I’m fine

Not that long ago I’ve seen a post on Social Media asking ‘What’s your favorite lie?’ I did not answer at the moment, but I know that my favorite one has always been I’m fine. It is the lie I’m telling most of the time, and even if I know I should not, I keep telling it even when I’m anything but fine. Or especially then.

It is bad, yet a deeply rooted habit, and a costly one in terms of mental health and general well-being. But it is far from being something special. In fact, this is part of the factors leading towards what is known as The Caregiver’s Burnout. This is a common condition amongst the caregivers, manifesting as anxiety, depression, physical and emotional fatigue.

But here’s the catch: there are way more caregivers than we tend to admit. The caregivers are defined as persons caring usually for family members suffering from a disability or a chronic disease and are mostly associated with adults caring for their family’s elders. They are not.

A caregiver is also that friend who is always catching and trying to support and lift the others. That friend taking everyone else’s hand during their mentally challenging times and never talking openly about its own. It is that one person that always seems to have their life together, to know exactly where they’re going and what they have to do.

Because not every suffering is visible. Some of us face mental health challenges, others are facing losses, grieving times, there is a lot going on in every person’s life. And, every here and there, it is at least one person being the safety net of their social group. That one person who got the others coming to them for guidance in their tough times. They are caregivers as well, highly empathetic people that care and feel deeply responsible for those guided by them, even if not witnessed as caregivers by society.

And that leads them into a very dangerous trap. It makes them feel like the time for them to talk about their struggles is never now, always later. Now there are others that need their help and support, loved ones that need to receive their best in order to recover or get through the darkness. And this is how they get used to answering I’m fine when they’re asked about themselves. Because they are not a priority on their own list.

This also comes from a strong belief that places bad times as a thing to be kept private. As if, once admitted that you struggle as well, your ability of supporting others would vanish away, making you as weak as they are. Because the strong ones don’t make their dark times public while happen, but only talk about them later, when there are only the scars without the pain. However, truth is we all can struggle at the same time, but not in the same ways. We can (and we do) struggle in different ways, due to different reasons, and at very different intensities. That’s not what matters. What really matters is the ability to manage struggle, frustration and pressure. Because, as an informal caregiver, there’s a different kind of pressure on your shoulders: the thought that you’ve been trusted. That your close one, your friend, the person who asked you for help, did so because it knew you can deal with the situation without being overwhelmed. That you will lift them up, not that they would drag you down. When it comes to a family member that needs to be taken care of, there is a slightly easier burden to carry: you’ve had no actual choice, other than caring for them.

And just like that, the story of I’m fine begins to unfold: with the desire of not being a disappointment to the people which have seen the best in you, and with the belief that there will come a day when you will be free to talk openly about your struggles and allow yourself to ask for the help you need.

Because at the end of the day, what makes a caregiver fail those who trust them by failing themselves is the mix between empathy and fear. You know how it feels to be let down, so you fear that, by saying that you are struggling, you will let the ones that trusted you down. But you’re not. In fact, you would only be helping them more, as they see that it is fine to talk about your bad times. That you can only grow stronger when you learn to be honest. And, the most important lesson one could learn, that it is an act of self-care and self-respect, proof of generosity, as no one has ever been able to pour into other’s souls from an empty cup.

Confessions of a cat mom

I’ve been a cat lover for as long as I can remember, and I’ve discovered how amazing life with (at least) one cat could be since I was a child. I am and I will always be fascinated by the way they walk, their tiny paws, their ears, and their expressivity.

But living with cats has also taught me a lot of things, some of them pretty unexpected, and their companionship proved itself to be making a difference countless times already. So here it is, the list of the most important things I’ve learned from my cats so far.

  • You’re an individual.

The first thing I’ve ever learned about cats was that they’re not something, they are someone. Someone with clear preferences when it comes to sleep, food, play, and affection. Someone with affinities (or lack of) when it comes to other people or pets. Each cat I’ve ever met had her own individuality and did its best to show you that it won’t allow you to treat her inappropriately.

  • There’s no shame in having boundaries.

Every cat I know has limits, and some very clearly marked ones. She won’t accept your attention anytime you want to, just because you want to cuddle at that very moment. A cat needs her private space and time, and won’t let you cross those limits. This is how I’ve learned to stay aware of other’s limitations while trying my best to accept mine.

  • Stay honest.

Yes, a cat has a strong personality, enjoys a good life, and loves to be respected. But it does all these things naturally, without pretending. A cat won’t pretend to be anything that it’s not. They are only being themselves, regardless of our wishes or opinions.

