When I tell people I am a caregiver and describe what a day is like for me, sometimes they tell me I’m “strong.” When I first starting to receive this feedback, it made me uncomfortable. I definitely wasn’t physically strong and I didn’t always feel like I had an enduring mental or emotional strength.
My mother was diagnosed with dementia in 2013, and I was in pretty bad shape. I was probably 90 pounds overweight and had been diagnosed with high cholesterol and pre-diabetes. I knew something had to change, so I began a healthful journey and have lost around 80 pounds to date. I am physically the strongest I have ever been.
But strength is about more than how much you can lift or press. Strength can also describe our mental capacity, emotional stability, and spiritual steadfastness.
The last year and a half, several events have challenged my understanding of what it means to be strong. I lost my best friend of nearly 20 years to complications of Marfan Syndrome. The same week, I discovered the loss of a little boy I followed very closely on social media, Tripp Halstead. My family experienced the loss of several family members and friends who were, in some cases, even closer than family. Following all of these losses, I was determined to pursue seek out joy in amidst the pain.
Of course, every event was not tragic in nature. I was also blessed to begin graduate school and take two very healing trips across the country. I even elevated my health journey by jogging and completing my first smoothie cleanse.
What I eventually discovered, however, is that to endure the sadness and pursue the joy, I needed to build strength. One of the most important ways I learned to do that was starting regular, consistent counseling. At the end of 2017, I was introduced to the Open Path Collective, a database of licensed counselors, therapists, social workers, and other mental health professionals who offer lower rates and/or sliding scales.
I was not new to therapy; I’d seen a counselor off and on since I was 9. As a medically complex child who experienced severe racial, disability-related, and general peer harassment. Unfortunately, last year was my first long-term relationship with a counseling professional with the exception of a semester-long stint in college.
The year of mostly telemedicine sessions focused on everything from overcoming medical and social trauma to managing caregiver stress to rediscovering the core of who I am.
It was a lot take on and there were many painful moments. But I stuck with it. Just like I had to commit to jogging and arm curls so I could increase my physical strength, I had to commit to reframing and positive self-talk to increase my mental strength.
But just like physical exercise is not always easy, regularly fighting for my mental wellness stretches my emotional and spiritual muscles. I have to use techniques and methods that force me to deal with my emotions in the moment when I am tempted to avoid, feed, or pacify them. Sometimes that is really hard but I have seen the fruit of my labor and it is good.
Many a metaphor likens life to a marathon rather than a sprint. The proverbial “they” who first made this comparison are indeed correct. There will never be a time when I can just stop working out and still expect to be able to lift as much or run as long. So why on Earth would I think I could continue to interact with the world without experiencing debilitating anxiety, build healthy relationships with my family and friends, or share my story as a conduit for change in caregiving and healthcare without using what therapy taught me. Although I have decided to take a break from formal counseling at the moment, my dedication to mental wellness continues.
Every day I wake up with the intention to work out – mind, body, and spirit. Some days are more successful than others. Occasionally I am tempted to give up. My mom has a rough day, I get some unfavorable feedback on an article, or I eat all the donuts. I let feel however I feel in the moment or for the day. But then I ask God to reset my heart and give me the mental, physical, and emotional energy I need to make the next day a brighter, more balanced one.
So I will continue to walk through the neighborhood, study Scripture, drink green smoothies, pet puppies, do breathing exercises, cuddle with my parents, send funny memes to my friends, watch documentaries, listen to gospel and rock and hip hop and jazz and podcasts, sing in the shower, and eat a Cinnabon cinnamon roll every year for my birthday.
Some days I will also fail and pray and start again.
And you can do the same.
And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength! – Nehemiah 8:10 NIV