Getting Help for Depression and Burnout After Years of Caregiving

Sometimes you don’t realize you’ve been drowning until the moment you’re pulled to safety, gulping fresh air again. Like others who’ve battled depression, I didn’t fully comprehend how dark I felt while muddling through it. 

Even in my darkest moments, I tried to pretend everything was fine. I’d been raised to be strong and capable during a crisis — to count my blessings and refrain from complaining. Never wanting to burden my family or friends, I often hid my pain. And the more I tried to downplay my sadness, the more isolated I felt. 

The terrible sense of drowning began several months after my mother’s death — though I really started losing her seven years before she died. Vascular dementia had changed her personality, making her angry, paranoid, and fearful. The close relationship we’d once enjoyed began to unravel as her disease progressed. By the time Mom died, she was a woman I no longer recognized — and I was depleted by the ongoing stress of her care management. 

Numbing Out

Months afterward, I was still struggling to come to terms with my loss. At first I was numb, and then I talked myself into believing I hadn’t done enough for my mother when she was alive. Having written several newspaper articles on the topic of stress and care-giving, I should have known better. I should have spared some compassion for myself.

Regardless, my outlook plummeted. I began losing interest in the people, things, and creative activities I once enjoyed – even my writing projects. I drifted zombie-like through those days, cooking meals, spending time with my husband, and sorting through my mother’s belongings — all the while feeling as if my own life were an out-of-body experience. 

I pushed myself to socialize then, but all I really wanted to do was hide under a blanket with a book. 

Friends and colleagues who knew me superficially were surprised when I admitted that I was struggling with the blues. Even close friends took it personally when I declined invitations to lunch, dinner parties, or shopping trips. Through it all, I discovered that depression is an uncomfortable topic, and not many people know how to deal with those who suffer from it.  

All said and done, I had nobody but myself to blame for the fact that I didn’t know how to ask for the emotional support I deeply needed then. 

Making Time for Me

Though I was unaware at the time, I was also suffering from physical health problems — including a chronic autoimmune disease. (As my doctor later put it, no wonder I wasn’t feeling so well.) While taking care of my mother, I’d chalked off my scary symptoms to stress, grief, and insomnia. In reality, I was so busy taking Mom to her frequent medical appointments, that I’d neglected to schedule my own check-ups.

After selling my mother’s home, I finally returned to my family doctor for a long-overdue diagnosis, which I now manage with medication and monitoring. I also adopted a beautiful rescue dog who warmed my numb heart and coaxed me outside for daily walks. 

Most important of all, I was advised to seek out a grief therapist to help me sort out the events that had led to my depression. 

Committing to weeks of therapy was only the start of my emotional healing. I had several unresolved issues to work through, from nagging guilt and resentment to unspeakable grief over the deaths of my parents and other family members. I needed to own all of those feelings, rather than stuff them away like unwanted heirlooms in the back of a drawer. 

Finding the Way Back Up

The therapist gave me the permission I needed to put myself first for a while — which felt odd after so many years of managing Mom’s care and trying to please others who had impossibly high expectations of me. I learned that I had a right to express my darkest feelings — and that I wasn’t obligated to make other people feel entertained or happy all the time, or apologize if I wasn’t able to give more than I had. 

“Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy,” writes sociologist and author Brene Brown. “Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” 

As each month passed, I began to feel more like myself — my stronger, more resilient self. 

Today, I stay on top of my medical care, knowing that I can’t be a good wife, mother, or friend if I’m not taking care of my own health too. 

I no longer strive for perfection in everything I do — or believe that I’ve failed if I have a less-than-productive day. I try to let go of all the things I cannot change or reasonably improve. As often as possible, I nurture meaningful relationships with people who make me feel safe enough to ask for what I need, and forgive me when I fall short of what they expect of me. Most of all, I seek to find peace and grace in the years I have left. 

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