The Fallible Caregiver Series: Seeking Outside Help
Last updated: September 2022
I had a mental image yesterday of how I feel in life. I pictured a piece of twine rope frayed at both ends. I wasn’t even thinking about anything, in particular, just walking through my house when that image surfaced in my mind. I saw it, and my heart agreed.
I had another thought that same day, one that haunts me often. It’s that everyone else around me has this thing called life figured out… everyone except me. From the outside, doesn’t it seem like everybody else has it all together.
I know in my head this is completely false, yet we are all so darn good at putting on the makeup, getting a clean shave, washing the car, and parading on life’s stage as though we’re A-list actors.
Am I the only one who’s afraid so much? Am I the only one who struggles with anxiety, with envy, with anger, with overwhelm? It’s 5:00 AM as I write this. I woke up last night (or this morning) at 2:30 AM and could not fall back asleep. I did this two nights ago too. So after lying there for 30-minutes, I got up and turned on the coffee maker. I took a shower, got dressed, and headed to the office to start work. First thing: write this article.
At what point do we seek outside help?
If you’ve missed my previous articles, I’m a caregiver husband to an amazing wife who has stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. She’s only 34, which makes it all the more tragic and painful.
This is my second marriage and it’s a good one. It’s a damn good one. We share a mutual love and respect I’ve never known. Yet we both struggle with issues like this prior to cancer. Add cancer into the mix—an incurable cancer—and those polliwog struggles wriggle into wart-covered frogs.
We can handle the polliwogs, at least I think we can. But what are we to do if one of those wigglers grows legs and flops onto your kitchen floor? What I’m getting at specifically, is when do we seek outside professional help? You know, the kind with something like LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists) after their name.
I may be wrong, but I think most of us avoid seeking this kind of help like we avoid doing our taxes. We like to think of ourselves as competent and capable frog whispers or frog slayers. But the existence of those frogs in our kitchens, in our bedrooms, in fridges, in our wallets—in our hearts, prove otherwise. They also prove we are not even that adept at taming our polliwogs.
Where to seek help
The truth—the bald flat fat factual truth—is we all need help. For most of us, lots of it. I believe we are designed to be communal creatures and we wither and die in isolation. Yet we fight this because we are afraid. Pride plays a part in there, but I believe the root cause of our refusal to seek help is fear. I’m afraid of thinking others see me as weak. I’m afraid of seeing myself as weak.
One of the hidden blessings of struggling with alcohol (and divorce, and fear, and…) is that I’ve been to a lot of stinkin support groups and therapists where I barf up my guts and garbage to a room full of strangers. But from those meetings, I’ve learned the power of other people. I’ve learned so often I can’t do it on my own and my solo missions almost always end in failure. Frogs mutate into destructive bullfrogs. Sometimes even lizards and snakes. We are as sick as our secrets.
I see 4 outside places or sources where we can seek help:
- Lay Counselors,
- and Licensed Professionals.
If we are caregivers or cancer patients, it’s my opinion we should be packing all four in our arsenal. But first, it’s critical we understand these sources are not equal. They are not all the same rifles. Your buddy may be a single-shot rifle, but your therapist is like an M-16. Your mom probably can’t help you slay your bullfrog because she’s likely got her own bullfrog biting her ankle—or worse she’ll help you feed your bullfrog!
One way to see these four resources is as four levels of disclosure. Of course, our degree of closeness will determine how much we disclose to each person.
Levels of Disclosure
Ideally, our families are safe places and constants in our lives. In many ways, our families act like the software running our computers. They are always there and working (in our hearts and minds) in the background. Our families know us very well in ways no one else does. For me, I’m close with my mom (and stepdad) and talk to her weekly. She’s up on what’s going on in our lives. With mom, I can share polliwog issues, but rarely will I talk about frogs.
My wife is closer to her mom than I am mine. But it’s still the same, she will share polliwogs but never frogs. Rebekah has four other siblings and were she to share frog issues with mom, the news would somehow “leak” into the grapevine. Thus mom is a source of comfort (like the software) but she’s not safe. Out of Rebekah’s four siblings, she only feels safe sharing frog issues with one of them: her little sister.
