I’ve spent the last few years thinking about the dark side of being a carer. In my research I’ve asked hundreds of people caring for family members with dementia if they ever think about killing themselves or the person they’re caring for. But more recently I’ve started thinking about what gets carers through these dark times, what makes them resilient.
Resilience is a slippery concept. Some researchers say it’s a process, others say it’s a personality trait. Some researchers see it in purely psychological terms, others think it’s also affected by biological, social, and environmental factors. Some researchers think resilience is about surviving difficult experiences, while others think it’s not just about surviving but also thriving as a result of those experiences. In one project I’m working on, my colleagues and I spent months trying to agree on a definition so we could decide which studies to include in, and which studies to exclude from, our review of resilience interventions for family carers. In another project, I asked carers how they defined resilience and I’m currently working through their responses.
As part of my reading on resilience, I recently bought Brené Brown‘s latest book, Rising Strong. Brené’s earlier work on shame and vulnerability really resonated with me, so I was keen to see her take on resilience. Reading it on the train to yoga this weekend I came across a section about forgiveness and it was like I’d been punched in the stomach. My eyes watered, I doubled over, and I couldn’t catch my breath. (Sidebar: There are very few downsides to not owning a car, but crying on public transport is definitely one of them. Thank goodness for sunglasses!)
I already knew that forgiveness was a powerful thing – I’ve seen it work wonders in both my personal and my professional life. Forgiving others is an essential step in the process of accepting difficult experiences and moving forward. But what struck me in Brené’s book was this word: self-forgiveness.
It had never occurred to me that I needed to forgive myself, but as soon as I read it I knew it was true. For example, I’ve never forgiven myself for getting sick. Even though it wasn’t my fault, I still feel like I’m to blame and this is definitely stopping me from fully moving forward. There are plenty of other things I need to forgive myself for too. Like not being who I thought I’d be at 33, not standing up to injustice as often as I could, and the times when I’ve acted out of fear and hurt rather than kindness and compassion.
As I got off the train, I was lost in my own thoughts. I was still teary, thinking through the implications of what I’d just read, my legs on autopilot steering me toward the yoga studio. And then a man yelled at me from a moving car. As most women know, this is not a pleasant experience and usually involves some variation on “nice arse” or “show us your tits”. But I got what might be the politest catcall in human history. My mystery man simply yelled “Hello love”. I burst out laughing and continued to laugh, through the tears, all the way to yoga.
I fell over a lot in that yoga class. Partly because I got the giggles every time I thought of “hello love”, but mostly because the stuff on self-forgiveness had really rattled me and I couldn’t find my centre. But each time I fell, I got up, took a deep breath, and tried again.
As I walked back to the train after the class, I started to think about what this all meant for my research. Does this change the way my colleagues and I have been thinking about resilience in carers, or does it confirm it? The forgiveness aspect is certainly a change and I will need to do some more reading and take another look at our data to see where forgiveness fits in the resilience stories of carers. The humour and determination aspects, however, are familiar. Life gets dark, surviving can be hard, and thriving takes work. But laughing through the tears and getting up when you fall are essential steps on the path to resilience, for me and for carers.