What We Don't Talk About Enough When It Comes to Caring for Loved Ones

For six years I have cared for my son and his multiple medical, educational and other special needs. My days revolved around timing this medication, watching that monitor, or attempting to get his spastic limbs to stretch out a little further. Throw three more children into the mix, and there are days when I take literally no time for myself from the moment I wake up to the moment I hit the bed at night, usually in the wee hours of the morning. I did not take care of my own needs, and as a result I suffered.

Depression didn’t just magically come on all at once. I didn’t wake up one day and know I was depressed. It crept up slowly over many years, a little at a time. In retrospect, all the signs were there, but I was unable to see them as I rationalized each complaint. I wasn’t sleeping because I had so much to do, when in reality insomnia frequently stole the few precious hours of sleep I got. I was constantly anxious, but wasn’t that normal when caring for a child who could need medical care at a moment’s notice? I didn’t enjoy things I previously did, or was it merely my hobbies changing with my new lifestyle? I didn’t take care of my own appearance, but hey, new moms are allowed to be a bit messy, right? I mean, I see memes weekly about “new mom hair” and the wardrobe of yoga pants, messy T-shirts and ratty sneakers mothers are supposed to sport. Over time, and I don’t even know when, I realized I was not happy. And I had no clue what to do.

There is great stigma surrounding mental health care in the United States. There seems to be a prevalent idea that you can wish depression away with happy thoughts, or that anxiety is “all in our heads.” That all I needed to do was take a few deep breaths, and all would be well. I feel there is a notion that the medications used to treat depression and anxiety can make us into someone we are not. That they help a person ignore their problems instead of dealing with them. This is far from the truth.

It is time to be realistic. Dr. Stephen Zarit of Pennsylvania State University has stated that between 40 to 70 percent of caregivers are significantly stressed, and about half of these individuals will meet the criteria for major depression. I am one of those individuals. Somehow, during all the days bounding from crisis to crisis, depression crept up on me. When I finally was able to realize what was going on, I felt lost and hopeless and had no clue where to turn. Through the help of my amazing husband, some really supportive friends and an understanding doctor, I was able to get the help I needed. Talk therapy can and really does help, in my experience. I’ve found medication can also be helpful in a person’s recovery. Only a person with depression and their doctor can determine what course of treatment is right for that individual.

With the right treatment, I am back to being myself. I make time to meet my needs. I have learned I cannot effectively take care of anyone else unless my own needs are met. There are still long nights, but now I can sleep when I want to. There are days when I am literally running from morning until night, but I have the energy to do so. I no longer sport the “train wreck” look. I take pride in my appearance and make sure I am eating right and getting enough exercise. With the help of my therapist and my medications, I am me again. I am not “someone else” on psychiatric medication, but rather medication helped me get back what I had lost. It is time to end the stigma surrounding depression, particularly in the caregiver community. We need to stand strong for those we love and care for — but first, we need to take care of #1, ourselves.

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