In thinking about National Family Caregiver Month, I was reminded of a previous Mothers on the Frontline podcast episode in the Just Ask Mom series, called “Filling up your Cup”. In it Alissa explained the phrase, “my cup runneth over” in a way I needed to hear as a caregiver. “What runneth over is for me to give you, what is in my cup is for me.” She continued: “I have to do my best to keep my own cup full or I’ve got nothing to offer – to my children, to others, to advocacy, to change – I got to do my best to keep myself whole and intact as well, or it does no one any good.” This idea is at the very heart of our work at Mothers on the Frontline, not because we live it, but because we aspire to.
Sometimes when loving and caring for someone with mental illness, it feels like there are holes at the bottom of our cup. During the holiday season, when we are barraged with images of happy families and tranquil moments of joy, those holes can feel vast. There are the practical challenges that use up our ‘juice’: finding care and services, navigating health and school systems not set up to help children like ours. There is the loneliness and isolation that stigma and discrimination places on the child, caregivers, and siblings – more spilled juice. But perhaps the most draining are the cruel comments that come from our child when they are ill and the cruel comments that come from others about our child or family who do not understand what is going on. It can leave us feeling pretty empty, and this emptiness can feel magnified during the “season of giving”.
So what are we to do? In this age when “self-care” has become a marketing slogan for spa packages and beauty products, what does it really mean to care for and love oneself, especially when one’s life is structured around caring for a person with a serious mental health condition? What “self-care” is really available to all of us, no matter our financial situation or the current level of crisis we navigate. In this podcast episode, Alissa mentions five things we can all do:
- Take a deep breath. Breathe out all that you are holding in. Breathe in life and self-love.
- Know “this too shall pass”. Whatever crisis is presenting, it is temporary. I would add that so too are good days -and so here is permission to fully enjoy those good days when they come. They are not times to merely catch up and get things done in preparation for the next crisis. We get overwhelmed by an imagined future laid out in front of us, but the moment at hand is manageable. Stay there and keep breathing.
- Physical exercise. If you are like me, this can be a real challenge. Try to find something doable and enjoyable for you. Whether it is light stretching, a walk outside, etc. Find something that is realistic for you and that feels good. This is not about looking good or fitting into that certain pair of jeans. This is about feeling good in and loving your own body – supporting it so it can support you.
- Taking care of your own mental health needs. We live in community with our families and those under our care. We affect and are affected by each other. There has been significant research into how a mother’s depression or anxiety can affect her child. Recently, researchers are finally starting to ask how a child’s mental health condition can affect their mother’s health. (See this article.) If you can benefit from therapy, medication, support groups, etc., give that gift to yourself. It does not matter whether your mental health needs predate your care giving or were brought about from stresses and traumas associated with care giving: you deserve the support you need to be well.
- “I am on the list too.” In our long to-do lists as caregivers, Alissa reminds us that we are on the list too. This means being intentional about filling our cup. I would like to add that how we do so will depend on our situation and we need to be flexible as our situation changes. But that does NOT mean taking ourselves off the list. Ask, “what can I do for me in this situation?” For me right now it is waking up 30 minutes earlier so I can journal and drink a cup of coffee while it is still hot before my boys wake up. (Seriously, as a mom, drinking a warm drink while it is still hot is a big deal!) This simple thing is not possible in those situations when my son does not sleep due to mania. Then I have to find something else – maybe it is using respite services for an hour so I can drink a hot cup of tea undisturbed at a coffee shop or with a friend. For years while we were on a waiting list for services, there was no respite – then I might have used the brief moments when I took my shower to breathe deeply and intentionally – that might have been all that was available to me. But it was still something that made a difference. All too often, when the situation changed making my previous self-care impossible, I just dropped it, taking myself off the list completely and it always results in an empty cup. This November, let each of us commit to filling our cup, in whatever ways we can, so that it runneth over, nourishing ourselves, our families and our communities.
And if there is a caregiver in your life, in this season of giving, there is no greater gift than helping another fill their cup. Whether it is being present with them in their pain, sending a kind note, or doing what you can to provide them a few minutes to drink their cup while it is still warm, magically that small act (which does not cost a dime) can fill their cup to overflowing.