A Year in Review: Lessons Learned as a Caregiver and Husband

It has been quite a journey since being told of my wife’s diagnosis. Teeming with memorable ups, painful lows, and everything in the middle. There is a plethora of blessings and curses alike to be taken from such a journey. Wisdom and understanding are two such attributes that can be attained as both a caregiver and as somebody with mental illness. But in order to gain insight into wise ways and empathetic understanding it is often necessary to take some lumps and bruises along the way. So what exactly have I learned from our new way of life? Well, let’s look, shall we?
If I were to simply lay out a nice, clean-cut, and definitive list, that would hardly resemble the menagerie of lessons I have had to decipher along the way, would it? I will, however, do my best to lay it out in a way that hopefully allows you to take something from it.
Without a doubt, one of the most prominent lessons I have absorbed is empathy. Looking outside of myself and trying to genuinely see the world in a way that others experience. For instance, in the past I have often looked at my situation and thought “poor miserable me.” What I should be thinking though is “what can I do to make your day better?”. Attempting to “walk in their shoes” would force me to see that while, yes, my situation might not be optimal, there are people around me who could really benefit from me putting on my big boy pants and trying to help them through their struggles. And guess what? It makes me feel better, too. Not only does this empathy open my eyes to helping others, it also allows me to get a very rough idea of their struggles. For example, trying to truly imagine how it would feel to experience even a fraction of her symptoms on a bad day. All I can say is that she handles it better than I could. That brings us to the next lesson, patience.
I have often been told that patience is a virtue. Little did I know just how those words were to ring true. Not only is being patient a useful skill when waiting on results and doctors, it’s also highly beneficial when having to face the inevitable symptoms of mental illness. Marriage makes that importance that much more important. For example, say your partner is on the verge of a psychotic episode, or perhaps they are on the verge of suicide. It is safe to say that these are moments where you do not want to be in a rush or pushy to conclude this stressful scenario. If, however, you allow the resolution to take as long as is necessary, it can help to keep the situation from escalating. Another benefit, especially when working with psychosis, is that being patient can result in making the individual with symptoms feel more calm or assured than if you were to panic or react in a negative manner. This by no means indicates that the situation will resolve immediately. It simply means that it can potentially mitigate stress and harm to everybody involved.
A hard-learned lesson for myself and, I am sure, many other caregivers, is the act of self-care. You strive to be the best caregiver you can be, pushing yourself past limits that would normally break you. Yet you persevere because really, what other option do you have? Your loved one needs you, so you play the herculean role; maybe you have other children who need you too. More than likely you have multiple responsibilities to look after. And you play the role of Atlas, the weight of the world borne upon your shoulders. It’s noble, and many of us do just this for weeks, months, or even years. There is just one problem – we are only human. That means we are vulnerable to that dreaded “b” word. Yup, that bane of any caregiver’s existence, burnout. Many of us have walked this thin line before. How can you avoid burnout? The answer is simple, yet not remotely easy. Self-care, that’s the remedy that can stave off burnout. I will be the first to admit that I was sorely lacking in this department. I poured myself into being a caregiver, on top of my other responsibilities. Things like school, work, family, pets, household chores. I told myself that I could handle it all. Then I started to wear out. The fatigue, loss of drive and ambition, not eating or sleeping enough, the bottoming out of my stress tolerance; even the most minor of stressors like a wrapper on the floor and boom! Day ruined. I lost myself in my role as caregiver. So, what did I do? I started slowly practicing self-care, treating myself to moments where I tried to only worry about myself. That’s not to say I stop caregiving; my role as caregiver and husband has always been a top priority. Along with a billion other things. I just put myself in the top five priorities so as to climb out of the burnout trenches. Think of it like this, when they do the safety presentation on airplanes, you know the ones with the oxygen masks? What do they say? You are instructed to take care of yourself and then any dependents. Sounds a bit ass-backwards, doesn’t it? But how can you help anybody if you are passed out from lack of oxygen? You can’t. So, by taking care of yourself, you are also taking care of those around you. If your wife, kids, parents, or anybody else depends on you then doesn’t it make sense to make sure you are ok? You wouldn’t want to let them in a worn out and unreliable boat. You would want them to be safe and looked after. So why would it be any different as a caregiver? If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t help anybody else. In order to be an effective caregiver, it is imperative that you be in as good of shape physically, mentally, and emotionally as possible. So, by helping yourself you are also helping those who rely on you. So, help others by helping yourself a little to.
While I have learned countless things over the past 18 months, these three are probably the most critical – at least in my mind. Hopefully there is a little something here for you to take and help you or somebody you know. I wish you all the best on whichever path you are on. Anyway, that’s it from me today.