Quite simply stated, by the marvellous and sadly missed Elaine Stritch but nonetheless, on point. No matter what shit life throws at you and how badly you feel about it, everyone has their own box of rocks. My problems may supersede yours but invariably there is someone out there battling a far greater weight than I could ever envision. But it’s my box, my rocks, and my s@*t. As much as I’d love to say I am super empathetic, I still can’t always raise my chin high enough to see that other people have it worse than me. So I’m wallowing. Or to be more specific, treading water clutching my box of rocks to my chest and praying for a miracle.
We all know that we are living in an ageing society. I happen to live in the UK, but it’s the same everywhere in the world. Life expectancy has doubled in the last 100 years and so it stands to reason that people are living longer. Better, not necessarily, but most definitely longer. And with that comes the usual barrage of illnesses and ailments that will eventually plague us all. Simple tasks becomes impossible to undertake, the strength of mind that drives you in your thirties will wither in your sixties and what was once an easily done exercise becomes insurmountable. And when that happens where do you turn for help? The NHS? Medicare? Hollywood paints a glorious picture of age bringing spirit and gumption in abundance but in my experience that isn’t the case. My grandmother is a miracle in her late 80s. Her handwriting isn’t what it was and her mobility is limited but she still sets herself challenges and carries them out. Her body has weakened but her spirit remains. She lives with my Aunt and Uncle now, unable to continue living alone in her Sheltered Accommodation flat but she is still an active participant in daily life. More power to her. By contrast my mother, at 67, has thrown in the metaphorical towel. Diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at 50, she quickly went from healthy to a walking stick to a wheelchair and for the last few years has been bed bound. Her world is now the four walls of her bedroom and in effect, her very own purple painted prison cell. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame her for her descent into disability, arthritis can strike anyone at anytime and it certainly isn’t something you can bring on yourself. Where it becomes a grey area for me is that I feel that she has given up and now expects me to carry not only my own box of rocks but hers as well. Not only does she expect it, but she somehow feels that I should enjoy it. Any sign that I am not happy to be changing yet another soiled set of bedding is met with ranting and insults. As her primary caregiver for the last 10 years I have done every task imaginable to assist and care for her. Tasks acceptable for a newborn baby but less so for a fully grown adult. In some cases it’s unavoidable but I also feel that there is a large proportion of times where she calls me to assist her in things she could do for herself. Not easily, I admit, but by not trying for herself she is a) physically withering and b) giving up on not only herself but me as well. This is where I get angry. When I look back on my life, all I can see are the things I’ve never done and the opportunities I turned down, all in her best interests. That great job offer in Central London that required one week a month to be spent in Europe? She is terrified I’ll get blown up by terrorists on the tube and can’t be left alone for one night let alone seven. That amazing man who wanted to take me back to Australia to meet his family? Sorry mate, no can do as I have a bedpan to empty. Never married, never engaged, no children or chance thereof due to a non-existent sex life. My longest relationship was 3 months back when I was 16 and I royally screwed that up by kissing someone else in front of him. Not that I can blame that on my Mother although I have tried. At a certain point I just gave up, knowing that even if things were different I wasn’t exactly a prize on the dating circuit. Too short, too fat, not pretty enough, too sarcastic. Somewhere along the lines I started using her illness as an excuse not to try, as I wasn’t enough on my own to merit attention. No-one wanted me so I used her as my excuse to not bother. What man would want to be with me? Not only was I fat and unattractive, spontaneity was a foreign language as I had to be home by 5.30pm to start dinner. As her illness progressed it became easier to say no to things instantly instead of agreeing and then bowing out at the 11th hour. No matter how supportive your friends are of your situation, everyone has a breaking point. Birthdays, engagements, christenings... all missed because she got another ailment or had a panic attack at the thought of being left alone. People got hurt by me, my apparent disregard of them caused them to withdraw from me, and rightly so. They knew my situation to a point but I felt too much guilt to offload fully and to them, I was just being a cow, too high and mighty to give up my time for them. So they withdrew, and went off to form fully developed lives of their own. I look at Facebook now and see marriages and babies and happiness and I want to cry for the times I let them all down, for the friendships I lost and for the lives they have that I feel I never will. I have tried to carve out something of a life of my own along the way. Gig tickets booked months in advance by me but I’ll spring it on her the day before so she doesn’t have time to freak out, claiming it’s a surprise from a friend that she doesn’t know I don’t really have. That day out alone in London but as far as she knows I’m having a few hours with a mate at the local cinema. Tiny little fragments of time spent away from the norm. If I wanted to be poetic I’d say I feel like Cinderella before her Godmother appeared but that would imply that there is hope. There isn’t. Our situation is at an impasse. I don’t want to have to be full time caregiver to her and nothing in the last 10 years has implied that I am even any good at it. She doesn’t want to be reliant on anyone at all but as she is incapable of looking after herself I am the appointed maid/chef/housekeeper/nurse. Neither one of us wants to be in this situation but neither of us can see a way out.
