When the shoe is on the other foot

I haven’t written in a while, partly because I’ve been busy (had lovely 3 day weekend at home with son whilst the other two went away – which was good, and have been doing lots of sewing – possibly good and possibly an indicator of ignoring my problems) and partly because I haven’t known what to write.

You see there’s been a lot of anxiety and stress going on, usual kind of symptoms, mamoth task to get out of bed and face the day, hunched shoulders, haunted look, sighing.  Except this time around it’s been my husband, not me.  And this is my blog about my mental health, not about his, it’s not really any of my place to write about.  But I am part of my family and what happens to the rest of them has an effect on me, and this has had an impact. 

So, after some deliberation I’ve decided to write about the things what he describes as as “stress” have on me.  I won’t say any more about how it effects him, other than his work is certainly a big causal factor. (Yes, yes, I know I should really have discussed with him what he thought about me writing a post, but trust me that would not be an easy conversation to have right now).

My mind has been whirling with conflicting thoughts.  Unsurprisingly guilt (unsurprising as pretty much everything seems to be guilt inducing, not because it’s logical).  “Oh my god he’s caught Nut Job Flu from me”.  Clearly this is not possible.  But then again, on top of everything he has going on work wise, he has exposure to the same stresses that our as I do, plus the added extra of having to cope with me being rubbish for so long – and he has picked up a lot of the slack as well as supporting me. There is only so much one man can do.

Then there’s the (thankfully small and easily squashable voice) saying “see, this is what it’s like, this is what I’ve been going through, now do you understand?”.

Then there’s the urge to do as much as I can for him – make his lunches, buy him treats, etc. It’s heartbreaking to see someone you love feeling rubbish. You want to fix it so badly and yet you don’t have the power to change someone elses brain chemistry and reorganise their workplace. So I have to be really careful with this urge, lest it turns into smothering and fussing.  Which he hates.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about listening. And remembering how frustrating I feel it to be innudated with solutions when it’s all I can cope with to mutter something vague about not feeling right. So lots of cuddling, lots of paying attention to body language, lots of quiet hugs, non judgemental expressions of empathy at his situation. And trying to get the balance right between serious and humour, silence and questions, listening and offering ideas.  Obviously I don’t get it right all the time (having renounced my superpowers to come and live on earth) but I like to think that my experience helps me help him a little better.

And I’ve been raging at the injustice of this. I’m finally feeling better and now this, grr, it’s not fair, stamps feet.

Then there’s the gratefulness for the timing, phew, isn’t it great that I’m feeling better at the moment and can cope with this.  I’m really pleased I can help support him, take up the slack for him, it’s not all of the solution but it’s a help.

And sometimes there’s grumpiness at him. Not at his feelings, but at his inability to express them.  The experience of communication shutdown from the other side. When I’m in the right place I have sympathy and empathy with this. But when I’m running around, dealing with kids and housework and I think he’s ok and then suddenly he’s lurking pathetically in doorways and not making sense and I haven’t noticed/realised he’s feeling rubbish I just get cross – “if you’re not feeling up to doing something why don’t you just tell me clearly and then leave me space to do it, I don’t have time for this”. Then once I realise, it’s back to guilt again. 

And then there are the times I do realise but I’m so busy with the kids I can’t do what I want to to help. And trying when they’re around is counterproductive as they sense someone else getting attention and come and sabotage my efforts.  So I just have to ignore him and get on with things and hope it’s for the best.

So all in all, a bit of a rolleroaster around here, with good days and bad, times when all is fine and forgotten and times when we’re suddenly catapulted back into the midst of it again for no apparent reason and have to ride out the next wave.

All horrifingly familiar and yet totally alien at the same time.

 

More thoughts on listening

I have been thinking more about yesterdays post about why we’re so bad at listening and the comments from PensiveAspie and AliceYaxley and I think I have got a little further in my muddled thinking.

First, it’s not that offering ideas for solutions is in itself wrong, it’s more about the timing. I thought of an analogy. A parent see’s a child fall and start to cry. The first thing you do is run and pick them up and cuddle them, comfort them and wait for the crying to subside a little. Then you look at any wounds, wipe up any blood, apply plasters etc. Only after all that do you talk to them about what they might have been doing before they fell that may have been less than wise and how they might change their behaviour to stop future accidents. It’s not really helpful if you find yourself as a parent running over to a crying hurt child and immediately telling them off because they shouldn’t have been hopping on top of a fence in the first place.

