Changing roles: when the care-giver needs to be cared for

Caring about people is, by far, the strongest thing that comes to my mind when I think about what makes people human. If I’d be asked what makes us human, in the way that most people understand this term, I’d definitely say that it is the ability of caring for others, for their well-being.

Somehow, things are not that simple, as there are at least two types of people in the world: the caregivers and the caretakers. Of course, things have more shades than these two, but for now they’re the only shades we need.

As a caregiver, I can tell that I’m also an empath, and that I love to share. I love helping people, sharing information, resources, time, everything that I feel that could be helpful for them. But there are also our buddies, the caretakers. They’re usually two types, as well: those who are vulnerable and need to be taken care of, while they get through the difficult times they have to face. And there are the pretenders, the ones who don’t really need your help or resources, but they want your constant attention.

And there comes the big challenge, not solely in identifying correctly who is the person worth investing into, but also taking care of yourself in the process as well. As a caregiver, I can state for sure two things: caregivers need to receive some care as well, and that having boundaries won’t make you less human.

Of course, being a selfless person might seem like a wonderful thing, but be careful, as emotional burnout is more than just a tale. The magic word that helps you prevent that from happening is boundaries. You have to get some, if you don’t want to lose yourself in the process.

Because helping others is a thing that, as pretty as it seems, takes a lot from you, because, it needs to create a bond strong enough to let you actually help them. Every person one helps is taking a piece from their soul. This is why we should learn to choose our people wisely.

In my journey of emotional recovery, I’ve discovered a lot about a multitude of things, but especially about my patterns as a caregiver. I’ve discovered that I tend to let myself get drained by letting anyone to take from me whatever they  need, how much they  need. I’ve also noticed that I don’t tend to ask for support as often as I’m offering mine. And, even if everything I’ve stated here sounds just pretty and cute, the truth is that it is the way I’ve been toxic for myself. By constantly denying myself the support I was needing.

And this is how things went till…well, till I got my cup empty, to say so. And you cannot pour from an empty cup, right? That was the moment when it became clear that I have to change my way of doing things, so I’ve chosen the easiest path: I’ve isolated myself for a while.

I’ve obviously felt really bad about it, and the guilt tripping was nothing I’d like to remember. But, as the tale goes, I had no other choice left. I was already at a point where I reached numbness, and I was feeling like I have nothing left to give to other people, no matter how close we were at the time. So I’ve started to reevaluate my relationships with the people around me. I was surprised to finally observe how many people were coming my way only when they needed something, and how many people were only looking for attention and some spotlights, not real help. It amazed me, but it has also convinced me that I’ve made the right choice.

Because, even if there are caregivers and caretakers into this world, the reality is that there’s nothing fixed. You can always switch places, as life is not linear. Becoming a caretaker, as a native caregiver, feels initially wrong on so many levels  that you can’t even count them. But there are times in one’s life when becoming a caretaker is a necessary measure. And you have to accept and respect them, with everything they’re bringing to the table.

So did I. I took a deep breath, and reached for support. This is how I’ve found out that there are people out there which are doing this the ping-pong way: I’ll help you now, you’ll help me later. That there are people that I can learn from now, and I will repay them when they will need, the way they need to be supported.

That no is not a bad word, but it is, for sure, a word making a huge difference in one’s life. Like the difference between an empty cup, and a cup filled up and ready to pour some into other’s cups, as well. Like the difference between a good day, spent at peace with myself, and a day filled up with others’ drama.

And the thing that I believe is the hardest to learn when you’re a caregiver: that a refusal won’t transform you into a monster. No, you’re not becoming Hitler if you choose to take control over the people with whom you’ll share your resources with. Actually, this will only benefit the people which really need what you have to offer, as well as your mental health.

And, no. Asking for help won’t make you a weak person, as most of the people that try to take advantage of you will try to say. It just proves that you’re mature enough to understand that no one can do all by themselves. There are times when you’ll need help, and asking for it is the best proof that you understand that being human comes with limitations as well.

It doesn’t mean that you try to avoid anything if you’ll refuse to help  whenever you’ll be asked to. It only means that you’re aware of the fact that no one can save every person they  met along the road, so you only pick the battles which you feel like are yours.

Of course, receiving help is a beautiful thing, and we tend, once we get used to a certain person constantly helping us, to put more and more pressure on them.  We’re only humans, after all, even if this means that our helper will, eventually, step back and take care of himself as well. Being mature and being grateful for the help we’ve received means also the understanding of this fact, that our caregiver is only a human, not a hybrid of Mother Theresa and Superman.