  • Relaxation must be part of the daily routine.

As I was saying, a cat loves having a good life. And a good life means, from the feline point of view, a routine mixing playtime, sunbathing, walkarounds, and some good naps. Cats will live slowly, with grace and no hurry, finding something worth exploring even in the most ordinary places, and this is by far one of the most important things I have learned from them: that, no matter what, there has to be a little time for relaxing. That time goes by regardless if you’re worrying or choosing to take your mind off that thing that nags you and relax for a while.

  • Empathy is a shortcut that never gets old.

You can do a lot of things to a cat, but hiding your real feelings from it isn’t one of them. Cats simply know when something is going on with their human companion, even if you feel sick, have pains or you’re just having a bad day. They know and they act like it. A cat will come to you on your bad days and will just jump into your lap, stare at you until you cuddle them. And then, they purr, and things happen. It was in my darkest times when my feline friends have given me the most efficient help: they just stood with me until the pain faded away. Patiently, they have been there day after day, months in a row.

Because cats are, more than any other animals, capable of empathy. They understand the value of privacy, but they also understand that bad days are not meant to be transited by oneself. And only in times of mental struggle we, their humans, understand the value of the unconditional love that we’re constantly receiving from them.

I have long ago lost count of the moments when I’ve looked at my cats sitting peacefully by my side and asked myself What if I just take everything easier? before getting the courage needed to try again one more time.

These are some of the most important things my gracious friends taught me, and some of the things I will be the most grateful for. But for the rest of the little things that fill up the days and make them prettier, I will remain a cat mom, knowing that love can be unconditional, but never the trust.

The words that open doors

Photo by Annie Spratt

There are a lot of things going on, as the world as we used to know it fades away and our lives tend to be all over the place. It makes us feel bad about our journey so far, and become self-absorbed, very often in some toxic loops.

In times like these, extremely challenging for our mental well-being, the key to one’s soul is a simple phrase: What do you need right now?

There are six simple words, making a big statement. A common phrase, that doesn’t require you to have years of studying behind you or a specific social status to be successfully used. It requires a simple, yet efficient thing: to have a genuine interest for the other person.

We are forced into change. Changes that were not planned, that were not expected demand to be done. And this means that a lot of people struggle. They struggle with pain, anxiety, high-stress levels, and loss. They lose their jobs, homes, even loved people. It is a generally disturbing time, extended to a global scale. This can’t and won’t be easy to manage, and we can’t expect it to be.

This also means that the struggle can be made easier to go by. It only needs us to be kind. Kind with ourselves and with others around us.  In times of hardship, kindness becomes not a virtue, but a responsibility.

Of course, it takes courage and practice, as we’ve got so, so used to seeing other’s flaws and always have negative inner monologues. But this should change as well, if we want the damage made by a historical challenge to diminish. We can’t help people get back what they’ve lost, we can’t do this for ourselves either, but we can be the ones with kind words.

Today I won’t come and say that this or that should be different, or how to change things about yourselves. Today, instead, I come and tell you to get in the world and be kind.

Kindness has, unfairly and for too long, been mistaken for weakness. It’s not, and has never actually been. It is, somehow, a universal language, the key to any door, regardless of how guarded it would be. Kind people tend, because of their guarded doors, seem as strong too often and for too long. Today, this can do more harm than good, for their own mental health, to begin with.

Do you know those people that help everyone, and seem to have everything together all the time? Those people that walked with you on this path till you got where you are? The people that you keep saying that you’re so grateful to? Talk to them, and ask them that question. Then wait and see. Witness them blush, witness them getting shy, trying to put a reliable façade on, and, eventually, witness them telling you what’s missing from their bigger picture.

Because we all miss something and we all need something, but when you are so used to be the provider, it feels inappropriate to ask for things. Even if you offered support, been there for people when they’ve struggled, you feel like it’s an unnatural thing to do it yourself. Like that’s your job, to support and lift other people. How would you admit that you need, as well, to be lifted and supported? It is, by no means, an easy thing. But it is what one needs to remain able to keep going.

So go out there, and text or call the person that has always been there for you, the one that has already popped in your mind. Ask that person what it feels like it would make her journey easier, better.

The answer will rarely be materialistic. Instead, it will give you the chance to open a new door and see them blooming differently. And this will always be the kind of gift to remember, as our kindness and empathy remain, at the end of the day, signs of our adaptability. So let’s just try to be kinder, so we won’t turn bitter.