Confessions From a Caregiver

dawid-zawila-279998-unsplashI am a mother of three, two of whom have mental illnesses. My role as caregiver was ‘upgraded’ when my eldest was diagnosed with bipolar at the age of fifteen, and four years later, my youngest son with the same. Nothing can prepare you for what follows. It felt as though our family lost our anonymity to life in a fish bowl. We were inundated with professional and community supports, and our home became a revolving door. I went from being a mother to often playing the role of a nurse, therapist, pharmacist, crisis worker, and gatekeeper depending on the day or hour.

From the time of their diagnoses to now, everything’s changed, for better or worse. On a practical level, check-ins with psychiatrists, counsellors and appointments for blood work has become part of our regular routine. This disrupts everyone’s schedule and requires sacrifice from myself and my kids, not to mention their schools and employers- as well as my own. On an emotional level, their disorders accentuated my round the clock worries and concerns over and above the typical teenage stressors, financial stressors (loss of wages for time off as well as unexpected costs associated with treatment), and most significantly, the toll of ambiguous grief. Although I have not lost children to death, I have lost them to the life I envisioned for them. Grieving this reality is a process.  I get tired, I feel sad, I worry about the futures of all of my children -including my own- and wonder if we will all get our needs met and maintain mental wellbeing over the long haul.

Well this may all sound like doom and gloom, these are some of my honest confessions as a caregiver, and yet, I would not trade my learnings for the world. Through our experiences, my compassion has increased ten-fold for myself, my family and others going through the same. Navigating the ups and downs of mental illness, and the systems that go with them, is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage everyday and I applaud everyone of you who are doing it. Embrace the hardships and forge ahead. Remember, diamonds are made with pressure.

The Gifts of Mental Illness

The gifts of mental illness are perhaps a concept we don’t often- if at all- consider. How could something good come out of being diagnosed with a mental illness? At the time of diagnosis, shock is a common response while for others it may be relief or some other emotion. Either way, there begins one’s opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons. It’s not about what happens to us in life, rather how we respond to life’s challenges. Remember, you are so much more than your label. You are still the person you have always been, challenges or not. Its important to eventually move away from disempowering questions like why me; to more empowering questions like what now? What can I control? How can I move forward despite my challenges? Who can I call on? and most importantly, how can I help others?

Here begins the heart work of mining for gems. It has been said, the longest journey in life is from your head to your heart. Once past the initial shock of diagnosis, one can work on connecting head information to heart emotions which effects change. With an honest self-assessment, and willingness to see things differently the gifts of mental illness emerge. Perhaps its crediting yourself with self-awareness and the ability to learn new things about yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t have so early on in life, perhaps its your new-found ability to relate and empathize with others, or to take a more non-judgmental stance because you never know what’s behind someone’s bad day or mood. What about the opportunity you give others everyday to be more compassionate? More than this, how can you express yourself? Through words? Art? Music? It has been said that all the ‘greats’ have had a streak of madness that made them who they are. So what about you? How has your illness gifted you?