In July’s blog, I shared about a season of life I have been facing. Part of getting through this season is addressing the sadness that has crept in, and the issues it presents. Caregiver depression is real.
Will every caregiver get depressed? No. But the statistics are higher than for the average person. Caregiver relatives carry an undeniable amount of pressure. When coupled with the feelings associated with their loved one’s injury, this pressure can become a breeding ground for overwhelming feelings.
We know depression carries a stigma. And like brain injury, those who have not experienced it easily misunderstand it. Part of the darkness of depression is the way it plays out in our daily lives. There has been some shame assigned to depression, making it more difficult to address.
Someone once told me about his depression, “At first I hated the depression for how it made me feel—sad, angry, isolated. And then I hated myself for feeling that way.” That is part of the cycle. If not treated, depression can lead you to an even darker place. Sadly for some, even if treated, it remains present. That doesn’t mean we have to suffer in silence. And it doesn’t mean we plow through it hoping that it vanishes.
Depression (which is profound sadness that doesn’t lift) triggers an array of emotional and physical responses. Part of getting to the other side of depression is learning to recognize the untrue stories that play in our heads. Identifying them does not change the feelings but rather puts merit behind the fact that certain emotions represent untruths.
One of the big lies that repeat in my mind is that I am unwanted; another one is that my sadness has become a burden. If I am not careful, these feelings will not only cause me torment and shame, but will also pull me deeper into the abyss of sadness when I need to be surrounded by the light, warmth, and presence of others. A resounding theme I hear from caregivers is that they feel removed from the inner loop of their lives as if they have become outsiders in their own social circles.
Time and again I have heard from parents, spouses, and others that the shift in their survivor’s relationships has also affected relationships with others and themselves. I have sat with parents who have asked, “How can I help others see how much we need them?” and “How can I regain some semblance of my former self?”
First and foremost, feeling unwanted is not the same as being unwanted. One of the biggest lies that depression speaks is: "You don't matter. No one wants you." If people are intentionally acting in ways that communicate they don't want you in their lives, that needs to be examined, but often those thoughts come from a deep place within ourselves that we need to set straight.
Since Taylor's accident, I've rediscovered deeply rooted feelings of rejection. Watching some of his pain unfold translates to the idea that we (both he and I) are unwanted. For his sake, I must be careful to know when rejection is real or when it is a feeling that presents itself due to my own insecurities or struggles. Oddly enough, I was surprised the first time another parent shared that she felt like disappearing at times and creating a different life because she felt isolated and sad among people who used to be her friends.
How do I put this fire of rejection out? How do I set the record straight? Sometimes I don't, I just feel unwanted. But when I am brave and courageous, I speak up and share with people I trust how my head is spinning a wicked web, and I allow them to speak reassuring things to me.
Our minds are both a beautiful and cruel playground, brain injured or not. Be careful about what you let on that playground, and when your thoughts seem to lean severely in a negative direction, recognize that in painful times, we sometimes think and believe things that are untrue. I recently sat with a dear friend and shared, “I feel unwanted.” Admitting these deep wounds is gut wrenching. But without admitting them, they fester into more agony. I simply won’t allow that.
I am an ordinary person just like you. I think people would be surprised if they knew the depth of sadness I’m experiencing because it is not always there, and I’m not a walking ball of doom and gloom. But depression is part of my make up.
I want to share some tools I have learned from respected professionals. I hope they can help you, too.
- Release the shame you feel about your sadness. Life is not the same for everyone. It took a long time for me to admit I have reasons to be sad and pretending that I don’t doesn’t make those reasons vanish. While we have to be cautious of taking on a victim mentality, it is crucial to avoid shaming ourselves over the things that have occurred in our lives.
- Live life as if you were not depressed. It was explained to me this way. Ask yourself, “What would I be doing today if I weren’t feeling so horrible?” And do it. Normalcy is good.
- Communicate with your physician about your symptoms. And if you don’t find a compassionate response, find a new physician. If possible, see a therapist. (This is not always doable for a caregiver, and I’ve been there, so do what you can.)
- Understand this: depression is NOT a character flaw. And you are not weak because you experience it.
- Some of the best medicine is natural. Intentionally put sunshine, exercise, connection, and healthy habits on your agenda.
And finally, from my heart to yours, your happiness as a caregiver is worth fighting for. It is not only about being your best for the survivor you love, it is about treating yourself the best, too.