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Lifting the Veil off Mental Health: Labor Day Lessons

September 6, 2009 Leave a comment

Labor day has arrived, which marks the end of summer, but we all have one last weekend to celebrate the season before getting back to work and settling down for the cold months.

This weekend we will be a spending our final summer holiday on the Delaware shore, a popular destination for many Washingtonians. We were lucky enough to be invited once again to a friend’s house, and the rest of the group making their way to the beach will surely make the weekend a success.

While getting ready for our beach getaway, I started thinking about how different things are this year versus last. This time last year, Jim was still reeling from the effects of a week in the hospital, and we were both trying to figure out what his illness meant for us. Jim’s new medication regiment was also still fairly new, and he was dealing with the side effects that inevitably come with such drugs. I was also busy thinking about what I should change about myself.

Much has happened in the past year and as we say goodbye to summer 2009, I would like to reflect on a couple of things I have learned.

I have learned how to be more empathetic. This lesson has been hard won and in many ways I think I am still learning, but I have made great strides since last summer. Well before Jim was hospitalized, I often found myself frustrated with him when he mentioned feeling anxious or when his mood suddenly changed without warning and for no reason. This frustration turned into resentment and often escalated into unnecessary arguments. I could not understand what was happening when Jim had to leave dinner with friends suddenly or why leaving the house was not an option on any given day.

During dinner at home one night, though, I finally felt what Jim was feeling. It was a simple dinner and we were watching a movie when suddenly Jim’s demeanor changed and he had to put his head into his hands shaking it back and forth. Naturally, I was concerned and asked what was wrong or what I could do. “Nothing,” he answered. “I’m fine. I know what to do. Just imagine your ‘fight or flight’ instinct being triggered for no reason. That’s what’s happening to me right now and it’s terrifying.” There was nothing I could do to help and trying to would have only worsened the situation. I felt so bad for him and tried to imagine what he was going through. Indeed, empathy was all I could offer at that point. I understood his illness better that day, though it was just one tiny sliver of what he endures on a daily basis.

I have also learned that I don’t have to try so hard. Last summer, I was doing everything I could to make sure Jim had what he needed to the point of exhaustion. I constantly asked how he was feeling, what I could be doing for him. An announcement from him of the slightest discomfort would result in myriad questions about what he was thinking. I wanted to be the perfect supporter to show him that he was not alone. I was still learning about bipolar and had overlooked the fact that often what Jim needed was just for me to be there and listen. He loved what I was trying to do for him, but it wasn’t always helpful and he didn’t always want to answer questions about his moods or about his meds. I learned that sometimes, all he needs is to sit with me or hold me. Usually, I don’t have to say anything. I have learned that the best thing I can do to take Jim’s mind off of his illness is just to be his partner and not his caregiver. And, I am more than happy to be that for him.

So with that, I say goodbye to the summer of 2009 and hello to the fall season. I’m already looking forward to the lessons to be learned this weekend.

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