Carer . . . You may think this term implies solely supporting one person, but carers are also connected to a larger family dynamic. As such, carers often find themselves embroiled in complex situations.
We're frequently stomping out fires - in a state of perpetual conflict resolution - in order to keep the family stable and maintain a healthy equilibrium for all.
The impact of mental illness on family is enormous. Each member has a different relationship. Everyone has a different level of understanding, tolerance and compassion.
It's not unusual for siblings to feel anger, frustration and resentment. For a grandparent to feel fear and anxiety. Or for a partner to exhibit signs of stress and burnout. Disharmony is a possibility if people's needs are always a second priority, or not considered at all. Without proper management this can escalate and complicate an already complicated situation.
The impact on family life stretches far and wide. Activities become limited and lifestyles are compromised. You may not be aware of it, but caring for someone has a pervasive influence on daily life. Finding a 'healthy' balance is hard.
As a carer of a young adult son a considerable amount of my time is dedicated to his mental illness. I also have a daughter who quite rightly feels that her brother is receiving all the attention. From time to time she exhibits her resentment of this. I have an aged mother that lives in the same household who cannot grasp the concept of mental illness, she also accuses me of never having time for her.
The truth is that they're both right. I do not share my time equally. The little spare time I have is spent tending to essential activities and trying to get some 'me time'. The role of carer takes centre stage.
Research shows that people are psychologically better-off when they feel less affected by their sibling's mental illness. It stands to reason that this same rationale would befit every member of the family.
So how do we find that happy place? A place where we provide care and manage a happy household?
Being aware of imbalances is the first step. Taking time to reflect on how your time is spent and identifying imbalances that exist can alert you to areas that require more work.
Our fast and complex lives often make us reactive, doing what we have to do, never stopping to be present or reflective.
Take time out to be honest with yourself and ask questions such as 'When was the last time I did something with my daughter?' or 'When did hubby and I last have some quality time together?'.
Being mindful of these things gives you the opportunity to change. Just as you can make time to do grocery shopping, you need to consciously make time for your family members. This can be as simple as sitting together watching TV, or planning a future date for an activity.
Involving family members and keeping them informed via open discussion can reduce resentment and increase understanding. If you speak openly about what is going on, and you share your feelings, you are bringing your family into your world.
Family members living in the same household deserve to know how things are going. I have a bad habit of shielding family from the truth because I'm trying to protect them and don't want to create unnecessary concern.
I don't like to tell them that he is threatening suicide, has self-harmed, or hates the world. Although this certainly shields them, they won't know why I'm short-tempered, anxious, emotional or just needing solitude.
The more informed other members are, the more they will accept the limitations you have. It's OK to say 'I'm sorry I can't do that right now because he's in crisis today and that's my priority' or 'I can't do that because there's a doctor's appointment this afternoon'.
Being open in your communications also makes you a role model to follow.
Be kind to yourself
It is important to remember that nobody is perfect. Despite trying our hardest, it's impossible to meet everyone's needs.
Caring for someone with a mental illness is hard work and not for the faint-hearted. Instead of feeling down about what you can't do, praise yourself for what you are doing. Understand that you have limitations and you will never be everything to everyone.
Most importantly, allow time for self-care. Our well-being is essential. You can't keep everything afloat if you're not well yourself. Our strength, resilience and well-being is what keeps our families united and strong. Don't feel guilty for isolating yourself. It's normal and healthy.
Being a carer is an ongoing test and has a profound effect on our lives. But somehow we do it. We often become the glue that holds an entire family together. We should never underestimate our worth or think we're inadequate or neglectful. We are beyond strong. We are self-sacrificing, compassionate, understanding human beings with a heart that embraces everyone.