It’s that time of year when people are supposed to feel comfort and joy. People get together with family and friends. They laugh and share stories. There’s lots of food and drink to go around. It’s a time to celebrate being with people we may not see any other time of year.
On the flip side, this time of the year can be difficult. Comfort and joy can be hard to find. I know several people who lost a loved one this year; this will be their first Christmas without them. And even if someone has lost a family member many years ago, the holiday season brings them to mind even more frequently. In addition to death, there are many other ways that you can lose someone. Damaged family dynamics. Disease. Mental illness. Each can bring a sense of loss and pain.
Little did I know that in 2010, when I was still going through tests near Christmas that I would feel more joy than I currently do. It doesn’t make sense to me. In 2010 I had the potential of a cancer diagnosis hanging over my head, and I was able to have fun and laugh with the rest of my family. Now, with no cancer diagnosis pending, I feel sad and alone.
The caregiver role
I have always said that caregivers have it rough. That sense of helplessness has got to be brutal, and now I am experiencing it. While it’s not cancer this time, I feel like a part of me is dying as my son struggles to find his way while dealing with mental illness.
His medication is not working. Counselling does not seem to be working. Sometimes he is so much fun to be around and the contrast between his good and bad days almost makes things worse. He plans for the future and then acts like he has no future. My son seems to be on a treadmill where he may try to move forward but, as soon as he gets tired, he struggles to stay in motion and he gets carried back to where he started.
He suffers from anxiety and depression. He has lost many jobs in the past few years. Working full-time is too much for him. Even working three four-hour shifts in a week is overwhelming and sometimes he calls in sick. He has low self-esteem and every time he fails (like calling in sick to work), it reinforces that feeling of not being a good person. He lives with my husband and me, and he wants to live somewhere else and be independent. Again, the contrast between what is happening in his life and what he wants are two totally different things and it is frustrating for him, my husband, and me.
Cancer and/or mental illness
And yet, as a parent, I can only do so much. We go for family counselling. I listen to him when he wants to talk. I give him his space when he wants to be alone. I go with him to appointments to help him advocate for himself. He says he tries to be assertive, but without the confidence behind it, it doesn’t always work. He gets flustered when there is too much information to take in.
It’s always hard for me to let go…at least let go to some extent. There is no line that tells you when you are helping too much or too little. In fact, that line can change from day to day or even within minutes.
With cancer, I felt like I could take tangible steps to go from having cancer to removing it with treatments. There is a general formula about what treatments are done and in what order. What size is the tumour? What area of the breast is impacted if it is Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) or Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC)? Has the cancer spread to the lymph nodes? Is the cancer HER2+? There are so many variables, yet it seems to be a lot easier to develop a plan to treat cancer than it does to address mental illness.
With mental illness, there is no magic formula. The chaos seems to be constant. You don’t have that same sense of structure that you have when you have a treatment plan for cancer. With cancer, while that treatment plan may have to change, the sense of chaos does not seem to last as long as the chaos I'm currently feeling in my life.
On some days I would be willing to have cancer again if only my son would feel better. On other days I wonder if the stress will eventually cause my cancer to return and the thought of it sickens me.
A new appreciation
When I had cancer, I didn't have the same strong feelings that I have now, possibly because I was the patient. Now, with my son struggling, it feels like much more of big deal. It could be the never-ending chaos or it could be that I'm a mother and I hate to see my child lost and in so much pain.
Ironically, the helplessness that some people feel when they are diagnosed with breast cancer is only hitting me now, eight years after I went through my cancer treatments and that helplessness is a result of someone else's illness.
With this discovery, I suddenly have this strong urge to hug every caregiver out there. Watching and not being able to make the other person feel better is harder than I ever dreamed. Fortunately, I am not truly alone, even if I feel that way sometimes. I get overwhelmed, but I am fortunate to have a great network of friends and family. They listen to me without judgement. Unfortunately, I’m sure I’ve helped to spread that same sense of helplessness to other people. I’m hoping that, next year, I will be the one spreading comfort and joy.
Next steps for me
I can only imagine what my son is feeling; however, I’ve decided I have to do more to save myself. It’s like trying to save someone who is drowning, but you have to kick them away to regain your strength so that you don’t get pulled under too. Once you have strength again, you can reach out to the person again.
I plan to get more exercise. Since my son needs to exercise to help his mental state, the plan is to make sure that whenever one person exercises, the other person has to exercise too. Right now he is ahead or me, so I have some work to do.
Since I like to write, I’m planning to do more writing. I have gotten away from doing that. It will help me to think things out and to get the buried down emotions up to the surface where I can address them.
I will have to book an appointment with the counsellor that is just for me. I want to be able to express my feelings without having my son in the same room, where he could feel guilty about his impact on me. I don’t want my son to stop talking to me, but some days I feel guilty about wishing he would stop telling me things. Sometimes I would be okay just putting my hands over my ears and rocking.
I know and understand that I will be of no use to anyone if I don’t take care of myself, but it doesn’t make it easier. My issue is that I like to fix things when sometimes things just can’t be fixed…at least not right away.
Mutual comfort and joy
It doesn’t matter if you are the person who has an illness or the caregiver; remember that everyone is worth saving. Be kind to yourself and, if you have a caregiver, give them a hug and let them know you appreciate all that they do.
Hopefully, together, you can help each other find the comfort and joy that you both deserve.
Over 30-years of writing experience, about 10 years as a cancer survivor, and a lifetime purveyor of wit and laughter.
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