Care for Caregivers
I offer therapy and support for parents/caregivers and siblings of those experiencing mental or physical illness.
In my work in an intensive hospital-based mental health/eating disorder treatment program, we initially invited parents, caregivers and siblings to come to treatment so they could learn about eating disorders, and what to do to support their suffering family member.
One day in a family support group, an older sister came in and she was MAD! She came to the group because she did care about her sister, and had empathy, but was tired of being told what she needed to do to make it easier for her sister. She wanted to talk about what it was like for her and their younger sister. She needed to vent where it would be safe, and she wouldn’t be reprimanded or told “to just be patient.”
So we let her vent.
With tears streaming down her face, she came pouring out with the rage, helplessness, shame, fear, sadness, isolation and loneliness that comes with having a sister in the hospital with an eating disorder. Though she realized her anger may not be “fair” or “logical,” she was nonetheless mad at her parents for letting it happen. Mad at her sister for not trying harder to get better. Mad at herself for the time she caught her sister vomiting and didn’t tell her parents.
I can still remember the sound of the silence that humbled that room of parents as they all came to terms with their own arch of conflicting feelings, including their collective guilt for not realizing the impact this must be having on their other children and family members.
On airplanes, flight attendants always instruct you to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others. This is good advice. You can’t save someone else if you can’t breathe.
The same is true when you are caring for a family member with physical and/or mental health concerns. You should take care of yourself first so you have the energy, patience, bandwidth to do everything you need to do for your family member.
Yet, despite an almost universal agreement with this in theory, it rarely happens in practice. I believe this is because when someone in a family becomes severely ill, it’s a crisis. The initial crisis state is crucial to motivate initial action; it is the intensity and adrenaline that comes with a crisis that allows us to disregard any barrier to action.
We are expertly designed as human beings to turn off our own needs in order to effectively manage and survive the crisis. The problem is, we are not expertly designed to function for very long in crisis. The initial adrenaline wears off and we need to find ways to replenish ourselves for sustained energy to heal and prevent more crises.
I have found that many families continue to function in crisis mode. This leads to burn-out, exhaustion, helpless and sometimes resentment. Family members need support, guidance and permission to allow the reality of having a sick family member transfer from a crisis necessitating all the attention, to a longer-term sustainable lifestyle with the reality of caring of an ill family member.
Back to the story of the angry sister. It humbled me too. Over time, I came to work from the belief that when an illness comes into a family, it exists as part of the family. Each family member develops has his/her own unique relationship to the illness, including the sufferer who becomes the “holder” of the symptoms.
With this understanding, I can provide support for family members as they learn how to care for the “holder.” I can support each individual family member as they navigate their role and relationship to the illness. And I can provide space and guidance for the entire family to reorganize and heal together as a unit.