Our sinking boat and Care-Giving

On mental illness.

Generally we think about the individual/the patient. 

Generally we start with what they’re going through. 

  • We don’t generally… 
  • we don’t traditionally… 
  • we don’t naturally
  • I would say…

Our first instinct is not to think about the rest of those without. First, we think about those with mental illness. However considering statistics, the pool of persons who are not ill, is much larger to the pool of persons who are ill. 

It’s just how it goes to think of things this way. The person with the hurt comes first and last. Right?

Contrasting to this, healthy relationships ebb and flow. There is a dynamic. There is a back-and-forth. Sometimes it goes in one direction. Sometimes it goes in the other, depending on who needs what at the time. 

But when someone is ill, the needs tilt. They go more toward the person who is ill.

It’s like saying if you are in a boat on a lake you are likely trying to float. But the boat has a hole in the floor. Water is rushing in. In this boat with a hole on a lake, you with someone. There are two people. Bummer though. One of you has a broken arm. The other person has two healthy arms. Who ends up bailing more water? You guessed it. 

Even with the best intentions, the person with a broken arm is never going to be the same performer as the person with two healthy arms. 

Question. Is there culpability?

The person with two well arms is bailing water at breakneck speed. The person with only one fit arm is doing their best. Bummer though. In this story, they develop tendinitis. Bailing water slows down even more now that they have both a break in one arm and tendinitis in the other. The person with two well arms is still bailing frantically. The person with two healthy arms looks over and says…

What do they say?

Do they say, 

“Hey you! You are a dud partner. It’s your fault this boat won’t float.”?

Or, do they say,

“I am responsible if this boat sinks. I am responsible for your well-being because I have two healthy arms. It’s my job if we don’t float.”?

You see the gap. And both answers are wrong wrong wrong.

Unfortunately, most don’t say what is really going on. 

“No. There is no culpability. There is no fault. It just is what it is.”

Have you ever felt like it’s your fault? On either side of this equation. Caregiver or patient, there is blame we do to ourselves. Being joined, as a spouse, a parent, a child, a friend… with someone who is ill, even illnesses of the mind, puts you in a position of care-giving. 

What is it like to be a caregiver?

You may be saying, “Dr. Q. Are you a dummy?! It’s a tiring thankless job that I do because,” …there are so many reasons. Love. Finances. Religion. Guilt. So so many reasons we become, and stay, caregivers.

Dr. David Kessler, grief researcher, explains that in the grieving process we often fall out of intimacy with others because we are judging how the other person grieves. This took me by surprise. I didn’t realize that in our pain we judge. As pathological as it is, this is a process of self-preservation. Fists up, we are just trying to survive. 

“They are not grieving the right way.” 

“They are getting over it too soon.” 

“They are already forgetting.” …and so forth.

In a care-giving relationship, we get into the same trap. We judge ourselves and others in how we give and receive care. 

No one ever feels quite so lonely as when they are “right” and looking down at others. The other, even being one’s own tired crumbling self. Being at the “top” is a windy cold summit. The pedestal of “correctness” is paper mache. Care-giving easily encargos judgment, even judging yourself. And is isolating. I’ve never felt so alone as when standing in judgement.

Being a caregiver is, well, …giving!  There is a need.  We respond to the need.  We give.  There is also a taking from what is given. When we talk about this, some of us hear the tap, tap of a bookkeeper balancing ins-and-outs.  Tap, tap, take, take. “Keep it fair!” Or, “Keep it right!” There is judgment. Are you giving enough? Are you giving right?

How to pull away from the Judge Judy role:

Understand first that the illness is there just because it is. It’s no fault of anyone. No culpability. These illnesses are, at the most primitive perspective, because of our human condition. We suffer. It is what it is.

These illnesses come because we are human. It is what it is.

These come from biology we didn’t choose. It is what it is.

They come, perhaps, from bad choices, like illicit substance use, texting and driving, or ring boxing and collecting a series of traumatic brain injuries. Bad choices that, although have a degree of selfish beginnings, still come down to the human condition. They happen. Humans make bad choices. It is what it is.

My patient was struggling with her own sense of guilt. “I just feel responsible,” she said. “I’m his mother.” She couldn’t let him “hang in the wing, out to dry.” Rescue after rescue.

And that’s ok, right? It’s ok if that’s what you want to do. Rescue away, I say! But do you loath that about yourself?

While bailing water, take stock. It is your own choice. Think of your reasons why. Own them. Celebrate them rather than judge yourself. You are doing what you want to do. 

At FriendtoYourself, we say, “Everything starts and ends with me.” There is freedom in that. It is putting the judgment down and claiming your life. It is digging in your own dirt for your own worms and feasting. It is spending your energy where it will make a difference. With, “Me.” This is the only person I can account for. This is all I can have any control over, (as little as that is considering biology!) but it is what we have. 

And from this accountability, from this place of freedom, comes connection. Both to yourself and to others. The caregivers-martyr-death is lonely lonely, like a howl sounding that no one ever captures. A caregiver who repositions themself, adjusts and tweeks their lens, to say, “I choose…” 

What? What do you choose? Do you continue to give and bail water? Do you walk, or swim as it were? No judgment here. You are doing the best for others still when you do either of these. Sometimes you are still giving love when you swim away. Sometimes staying and bailing water is worse. It’s worse no matter what your choice is when you choose and perform from a place of judgment on yourself and on others. 

If this is off from your care-giving experience, forgive me and speak. Tell what you are going through. We need to hear.

Self-care tip: It is what it is. Find forgiveness for yourself in your human condition. 

Questions: What is your care-giving experience like? Do you judge? Do you feel lonely? What has helped you gain self care during it all?

Keep on!!!!

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