Our friends also serve as constants in our lives, similar to the software, but they act more like virus protection. While our families know us well in ways no one else does, it’s our close friends who really know us. They know the adult us. When a rebellious polli threatens to grow legs, it’s usually that one friend we text or call, not our family members.
We are close friends with another couple, Chris and Elaine. I’m close with Chris because I trust him. I know he loves me and will not betray me. He’s proven it. When I lose my mind and fall off the wagon, it’s Chris I call. He shows up. He takes me to lunch. I can take him in the kitchen and say, “Look.” I can show him the full ugliness of a slimy bullfrog. Friends act like virus protection when we need stronger help beyond our control.
Clergy and Counselors
Clergy (of all faith traditions) and lay (or student) counselors serve as another level of disclosure. If we trust them, we can often go deeper with these people. We can show them the frogs. The difference here is that these people usually carry weapons your family and friends don’t have. They have the experience of counseling lots of people with lots of problems. They’re like frog herders.
In the computer analogy, while you may have virus protection, it doesn’t always work. Clergy and counselors are like your computer geek friend who comes over and tinkers with the actual system to find the problem.
Over the last decade, I’ve met with many pastors and counselors to fight my frogs. These people are safe and usually full of grace. They have the benefit of seeing and fighting hundreds of frogs, lizards, and snakes. They’ve acquired special weapons and frog traps.
However, most clergy are not specially trained for anything more than a frog. Lay counselors may have a few more weapons but I’ve found not too many more. I’ve often felt pity for the poor local pastor sitting in front of me unable to get his hands around one of my giant croaking bullfrogs. For these suckers, I will then seek out a licensed therapist.
A therapist is someone specially trained to hunt frogs. That’s all they do. They’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time preparing for the task and then years hunting frogs. They are the safest of all people because they’re legally bound by confidentiality.
To be sure, therapists come in different sizes and forms. During and after my divorce, I met with two licensed therapists. While they didn’t “cure” me, they were more directly helpful than any other people I talked to. They had a chest of weapons I’d never seen or even thought of.
After Rebekah was re-diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, that first year was brutal. She fell into a period of depression when the reality of it all started becoming reality. I found her a female therapist, Denise, who specialized in grief and trauma. Denise was so fabulous that I started seeing her on my own for my own damn frogs. At other times we saw her together.
Since Rebekah’s diagnosis now almost eight years later, I’ve seen two other male therapists for my “issues.” And I sought these people out because I don’t like living with frogs.
Finding a Therapist
In seeking to find a therapist, what should you look for? I’m no pro at this, but here is what I look for.
- I try to find someone within my faith tradition. If you ascribe to a worldview of atheism or Buddhism, you probably don’t want a Christian counselor. For me, that’s exactly what I want. As someone with a trained background in theology and philosophy, I understand the controlling functions of worldviews. Most therapists will list their beliefs or faith tradition on their page.
- Depending on what I’m dealing with, I will seek the gender that seems most helpful and comfortable. They’re some things that only another man would really understand and be able to best empathize with. Likewise, there are woman issues that only another woman would really understand and be able to best empathize with.
- I look for location. Where is this person? I want someone as close to where I live as possible to remove all excuses of flaking. If my appointment is over in the next city, I’m far more likely to start missing appointments and then stop going altogether. Remove unnecessary friction.
- I look for price. These people can be darn expensive. Lay and student counselors/therapists are often cheap since they’re still in training. Do they take insurance? Do they offer a sliding scale for price?
- How old are they? I once went to a therapist, and who was in his twenties. I never went back. I’m 44 now, so ideally, I want someone older than me, someone, with gray hair and more life experience.
We need to get it out
This article ran longer than I wanted. Maybe I need this as therapy. I needed to talk to you. I needed to talk to someone else who gets it. I do feel better now, like the ends of that frayed rope are not as bad as I first thought—or felt. Maybe that’s the point here—we need each other.
We need all four levels of disclosure—family, friends, clergy, and therapists. We need to get the crap out. We need to purge our hearts. And we can’t do it alone. We’re not meant to. We are better together.
Where do you seek help?
Are you checking off any bucket list items this summer?
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