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Living at a Crossroads: Juggling Caregiving and College

by Elisabeth DoddCaregiverSeptember 13, 2022View more posts from Elisabeth Dodd

Living at a Crossroads: Juggling Caregiving and College

Just a few weeks after dropping me off for my first semester of college in 2014, my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer. Suddenly I had two lives. One where I was home taking care of him and trying to support my mom. The other was at college, where I juggled the guilt of not being present at school with the shame of not being there for my family.

At that point in my life, mental health was not a priority. The conversations I was a part of were limited; mental health was only discussed regarding mental illness or self-care. I would listen but was unable to relate to the pathologizing framing of mental illness. I saw radical self-care reduced to superficial treats like lighting candles and putting on face masks—and I dismissed the whole concept.

After my dad passed away, a well-meaning friend asked me if I would help them with a project for class. They had to record a public service announcement about depression and mental health and thought I would be perfect for the project given the circumstances. Our mutual friends were horrified, but the result was so far removed from my experience (or experience of any real person) that it still makes me laugh. The video was five minutes of me looking sadly into the distance while a voice-over rattled off generic facts about depression.

As off-base as this was, it was the first and most direct acknowledgement of the toll that my dad’s cancer treatment and passing had on my mental health.

I got curious. I read more about depression, but it didn’t feel like the articles I read were meant for me. I couldn’t find anything written by someone detailing what depression looked like for them. Instead, I found short and detached medical materials designed to help spot depression in others. Focusing on external symptoms and how depression affects friends and family made it hard for me to connect with my feelings. I needed something that would help me take inventory of my feelings, develop better coping skills, and find resources to reach out to beyond a hotline number. I wish I had found the side of the internet that recognized mental healthcare as something everyone needs.

Other people started to notice that I was depressed after my dad passed. It made sense, it was clear cause and effect. Losing a loved one is a major trauma, so it was understandable and “justified” that I would be depressed. I had been coping with undiagnosed depression and anxiety for years before my father’s cancer, with no clear reason or cause. I didn’t know I was struggling because I assumed everyone felt the way that I did. I always had difficulties behind the scenes, but once my dad got sick, I was no longer able to manage and take care of myself the way that I had before. I had exhausted all the coping strategies available to me as an individual person. I was already carrying so much by myself, and with the weight of my father’s illness, I dropped everything.

It was almost a relief to anchor all of this in my dad’s passing. It meant that these feelings were temporary. I would grieve, heal, and then everything would be all tied up and my mental health would be fixed and something I didn’t have to think about again. Clearly, this is not how mental health works.

Eventually, I got mental health care. I saw a therapist weekly and practiced meaningful self-care (forcing myself to cook a healthy dinner, not the wine in a bubble bath genre). I journaled and read about trauma and healing. I would not have been able to grieve and work toward healing without these individual practices. But it took a long time to get to where I am now, and I really regret that I didn’t have the community care and connection that is equally important for your mental health. It wasn’t intentional, but I had shut down and isolated myself when I needed others the most.

It was not difficult at all to isolate myself as a freshman student on a new campus, hours from home. Looking back, I wish I had let myself be vulnerable, and given myself the space to feel my feelings instead of intellectualizing my experience and distracting myself. I had severed my connection to my body and to my emotions and found myself floating through the first year of the “best years of my life.”

To me, mental health care is knowing that there is support outside of yourself. That we are collectively invested in the well-being of those around us. I helped take care of my father, but my mom was his primary caregiver. I felt bad about this, but care isn’t just a partnership. It’s a network with a ripple effect. We all simultaneously care for others while being cared for. When I was young, I watched my dad look after his mother (my grandma). He handled the big things and was her go-to person for support. But he would bring me on weekends to help clean up her house and take her to lunch. My mom would handle grandma’s finances and coordinate medical care. We all took on what was most natural for each of us and helped where we could. We all borrowed from his example when he got sick.

I regret not exploring what other branches of care were available. I wish I had leaned on my friends and had let them in. I would have learned that I wasn’t alone in my experience. I had tried to reach out to resources for support but was overwhelmed by impossibly long waitlists. I wasn’t able to advocate for myself or to explore other resources. But if I had let people in, they could have helped with the heavy lifting.

While I wish I was more vulnerable, it wasn’t always safe for me to be. We don’t teach people how to show up for others.

I remember getting off the phone with my mom after she told me about his diagnosis. Immediately, I called my closest friends for comfort. I don’t know what I expected them to do, but I was hurt and surprised by the responses I received. I was cut off by phrases like, “Focus on the positives and pray;”
“You are lucky that you are getting this time with him. You must cherish it;”
And “It’ll be fine.”

These well-meaning platitudes minimized my feelings and told me that my pain made other people uncomfortable. Not everyone responded this way, but it was enough to shut me down and make me sit with everything by myself.

Care came later and from unexpected places. It was someone I sat by in class lighting up when they spotted me, and telling me “I don’t know what you are going through, but I am thinking of you, and I miss seeing you.”

It was breaking down during my professor’s office hours and having her tell me, “I can tell you are having a really hard time. I have noticed a change in you. Please take as much time as you need to take care of yourself without worrying about catching up. You come first.”

It was my best friend immediately driving 10 hours to see me when I told her that my dad was in hospice. I didn’t even have to ask.

It was my hallmate showing up with takeout when she noticed I hadn’t been eating.

In those moments, I realized that I was seen and uplifted by so many people. These acts of care are important.

In many ways, I feel really removed from this time in my life. I have gone to therapy and I have found lots of support. I can finally show myself compassion for not being the caregiver that I wanted to be for my dad. But I still really struggle every March, and I am still surprised when it happens. I can never believe how present these memories still are.

I have learned to lean into these feelings and into my people. I encourage myself to reread the daily emails I received from my mom, giving us updates from his doctors, and sharing stories and quotes from my dad. I call my family to reminisce, and to talk about how much we miss him. Or to talk about how hard it is with people who understand.

The March blues hit me early this year, and a friend took me out to dinner. They said they had noticed that I seemed withdrawn and were wondering if I was nearing a hard anniversary. They knew about my dad and wanted to give me space to share if I wanted to. I didn’t know how badly I needed to talk about it, or how much closer to them I would feel afterwards. They invited me into their circle, and we have been able to lean on each other ever since. I carry a lot of guilt for not reaching out for help when I was 19, but I keep learning that it’s never too late to care for that part of myself.

This article was featured in the 2022 Mental Health issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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