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I could have titled this post “Taking Care of The Caregiver” or “Why a Caregiver Needs to Take Care of Herself.” But you’ve seen those blogs before. And don’t get me wrong, they are important. But this one isn’t about yoga, or meditation, or respite, or support groups. It’s a cautionary tale of what almost happened to Mom and me, and why you should make sure it doesn’t happen to you or your loved ones. It’s also my own personal soapbox about mental and emotional health. The two intersect in a way that will become apparent.
Why the Soapbox?
I had a long conversation yesterday with a friend who is considering the possibility of medication to battle mood swings. He turned to me for advice, knowing that I take an antidepressant. He was very careful about how he broached the subject, not wanting to offend me or ask too personal a question about my mental health. He needn’t have worried. I have no shame of my illness because that is exactly what it is—an illness. Like any other. But he got me thinking about where I was a few years ago, and how I came so close to ruining Mom’s life. And how I managed to not ruin her life, and in turn, saved my own. Here’s the story, and it starts way back in 1997.
When I was twenty-nine, I stood looking down off my third-floor balcony wondering if three floors were enough to kill me. I obviously determined that they were not. But I also asked myself just why the fuck I was thinking about leaping off a balcony? I had zero reason to be depressed, no earthly reason to want to be dead. I had a well-paying job that was fun as hell. I had a wonderful circle of friends. I was dating an amazing guy. I was spending lots of time in San Francisco. I had an awesome apartment with views off that third-floor balcony of verdant Burlingame, the San Francisco Bay, and Mount Diablo. I was debt free.
I had it all, and I should have been happy. But I wasn’t. I was miserable. I wanted to die. And no one knew because I could cover it up pretty well. I was an expert, after all. I had been covering up my illness my entire life.
It was that day on that balcony, the closest I had ever come to committing suicide, that a small sane part of my brain told me to get help. Journaling, partying, sex, hiking, poetry, reading about depression, therapy—none of them were enough. I needed medication, maybe for the rest of my life.
So that’s what I did and miracle of miracles, my depression left like a lousy roommate I kicked to the curb. My doctor weaned me off the meds after three years, and for about a decade, I was cured, always aware that that crappy roommate might come back looking for his stuff someday.
Well, of course the asshole came back, and in 2008 I went back on the meds, happily. The same low dose I had been on before, and I thought everything was fine. But in retrospect—which is always 20/20—I know now I was anything but fine.
Maybe It’s You
In 2014, an old friend, that amazing guy I had been dating in 1997, stopped by my place in Santa Fe on his cross-country trip back to California. By this time, I had been fired twice, and in about a year, I’d be fired again. My life was a train-wreck about to be hit by another train. But I absolutely could not see it. Bad things had been happening to me for ten years. That’s when he said simply, “Maybe it’s you.”
He had never pulled any punches with me. The only guy I ever dated who had never lied to me. But I was still in denial. My low-dose antidepressant was doing its job, and I was just surrounded by assholes. I couldn’t yet see that bad things were happening to me because of me.
By the time Mom was diagnosed with dementia a year or so later, I had been fired again, and I had moved to Florida. And I was seriously clinically depressed. And I had this person who needed me desperately and completely. I was doing a shit-job of taking care of myself. How the hell was I supposed to take care of her?
I didn’t have a choice, and here’s the tidbit for you and yours. Although Mom had done all the right paperwork to plan for this event—durable power of attorney, medical surrogate, living will—the one mistake she made was that I was (and am) her one and only, sole POA. Just me. Except I was a mess, and I would get worse in very short order.
See, in Florida, and likely most states, when a person (principal) has designated only one POA, if that POA is unwilling or unable to carry out her duties, the principal, if deemed incompetent, as Mom had been, goes into guardianship. Once a person is deemed incompetent, they can’t change their POA, either. If I couldn’t get my collective shit together, the courts would decide what would happen to Mom. I could fall down, but I sure as shit could not stay down.
TERRAIN – PULL UP – TERRAIN – PULL UP
I’m an introvert in a family of extroverts. Without getting too deep into the differences between the two, decision-making for each group is like this:
Extroverts—Let’s do it!
Introverts—Let’s think about it….
So there I was, already depressed and rapidly becoming extremely suicidal again. Mom was in need. Everyone had an opinion. But I was the one with ALL the responsibility. All the pressure was on me. And I was fucked up three ways from Sunday.
It was like being in a cockpit with every warning light and alarm going off at once. The small sane part of my brain was in the right seat saying, “If you just block out all the alarms, you can take the yoke, and bring her in for a perfect three-point landing.”
But the great big crazy part of my brain was in the left seat, and all it wanted to do was slam my eyes shut, cover my ears, roll into a ball, and go down with the craft.
Getting Her on the Ground in One Piece
An old pilot joke is any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. I didn’t stick a perfect three-point landing. But I didn’t rattle anything off the plane, either. I let myself get talked into some bad, although well-intentioned, choices for Mom. But I also made the best choice to up my dosage, doubled it in fact. I’m not depressed. I’m not suicidal. I’m healthy again. I’ve accepted that my train wreck was my own doing. And I am capable of being there for Mom in all the right ways.
So here’s the dual-purpose of this cautionary tale:
- When deciding who will be responsible to take care of you or your loved ones when and if the time comes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Make sure you assign either a co-power of attorney or secondary and even tertiary. It doesn’t have to be depression that wipes out your intentions if that one person you trust the most “falls down” for whatever reason.
- If you think you are ok, but your life is just a shit-storm, you might not be ok. Don’t hide it. Don’t be ashamed of it. Don’t be afraid to get help. You are not invincible. And if someone you trust tells you, “Maybe it’s you.” —believe them.
Music—Third Eye Blind