9th October 2020 • Emma Cooper
The 10th of October sees the celebration of World Mental Health Day.
This aims to raise awareness and help erode the stigma that sadly still exists around mental health issues.
The truth is we all have mental health; just like we have physical fitness and we need to keep that in check, we also need to keep a check on our mental fitness too.
As carers and parents to our children and young adults who require us to be as well as we can be, mental fitness is not only harder to sustain but there is the added layer of guilt when we need to do something for ourselves to keep us going.
For World Mental Health Day I’d like to shine a light on the difficulties faced – and resilience found – by carers.
The phrase ‘You can’t pour from an empty kettle’ is one I try to remind myself of when I need to take stock and do something purely for me. Carers are the ultimate kettles, often ensuring everyone else’s bespoke cup is full whilst ours is left on the back burner.
It’s almost as if we have to compartmentalise our minds into two (or more!): the mindset that attempts to be everything we must be in order to help our loved ones with their complex needs, and a mindset that every now and then dares to consider our own neglected needs.
Those moments of slipping into our own personal headspace feel fleeting and indulgent when in caring mode. Slowly, over time, phone calls to a friend seem one-sided, as often we don’t have much to talk about in comparison.
Finding it hard to relate
You find yourself not wanting to share your battles with other friends who aren’t carers, it’s hard to relate to friends who want to vent about husbands, a full-time job outside the home and the fact the kids had to be at home for schooling in lockdown. How do you relate to their challenges when they are describing a life you would yearn to live?
You’d love to have a husband to help share the workload, the mental fatigue of remembering which bills go out and when, drive the car now and then so you could grab some sleep en-route, or just be there to listen to you vent about your day and reassure you with a huge hug that you are doing a good job.
You’d love the freedom of being able to drop your child to school, safe in the knowledge they are happy, safe, understood and thriving so you could have the luxury of a full-time job with colleagues, friends and coffee breaks.
How can you be genuinely sympathetic on that call to your friend when they are struggling with temporary home education, when you have no choice but to educate your child at home because they can’t access a happy educational experience in the school system?
You can’t reply, ‘Well actually I have it worse!’, as that would leave a friend without their safe place to vent, and would leave you, well, erm, friendless.
You don’t need me to tell you what happens when you can’t find these very normal everyday conversations relatable. You become the ‘fixer’; the one who –despite having more on their plate than most of the general population – is always there to give advice, drop useful links in a text, who takes on extra work and arrangements to be able to sustain human adult contact.
That kettle on the back burner is pushed further back.
The power of no
Over time, we burn out. We need to rest and, more importantly, we need to somehow learn to say no. This is so very hard, especially when you’re saying it to someone freshly walking the paths you have navigated for years, because you know exactly what it feels like to feel lost and alone.
But the power of no doesn’t have to be guilt-ridden, doesn’t have to lead to an inflammatory conversation or break relationships that mean a lot to you both.
So from one carer to another, here is an alternative way to saying no.
Try replacing ‘sorry’ with ‘thank you’. If you’re late, instead of saying, ‘Sorry I’m late,’ and reeling of a thousand reasons why caring duties have left you unable to be on time – again – try saying, ‘Thank you for understanding, I’m so lucky you’re my friend.’
If you need to decline an invite to a social engagement, try, ‘Thank you so much for inviting me, I wish I could be with you, you’re important to me. I just have to take a day to rest. Thanks for never forgetting to invite me, that alone means so much.’
Perhaps more importantly, make time, however infrequent, to have that call, cuppa and catch up with your adult friends. Have some guilt-free ‘you’ time and if a subject pops up that leaves you feeling you have to give advice, or someone says ‘How on earth do you cope?’, smile, laugh and say ‘Wine and cake’, then change the subject.
Carers’ mental health matters. You matter. Please, on World Mental Health Day and every day, make space for you.