By Aster Woods
Can you imagine a scenario that would finally push you over the edge?
Or do you just keep telling yourself you can handle anything?
For people who care for others, hitting rock bottom is often an abstract principle. You do whatever it takes to keep on going. Because what’s the alternative? Really? People you love are counting on you. If you’re exhausted, you have to keep going. If you’re overwhelmed, you have to keep going. If your hands are shaking so badly that you break the plate you’re trying to clean, and then you burst into tears because you’ve failed to clean that plate, and then can’t stop crying, and then go numb and sometime later realize you’re still sitting on the kitchen floor…you stand up and finish the washing up, hands wrinkling in the cold water. Because you have to keep going.
I care for my mother. I need a break, I tell her. She doesn’t understand why; I explain that I’m struggling with my mental health, that I’m tired and stressed all the time. That I have been for a long time and it’s taking a serious toll.
She suggests I try chilling out.
I leave the room and scream into my pillow.
A few days later she hangs up the phone and beams at me. Your sister has agreed to help out while she’s visiting! Anger wells up inside me, hot and dry. Why on earth is it up to her? My sister knows the least about this situation, has no knowledge of how hard it is. Why on earth is she the one to decide if I get to have a break or not? Why does she get to choose when she takes care of our mum, but I don’t?
I know this is supposed to be a good thing. But panic overwhelms me. I have been resenting my caregiving but I can’t let it go. I have held it too tightly for too long. It’s who I am. Can I trust my sister to do it right? Is she going to mess up my carefully organized systems, making more work for me in the long run?
Or worse. Is she going to tell me that this is all easy, that I have nothing to worry about really, that my stress and frustration and despair and isolation are not valid emotions, but rather a symptom of my weakness and failure?
Why is accepting help so difficult?
Why can’t we put down this toxic burden of control? I want to relinquish this weight of responsibility so badly. I want to be able to move freely within my life. To do things that are only about me. I know that I can be a better person if I manage to do this and that it will mean I take better care of my mum; as people are so fond of telling me.
You can’t pour from an empty cup.
But people are not cups. Filling yourself up again is difficult.
And this is what I think of as the heart of the problem: The stress is the only thing that enables you to get stuff done. The most sustainable option is to remain stressed, like a plane using less fuel to cruise than to land, refuel, and take off again.
Stress gets you out of bed in the morning, gets the kitchen cleaned. I can’t relax while there are the bins to take out; I can’t sleep properly if I’m also listening out for mum’s call for help.
To let go of my stress is to relinquish my responsibility; and that is an impossibility as long as I have people relying on me.