Caring for the Caregiver

By April 4, 2013Blog

My mom is an eternal optimist. She’s 86 years old and I don’t think I’ve ever heard her complain. For every challenge I’ve faced, every time I’ve vented or cried, she’s come back with a hopeful, encouraging, supportive comment.’ Now don’t get me wrong, I would MUCH rather have her unshakeable optimism than a doom and gloom, ‘the sky is falling’, ‘don’t bother me with your problems, I’ve got enough of my own’ set of responses. But sometimes (and I’m not proud to admit this) I just want to scream ‘No Mom, this just SUCKS!!!’ What it really comes down to is that at that moment, I just want to feel heard. I want my personal pain acknowledged, not fixed or swept away with a broom of sunshine and butterflies.

Why do I share this? Because as my daughter’s latest bout of depression has dragged on from days to weeks, creeping up on months, I find myself needing some reminders on how I, as a caregiver, can stay healthy, resilient and strong. Here’s what helps me:

1. My experience with my mom underscores what may seem obvious, but is often overlooked. I need to acknowledge my pain. Sometimes I’m afraid to do that, because I fear that I’ll get stuck in the pain, or I will become one of those doom and gloom types, that my optimism and resiliency will be swallowed by some emotional sinkhole. And I’m also afraid that acknowledging the profound impact of mood disorders will somehow give the illness more power, overwhelming power. But the reality is if I DON’T acknowledge my pain and my fears, I surely WILL get stuck and the illness WILL become a sinkhole. The more I ignore the impact of mental illness, the more I just try to keep chugging along, the more I start spinning my wheels, getting stuck deeper and deeper in the mud of my denial. And, aside from not being healthy for me, I’m modeling some really ineffective coping skills for my daughter (and my entire family).

The way I find acknowledgement for my pain is to get the ‘this SUCKS’ out in the open. I did that this week, literally. I texted a friend who is in this not so exclusive little club of ours (you know, the one we all belong to because of our common tie to mental illness) and wrote simply “Mental illness sucks”. My friend responded “It beyond sucks”. I had to laugh. Coming from a well-educated, widely published, articulate and poised professional, my friend’s response was so out of character that it was just what I needed. Two sentences, three words each. That little discourse made me feel understood, validated, and gave me permission to acknowledge and share my frustration and pain. And allowed me to move on.

2. I need to use my network and resources wisely. I have a responsibility to manage my expectations and match my needs with the person who is best able to support that need. In defense of my mom, I haven’t always done this well. I’ve expected her to fill a need that isn’t her niche, or I haven’t clued her in to my expectations. Talk about a recipe for disappointment for both of us!

I am very fortunate that my network includes a variety of friends and family who can fill these different niches. Some, like my texting buddy, are a part of the ‘club’. Often, they know instinctively what to say or not say, do or not do, and can read my moods and emotions with uncanny radar. Others are ‘normies’, they don’t live in this world of ours, and that’s good. Because sometimes I need to talk about anything BUT mental illness, even if just for a few minutes.

3.  Taking care of me means building in breaks, distractions, humor, exercise and a few good cries in the shower. I need to practice good self-care – get enough sleep, nurture my spirituality, eat well, avoid sad movies, books, TV shows.

When times are tough, I have to remember to use my network and to use it properly. Sure, part of me would like to just isolate, crawl under the covers with Netflix and a bag of M & M’s and surface again when my daughter is well, but another part of me knows that if I act on these feelings, I’ll hate myself before the first episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ has started. I’m not a quitter, I’m not a runner, and I’m not an avoider. But I am human; I forget; I become stubborn; I think I can do it all alone.

In reality, acknowledging my humanity, reaching out, admitting to my ‘dark side’ helps not only me, but it helps others. For if I reach out, I’m giving others permission to do the same. And I’m giving my friends an opportunity to be helpful. I know that one of the best things I can do to feel better is to help others, share my experiences, and offer hope. So why would I deprive others of the opportunity?

Mom, if you’re reading this, please don’t change a thing. I love you, I admire you and I need the predictable optimism that you offer. You are a very important part of my network and I’m so grateful for every single person who plays a unique and valuable role in helping me through these tough times.

Nanci Schiman is a licensed social worker with a Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She has over 10 years’ professional experience in child and adolescent mental health, family support, advocacy, writing, public speaking and collaborating with local and national mental health organizations. On a personal level Nanci and her husband are parents of three daughters ages 16, 18 and 20.  The oldest and youngest were diagnosed with bipolar disorder at ages 9 and 10 respectively.

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