I didn’t sign up to be a carer.
The entrusting of being my loved one’s support person happened gradually. I didn’t sign any forms. I didn’t take a course in mental health support. Nor did I study how to be the lifeline of someone suffering from mental health issues.
So as ‘jobs’ go, you could say I learned on the fly.
I didn’t always get it right, and I still don’t. But as I’ve become more attached to the role, more natural with how I deliver my support, I ponder how I’ve come this far.
I Looked After Me
Everyone told me I needed to look after myself. And they were right.
There was no way I could care for someone suffering mental health issues if I couldn’t be the best version of me. It would be like two people in wheelchairs navigating a set of stairs. The blind leading the blind. And so the comparisons go.
This idea of looking after myself seemed cliched when I heard about it, prior to becoming a carer. I thought it was a platitude, something you said that was meaningless. A concept that allowed the carer to indulge in their vices without guilt.
But I discovered it was more than that.
My loved one needs every inch of my strength, logic, time and compassion that I can humanly produce. I need to be as fueled as possible with those essentials. With a little extra left in the tank for the inevitable ‘rainy days’.
I can’t stay fueled if I don’t make filling the tank a priority. So I always fill the tank whenever I can.
I Checked My Trivialities At The Door
Everyone has problems. It’s naïve to think that there are people out there who aren’t working through issues, physically and mentally. But as a carer, I’ve come to realise what problems are worth ‘making a fuss’ over.
I used to get frustrated when someone would forget to return my phone call. Or when my parcel would be a day late on delivery. Now, compared to that of what my loved one is enduring, these are trivialities. They don’t need the same effort and stress they once did.
I find support from Mark Manson’s book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck.” He mentions we only have so many f*cks to give in life, that we can’t care about everything in the same way.
It’s with his approach I’ve learned where to invest my energy. I know I only have so much energy to give to every situation, that I need to ration it better than ever before.
Because my loved one needs as many of my f*cks as possible. If I’m stressing about problems I can’t change, I lose sight of what they need. And the bigger picture.
I Listened And Remembered
For my loved one, there are issues with self-esteem and caring. From their experiences, they believe there is a lack of love and care for their situation. They believe no one cares for their wellbeing and fight for life.
I don’t want to be someone they think this about. I don’t want them to question if I care.
I’ve learned one of the best ways of showing care is by listening and remembering what I listened to. Very basic skills, very basic actions, but extremely meaningful in the daily recovery process.
Listening shows someone that your attention and concentration is with them. It shows you understand them and that they are being heard. Remembering what they’ve said can be the tricky part.
I don’t shy away from recording important information. Any doctors' appointments my loved one has is in my diary too. Any significant paperwork or medical records we store where I can access them. I keep the information inked so I can always call upon it at a later date.
I haven’t always got it right. I have heard but not listened, and I’ve definitely forgotten. But I’m only human. What I’ve endeavoured is not to make a perpetual habit of it.
I Respected Their Responses
When dealing with mental health, there is no ‘wrong’. How someone feels is never wrong. What they’re experiencing isn’t wrong. And how they respond to me isn’t wrong either.
I’ve watched how other people interact with my loved one with great curiosity. I’ve seen people tell them their emotions are wrong. That the way they feel isn’t right. That their decision making is wrong.
Because someone is dealing with mental health issues doesn’t mean they’ve lost their intelligence. It doesn’t mean their opinion or feelings are any less valid. Or that they’ve surrendered their right to voice an opinion. It also doesn’t mean they don’t know what they want, or how they want to be treated.
So, as best as I can, I respect what they have to say. Because what they’re saying dictates my approach.
I’ve also learned to respect space. More than ever, if my loved one wants and needs space, I give it to them.
I know it isn’t personal, and it isn’t an attack on me. Everyone needs alone time, despite mental health issues. When they say alone to me, they mean alone.
I Never Left Them Wondering, Without Reply
There were many times my loved one sent me a message, or said something to me, that left me speechless.
I would often find myself without words. I would find I needed days to comprehend what they had said to me, digest the information, before I could come up with a meaningful response.
But the longer I left my loved one hanging, the more they thought I didn’t care. The act of doing nothing came across as if I was being lazy or disinterested.
I found that saying something was better than saying nothing at all. An acknowledgment of the message was enough for them to realise that I was there and I was hearing them.
It didn’t mean I needed to develop my perfect response on the spot. It didn’t change the fact that I still needed thinking time. So I asked for time to think and ponder. But I asked for it immediately.
I found silence was never golden.
I’ve Kept Learning
I am in no way the perfect carer. I don’t want to be. Because if I’ve perfected my role as a career, I won’t ever grow or adapt to what life throws at me. I want to keep learning, so I can continue to better my help for my loved one.
I can’t pretend I know how to be the perfect carer for all mental health issues, either. My loved one doesn’t suffer from every condition under the sun, so I can’t pretend I’m the best. I couldn’t support another carer dealing with mental health issues I know nothing about.
But I can support all the carers by being honest. And the following is my dose of honesty:
Being a carer is hard. But everything worth doing is.
And if you continue to fuel yourself on love and understanding, the role will get a little easier each day.
It has for me.
In my experience with mental health, I will refer to the person in my life as my “Loved One”. For their own health and happiness, I will not reveal their relationship to me, or call them by any gender. I want to respect their privacy.
I’m Ellen McRae, writer by trade and passionate storyteller by nature. I write about figuring about love and relationships through my own experiences. I’m from the school of hard knocks and studied at the University of Life. And I’m ok with that.