Being a caregiver was the hardest job I ever did. For 16 years, I served as a caregiver to older adult family members during their last illnesses. The work was exhausting and emotionally draining. I slowly lost my loved ones to Alzheimer’s disease and/or cancer. I struggled to maintain my full-time job while caring for my loved ones. As their health worsened, I gradually eliminated other activities until there was essentially no free time, and not nearly enough sleep. I attended to my loved ones’ physical, emotional, and spiritual needs at end of life. I grieved each loved one who died.
Being a caregiver was the most fulfilling job I ever did. I wouldn’t trade those precious years as a caregiver, or the intense months of end-of-life caregiving, for anything in the world. I learned to carry on, even when I felt empty, depleted, and inadequate. I learned to draw strength from my faith, family, and friends. I learned to show my loved ones that I loved them for who they were, not for what they did. I learned to speak by my actions, when I could no longer reach my loved ones by my words. I learned that the most profound communication is without words. I realized that caregiving was the work that I truly loved—although it was not the work for which I had been educated.
Being a caregiver led to my new career. After my loved ones died, and I was alone, I felt lost. I went to a therapist. He said that I was experiencing normal grief, plus a need for a midlife career change. After he guided me through a long, careful exploration, I realized that I wanted to care for older adults, including those who are nearing end of life; and that I wanted to be a counselor. My therapist suggested that I get a master’s in social work. In the summer between my grad school years, I chose to take a certification course in caring for persons with dementia. I learned that my path from a personal dedication to a professional one was not unusual. Each participant in the class—whether instructor or student—had been a caregiver to family member(s) with dementia, who had since died. Each participant said that caregiving was incredibly hard. And each participant said that they wanted to keep learning skills that would enable them to help persons who are currently suffering from dementia, and to help their caregivers.
May I walk with you? If you have been diagnosed with a serious chronic illness, or if you have a loved one who has been diagnosed with a serious chronic illness, it would be my honor to share your journey with you. It is too hard a journey to travel alone.
In honor of October being Coming Out Month, I wanted to write a blog very near and dear to my heart. Easily over half of my clients identify as LGBT, non-traditional, non-monogamous, and have some form of a coming out story. Whether they did not feel attracted to the opposite sex, they did not identify as the sex they were born, or the idea of a traditional monogamous marriage was not attractive to them, over 60% of my clients have had to go through the mystical, terrifying, and liberating experience of coming out.
If you are questioning your sexuality, myself as well as the folks at Austin Family Counseling want to reassure you that you do not have to go through this alone. Coming out itself is a very isolating experience, and given the current pandemic, we need as little isolation as possible. Per my previous blog, social distancing does not mean emotional distancing. When a human comes out to their friends, family, and coworkers, their need for emotional support is so strong as it is one of the most vulnerable times of their lives.
Below are helpful suggestions from an out-of-the-closet gay man turned therapist to the LGBT community of Texas who had his own share of struggles coming out in early adulthood.These tips are generalized as every person’s story is unique and beautifully different.
Know Who Your Cheerleaders Are and Are Not
As the great Dr. Brene Brown talked about in her book “Daring Greatly”, all of us in some way, regardless of if we have a coming out history, are walking into some kind of arena in life. We are showing up and being seen, regardless of where we are. And in this metaphorical arena she has so beautifully drawn, all of us have the Support Section. This is the section closest to the arena where the cheerleaders in our lives belong—the people who get the closest and most intimate perspective of our struggles. And these people we absolutely need in our lives when we come out. Siblings are often the first people who non-heteronormative people come out to first. They can also be parents, close friends, teachers, counselors, mentors, and close relatives. Consider who is going to be cheering you on and in your corner when you come out. Messages like “This does not change how much I love you”, “We are still your friends regardless”, “We love you no matter what” are messages that ideally should be told to someone who is so vulnerable when coming out.
Being someone’s cheerleader when they come out does NOT sound like: “Well, just don’t hit on me if you are gay”, “It’s okay, I won’t tell anybody”, or “It’s okay, God will forgive you.” There are sadly still families who disown their children for coming out, and in lieu of the recent banning of Conversion Therapy this is a form of emotional and psychological abuse that has no place in our current climate.
