They say that in life you can be certain of two things – death and taxes. I am not too sure of this. Think Amazon. Personally, I think that in life, we can be certain of two things – big wahala and small wahala. Wahala means trouble/problems/worries in Yoruba, the language of my heart.
This wahala that I am talking about, no-one is immune from. For some, they live life with plenty wahala and for others, wahala comes from time to time but nothing serious enough to fracture the rhythm of their lives. For some, wahala is neither visible nor made visible/public and for others, wahala is made public by force or by choice. To each their own wahala and their own level of wahala.
But whatever the nature of the wahala, you’d better pray that when it comes, there is someone by your side to help you or support you through it.
For me personally, I am forever indebted to the people that have helped me through the last 10 years of wahala and without whom I may not be here today.
But this week, a few things happened which got me thinking about those that step in to the breach or come to our aid when we are in trouble – whatever the nature of those troubles.
Because I blog mainly about mental health issues, I choose to focus on those who support me through my mental health struggles but this post is aimed at all who provide emotional or physical support to others.
The unsung heroes in my life
I am so fortunate to have had my brother by my side forever, but particularly over the past year, to help me through the process of refeeding. He has done so much to encourage me with food and to help me with my mood. I owe him a lot and I cannot thank him enough though he would probably tell me that ‘you don’t thank your own’.
I am also fortunate to have family members who try even when they don’t understand and who encourage me even when they have run out of words. I appreciate every one of them.
I know that my own struggles took its toll on them. I knew this at the the time but felt unable to get better. I definitely felt and feel guilt about what I put them through but I also know that people don’t choose to be mentally unwell and I am grateful that my family did not make me feel guilty or bad. I don’t know how much support they needed or received but I know it was not easy for them. I know there are some eating disorder units that provide support for family members but think this is perhaps provided more for family members whose loved ones are in residential or daycare facilities. I hope this changes.
Friends have also been a key to me getting to the ‘recovering’ stage. When I find/ have found myself Upshit Creek, I am thankful for their encouragement.
I am thankful for those who knew me before they knew my problems and I am thankful that they know that I am more than my problems. I am thankful for the laughter we share and that I am in their lives and they in mine. They love and have loved in deed not solely in words.
Finally, I am extremely fortunate to have had good professionals from time to time who have supported me through the worst of things or made suggestions or told me that ‘I could do it’. I will not forget the doctor when I was in inpatient who kept on repeating this phrase to me over and over again (You can do it Funmi, you can do it) and the mental health professionals (past and present) who support(ed) me or tried to help me on the road to recovery and discovery.
But, I know from my time as a teacher that just because you help others does not mean that your capacity to support is an everlasting well. Please take a look at this BBC article which in part inspired this post.
My previous role as a teacher
I know that when I was teaching, long hours, a heavy workload, students with lots of wahala and trying to find ways to support them through it or trying to signpost them was the order of the day. And it was tiring. But it was a job I loved. I know that I was struggling to care for myself at the time and so found it more beneficial to invest in others because I did not see a way to overcome my issues at the time. I have no regrets about my time as a teacher but reflecting on this and the past fortnight helps me value those who support me and drives me to consider the care afforded to those who care for others.
I know I write from a personal viewpoint but in all honesty, I want this post to be about reflecting on those who work in caring roles or who take on caring roles: mother, fathers, children, siblings, friends, nurses, doctors, teachers, mental health professionals and anyone else that you wish to insert in this grouping.
What happens when we don’t take care of those who care for others?
- On a basic level, if you are supporting people with mental health issues, it can eventually take a toll on your own mental and physical health.
- Family structures can break down as the job of supporting a family member with mental health issues can drive individuals apart.
- Worry can arise about the well-being of the person which can lead to anxiety.
- People can lose heart or the motivation to continue supporting others even when they are good at the job or passionate about it.
- Those who care for others may eventually become immune to suffering because they see so much of it so often (this is perhaps a sign that it is time to leave a role).
- Burnout – plain and simple.
- An inability to strike a healthy work/life balance.
What should be put in place to support those who care for others?
- Emotional support – it should be a given that those who work in stressful roles supporting others should themselves be afforded emotional support to talk through the things they hear or do or witness or experience. Talking can be so cathartic. It can make a person feel they do not have to carry the burden alone. It always shocks me on reflection that when I worked as a teacher, the College did not see fit to provide emotional support save in the most exceptional circumstance. I did however have great managers who recognised at times that I was struggling even when I felt unable to say so.
- Practical support – I know these are days of austerity but the workload that people who care have to put up with is ridonculous (purposeful typo). I have seen it happen that when a person leaves a workplace, they are not replaced. Their workload is simply passed onto another person. But how can we expect one person to do the workload of two people and not eventually break? This is how good, passionate teachers, doctors, mental health workers end up leaving the profession.
- Space – to breathe, to recover, to be. I remember sometimes being desperate for team meeting days because it just meant a bit of a break from the daily grind. We all need this from time to time so we don’t burnout. It is up to managers to make this happen and up to those who care for others to demand it. In families, this sometimes means a period of respite away from the person that is unwell.
- A culture of compassion – if we do not create in workplaces or other spaces (familial or otherwise) a culture of compassion, an environment in which a person can say ‘I am struggling’, then how will people ever feel they can be honest. I have read a lot of late from doctors with mental health issues who say they felt unable to be open at work. I don’t mean shouting down the hallway, ‘I am mentally ill’. I mean being able to talk to a superior about your struggles or being able to support a patient who struggled as you once did by giving them a small dose of honesty (like, I once struggled like you, it is possible to overcome it). This is not false hope, or inappropriate sharing (in my opinion), it’s real talk.
- Boundaries – those caring for others need to put healthy boundaries in place to protect themselves from burnout and illness. This might mean making sure you leave work by a certain time or making your home a work-free zone. Personally, I remember having an open door policy during lunchtime when I was teaching. Eventually I got rid of that and though it was tough for some students to adhere to, they did eventually learn that just as they needed space away from me, so too, I needed space away from them. It did not mean I cared any less about their well-being. It just meant that protecting myself was the first step in my aim of protecting or supporting them.
I leave you on this note, it is my sincere hope that those who care for others are also cared for in equal measure. No one is unbreakable and no one is free from troubles. Those who care matter just as much as those they care for. I just hope they get the support they deserve.