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What Showing Vulnerability Means When You're a Caregiver

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That is the question! Whether you’re a mom, dad or caregiver, at some point you think: Do I let them see me cry? Many of us vehemently say “NO!” But over the years with life’s challenges including cancer, job loss, depression and anxiety, I have had to revisit this subject.

Some think you never show weakness. Whether that is to protect yourself or the ones you love, I’m not sure. As parents, our instinct is to protect our kids from painful things. Seeing your parent cry can be very painful to the child. But is never seeing your parent cry the way to go?

With two teenagers under my belt I have seen the result of not letting them see you in pain and then having them see you affected. I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at age 39. It was an aggressive kind and I had an aggressive chemo plan, double mastectomy and radiation. I knew my kids were scared so I tried to hide the pain I was in. I wanted to be strong for them. So even though I felt like puking, I’d go to the soccer field to watch my daughter play with her friends. And was there at my sons baptism smiling and laughing.

But one day during chemo, I had a panic attack when my daughter biked to a nearby park to meet friends to play frisbee. I was too sick to get out of bed and couldn’t go with her. I felt myself spiraling out of control, as I thought of all the things that could happen to her. In a mere 60 seconds I imagine that she could be raped, tortured and kidnapped. She was 15 years old and plenty old enough to bike to the park, but I couldn’t stop those horrible thoughts from swirling around in my head! I ended up calling her and crying asking her to just come home. I was so sorry I had to do it, but I literally couldn’t help myself. It felt like I was trying to crawl out of my skin until she was home, safe and sound.

She came in and saw what state I was in and immediately came over to me. I remember hugging her just thankful that my psychotic thoughts did not happen. She realized on that day how vulnerable I was. I told her I knew that what I was thinking was crazy, but I couldn’t help my brain from thinking it. I cried and said I was sorry. She later told me that was the first time she saw me cry.

My daughter is a good, conscientious person, who I am very proud of. So did letting her see behind the curtain help that? I don’t know, but I do know that when my kids saw that things affected me, whether it was sickness or their teenager angsty words, it made them stop and think.

Fast forward to today. I am now caregiver for my parents, one who has Alzheimer’s disease. My dad (who has Alzheimer’s) had a bad day today. We had just gotten back from a family trip and he was all out of whack with his routine. The side effect was major confusion. That made him angry at himself and those around him. He then told my mom and me that he was sick and tired of riding in the back seat and he was going to drive.

Now you have to understand, my dad has always been in control. He was the one everyone could depend on. He was the calm parent to talk to about your problems. Now we weren’t letting him drive his own car. He was getting irritated at my mom and just life. I told him he would not be driving. And to knock it off. My exact words: “the world does not revolve around you.”

Yes, I lost my cool. I knew that would not go over well. He was quiet after that, with fists tightly clenched on his lap. From my peripheral sight I could see him looking straight ahead, trying to keep it together. We pulled into the driveway and I got out and went over to his side. As he got out I said, “Dad, I love you.”

He grumbled an I love you back. I repeated to him, “Dad, I love you.”

And he sort of smiled and said, “I love you too.”

I said a third time, “Dad, I love you.”

And I pulled this once fully ripped former Marine into my arms and could feel every bone. I hugged him tightly, but not too tight so as not to squish him. I wanted to pick him up and run away to a place where he could be who he was before. I felt tears in my eyes and didn’t want him to see, and then I remembered that time with my daughter. And I pulled back and let him see my eyes with a lopsided grin. He looked at me and apologized for how he talked. I told him that life sucked right now, but just as much as it pained him to be this way, it absolutely crushed us, who love him, to see him go through this and not be able to do anything about it. The anger left his body and we hugged again.

After that we went to a local diner and got some great, late-morning breakfast. Things were good again, for the moment. But I thought about how when he saw how his actions affected me, it snapped him out of his fit. It’s not that I wanted my dad to see me sad or feel bad for me, but I feel that sometimes the people who are closest to us need a reminder and see that we are human too. Words hurt just as physical pain hurts and sometimes scar deeper. As a very independent person myself, I can’t imagine how he is feeling, being so out of control of the things happening to him. But I’m still glad I let him see, “behind the curtain of strength,”  just for a moment.

No matter what the situation is, we all need to follow the old adage: “treat others the way you’d like to be treated. So I’m sure we will have more moments like today, but now I’m not afraid to show vulnerability, if just for a moment. To remind those around me, I am human too.

Parents and caregivers, don’t bottle all that hurt inside. Every now and then our loved ones need to be reminded that their actions do not just affect them. They affect all those around them. And even though we understand why they are doing what they are doing, (teenagers with their angst or older parents with their impatience), we don’t need to let them continue that behavior without letting them see it impacts us.

Getty image by m-gucci

Originally published: September 30, 2021
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