Nationally published lifestyles journalist Cindy La Ferle wrote to us at BoomerCafé with a story: she had been talking with a boomer friend about the difficulties of caregiving for parents once they need it, and how those difficulties can linger long after the parent (or spouse) is gone. She says she herself battled a “wicked case of depression” a few years ago after her mother died and asked if we’d like to read what she wrote about it. We said yes. Her title is, Overcoming Depression, Finding the Light.
“I felt like my heart had been so thoroughly and irreparably broken that there could be no real joy again, that at best there might eventually be a little contentment. Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life, pick up the pieces and move on, and I tried to, I wanted to, but I just had to lie in the mud with my arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed, grieving, until I didn’t have to anymore.”
~Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions
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.
I knew, of course, that something was off. I wasn’t myself.
And like many others who suffer long bouts of the blues, I tried to pretend everything was fine. I was ashamed of feeling so awful. My parents raised me to be strong during a crisis, to count my blessings and refrain from complaining. Never wanting to burden my family or friends, I often hid my pain. But 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 in frightening ways, making her angry, paranoid, and unhappy. The close relationship we’d once enjoyed began to unravel during those last seven years, slowly breaking my heart 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.
Months afterward, I was still struggling to come to terms with my loss. At first I was numb, and then I guilted 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 caregiving, I should have known better.
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, making beds, 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.
Depression remains a taboo topic. Not many people know how to deal with those who suffer from it.
I pushed myself to socialize then, but all I really wanted to do was hide under a blanket with a book.
If I learned nothing else at the time, I learned the depth— and, sometimes, the limits— of my relationships. Friends and colleagues in my social circles, especially those who knew me superficially, were surprised when I admitted that I was depressed or going through a rough time. “You always seem just fine!” they’d say, then offer little else in the way of comfort or advice. I also discovered that depression remains a taboo topic, and not many people know how to deal with those who suffer from it.
Others took it personally when I declined invitations to lunch, dinner parties, or shopping trips. It’s not that I didn’t have a team of caring friends; I just didn’t have a single one who could read my troubled mind.
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 many medical appointments, that I neglected to schedule my own check-ups. Adding to my own health worries, a basal cell skin cancer on my lower eyelid was waiting for some serious surgical intervention.
Committing to weeks of grief therapy was only the start of my emotional healing.
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. Meanwhile, I adopted a beautiful rescue dog, half-German Shepherd, who warmed my numb heart and coaxed my husband and me outside for daily walks.
Most important of all, I was advised to seek out a grief therapist to help me sort out the feelings that had led to my depression.
Committing to weeks of therapy was only the start of my emotional healing. I had a long list of 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.
I share this post in the hope that my words will speak to the heart of someone else who’s struggling — and who will recognize the message of hope, healing, and possibility in them.
Cindy La Ferle is a nationally published journalist, photographer and author of an award-winning essay collection, “Writing Home.” Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Country Gardens, Victoria, Reader’s Digest, Guideposts publications and several anthologies. She posts daily at Things that make me happy: https://cindylaferlehappythings.blogspot.com.