Love in the Jungle: Caregiving and Mental Health

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“It’s a jungle out there!”

Sharon’s spouse, Robert (Care Receiver), has been managing a depression diagnosis for the past five years. Initially, Sharon denied and put aside her personal needs to care for Robert and run the household. With each passing day, Sharon finds herself trapped in a “Love Jungle.”

In the morning I enter a forest thick with pressure and uncertainty. As I tread through the intricate maze of frustrations, responsibilities and Robert’s moods, I wonder if I am coping at all. It’s hard to believe he will get better, and harder still to imagine he may get worse. By the end of the day I feel exhausted, mentally drained and emotionally burdened, like I’ve trudged into a tangled tropical landscape. My needs are remote and seem undefined compared to his. My head lingers in the fantasy that the world I knew before mental illness will vanish. We suddenly walk through a meadow on a sunny day. I try hard to ignore that perilous place of my beautiful past because it only makes me angry and bitter. Will I ever leave the jungle? Will my partner be normal again? Will I return to normal?

Dealing with a Loved One's Mental Illness Is Tricky Terrain.

If we look at the whole life picture for Sharon and Robert, we see the situation as bleak and dark. We shut our eyes and beg for a happy ending. Yet millions of mental health caregivers have no “off switch.” Their role as caregivers is intricately woven into their identity. The key to coping with mental illness is an open mind and a willing heart.

New definitions of caregiving are literally around the corner, like it or not. As the care receiver evolves within the illness, there must also be room for the caregiver to navigate the tricky terrain. The caregiver must not be left alone to ruminate about the past and worry about the future.

Coping Techniques

With the help of a trusted friend, Sharon creates two rituals focusing on recovery - one for herself and one for herself with Robert. Each day she sets her phone timer at 9:00 a.m. Robert knows this special time. He hears the timer go off as a signal for quiet. Sharon’s ritual includes:

  1. Writing down her self-care priority for the day and posting it where she sees it often. Upon completion she can throw it away. The act of doing one thing for herself gives Sharon a good feeling.

  2. Running through the Recovery Checklist. If Sharon finds herself in two or more areas of strain, she commits to action steps.

The Recovery Checklist- Part 1

Am I escaping or offering presence?

Sharon’s heart is hurting for Robert. She cannot make him better and this realization is overwhelming to her.

Sharon’s heart is hurting for Robert. She cannot make him better and this realization is overwhelming to her.

Sharon admits that drifting-off into space happens a lot. She doesn’t want to be home all the time. She gets on her phone and checks out her friends on social media who seem to lead normal lives. Her recovery plan means she limits time online and tries to stay in the moment. Sharon puts on fun clothes and makeup to feel like herself again. She texts a friend who reminds her she is okay and to remain in the moment.

Am I helpless or hopeful?

Ever since Robert's depression kicked into high gear, Sharon has no idea if she can discuss it with friends and family. It’s not easy to tell her story. She fears people will grow tired. Sharon writes out a list of friends with whom she can share her joys and difficulties as a caregiver. She also tracks down a local support group to get her out of the house twice a month to help tap into her hopeful side.

Am I empty or energized?

When Sharon feels depleted, she knows it’s time to ramp things up. She converted a room in the house into the “Play Room.” She has a drum, music player, a board with favorite quotes, pictures of happy memories, water bottles and granola bars. On a notepad she writes down what she wants to leave behind, such as a bad attitude or annoyance. Then she selects an energy booster and focuses on lifting herself up.

Am I full of silence or wellspring of stories?

Sharon sometimes wanders through periods of uncomfortable silence. The heaviness of caregiving has taken an emotional toll. The jungle trail is rife with guilt, grief, shame, doubt and other dangerous edges. Before she reaches a crisis moment, Sharon reaches out to an online group that offers real-time compassion and guidance. Members encourage each other to describe their caregiving journey, and to acknowledge difficulties with major loss and change.

Am I trampled or transformed?

Sharon hears “caregiver burnout”, yet it has taken time to absorb how easily it creeps in and dampens her spirits. Sharon tells herself she can’t fix everything and to slow down. Then she heads to the playroom to review the dream board featuring ideas for classes, vacations and hobbies. She selects one idea and tries to imagine how she can realize it. Having something to look forward to provides hope and helps to avoid caregiver fatigue.

The Recovery Checklist- Part 2 - A Love Jungle is Full of Life

Focus on love

The day begins with Sharon and Robert taking time to read their Couple Commitment out loud:
“We are big-hearted, sensitive, responsible and well-intentioned. We take deep satisfaction in taking care of each other in small ways. We accept - not judge - each other for our strengths and weaknesses. We seek to solve problems, not let problems find us. We strive to listen to and be grateful for each other.”

If Robert is too tired or disengaged, Sharon recites the Couple Commitment for him.

Laugh out loud

If a day is particularly trying, Sharon puts on music and dances around the house. Sometimes Robert joins her. They may watch a funny movie in the Play Room if Robert has the energy.

Be daring

Caregiving requires courageous effort. It is daring to love despite the constant demands and intense encounters deep in the jungle. To embrace the lessons in caregiving allows tales of warmth, bravery and heroism to appear in the ordinary.