Well, in my mind, someone suffering from a crisis problem, be it stress, anxiety, job loss, bereavement or similar crisis, needs to be treated with the same three steps (not that I’m any particular kind of expert and I’m sure there are exceptions). First some empathy, some comfort, letting them know that you’re aware of their pain, maybe a hug (depending on what sort of relationship you have) and maybe listening to them talk without judging (if they can articulate). Secondly immediate help to stop things getting worse, maybe they need distracting from how they’re feeling, maybe there’s an issue that needs to be addressed such as a phone call to be made, either by someone else or they need talking through it, maybe some exercise, a cup of milky tea, again whatever seems appropriate. Then at a later point when they’re thoughts are calmer, that is when to think about strategies to deal with the underlying issues that caused the crisis and that are arising from it.

And I am thinking about help when you’re feeling rough, as opposed to someone venting, letting off steam about something that’s annoying them to defuse their emotions.

I also want to point out that these are thoughts in general, from my private life, and not meant as a subtle dig at people who’ve been leaving comments. Although I’m sure some of the same principles apply to comments I’m certainly no expert in blogging etiquette. I know I find it hard not to talk a lot about myself when leaving a blog comment (I’m quite a verbose kind of person as you can probably tell), but I do make an effort to at least start with an aknowledgment if someone is feeling troubled. And doubtless I get it wrong sometimes too, but then we’re all human.

Listening versus Handing out Fixes

I’ve been trying to work out the basis of a post about societies attitude to broken things and the link with attitudes to mental health but I can’t seem to get it explained right. The gist is about peoples obsessions with offering solutions to problems. Got a minor (physical) health issue and happen to mention it? Cue lots of unsolicited advice on what Aunt Vera did, what you should eat, what homeopathic pill to take etc etc… Which can be frustrating as, well, lets face it the person you’re talking to is unlikely to be medically qualified and may well have different opinions to you on the effecicacy of homeopathic remedies. Manage to tell sommeone that your brain is not working properly and you’re feeling stressed about? Cue lots of advice on what you could do to fix stuff. Should you be feeling like curling into a ball and hiding from the world as you just aren’t feeling up to doing anything right now, a list of things to do is not always helpful. You probably know most of them anyway, the problem is not knowing what you should be doing, it’s getting your brain and its partner in crime your body to play ball. In fact being told all the things that you should be doing and can’t will probably make you feel worse.

At this point I should point out that I am not a completely selfish self obsessed curmedgeon. I do realise that the person offering the advice is trying to help. I don’t mean to put them down.

It’s just that there are times when what is needed is some no strings attatched listening. And I’ve noticed that this is something people find challenging to do and I think there may be a cultural element to it. We live in a society that can do so much. You can sit on your sofa reading the blog I wrote on my sofa and yet we’ve never met. Skyscrapers are built, planes are flown, heart transplants happen, we can do so much. I think sometimes we forget that we can’t do everything.

This last winter in the UK it rained. A lot. And parts of Somerset spent a long time underwater. Which had dire impact on the people living there. They have my sympathy but considering the amount of rain that fell the flooding is not that surprising if you know that much of Somerset is drained marsh land and lies below sea level. But it has to be someones fault. Because we should be able to fix stuff and if something goes wrong it must be someones fault. Lets gloss over the fact that nature has made the very geography of the land, humans have conquered nature.

But I digress. (Did I mention that I’m struggling to articulate this concept?)

We aren’t used to seeing broken things, things gone wrong. We throw them away, get new ones. Or get someone in to fix them. And when people are ill we are lucky enough to have a whole host of medicines and treatments to help them.

But sometimes, things aren’t fixable. Maybe they’re just really rubbish for a bit. Or maybe they’re going to be really rubbish for ever and we have to adapt to that. And that is what I think people aren’t used to. It makes them feel helpless. Why, when I live in a world that can do so much, are you broken? Surely if I talk for long enough I’ll think of the right pill you can take that will make you all well again. If I don’t have a solution for you, what does that make me?

So, it’s hard to remember not to leap in with a solution when someone has a problem. It’s hard just to listen and empathise with how bad someone feels. To stare at brokenness an not look away. (Of course, I’m not saying that offering solutions is not ever appropriate, just sometimes it might not be, or it might not be the best thing to do straight away.)

