in particular, that was a long-term struggle, as well, was getting the financial aspects squared away. And again, even having really, very decent insurance, both of us. Uh, but it was, it was a mess, quite frankly, because exactly what you said. You know, there's, there's this removal of, uh, of humanity and morality when it comes to how the insurances is interact with the patients or the people going through care require care.


The Hard parts of caregiving

Griff: It's hard to maintain faith in the system when it, at least in our aspect, there was, um, there was very little humanity involved. Put it that way.


I mean, we've talked a lot about a lot of aspects of being a caregiver, cause there's, there are a lot of them. So I want to ask, what was, what was the hardest part for you to adapt to during the process?


What was the, what was just the most difficult part about being in a caregiving role, as a guy?


Mike: Uh, my son, Zach's pretty stoic himself. He'll never be the one to show you if he’s, you know, if he is having a bad day or if he's upset about something. And, so they're, so having a talk with him, like, “Hey dude, let it out, man, we're all human. It doesn't hurt to hurt.”


So, um, but just, you know, watching my son suffer. That was the hardest.


Griff: I would agree pretty much wholeheartedly with what you just said. Seeing, seeing the person that you love the most, in some cases, suffer. I mean that, uh, as far as that, um, emotional impact, that was the biggest one for me.


As far as the skill set, I would kind of call it a skill set, and also what you mentioned is not just, um, saying that, you know, it's, it's OK to, to be having a hard time, but also having to learn very small cues from that person. To know without having to ask that, okay, you, you are having, you are in trouble here. So… you know, having, having that information, how can we fix that type thing?


You know? That was, that was actually quite a learning curve for me. That's not something I ever really had to, at least in that context, really had to put a lot of emphasis on. I would have to say it’s a really common theme, as to to any caregiver, you know, what, what the struggles are.


And, and on that note, you know, we, we have different stories of caregiving of course, but do you think the relationship of care matters in relation to what we go through as caregivers. You know what I mean? It's, for you, it's your son. For me, it's my wife. Do you think there's a lot of differences to the issues that accumulate for us in that caregiving?


Losing acquaintances and gaining friends

Mike: Well, I'm not quite understanding your question, but I'm guessing that, has it, It has changed my perspective on how I treated others. Absolutely. You tend to see who your true friends are and who your true family members are when you go through a struggle. And those who, still contributing beyond vs. those that treat you pretty poorly, and then you can just cut them out of your life if you have to. If you don't want to, if you don't have to deal with them on a daily basis, that is, or a weekly basis or whatever the case may be.


But, um, yeah, I mean, our family is definitely a lot closer than we used to be. At least my wife and my children are, and myself that is. I've, I've grown closer to a good group of my friends and there are family members I have where we just grown further apart. So… it ebbs and flows. You know, you get good people come into your life and you've got people leaving.


Even so, and then you have those who just don't understand what you're going through and they don't understand why you can't hang out with them. Or, “Hey, you know, all his treatments are over with dude, why can't you just come and hang out?” Well, you know, we were told that he may have side effects up to 10 to 14 days after his treatments, and sadly, that happened. Where he had a really gnarly, gnarly, or allergic allergic reaction to one of his, um, immunotherapy meds and, you know, and ended up in critical care for a week and almost killed him.


And so, um, yeah, people don't, and they don't quite understand and you just get people who think that nothing bad is ever going to happen to them, and so they still treat everybody else like garbage. And, you know, and just one of those days they'll get a wakeup call. You know, karma, you know, it tends to cash itself out tenfold, so…


Griff: Definitely. That's actually a really good answer. It’s kind of the one I was hoping for. The reality is that, again, it doesn't matter what the relationship is, it doesn't matter what the disease is, is that there are so many common threads, uh, the caregiver and the patient role.


And I really like where you went with this is cause, you know, same thing for us as well. As, you know, starting with this large group of what we would consider support, right? And then realizing that that group is a lot smaller than we thought. And I would say for us anyway. As it became a lot easier to a) recognize and then, b) get rid of those negative influences, those negative presences that, you know, we, we just assumed, right through interaction or, or casual friendship that, oh yeah, these, these people are good to go to be around. You know, in effect our “give a shit” pretty much just broke.

Right?


It became a lot more important to focus on what is actually important as opposed to the facade of something important. You know?


That's what I would see is one of the, one of the rewards of caregiving and just going through on both parties, both the person who requires care and the caregiver. You know?

That's the next thing I wanted to ask you is where do you see the reward, as being a caregiver? I think you did touch on that a little bit already, but like to kind of delve into that a little bit more. Cause it's, you know, so far just been all the horrible stuff of being a caregiver and going through disease.