I have this friend I’ve known almost forever. Seriously. The only people we’ve known longer than each other is our birth families.
We’ve gone through a lot together. Some of it we’ve shared and some of it we spent on the sidelines watching the other go through stuff we couldn’t really touch, maybe not even comprehend or understand, but we stood by in silent (and sometimes not-so-silent) camaraderie, just in case we were needed.
She was the child taunted on the playground. She’s endured some things I can’t go into here because it’s no one’s business except to know that it was hell. She challenged herself in nursing school and turned into a damn fine nurse, thank you very much. She bore the stigma of being a single mother. (Doesn’t sound like much, now that it’s so prevalent, but this was nearly 20 years ago when there were plenty of people – usually related to you – who had no trouble looking down their nose at an unwed mother.) By the way, she’s raised this child of hers to be an intelligent, articulate, upstanding human being. My friend was self-aware enough to look back on her own childhood and say, “THIS I keep, and THIS is something I want never to repeat,” and took on motherhood with a proactive spirit not often seen. She’s suffered losses and grievances, celebrated successes and joys. In some respects, I guess you could call her just an everyday Jane sort of woman – doing her best to get by.
But as long as I’ve known her, she’s been fighting this shitty little demon voice inside her head that tells her she’s worthless. It’s lying, of course, but reinforcement through the years has made her believe it. Logically she knows it’s crap. She’ll even tell you so. But emotionally, that rodent voice has its teeth in her and wants to keep gnawing, making her bleed even when life is pretty good. (On the days when it’s not so good, it bites until she hemorrhages.)
To her credit, my friend recognized how bad things had gotten, how far down a black road she had traveled. She understood that the longer she waited to get help, the harder it would be to come back. So she found a therapist. This isn’t the first one she’s gone to, but I honestly think she’s finally found one who will teach her the tools she needs to work through her shit, rather than pretend to give a damn and then charge her $80 (or more) for the privilege of listening to her for a 40-minute hour. (Don’t even get me started on that little bit of fuck-you wordage. It’s either an hour or it isn’t. Don’t pretend it’s one when it’s the other.)
She called me recently to ask a favor. Her therapist wanted her to ask three people close to her to write a list of her strengths, which they would then mail to her and she would open during her next session with him. Would I do that? You betcha! Me being me, though, I wasn’t content with merely writing 10 words on a piece of paper and shoving it in an envelope. I know this woman, remember. I know how her brain works. And I knew that a word would just be a word (and she’d come up with all sorts of reasons to refute it) if I didn’t say why I thought she possessed that particular strength, and explain it in such a way that it would be obvious even to her. Three pages later, I mailed her ten strengths.
She says it was a good session, but she doesn’t go into more detail than that except to add that she and her therapist got a good chuckle over my contribution. “This is my friend,” she told him. “She’s a writer. She can’t just write a list.” Ah, she knows me so well.
Why am I tell you this? Because I think we all need some outside affirmation from time to time. Not from just anyone, but from those who know us best and like us despite ourselves. Those who have seen our warts and know that – even at our shittiest – we really are doing the best we can.
That idea rings particularly true among caregivers. We try – we really do try – to be good and noble and thoughtful and patient and all those things we’re supposed to be. But sometimes we just can’t. We don’t have the strength or the energy or the self-esteem to put one foot before the other and slog through the day. Sometimes we’re mean. Sometimes we wish the person we’re caring for would just die so this could all be over. Sometimes we wish another disease would come along and hasten the job. We think all kinds of things. (Most of which we don’t – at heart – really mean beyond the moment that’s inspired it. Except when we do.) And we hate ourselves for it. And that imp voice inside us, the one we all have, the one that tears us down when we most need building up, grabs onto that emotion and runs with it, spewing black thoughts like confetti.
How to stop? Take a page from my friend. Find someone you trust. Could be one person, could be three. Whatever works for you, but they have to be someone who genuinely wants to help, someone who will be honest rather than complimentary. Have them write a list of your strengths. Maybe they’ll only write one or two. Maybe they write dozens. (Though I’d find that suspicious.) But have them write them down and mail them to you. Then find yourself some time – 10 minutes on the toilet, 20 in the shower, during a commute, during a walk around the block you desperately need so you don’t brain the person you’re caretaking – and read one. Read it again. And again. Take the words in and believe them. Don’t argue with them. Don’t say “You don’t know squat.” Don’t start elucidating all the ways in which they’re wrong. Remember – this is not YOUR viewpoint of you, it’s THEIRS. It’s their truth. They believe the words they wrote. And if someone sees you in that good light, maybe – even for a second – you can find a way, too.