Hmm, this all seems to have got a bit heavy and I’m still not sure I’ve put it right, but hey, it’s only a blog post and if you read this far I hope you got the gist.

Listening

Whilst yesterday was mainly good, I did end up staying up far too late in the end messing on the internet and I have been tired today.

The reason I stayed up too late was because I was sulking. Whilst I’m not sulking now, I’ve been mulling over the reason all day in the background. Trying to tease out what is actually going on.

Before I expound, I want to say that my family is great. I have two lovely kids, who are generally well behaved but have their moments, like most infant school kids. And a wonderful supportive husband who does more than his share, what with working full time, being a hands on Dad, putting up with me obsessively sewing until midnight and coping with me when I’m feeling stressed and picking up the slack around the house.

So, you guessed it, the reason that I was sulking was to do with my family. Like all family, we sometimes rub each other up the wrong way. Last night I was frustrated that hubby hadn’t heard a couple of things I said, in particular that Yes I would like him to cut me some bread too (after my answer he cut two pieces, buttered them and then ate them in front of me) and please don’t put the laptop away as part of your tidying up (I wanted to use it) – he then put it away.

Now, these things on there own are rather minor. But I had a narrative in my head of not being listened to by anyone and I felt extremely frustrated. There is some basis for that narrative. For instance earlier husband and I had had to rehave a conversation and remake a decision – I clearly remembered doing this before (not least as I was surprised at hubby’s proposed solution) and he was adamant we’d not previously discussed it. This is not really surprising, we have two small children and don’t get that much time to talk to each other without being interrupted, plus he has had a very busy few months at work and done lots of overtime, which puts more strain on our communication system (amongst other things). It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t value what I have to say. It means that we need to make more time to talk to each other and get better at listening.

That’s another thing, as a household we’re not very good at listening. There’s always a lot going on and people are shouting reminders (“Have you brushed your teeth yet?”) and moving about whilst continuing conversations, so you find someone starts talking to you and then walks away mid sentance so you can’t hear them. Or walks off instead of answering you. And generally we’re a pretty talkative bunch with a tendency to interrupt each other.

And of course my kids are not always good at listening to me which is not surprising as often I’m giving them things to do and checking up on them. And when they do hear me, I can’t tell, because they’re fiddling with something and staring in the other direction and don’t answer (or answer in a mumble I can’t hear) and then immediately start a new topic of conversation.

All this is fairly normal with kids, and I think maybe a little worse than normal with our two as one has a tendency to retreat into a daydream and block us out and the other one is easily distracted and his teachers have recently told me how frustrated they get saying his name over and over again all day to get his attention.

But as a full time parent, the majority of my interactions in a day are often with my family, so that feeds into me taking it so personally. It can feel like I spend my life being ignored by the rest of the people I live with and that no matter what I say nobody is listening and that is very frustrating and can end up with me feeling like a second class citizen in my own home. Hence the sulking.

Of course, how I’m feeling in general affects how well I cope. When I’m feeling on top of things I’m calmer, I take things less personally, I have more patience and I find it easier to think of different strategies to try to get my children to do what I want. When I’m not feeling so great I have less patience, I’m quicker to anger, I don’t want to compromise (it’s My Way or the High Way), so I start battles with my children instead of changing tactics. And then I get frustrated at how much effort everything is taking. (Hmm, I think I maybe starting to open a bigger can of worms here than just the listening problem, that last paragraph is more how good I am in general at parenting depending on how good I feel in general, and of course they feed into each other.)

So, what next with the listening? Well, first I want to sit with my mulling. I have tried to discern what is going on in my head and I think just acknowledging it is a start. I don’t want to leap into solutions mode (I find it frustrating when someone that I want to listen to me leaps straight into giving me answers of what I can do about it, when I don’t want answers, I just want someone to listen). And I need to be aware of how I’m listening to others, I need to try and make sure I’m paying my family proper attention and model how I want them to behave.

And I need to talk to husband about this, I know he finds it frustrating too, and check our informal policy of promoting good listening and see if we can improve it any.

And I think I need to acknowledge that one of my children in particular has difficulty listening, for various reasons, and that it’s ok to find this frustrating, but I shouldn’t take it personally. And maybe I need to reasses my definition of what good listening and answering looks like and compromise a somewhere a little more acheivable for my children (who like many children don’t always want to make eye contact for instance).