I recently had an aha moment. My 17-year-old son and I both suffer from severe anxiety (his is social, and mine is generalised with panic disorder), as well as some other mental health issues which we don’t share, and I realised that our experiences of anxiety, in particular, are entirely different.
The hardest times are when he becomes moody, lethargic and unresponsive – and yes, he’s a teenager, but unfortunately it’s not the normal levels of angst and is part of his Inattentive ADD. I try to help, but then often become stressed and irritated at how slowly he is responding – all part of my Bipolar 2. You could say we are living with a cocktail of challenges!
We often misunderstand each other and tend to get it into our heads that what the other one is going through must be our fault in some way. It can get really messy at times, and I am having to learn how to manage my normal ‘parenting’ frustrations through it all. We work it out, and help each other by being open and detailed about what we are experiencing, but it can be exhausting just doing that.
It’s times like these that have led me to conclude that we can never assume we understand how each other is tracking through the difficult times and as I am both now a carer and the cared for, I find myself on a significant learning curve to help him in the best way I can.
But we, along with the rest of our family, want to ensure we support each other in the best ways possible. So when my son is not responding to treatment or is struggling to walk the school grounds just to show up, I find myself asking: how do we love someone through their ‘stuck’ moments? How do we, as carers, differentiate between a diagnostic issue and a bad mood? And how do we manage our own feelings about it all?
There are so many questions so today I just want to focus on this one: how do we manage our own feelings of frustration, fear, anger, and sadness?
I have always been the primary carer for our children, in the very normal role of mother and so have dealt with a pretty large range of issues from sibling squabbles to hospital visits and wins and losses through childhood life, so the ups and downs are fairly well anticipated. You just get through it, don’t you?
The difference for us is that all the way through these years, almost 20 to be exact, I have been managing a history of mental illness which is now finally being fully diagnosed and my husband has played the role of primary carer for me. We never really knew that there was a lot of support out there for carers and so he’s just soldiered on as best he can.
Now that I am also the primary carer for our son, and continue to manage my own mental health, I am seeing the role of carer in such a new and revealing light. And I am exhausted!
I am sure that I am not the only carer out there dealing with both their loved one’s illness and their own, hence my desire to be transparent about this new season in our journey. So here’s the thing: how do you guys and gals do it, really? It’s so tough and some days I just want to shake my son, God love him and force some action out of him. That sounds so terrible and mean but I am trying to be honest with you. I feel awful that I feel like this too. The guilt can really get to me and it doesn’t help that my own mental health can complicate my ability to be rational about it all. And then I get angry and frustrated and frightened.
What if I can’t help him? What if he decides to go off medication? What if he leaves home and I can’t be there to observe, support and motivate when needed?
What if he goes downhill and I don’t know?
What if I run out of ways to care for him, or can’t find that inner strength to keep caring for him? What if I find myself unable to care about him?
You know these thoughts, I am sure.
I don’t have all the answers; not even close to it, but since we’ve been tracking through mental health issues for two decades, I’ve taken a few leafs out of my hubby’s book, so to speak, and tried to implement some of the strategies he has instinctively developed to help me over the years.
Here are a few:
- I try to think about what my son is going through. Sometimes I have to leave the house and go have a coffee or a walk along the lake to clear my head. Sometimes I go and play the piano for a while and throw my frustrations out on that.
- I feel guilty at times for his situation and can let that seriously affect my own health so I make a point to remind myself that it’s not my fault that he has a mental illness and that as a parent, I’ve done the best job I could with the tools I had at the time. And so has my husband. Sometimes I have to remind myself of this multiple times a day!
- I journal A LOT. Like, pretty much every day. I track my own health, record my moods and work really hard on staying well so that I can be the best support I can for him, even when he refuses my help. Journaling gives me the space to privately vent, to reflect and learn and to connect with a deeper part of my heart in a safe way. It has quite literally saved my life at times and is a big part of my routine.
But maybe you’re not in a place right now where any of these strategies feel like they will be helpful, or even possible to implement. And that’s okay. There is no timeframe or speed at which a person will recover from their illness and you are doing everything you can to walk alongside them and it can be daunting, to say the least.
And that’s where the rubber hits the road I suppose. In those moments when you just feel like it’s so damn hard and it would be nice to not have this burden, this responsibility to carry. It’s in these times where I suppose my strength and resilience is tested and when I feel like I can’t just keep going. But when I stand up to the fight and push through, I become stronger, more refined and my approach becomes more effective.
If I was to give today’s thoughts a subject title, I would say it’s about resilience. Staying the course in the push of those moments when the battle just seems too hard. And through the moments of personal battle that happen on the inside. In the split second when I start to speak and think better of it.
I’ll leave you with this: I nearly said ‘this is what adulting looks like’ today and caught myself just in time. That would have really hurt my son. And I nearly let it come out of my mouth. I had to fight that moment and while I am left battle wounded by the effort, I feel that it was the better choice. To hurt myself than to hurt him, in that moment, ended up being the right choice.
I’m sure that I’m not the only carer living on the knife edge; being carer and cared for simultaneously. And I know that if you’re reading this post and feeling like I do, that you should know I’m here to chat. It’s a tough road, and one most of us don’t get to chose to walk on. There are so many ways to build resilience and so many paths that we are all travelling that test that resilience to the fullest measure, so, let’s build a wall together; a wall of resilience and one that provides a safe haven.
Let’s stand together and as we do – as we fight our individual battles to be the best support we can for those we love – we will create an unbreakable fortress of insight, support and hope.
Miriam E. Miles is a Writer, Poet and Thinker who pens thoughts about everything from food to family to reconciliation and mental health. Her passions include anything sparkly and musical, and she cares deeply about the relationship between those who suffer from mental illness and those who build the supporting walls around them to help them recover.
If you have a story to share as a carer, we are currently looking for contributions to a new book written by carers, for carers and how they are managing their journey. To register your interest to contribute, click here and follow the link.