That’s maybe not strictly true. I have thought about leaving a thousand times, dreamed of it, of the life I might finally be able to start. But guilt taints these dreamy interludes and the thought of her being left alone break me down. I’ve engaged the Local Authority to enquire about Carers coming in to ease the burden on me and provide the proper care for her but she refuses, not wanting strangers hands on her. We’ve looked into Care Homes and bungalows and you name it, ultimately nothing fits. And I have considered ending it all, for me, for her, for both of us but for all my selfish thoughts I could never do that. On the rare occasion that we can have a serious conversation about it, I have told her how I feel, rare because 99% of the time it is about her and her feelings whilst mine are locked up in a box and buried at the bottom of a tar pit. I tell her how I feel inadequate to the task, how anxious I feel for the future. How I cry myself to sleep, silently praying to the universe to give me the strength I need to get through the day. How I sometimes go to sleep hoping that I won’t wake up in the morning. She cries at this, “Don’t say that! If something happened to you what would I do? Who would look after me?.” Even at my nadir, it always has to come full circle back to her. Dalliances with Peroxitine and Seroxat and Citalopram have either made me ill or stemmed the tears that fall without warning but nothing really helps long-term. For a time, alcohol was a panacea, embracing me a warm hug for a moment so that I didn’t feel the pain and desolation but ultimately the weight gain did more damage to my self esteem and made me feel even more unworthy than before. Appointments with Therapists left me out of pocket and guidance-free. I’ve spent years trying to help her and myself in the vain hope that things would improve and nothing has worked. And now I stand at the next roadblock, desperately trying to find an alternative route when really it’s a one-way street.
Through the whole of my Mum’s illness I have worked full time. A necessity as she can’t work and bills need to be paid. And for me, my job has become my lifeline, my only social interaction and the only part of my life where I feel normal. Being made redundant 5 years ago threw me into a yearlong hunt for work that very nearly destroyed me. She wanted me to stay at home permanently yet wanted me to be earning and I spent a year wearing pyjamas and watching daytime tv. Finally after ranting at yet another employment agency for their disregard I went in and miraculously got a job. And it saved me. There I made friends and started to piece back together fragments of the person I used to be, and for a while I loved it. Loved the challenges, loved the camaraderie, loved one particular co-worker who never gave me the time of day. I grew stronger and it showed. Then 2 years ago, a massive screw up with her GP giving advice that was borderline neglect left her prone and practically comatose for 6 weeks and I went back into my shell. She was as reliant on me as a newborn and I couldn’t cope. I cried for 3 weeks solid, my hair started falling out and I was incapable of doing anything for myself. Requests for help were met exclusively with “You need to live your own life” which whilst well meant, was not helpful. No-one wanted to help me, help us, and once again I did what I could, clutching my (by now skip full) of rocks and praying for a miracle. One horrific day at the Hospital, replete with Ambulance workers swaddling her in sheets and carrying her down the stairs left us no further forward. The situation was dire, the prognosis bleak. Staying in Hospital wasn’t recommended as with her immune system being so low she would invariably end up sicker than she started. The overnight bag I’d packed for her felt like a dead weight in my hands, my hopes of 24 hours away from life as I knew it slipping swiftly down the drain. And all the while, I felt like the biggest bitch in Christendom, wanting to get away from her for a while. In my lucid moments, my heart breaks for her, knowing what a strong vibrant woman she was. She raised me single handed after my father died when I was ten and as much as I fight against her sometimes, I am truly as determined and outspoken as she was, my mother’s daughter through and through. She tells me frequently how much she appreciates me, that if the roles were reversed she couldn’t do for me what I do for her yet these platitudes do nothing for me. Hearing her apologise repeatedly for waking me at 4.15 because her pillows are uncomfortable or because she has wet the bed again don’t make me feel better. I don’t want her apologies, as hollow or as heartfelt as they may be.
