I know from my own experience as a carer, you can spend so much time looking after your special needs child or your other kids or your elderly parents or your partner, there is often no time or energy left to care for yourself.
I also know that sometimes it can be easier to keep busy and just keep going rather than to stop and breathe. Because then you have the opportunity to think. And with thinking comes worry. And with worry comes stress & overwhelm.
Throughout my life I’ve found it easier to concentrate on what I have to do rather than sit back and examine WHY I do it. So I would just keep going, regardless of how my own physical and mental well being were being neglected.
Because if I stopped I’d have to answer the questions I didn’t want to face.
For a long time I wore this commitment to others/negligence of myself as a badge of honour. I was a martyr to a greater cause. Wasn’t I utterly selfless for only thinking of others at the expense of my own needs?
Except I wasn’t. I was actually too scared to face up to the realities of my own situation.
And that was all well and good for a while. It certainly helped me cope with the relentless pressures of my life. If I could just keep on going, I’d then be so exhausted at night that I would fall into bed and sleep the slumber of the completely spent. There would be no opportunity then for worry, stress or overwhelm to claim me.
Unsurprisingly, that was not a healthy or sustainable way to live. And it finally took a suspected mini stroke two years ago (after multiple depressive episodes) for me to finally realise that I was not a martyr at all.
In fact, I was human. Deeply flawed, overwhelmed and in denial.
Of course, it should not have gotten to that stage at all. I should not have had to suffer a stress-induced episode (in front of my son, I might add – terrifying for both of us) to realise that I needed to care for myself as much as I cared for him and for the rest of the family.
It should have been obvious from the start that I needed to care for me too. That I needed to also start caring for the carer.
Caring for the Carer
After my health scare I took stock of my life and how I was living it. I finally had to face up to some hard truths. I couldn’t play the martyr anymore. I needed to acknowledge that I couldn’t do it all, that I needed to ask for help and that I also needed to actively help myself.
I finally took the time to recognise my own needs and I realised there were a few things I needed to do to start properly caring for me. I’m still a work in progress (and I suspect I always will be) but working through these steps has helped me better understand myself and my reactions to the pressures of my life.
And I know following these steps have also made me a better carer too.
Everyone is different but I thought I would share the steps I followed below as I believe they could go a long way to helping other carers start looking after themselves too. But please keep in mind that I am not a trained professional when it comes to mental health – I’m merely a fellow carer who has learned her lesson the hard way.
10 ways I learned to care for the carer
Accepting the reality of my situation – I guess this was the very thing I was avoiding by trying to keep busy for all those years. I didn’t want to accept all that I had to deal with. Moreover, I didn’t want to accept what that really meant for me, now, and in the future. It’s confronting and depressing but I needed to face certain realities, such as the strong possibility that my son may never be able to live independently.
It’s not easy to do but I had to recognise and accept everything I was facing in order to find ways to improve my situation. Because you can’t properly seek help if you don’t know exactly how much help you need or what you need help with, can you? So write it all down. Or talk it over with someone. Or just take the time to think it all through in your head. It’s tough, so tough, but it’s a very necessary step in learning to look after yourself.
Being open with others – for some time there I struggled to share my fears with anyone, even my husband. I may have started on the road to accepting the reality of my situation but, in some ways, giving voice to my concerns by sharing them with others would then make them more real. So for a long time I felt it was safer to just keep them to myself, not to bother others and to try to work through it on my own.
However, to really come to terms with your situation, you need to be open with others. If you are unused to being open, find a trusted a family member or friend you can talk to to share your thoughts and feelings. The very act of unburdening and unpacking your thoughts will help you better process them. In fact I find that just voicing what I’m feeling now is a release valve in itself. It’s possible your trusted confidante can offer advice and support to help you better manage your concerns. And even if they can’t, they can lend a much needed sympathetic ear. Just knowing that you are not alone and that your worries and concerns are valid is sometimes all you need to find the strength to keep going.
Acknowledging I have an issue – this may not be relevant to you, but after years of depressive episodes, I needed to accept that I was not coping. I didn’t want to admit that I was struggling. I didn’t want to look too deeply and see the real cause for my declining mental state – me. But I had to acknowledge that it shouldn’t be MY normal to feel constantly anxious, upset, scared, worried and fearful of the future.
I knew I wasn’t in the best place I could be. I instinctively knew things could and should be better. And in the end I knew I needed to take responsibility for me.
Acknowledging that I did have issues to overcome and being honest with those around me was a big step in allowing me to take the action required to get help. So be honest with yourself and ask the question – are you in the best place you can be? If the answer is no, then perhaps it may help you to talk to someone and seek further advice and support.
Seeking professional help & advice – I have suffered from depression and anxiety for most of my life so I am familiar with seeking professional help. But even if you are not, it’s always a good idea to talk to someone if you feel you need more support. It might be that you have no-one you can trust or you would rather talk to someone completely removed from your situation.