At the end of the day, being a caregiver means that you will take some time on your own, at least from time to time. Because caring begins with the person looking at us from the other side of the mirror, everyday. Only like that we will be able to offer real, authentic, valuable help to the people we care about. By taking time of our own, to explore freely the inner and outer world, to discover new things, to learn. Even if that could mean, at a certain point, some broken ties. Even if it will feel uncomfortable and it will hurt, that’s also part of life. Ironically, it is the part that marks the beginning of the growth process, so embrace it and stay curious. There are so many things to come, things that you would’ve never even tried to think about, just stay brave, patient, awake and curious. No bad period will last forever, only the lessons brought by it.

Flipping the coin: life between self-care and self-sabotage

As the conversation about mental health gets more personal and spreads wider, another topic makes room into our lives and talks. Self-care. Understood as a set of practices and rituals that help enhancing one’s well-being, self-care is praised, talked about, and made look like something pretty, pink, comfy and glowy.

And, even if, at times, it really is comfy, pretty, glowy and pink, it rather isn’t. Because the first thing about self-care routines that should be understood is that any routine of this kind responds to a state of need. There is no self-care if there is no need for it. And it can be anytime. Self-care ain’t as pretty as social media makes it appear, because there’s more about that particular routine than the cozy surface. There are issues that one tries to manage behind every self-care routine shared. 

And self-care is not always about bubbly baths, cozy sweaters, or hot chocolate and cheesy movies. It also is about anxiety, emotional pain, about hanging on and diminishing the damages. It  is also about uncomfortable but necessary life choices, like learning how to properly manage one’s money, taking that medical exam you keep avoiding, or getting into therapy.

It is  also about long, sleepless nights when you just sit with yourself, and revisit milestones of your life, trying to figure out what went wrong. What could’ve been done better. About admitting that, no matter how dear, some people around us are toxic, and we need to distance ourselves from them.

But, above all of these, self-care starts on the very moment when someone understands that self-sabotage will lead nowhere. Because a lot of the problems which require self-care routines for minimizing their effects, are the consequences of past self-sabotaging acts. And from compulsive shopping, to hanging on the wrong people repeatedly and for too long, everything can, at some point, turn into a self-sabotaging act.

No one thinks about little kind gestures done for themselves in the good days as self-care. But, whenever the bad times hit, the little coffee dates we’re taking ourselves to, the long baths, or any other thing that used to bring us a good vibe and we keep doing even if we feel like drowning, suddenly gets labeled as self-care. Actually, it is just about being persistent, and not giving up on who you are. 

Because self-care and self-sabotage are the faces of the same coin. As mental health is not constant, is something fluctuating, depending on a lot of factors, and not as much that can be under our control as we’d like to be, same is this continuum. 

There is a personal dynamic in every story of self-sabotage, as well as in every routine of self-care. Even if social media tries to say so, not every kind of self-care routine works in every situation, for every individual. As the journey unfolds, the needs to be met change, and there are all kind of needs and days.

There are days when cleaning the house while listening to my favorite gangsta rap tracks is as close as seeing a therapist as one could get. There are days when all I have to do is to cook something both tasty and healthy, while chatting with mom. There are days when I need a long bath, some blues and getting my nails done in order to calm down my anxiety and feel better about myself. There are days when I cry myself to sleep, in order to let the grief and the hurt release themselves. Days when I’d do all of  this at once, or not at all, none of it. 

But there are also days when all I need is sitting with the cats and listening to some blues. Or when all it takes is a good chat with my favorite people and a memes exchange. Or maybe a short shopping session. As well as the days that require me  to make big decisions for what will come next. 

These are all forms of self-care. As well as procrastinating, hanging out with the wrong people, eating your feelings or letting yourself get devoured by anxiety are forms of self-sabotage. Basically any action taken, aware or unaware of it, that has the potential of endangering our well-being, even if we talk about immediate, mid-term or even long-term well-being, counts as self-sabotage.

Of course, life will always be a mix between these two, and this should not scare us. I know, it seems to be easier said than done, but fictional expectations will never lead to real progress. And there’s nothing that did more harm than the idea that the journey to recovery should be smooth, linear and predictable. Neither the recovery journey, our mental health needs, or the self-care routines are. And this is absolutely great, as it was never supposed to, in the first place.

