Put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping others. That safety warning has taken on a whole new meaning for me since I started caring for a loved one experiencing mental ill health. It started back in 2016 when someone very close to me had a mental breakdown. They have been in treatment since and, in many ways, we’ve both been on a journey ꟷ my loved one learning to manage their mental ill health, and me as a caregiver.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought mental health to the fore and I wanted to share my story to help contribute to ending the stigma that unfortunately still exists. Today, I’ve realised that being vulnerable doesn’t make you weak; on the contrary ꟷ being open about what you’re experiencing and then asking for help shows courage and is also one of the most important steps in supporting your own wellbeing.
My caregiving journey
Let me start by saying that being a caregiver was definitely not on my resumé to begin with! I really had no clue where to start and found that talking to someone experiencing mental ill health was like talking to someone speaking a different language.
My first instinct was to try and solve the problem – reading books, attending courses, and looking for medical help. But trying to ‘deploy a solution’ in the way I’d solve a professional challenge didn’t work. Real life was unpredictable and day-to-day situations could vary. I felt hurt and drained.
There’s also a lot of conflicting advice out there so it was hard to know the best way to move forward. I felt like I had no control and as though I’d ‘failed’ at home, which led me to throw myself into my work. I became more of a perfectionist; I didn’t want to be seen as ‘weak’ or underperforming so I worked harder and harder. Deep down I feared I wasn’t good enough and this feeling of being an imposter made me hypersensitive to even constructive criticism. I would cry at any moment and, after this happened at lunch with colleagues, I started to eat alone and withdraw.
This wasn’t healthy or sustainable. Something had to give – and so I reached for my own oxygen mask to improve my wellbeing so as to benefit those around me. I joined a carer support group where I was able to share my experience with other people who have gone through something similar. This helped me to know that I wasn’t alone.
The second most important thing I did was to start to forgive myself. I blamed myself for ‘allowing’ my loved one to become ill, for not noticing quickly enough, or for worrying that the treatment I’d chosen wasn’t right.
These steps helped me to prioritise self-care and taking time to do things that supported my own wellbeing such as exercise, listening to podcasts, or going to church. I also write a gratitude journal every day to help me focus on the good things that have happened – even something as small as someone holding the door, a remote friend checking in, or an inspiring quote. I put all of them in my journal – it helps me look back at the happy moments.
In some ways, I’m grateful for my experience as it helped change my outlook on life. It helped me understand that it’s ok not to be ok. It helped bring my family closer and understand each other better.
If I could send a message to myself in 2016 it would be this: Ask for help sooner. Be patient as, even if you find a treatment that works, recovering from mental ill health can take time. Be persistent. Recovering can feel like taking one step forward and two steps back. You need to celebrate the small improvements and don’t give up. Be passionate – I use this word because recovery is full of joys and tears. Being a caregiver calls for unconditional love and being able to separate the illness from the person.
Everyone’s journey and experience is different but being a caregiver for someone experiencing mental ill health isn’t easy – we need peace of mind so let’s support each other and not be afraid to ask for help.
Rebecca Lai, Deloitte China
Deloitte’s mental health story series aims to break down barriers to talking about mental health. It is not intended to – and does not – offer advice nor substitute professional mental health support. If you are experiencing mental ill health or are concerned about someone else’s mental health, please contact your national or local helpline or healthcare provider for support.