When I was younger, I never imagined that there would be a time in my life where I would be the one giving advice, support and guidance to one of my parents. It never crossed my mind that the tables could be turned, and that I would no longer be the receiver of directions on how to cope with life but be the giver of those directions. I’ve always been a giver- particularly to my friends, and those I love, this has been both a blessing and a curse in my life. It comes very naturally. My chosen career is based on giving. However, I’ve never given to my own parent before what I feel I am giving now. I’ve always tried to give love, respect and transparency to my parents, but I haven’t ever given advice on how to cope with the world that I have much less experience with than they do.
I was the first person in my immediate family to experience illness with my mental health. I guess that kind of meant that I was the most knowledgeable with it, yes? My parents both were there during the most haunting times in my life, and they both cared for me and tried their very best to help me through my recovery. So when my own parent started to struggle with their mental health, why did I find it so distressing to reciprocate the unconditional and undeniable affection that they so willingly and selflessly gave me? There’s a lot of guilt on my part, wishing I could do more. I feel I should be able to be the person for them, that they were for me. However, for some reason the whole idea of me looking after them and supporting them during their own emotional difficulties feels very unnatural and uncomfortable for me.
When I hear “Dais, how do you cope with…”, or “Have you ever felt this way before?”, I do try my upmost hardest to be present for them, attempting to give them the authenticity that they have always given me. I go through techniques I have learnt in my years of therapy, I try to think back to what I would have wanted to hear; but for some reason it always sounds so fake coming out of my mouth. When I hear their breathing pace increasing, I can recognise the fear of not understanding why it’s happening, not understanding what has triggered it, and not knowing how to deal with it. All I manage is a simple “Are you okay? Can I do anything?”, and when they respond with “I’m fine”, (despite knowing that fine literally stands for: Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional), a lot of the time, I just leave it there. If this was a close friend however, I know I would scoop them up in my arms, practice square breathing with them and try and take their mind off things. Why do I find this so difficult with a family member?
Frustration and impatience is also something I’ve found that comes with having a parent who is sick. I find getting annoyed at their behaviours, that are so clearly being controlled by the illness they are suffering from, is more common than not. It’s weird because I know their behaviour is part of their illness, and not part of them. I literally preach this every day. You are not your illness. You are NOT your illness. Your behaviours are a symptom of your illness. But yet here I am getting irritated that they’re feeling anxious, again. That they’re struggling to get out of bed, again. That they’ve missed work and haven’t spoken a word all day, again. I know my irritability actually comes from a place of fear and a place of grief for the person they once were. I’m scared that they’ll never recover, scared that nothing is working. I hate that my fear comes out in anger, and frustration but I’ve just got to accept that this is how my brain copes with things.
I know I’m not the only person that struggles with having a parent who is mentally unwell, so I am aware that how I feel isn’t totally uncommon. While at university I am doing everything, I can. I know it’s impossible to pull my parent into a tight hug, because physically, they are over 300 miles away. Realistically, all I can do while at university is encourage therapy (because therapy is a God send), remind them that it’s okay to ask for an increase or decrease in medication, and be there to listen over the phone. It’s a case of reminding myself that sometimes the best therapy is just a listening ear. I’m not going to have all the answers, and why should I? Afterall, I am not a therapist. I didn’t expect to, and nor do I expect to recover from my own battles with mental health merely by relying on the support from my parents. I know I got through most of my battles by talking things through with someone qualified.
The guilt of not being able to do more is always going to be there. The guilt of being frustrated with their mental illness will also haunt me for as long as it continues. I think the uncomfortable feeling of giving the support will also always be there, but it’s about reminding myself that being uncomfortable is just that. A feeling.