I am excited and honored to end this Caregivers in the Spotlight month with a post from Kathleen Nelson Troyer. Kat and I met through a mutual friend not long after I relocated to the Bay Area. I admire her work, her path and her courage. I am grateful and humbled that Kat agreed to share her story about mental illness and addiction from the perspective of her numerous caregiver roles. In the midst of it all, she learned some very important things about the need for self care strategies and she shares them here with you.
Self Care Strategies for the Caregiver
I was pleased to write a Caregivers guest post for Far From Paradise. I respect and appreciate the work that Amy is doing around pulling the covers back and bringing mental illness out in the open. It is time to transform the shame and stigma that is associated with mental illness.
I grew up in a family with mental illness and addiction. My mother suffered from alcoholism and low -grade depression. My sister is bipolar. My sister’s oldest daughter is schizophrenic.
When I was 8, my mother got sober and maintained her sobriety for the rest of her life. Being the youngest in the family, Mom brought me with her to AA speakers meetings and exposed me to the best of the popular psychology and self help books from the 70’s and 80’s. Mom’s choice to transform her addiction to alcohol showed me at a young age that change was possible. It might not be easy, but it is possible.
I was 10 the first time my older sister (then 21) had a psychotic break. I became the primary caretaker for my 3 year-old niece when my sister was hospitalized in an intensive treatment program for a month. I will never forget the blank look my sister had in her eyes before she went in the hospital that first time. Most of her hospitalizations occurred after a period of insomnia that led to psychotic episodes that usually resulted in her ending up in that catatonic like state. There is a haunting emptiness that you can see in her eyes before she gets treatment.
Over the next 35 years there were about a dozen psychotic breakdowns and subsequent hospitalizations along with a repeated Bipolar I diagnosis. I could feel my sister’s fear and her shame and tried to discuss her illness with her on several occasions. The diagnosis was denied and ignored for years. The denial showed up in the form of deflecting, often accompanied by lies and projections. Fear and shame can be paralyzing and devastating to a family.
Navigating through my sister’s illness has been challenging, but in my heart I know that it is much easier to be a relative and/or caregiver than the person afflicted with the mental illness.
As I thought about a topic for this article, self-care kept bubbling up. It is so important for caregivers to practice self-care. Below is a list of some key things you can do to support yourself as a caregiver. This list is not by any means an exhaustive list. These are simply some of the things that have helped my family to navigate through the mental health jungle:
- Put your own oxygen mask on first. Do what you need to do to stay healthy. If you do not take care of yourself you will not be able to help to take care of your loved one.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep is essential to staying healthy. Make it a priority so you can stay healthy and be of service to your loved one.
- Nourish your mind, body and spirit. Try to eat nourishing and nutritious food, maintain a regular exercise routine and have some kind of daily practice to support your spirit. Even 5 minutes a day in silence can help you to keep yourself grounded, centered and present.
- Schedule time for yourself, especially if you are a full time caregiver. Time for yourself may require that you get someone else to be a caregiver during the time you are away. You deserve time for yourself. Your needs matter.
- Educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about your loved one’s mental illness.
- Be an advocate. Know your loved one’s doctor and stay involved in the treatment plan. It is essential that your loved one knows they have someone they can rely on to be their advocate. If the mentally ill person has children, be an advocate for them too.
- Ask for help. When my sister accepted her diagnosis two years ago, my family called 211 which is a county resource line for healthcare and housing. It is a good place to start. Share your challenges with your trusted friends and ask for help. Mental Illness affects so many people. You may be surprised to find out that someone you are close to has someone close to them who is suffering from mental illness. Knowing that you have support will help you immensely.
- Try to keep judgments in check. This has been one of the most challenging lessons for me because of the repeated crisis situations and cumulated lack of trust. One day a few years ago, during a challenging time with my sister, a few questions presented themselves to me while I was writing in my journal. What if my sister was experiencing the exact lessons that she came here to learn? Who was I to judge her choices and predicaments? And how could I expect her to be honest with me, when she was not being honest with herself? These questions help me to release judgments that don’t serve my sister or myself. When the judgments are released, it is much easier to access love. Love is a powerful healer.
- Know your Boundaries. Know what you are willing to do and what you are not willing to do to support your loved one. This can be very challenging for caregivers. If you do not practice good boundaries, you may get depleted, exhausted and your judgment may be adversely impacted.
- Speak your truth. Don’t be afraid to say what you need and share your experiences. Being a caretaker is challenging and you deserve to have support. Speaking your truth helps to create an environment that will pull back the covers on mental illness.
Kathleen Nelson Troyer works with both individuals and businesses as a Transformational Coach, Trainer, Retreat Leader and Organizational Consultant. Kat has been working with clients for over twenty years, empowering them to transform their lives, careers and businesses.
A lifelong learner, she enjoys seeking out new modalities for personal and professional growth, healing and transformation. Kat is the author of The Gently Moving Forward Guide to Inner Wisdom, which is currently released exclusively to her newsletter subscribers.