Be Mindful of What Could Change
Since coming out can be such a freeing and liberating experience, it is almost counterintuitive to say that there can be “consequences”. As mentioned above, some families disown their relatives for coming out (the amount of homeless LGBTQ youth makes up 40% of the entire minor homeless population). Some workplaces still discriminate against LGBTQ employees for coming out at the workplace. Though we should ALL be able to live authentically as our out and proud selves, I know several clients and several close friends who have had an adverse experience when coming out to their friends and family.
Be Mindful of Mental Health
Bias aside, it is almost always better if you have a therapist to stay with you during the coming out process. As mentioned, coming out can be very isolating and is linked to depression, anxiety, compromised immune systems, suicidal thoughts, and drug and alcohol abuse. In extreme cases, some people never come out of the closet and suffer from very high anxiety and feel obligated to live a double life which can be very harmful for mental and physical health.
Bullying Sadly Still Exists in 2020
I am filled in by a lot of my queer teens and early adults who sadly experience an enormously high level of bullying both in person and through apps like Instagram and Snapchat. Teens who are forcibly outed are prone to suicidal thoughts, feelings of humiliation and embarrassment, and lower senses of self esteem. Having gone through my own fair share of bullying in high school, I am fully empathetic to how painful and scary repetitive bullying can be.
Bullying for queer people can also be present in the adult world. As women, racial and cultural minorities, and persons with special needs can empathize with, bullying in the workplace is alarmingly common. Workplace discrimination based on sexual identity is still sadly alive and well. However, if bullying in any capacity (from coworkers, managers, supervisors, bosses, etc) is present, it is NEVER okay and does not need to be tolerated.
If you are an in-the-closet teen and reading this, please know I am here, I am with you, and I am here to help. I have been through some of the worst parts about coming out (before and after) and I can probably relate to the struggles of coming out in a world that is more straight-friendly. Please let me reassure you that you do not have to go through the process by yourself. One of my favorite kind of client is a teen who is going through the coming-out process as I was there not TOO long ago. 😊 If you are not in a place to tell your parents why you need counseling for coming out, feel free to email me at [email protected] with questions about resources I can give you—and there are plenty in Austin!
As we continue to live in a socially distant world, we may be finding ourselves spending more time with our partners and/or family members, inevitably increasing the likelihood of conflict and/or miscommunication.
Conflict in relationships is normal — the way we choose to “fight” defines whether or not the conflict is healthy or unhealthy.
Here are some tips for fighting fairly with your loved ones:
Start with curiosity versus judgment – notice the conflict cycle. Ask yourself:
What role am I playing in the conflict? Notice how you are usually reacting – defensiveness? Yelling? Walking away? What could your reaction be telling you? Is a boundary of yours being crossed? Are you carrying a responsibility that you don’t need to? Be curious about your reactions by simply noticing them versus judging them or being hard on yourself – you’re human!
What headspace am I in when entering a conversation with my loved one that turns into conflict? Chances are you may be entering into important conversations while already feeling dysregulated from the day – lots of work calls, managing the kids new online school, running errands (let’s be real – we all have a lot going on as we continue to adjust to life in a pandemic). Start with taking some time to take care of yourself – this can be something you do for 5 minutes of the day to an hour!
When are my loved one and I usually having these conversations that turn into conflict? Set a time for important conversations so you both have time to regulate before entering the conversation.
Reframe. View the goal of conversations as finding a solution to the problem versus winning.
You and loved one versus the issue NOT you versus your loved one
The two words that often increase the likelihood of defensiveness in the person being spoken to are, “Why” and “You” when used to start a question or statement. Try the I-statement model instead, starting with how YOU are feeling versus what your loved one is DOING.
“I feel ______ when ______. I need ______. What do you think?”
Repeat back what you heard BEFORE answering.
When we repeat back what we heard our loved one say first, we focus more on listening BEFORE coming up with our own response.
“I heard you say ________. Did I get that right?”
Ask for a break.
If you find yourself or your loved one escalating emotionally – name it AND choose a time to reconnect. It is impossible to have a productive conversation when we are only speaking from an emotional place – logic is no longer present.
“I’m getting angry. Can we talk about this again in an hour?”
Incorporating even one of these tips into your communication pattern will inevitably change the conflict cycle you and your loved one may be engaging in.
Practicing these tips is synonymous to learning a new language.
Learning to communicate is difficult! Give yourself compassion as you navigate this process. Lean in to what you are needing in a healthy way. Wishing you all fair, healthy fighting!