Most workplaces offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and this can be a great first step in seeking help. You can also see your GP and ask for a referral to a psychologist (this should be partly subsidised by Medicare if accessed under the Mental Health Care Plan).
Please don’t be put off by the stigma of seeing a professional if you truly are not coping or if you want to better look after yourself. Your priority has to be you and on how YOU can continue to care for your loved ones. If this means seeking professional advice for your own needs, then do it. There is no shame in this x
Recognising my limitations – this was another hard one for me (again, no surprises there). I hate accepting that I can’t do something. For me, it’s akin to quitting, even though in this case I knew I could not go on with all my existing responsibilities. Recognising that I cannot not do it all, and that I am not Superwoman and that I do have limitations, has helped me move forward. I don’t like it, but it appears I am human after all.
It helped me to list all my responsibilities and rate their importance. This exercise identified the responsibilities I needed to prioritise and the responsibilities that, ideally, needed to be undertaken by someone else. This exercise also helped me better accept that I could not do it all and went a long way to lessening the natural guilt I felt for not being able to keep doing it all.
Asking for help – again this is not natural for me but I have had to learn to ask for help. In the weeks and months following my suspected mini stroke, I was starkly reminded of my own stubborness and inability to delegate even the smallest of tasks, which caused me significant issues both at home and at work. I am a control freak and, according to my psychologist, a perfectionist too. You can probably imagine then, how hard it was for me to let anyone do anything else, let alone admit that I needed to ask for help at all.
But we all need help from time to time. And in this very busy world you can’t just expect others to pay attention to the fact you are struggling. You need to be proactive in seeking help else it may never come. You need to be forthright and clear when you seek help. Be specific in your request – that way you’ll be more likely to access the support you need. And never fear asking for assistance. The worst that will happen is that someone may not be able to help you. But they will know that you need help. They will be sympathetic and they may be able to help you in the future. So don’t give up – continue to seek help if you need it.
Expressing myself – I found that starting a blog and writing out my thoughts, feelings and fears helped me face them and work through them. I began this blog back in 2011, as I was preparing to return to work after the birth of my youngest child. It has seen me through the ups and downs of my life ever since – lucky I always have lots of blogging material to use!
More importantly, blogging has connected me to other carers who are experiencing similar challenges. I think making these personal connections has been the most valuable part of blogging for me. There is huge power in knowing you are not alone and in learning from others going through similar experiences.
You don’t have to have a blog or social media account to get a similar benefit. Writing in a journal or online (with a private setting) could also help you better accept your situation and process your thoughts and feelings. You may choose to write letters to yourself or to someone else. However you choose to express yourself, the very act of writing down your thoughts and feelings could help.
Committing to change – It’s so easy to fall back into old ways, of that I’m well aware. I’m always going to be a perfectionist. I’m always going to feel I need to be in control. I’m always going to be easily stressed. I’m always going to secretly hate asking for help. But I do want to change myself and my life for the better. I know I need to look after me. And I realise I can’t afford to live my life as a martyr again.
So I need to commit to change in order to continue to effectively look after myself and my family.
Committing to change is hard but the rewards are huge. So don’t give up on yourself. Things will be tough and it’s not going to be easy but fully commit to the change you are seeking to make. Seek help. Become accountable.
Just don’t give up.
Recognising my self worth – after struggling for so long, I came to believe I was no good at all. So I needed to believe that I was a competent mother, wife, friend and worker again. After years of trying to doing everything on my own and years denying my own feelings, I truly believed I was worthless.
As carers, we tend to put everything and everyone, before our needs. For me, this further exacerbated my existing feelings of worthlessness. I had to do something proactive to recognise my own self-worth again.
Instead of focusing on all my failings, I began to focus on everything I contributed to the family, to my workplace and to my friends. Shifting the focus from the negative to the positive helped me realise that I wasn’t perfect – no-one is. But it also helped me realise that I’m doing the very best that I can and that effort is appreciated by everyone around me. For a perfectionist like me, knowing that good enough was enough, that was a huge step in the right direction.
Putting my needs front & centre – I’m still working on this one but I needed to learn to accept that it was okay for me to put my own needs first sometimes. Yes I am a carer but I’m also person with my own needs and desires. Feeling guilty for wanting time to myself is a waste of energy. And feeling guilty for finding life hard is also a waste of time.
It’s okay to take time out for you. Go out for a walk, head to the gym, wander around your backyard. Grab a coffee with friends, go to the movies, head out to the shops. Take a course, listen to a podcast or read a book. Enjoy some time away from the pressures and reality of full-time caring. Even if it’s only for a very brief time each day.
And don’t feel guilty about it – carers deserve to be cared for too.
Are you a carer? Do you have other strategies to add to help us all better care for the carer?