I want things to be different. I want things to be better. I want her to not feel so downtrodden or at least consider the other options, whether they be carers or antidepressants or god forbid, a care home. I want to feel like a fully fledged human being. I want to feel that there is hope, that I am doing something right. I don’t want to be sitting here with my resignation letter saved to my Desktop wondering desperately when I’ll next get the chance to go into work to hand it in. Will it be days, or weeks or months. Will I even have a job to go back to? And why do I care? They don’t really want me there, lately I have been so distracted with things at home that I have become a liability and that kills me more than anything else. For someone with nothing else in their life, my job has become my talisman and when you suck at the only thing in your life, the outlook isn’t great. I’d rather jump than be pushed. My friends at work have now morphed into colleague territory and no-one cares. I want to blame them, plead with them to understand but every buzz of my phone sends my heart plummeting to my stomach wondering what fresh hell is next. Their blasé acceptance of my absence both helps and hurts me. Yet another group of people I get to disappoint all over again. It’s best for them if I go, at least they can find someone better to take on my job, someone reliable. At some point in my life I have become a nervous bundle of anxiety and paranoia and I think that everyone hates me for reasons not even known to myself. Which is crazy as at the core of it all, I am a good person. I may even be a great person, stronger and more resilient than even I know. My Aunt in America said I had grown into a woman of rare personal strength and I sobbed, feeling neither rare nor strong yet grateful beyond measure nonetheless.
I guess what I’m trying to say, the point of all this, is that there are far more people out there like me than you can imagine. At some point in our lives we will all encounter the portion of our lives where we have to look after someone else, be it baby or parent. And it will push you further than you ever thought possible. You are not a failure, you are an angel. Pushing yourself to do things for someone else that you don’t want to do makes you amazing. They will never appreciate you for it, and society as a whole will look down their noses, not because you are less than but because they fear following in your footsteps. It is more than okay to cry, to ask for help, to ignore the advice of well meaning friends and family. You have to walk your own path and do what feels right for you in that moment. I don’t want to resign from my job but I know that it will become a necessity sooner rather than later and at least I won’t feel guilt on the job/work front. Maybe dedicating my life to my mum is the right thing to do, maybe it’s the wrong thing but it feels like the best thing. People may pity you, feel sorry for your situation but it’s redundant. All you can do is your best. At some point you will look back on all of this and see that you tried and no-one can ask more than that of you. The sleepless nights, the tears, the loss of self, it all sucks but it’s done with the best of intentions. You may hate the person you care for but you love them as well. For me, I’m grateful I’m alone, no spouse, no children to have to do for me what I have to do for my mum. That would destroy me and I would take matters into my own hands before that happened. But I don’t blame my mum for doing otherwise. She is scared and that fear turns her into someone else. I can’t change her mindset, no matter how hard I’ve tried. But I can try to change me. I have to rise above it and focus on what’s important. So what if no-one fancies me, that no-one gives a s@*t about me. Someone who doesn’t care or understand is less than useless. In times of trouble you will find out that there are people who care and a few words of support from them will mean far more than a soliloquy from someone who doesn’t. And if your situation is particularly dire and you feel completely alone, trust in yourself. If you do what feels right to you then half the battle is won.
“Everyone has a box of rocks.”