Because they’re so intimately linked to someone’s life history and personality that you’ll never see two of them to be the same. Might seem alike, but that’s only a superficial feeling about a façade. Self-care is, somehow, the bright side of the story, the one that brings us joy as we practice our ritual, and as we tell the others about. The side that tells the others we know in the same kind of situation that good days can still happen, despite of all struggle. 

But there are the self-sabotaging moments the ones who really get to shape us into different persons. The moments that make us take deep breaths, while asking the eternal question: How on earth did this happen, why I’ve got to this point?. Those moments when we feel like quitting. Like taking a nap for the next…few years, until every problem we have will be solved. The moments when, even if we feel like giving up, we keep going. And, especially, the moments of enlightment, when we finally understand what are we doing wrong.

Of course, it ain’t easy to talk about these moments, that would mean the healing is easy. And everyone knows it ain’t at all. Healing is a beautifully dramatic story, with ups, downs, and even stops. How one approaches this, though, is a whole different thing, a thing shaped by their personality and values, while changing the person’s personality, values and beliefs. Getting the courage to actually sit, even with a single other person, and tell the stories of those moments, is a great thing. It is the main sign of the pain starting to fade away. 

At the end of the day, the only thing that should be let to sink in is the fact that self-care is not just a label we mindlessly attach on random practices. 

Self-care is a whole category of small gestures of kindness directed to one’s person, that allow us to function during the tough times. This is why it matters to openly talk about self-care, even to share our favorite self-care routines, and perhaps even their stories, or what they’re good for, and this is also why, when somebody tells us about a thing that it functions as a self-care routine for them, we don’t get to tell them that they don’t. 

Because the only person entitled to label a thing or other as a self-care act, is the person practicing it, with the good, the bad, the pretty and the ugly sides of their journey.

The beginning of the journey: when depression kicks in

They say that every journey begins with a step, but this is also standing for the bad periods in one’s life. Every bad period begins with a bad day, or, even more specifically, with a bad event. It doesn’t take that long until the bad you’ve always feared happens, and your world becomes an unrecognizable place to be. This is how the whole journey begins, with an event.

It could be something not that big, at the first sight, but, on the other hand, who can tell what’s big enough to shake another being’s life? It could be literally anything: a failed exam, a break-up, losing a job, losing a loved one, gaining weight…as many people, as many stories, and as many bad possibilities.

Somehow, though, despite all of these, the signs of depression installing tend to be pretty obvious, especially if you’ve had your meetings with her, too. You’ll see the differences in the way that person talks, dresses and behaves.

Because depression brings not only pain, but also change. It changes the way you sleep, the way you eat, it changes the way you’re interacting with people around you and with your own body. You might sleep too much, or almost not at all, and this applies to everything stated before.

But one of the most painful things brought by depression in one’s life is doubt. Self-doubt and, most important, the doubt of a purpose. A depressed person will ask itself and the others around frequently “What’s the point of this?”. It might become annoying and worrying, I can totally understand, but it represents exactly the way that person sees the world around- pointless.

An important thing to say is that these signs do not come as a storm, all at once. They are subtle changes in one’s behavior that appear during a period of time, usually estimated at two weeks. If one of the main coordinates of one’s psychological well-being, such as sleep, appetite, libido, self-esteem, social interaction, care regarding one’s body and health has significant changes that last for over two weeks, there might be a chance to talk about a depressive episode. As many changes one can spot in a loved person’s behavior, as likely it is, if we respect the two weeks rule, to be able to talk about depression.

It is not something uncommon at all, and, as you’ve read this article, there’s a possibility that a name, or two, raised up in your mind. If we listen to the World Health Organization, depression is the lead cause of disability, counting over 300 millions of persons across the world which are being diagnosed with depression. If we think about the people who can’t afford mental healthcare and diagnose, the number is much bigger than that.

In this context, we have to talk about depression. Or, to be more specific, not only about the stimuli that trigger it, but also about what one could do to befriend her. Because it’s not that kind of disease that you’re gonna cure once and for all, no. It is more like we have to learn how to live with and without depression, because, even if our clean periods can, in the best scenarios, last for years, there will also be times when occasional episodes of various intensities will kick back in. And we have to be prepared, to be able to identify when one’s approaching, and to know what we have to do to diminish the possible damages as much as we can.

We have to understand that a picture-perfect life can be just as worrisome as a chaotic one, and that any extreme can be potentially dangerous for one’s long-term well-being. But, for this to really happen, we have to share our own stories about depression, and about the things that helped us overcome it.

