Picture this: 11 weeks stuck in your bedroom after a complicated five-hour ankle surgery. Two metal rods and 20 screws later, you cannot walk. You just hop on your right foot to the bathroom, then back to bed. At the same time, the incessant banging of your major home renovation goes on all day long. Meals are brought to you in bed. You have to ask every time you want something, even just a glass of water.
How are you feeling? Trapped, secluded, isolated. To sum it up in one word: depressed.
That was my mother’s life for more than four months. In that time period, she suffered from three acute episodes of depression. It’s also something that she’s been conquering most of her adult life.
How am I feeling now? Worried.
I am not a doctor, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on issues of mental health. Instead, I hope to share my experiences of caring for my mother when she was conquering her recurring episodes of depression.
My mother never wants to be a burden to me. She doesn’t want me to carry her baggage for her, but instead to hold her hand.
Her depression isn’t always there, but it’s never fully gone. Like stars in the night sky, sometimes you see them and sometimes you don’t. But regardless, they’re always there.
People who don’t have depression don’t truly understand how painful it is. I will admit, I don’t understand how painful it is either. I have never suffered from mental health issues.
The symptoms are mainly invisible. In my mother, I notice small changes in her mood and her reactions to comments from my father, friends and me. She says that people with depression feel the pressure to act “normal.” Positive feelings for the person may be inaccessible.
When I would leave her to go to my university classes, I would wonder if she would be there when I got back. That uncertainty gnawed at me, played with my emotions, filled my arms with baggage I couldn’t carry and made my heart feel heavier than usual. That’s when I realized that I needed to take a moment for myself. Taking care of yourself may be the hardest part. It’s hard to leave the person you love when they’re dealing with depression, but sometimes taking even an hour to do something you enjoy can give you a better perspective on the situation.
You may even feel like you do not want to be around that person but, in that moment, you have to choose to stay. It’s more important to be a good listener than to try and give advice. It’s never easy comforting someone when they confide in you that they are feeling depressed.
Also, we need way more services for caregivers. The focus with many mental health awareness campaigns has been on ending the stigma of mental health. There is a gap in services for the families, the friends and the primary caregiver. It’s more worrying to care for someone with depression than to care for someone with a broken ankle.
Why are we better at handling physical caregiving than mental caregiving? Physical caregiving is more predictable. There is an end. The broken ankle heals. Mental caregiving is more volatile. There is no end in sight. The mind cannot be put back together with screws, pins and rods.
Mental caregivers don’t want to accidentally say or do something that results in the person they are caring for taking their life. That was one of the things I struggled with more times than I can count. Wondering, “Did I say something wrong?” or “Am I just making things worse?” It’s too easy to find yourself thinking, “Can’t they just get over it?”
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Canada states that mental health care in Ontario is underfunded by about $1.5 billion. The economic burden of mental illness in Canada is estimated at $51 billion per year. This includes health care costs, lost productivity and reductions in health-related quality of life. That being said, while my mum had her broken ankle, she only took two weeks off from teaching her university students. My father, her best friend or I took her to her classes in a wheelchair. Working did provide a routine, something stable.
I want to leave you with the hope that more research will be done into looking at caregivers of people with mental health issues. I also hope, if you are caring for someone that you love, you love them more everyday and make room to do something for yourself.