I grew up as one of my mom’s caregivers. As her only child, I feel a special connection to her. For a few years between when she and my father got divorced and married my step-father before she got sick, it was just the two of us. Though my general impression of that time is positive, and I have a few specific fond memories, most of my childhood memories are of life post-diagnosis.
When she came home from the hospital, our existence went from the two of us to four: my mom, my new step-dad, me, and her illness. We were learning how to deal with each other and life in what was to become our new normal.
At the time, I did my best to be a good daughter. I eagerly tended to my mom, helping with her medications, prepared meals, and helped around the house (as much as one does at age 8). It was fun for a time. I was “playing house.” But eventually, the newness wore off, and things got more complicated. The stress of living with mom’s illness and her changing abilities affected us all, and it showed.
This stress manifested itself in several ways. It slowly sunk into my understanding that mom was sick, but not the kind of sick where she would “get better” in the way I had only known before her diagnosis. Though not a conscious decision on my part, I began to try to control what I could. In my child’s interpretation of my mom’s disease, I knew that any stress could worsen her. So, I rationalized that making good grades, not getting in trouble at school, and NEVER breaking the rules would help her stay out of the hospital.
Sounds great, right? Except that what started as a good intention, turned into a perfectionist and people-pleasing mindset. I became unable to speak up for myself. I developed a fear of confrontation and continued to struggle with expressing my feelings. (I was known as a bit of a crybaby. Even in high school, some people called me “spilled milk.”)
This way of coping became the “new normal” for me and something that, as I continued to experience more and more complex circumstances in life, I retreated to for comfort. Perfection and people-pleasing were the way I learned to “control” things around me. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t work:)
As an adult, my caregiving continues. Thankfully, mom is still here, fighting every moment. But as I have matured, faced crises, developed new relationships, including getting married and having children, I have had to learn a different “new normal.” One that wasn’t about what others thought or how my mom would react. I needed to learn how to cope with my mom’s illness, with life’s curveballs and stressful circumstances, in a way that WOULD work.
Healthy coping skills were not the norm for me, and learning a new normal of self-care has taken decades. And honestly, I’m still a work in progress, but that’s been part of the healing for me. You see, I wanted to be perfect at coping just like I wanted to be perfect at caregiving and marriage, parenting, working, and friendship.
The new normal for me is that though I can work to be compassionate and caring in all of these roles, I will never be perfect. Learning this truth has made it possible for me to cope with the things I cannot control better. And while my life is definitely NOT normal, it’s normal enough for me.