I can’t really recall when my first depressive episode happened. It was, anyways, a long time ago, maybe when I discovered that I don’t look the way people label as beautiful. Part of my mental health struggles were due to the fact that I, for a really, really long time, was hating my body. Even now I have days when I look at myself and think “Oh, well, at least I’m smart, and that’s a good thing, too.”. But now we talk about days, not years and years, as in the past. If the recovery after all the years of self-hatred happened in the blink of an eye, I can’t tell you the same thing about my first major depressive episode.

Here’s how things went. It was the summer of 2018, when bad things started to happen. First, I was dumped by the guy that I loved. After that, I failed my PhD admission, and turned back home. I was feeling…no, the truth is that I was not feeling, and that was a first.

I was in a state really similar to the one after anaesthesia, where you know that you were able to feel, but, at that very moment, you can’t. This paired “nicely” with an unfamiliar desire to sleep (at that time I was sleeping somewhere 11+ hours a day) and the loss of meaning. I was absolutely unable to see the purpose of things, and most of the things done in that period were done by default. It was also the period where I’ve cut so many ties, that I ended almost isolated, home, with my books and cats. It might sound pretty and a good thing, but the numbness and the loss of meaning that were always with me, matched with the constant feeling that I’m an unworthy failure, made it one of the worse periods I’ve lived so far.

With all that being said, though, I  never gave up. Actually, I returned to the things that used to bring meaning into my life, like writing. I’ve started to keep a diary again, in a failed attempt of holding myself accountable. I stopped, however, when I’ve noticed the obsessive tendencies that it was revealing. And, most importantly, I’ve returned to a thing that has always been one of my main traits: seeing the good in others.

This is something worth trying a bit day by day. To make other people feel like they are good enough, they are beautiful, they are loved, they are worth it. That their fights matter too, and they’ll make it through just fine. That they are not alone in this. It’s the easiest way to make a difference for the others, and for ourselves at the same time. Kindness is free and feels good. It takes you nothing to empower other vulnerable people around you, but gives you so much in return.

It is, if you’ll ask me, one of the most reliable and powerful tools to use in this journey towards recovery. Because, as I was saying, the depression is a game-changer we have to learn how to live with. And this is why the recovery after an episode is a whole journey by itself.

Because you discover things about yourself that you didn’t even knew they’re there. You develop new mechanisms of coping with hurt, distress, you get to see things from a different perspective. You learn the difference between putting yourself first and turning into a selfish, entitled brat. Between genuine self-care and the marketing, good-looking-on-social-media kind of self-care. And a whole bunch of other serious, or, ironically childish kind of  things.

But everything begins with that one moment when a bad thing happens to shutter everything we believed it was meant for us, that brought us joy, fulfillment and sense. I don’t believe in magic tricks that would help you get over the bad times. There’s no such thing.

There is, instead, honesty, support, even if we talk about the emotional support provided by the people who love us or about the professional support, provided by a specialist, and in the magic of doing. These are very powerful tools fo growth, through managing emotional struggles. Is important to surround yourself with people who can still see the best in you, even when you’re unable to.

In my dark times, even if I was almost isolated, I still had my people who’ve genuinely cared about me and supported me. Even if that meant sometimes sharing dope music with me, and other times showing me potential collabs, to keep me going, they were there, and I wouldn’t be here without their unconditional love. Needless to say, I’m deeply grateful for their existence.

Forbidding something to yourself, even if it might, at first, seem the right thing to do, as we usually tend to associate it with discipline, it means nothing. Just a road leading to NowhereLand. Of course, this is not meaning that we are allowed everything and anything, as things are obviously not standing that way. But saying always No! didn’t help nobody accomplish anything.

I hate giving advice, but if I’ve understood something during this journey, is that’s gonna be one of the most surprising times in one’s life, so you’d better not simply walk the walk, but try to see, understand and enjoy the new version of yourself that’s blooming slowly, but surely. Continue doing the things you used to love, even if you can’t feel a thing at the given time, continue growing your relationships with people that show you love, and don’t give up.

At the end of the journey, which is not that much of an ending, but more of a stop, you’ll see that it was a bad period, not a bad life. That there were days when you’ve felt almost happy, almost like you’ve got the whole thing put in the right box again, days where nothing seemed to ever make sense or progress, and days that, well…just were. Not good, not bad, but they were there. And, above all, you’ll see that life has always kept its fabulous beauty, all the time. Because not even depression could ever take that away.