By: Cassandra Nordal, PR & Marketing Coordinator
“Michael’s home,” my aunt yelled from the kitchen as my brother pulled into the driveway. And in that very moment, she took her last breath in my arms and drifted away peacefully.
I can vividly recall every moment of my mother’s last day on this earth, probably down to the millisecond. I remember her pajamas; I remember the nurses surrounding us, and I remember her last breath. This year is the tenth anniversary of her passing and it still feels like yesterday. I can hear her voice, her contagious laugh, and I can remember her warm smile.
I learned that we all have important parts in our brain that store different types of memories, such as our amygdala, hippocampus, cerebellum and prefrontal cortex. The day I lost my mom, I believe that I stored this memory in my amygdala, because it is a memory instilled as pure and utter fear. Even though my mother passed away peacefully, I believe in that moment, I compartmentalized it there because I was so scared of the unforeseeable future or what the future held for me and my brother for that matter.
For two years, my mother battled pancreatic cancer. She was given two months and she fought for two years. This was absolutely incredible but, it came at a cost for me personally; my mental health deteriorated day by day. At the time, I was in the Social Service Worker program at our local college here in Thunder Bay. I thought I knew what was best and decided not to seek counselling services because I had training and I thought I knew better. Unfortunately, this was one of the worst things I could’ve done for myself or I guess I should say, did to myself.
I was an 18-year-old kid standing there with my mom when we got her diagnosis and I will say that how we found out was awful. Her Oncologist at the time, had zero bedside manner and walked in the room, read some words off her file and exited. We were in shock. My mom and I went outside and sat out in the sun and cried for a few hours before we called the family to tell them the horrific news. I knew in that moment that everything in my life had to be put on hold and I was meant to be her primary caregiver. So, I did just that. I dropped out of College, I went on leave from my job, lost a lot of friends because I left the party scene and I began this new uncertain and uncomfortable life.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change anything that I sacrificed for her. I am so grateful I was able to take care of my mom. She was my best friend, she gave me life, it was the least I could do for her. But I was riddled with anxiety and sleep deprivation, fighting with caretakers because they were being too “rough” with her, battling with an Oncologist that refused to discuss my mother’s lack of medical treatment plan with myself and my brother, and the list goes on. It was complete and utter hell for lack of a better word. Angry doesn’t even begin to describe how going through this made me feel. But if I knew then what I know now, I would’ve taken the time and fought for my own mental wellness.
You see, as caregivers, we tend to put our own personal wellness aside, I mean, it’s inevitable. We are there to care for them. We don’t have time to care for ourselves, and when or if you try to, you feel guilty for taking that time for yourself.
But I’m here to tell you right now to stop, take a breath, and realize that if you are not well, you can’t take care of them properly and you will regret it in the end. There is something called “caregiver burnout” that is very real, folks… let me tell ya! Caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. It may be accompanied by a change in attitude, from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned. Burnout can occur when caregivers don't get the help they need, or if they try to do more than they are able, physically or financially. Many caregivers also feel guilty if they spend time on themselves rather than on their ill or elderly loved ones. Caregivers who are "burnt out" may experience fatigue, stress, anxiety and depression. This is scary and serious. If you have cared for a loved one and gone through this, you know how high the highs are and how lows the lows are.
During my last conversation with my mom, I made a promise to her to return to college and finish the program. So I did just that, and guess what? I experienced more burnout.
Burnout for those of you that don’t know is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. Soooo, yeah, that’s where I was at. Thankfully, I graduated with the help of my friends, family, and incredible teachers. But it took a toll on me. I walked that stage to get my diploma and I realized about halfway through that infamous walk, that I wanted absolutely nothing to do with helping people. I had literally nothing else to give to anyone and I felt like I hated humans. I was drained, exhausted, angry, sad, heartbroken, you name it, I felt it. I resented anyone who told me I was “so strong” or the typical “I’m so proud of you” but I didn’t know why. I pushed people away, I cried, I screamed, I was the most negative person anyone had ever met. I didn’t know what or why I was acting this way but what I did know was that I was filled with hatred. I began drinking heavily, dabbling in drugs and became a wannabe “Rockstar” or “Barstar” as most people would call it. I chose to numb myself, my emotions, my fears and all of my pain. I hit rock bottom with basically nothing left for me in Thunder Bay. I was at my all-time low and didn’t care about anyone, especially not myself.
And then, a relative came into town and gave me a second chance, offering me a place to stay in Calgary.
So, five days later I moved/ran away from Thunder Bay, I changed everything about myself and became a completely new person. I walked away from family members and people who I thought were my friends, knowing that I had to because the memories of my mother were in all of them. Instead of dealing with my issues in front of me, I ran, but I learned that you can only run for so long. You can only wear a mask for so long (no pun intended).
In 2016 a major car accident led me back to Thunder Bay, and I believe it happened for a reason. Almost a year ago, I started working for Kelly Mental Health and I am here to tell you that it has changed my life.
So why am I here preaching this to you? Well, because it took me a whole lot of chaos and a lot of lost years to realize that I needed help. I am thirty years old still struggling with trust, abandonment, anxiety, tension headaches, chronic migraines and migraine attacks triggered by stress, and I suffer from depression. I am finally at a point in my life where I understand what is happening. I understand why I am the way that I am now, why I am terrified of relationships and letting people in. This past year has taught me so much and I am truly grateful for Kelly Mental Health. If I can help or encourage at least one person to get help, I need to do so.
The ugly and honest truth is that I am the example of what not to do.
I was so focused on taking care of my mom that I forgot to take care of myself. This article isn’t intended to make you feel like counselling will fix EVERYTHING, it most likely won’t, but that’s up to you. It’s a start and it can literally change your life IF you put in the work. You are the greatest project you will ever work on. Admitting you need help is one of the most difficult things that you will have to do. You are so focused on being strong and independent that you lose sight of the bigger picture; yourself. Ten years later and the loss of my mom is still with me everyday, I’m not going to tell you it gets easier because it really doesn’t. The difference is that I learnt how to properly compartmentalize my feelings about her passing so that I can move forward and have the life I deserve.
Healing takes a lot of work. I can finally recognize my emotions now, I can express myself properly without becoming angry, I can recognize toxic relationships and I know my self-worth. I fell in love with myself again and I think that’s pretty darn incredible. I now surround myself with people that I want in my life. I learnt that my small group of friends are also my family. They have helped me along the way, encouraged me and supported me. I wouldn’t be who I am today as well without my brother, his amazing wife, my patient cousin Nicole and my aunt who I call my ‘mom 2.0.’
The damage doesn’t define you, but healing is your responsibility.
If you or anyone you know would like to start a healing journey, please reach out to Kelly Mental Health. Don’t wait.
NWO’s source for all things relationships, mental health, wellness, lifestyle, and pandemic support. Kelly Magazine is a mental health outreach initiative created by Kelly Mental Health and supported by Kelly Mental Health Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the community in the area of mental health.
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