How I’ve managed to cope so well!
26 April 2018 | Tamsin Kingsley
Something we hear a lot is people telling us how well we are coping. If I question this, it is usually followed up by something like ‘oh but you are, you’re doing so well/ I would be a complete mess in your situation/ I don’t know how you stay so strong’. Obviously, everyone means to be supportive and positive which I really appreciate, and often this has been a great encouragement. The strange thing is that I have been told how well I am coping both when I’m feeling like I’m managing to keep myself and my family going pretty well, and when I’m in total despair and don’t feel I can handle any more drama. And when you’re feeling rubbish and someone tells you how well you’re coping, it can lead to guilt that you’re essentially lying to people by putting on a good front and worry of what people would think if they discovered how you actually felt. I would suggest that you can’t always (in fact usually) tell how someone is ‘coping’ from the outside. In fact, the more I have thought about it, the more I’ve realised that by ‘coping’, people often mean ‘not making a fuss’, which really bears no resemblance to how they are feeling inside.
I first noticed this after my first labour. It was 26 hours long and very quiet. I didn’t shout or scream, and mostly didn’t even want to talk (which made it very boring for Dan). It’s just my character; the more tired/stressed/upset/out of control I feel the quieter I get. I was told several times how well I was coping during labour, and afterwards, both hospital and community midwives said I should have a home birth next time because I coped with the pain so well. Only I didn’t feel like I had coped. I had hated every moment of every contraction, hated life in those moments and felt out of control and gross. Really, who’s to say that in keeping quiet I ‘coped’ any more than the screamers I could hear up the corridor. That was their way of dealing with the pain, and I had mine. But really, I was quite proud of staying quiet and secretly liked that people thought it meant I was strong. I wasn’t about to let them in on the truth!
Following Izzy’s birth, every time a doctor saw me crying on neonatal they decided I needed to see their psychologist. Did the crying mean I wasn’t coping? Actually, I think I stayed fairly emotionally and psychologically stable during this time, which the psychologist agreed with and promptly discharged me again. I am not in any way a ‘crier’, but I do think that it can be a healthy expression of understandable emotion, and not always (or even usually) a cry for help.
So if staying quiet isn’t always a sign of coping, and crying out isn’t always a sign of struggling, how can you know what anyone is really feeling? And I honestly think unless you know someone really well, and even sometimes then, we don’t.
I don’t know if anyone else does this, but whenever I get a really bad cold I realise how much I’ve been taking feeling ‘normal’ for granted. I can’t wait to get back to that wonderful place of wellness again; the place that just the day before hadn’t felt like anything special. When I recover I promise myself that I will appreciate every day how well I feel, which usually lasts about 2 days. I wonder if it’s similar with mental health; you don’t realise or appreciate how well you’ve been coping until suddenly you’re not.
For me, this moment came after Izzy’s first unplanned hospital admission when she was about 6 months. We were in for about 3 weeks, and I poured my every thought and feeling into her care. At that point, I didn’t know any of the staff and didn’t understand a lot of the jargon and equipment. I also didn’t leave the hospital building once. I would run downstairs once a day to buy some lunch from the hospital shop, terrified that Izzy would struggle while I was gone (a very real fear).
When I returned home my confidence in my ability to look after Izzy was gone. I had taken her to the GP with worries about her breathing, and he had called an ambulance there and then. I felt awful for not recognising how ill she was, and was scared I would make the same mistake again. I had missed Lauren so so much in hospital and couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her again. People started noticing I wasn’t myself and the really brave ones mentioned it. But most people carried on telling me how well I was doing (as though saying it would make it true, or maybe that’s really what they thought).
I have always considered myself as a strong person. Mental health issues were real and important, but they were for other people, not me. As a Christian it can also feel like there is pressure (whether real or imaginary) to be doing fine because we are trusting in God. If I struggle does it mean my faith isn’t strong enough, or I’m not letting God take the weight of my worries? Am I not praying hard enough? Of course not, but it’s much easier to explain this to other people than yourself! It took a lot of persuading by two good friends and Dan to get me to see the GP, but I’m so glad I did. I was worried that any medication would make me feel like a zombie, or that I’d lose the ability to feel anything. In fact, I just found myself remembering what it was like to feel ‘normal’ again, like when you recover from that cold. I also was able to gradually start getting some space from Izzy. It sounds ridiculous but I forced myself to go a bit further for lunch while I was in hospital, and then started asking the play therapists to watch her while I had a break and a coffee in a cafe. I’m not suggesting that there are instant solutions for mental health issues, but sometimes little changes can make a big difference, and it might take talking to someone to work out what those need to be.
I guess I’m telling you this in the hope that I might be able to help someone else who may not be coping too well with life right now, despite what their friends may think. Maybe if I’d stopped believing I had no choice but to ‘cope’ a bit sooner I might not have become so miserable.
I also want to encourage everyone to be more direct with each other, though maybe not as much as I can sometimes be!! Plenty of people had asked how I was doing but it took a couple of people to look me in the eye and say ‘I think you need some help’ which is so scary to do. I don’t know if I would be brave enough to say it to someone else but I hope so. Obviously, you wouldn’t say anything like this unless you were pretty sure they were struggling. But if you’re not sure, maybe just remember that what you’re seeing on the outside might not be the whole picture.
I don’t have the answers of what to say instead. If you are particularly wanting to encourage by commenting on someone’s mental/emotional wellbeing, rather than any physical progress or by offering sympathy, maybe being a bit more specific could help. For example commenting on something you actually do know or have seen- ‘I think you’ve done really well to have made it to church/playgroup/this party etc.’, ‘I’m really impressed with how you dealt with that person’s questions just then, well done’, ‘Wow, the way you sorted that toddler tantrum was great considering all you have going on’. Admittedly, anyone who said the latter would almost certainly be lying but hopefully you get the idea even if my examples aren’t the best. To be honest I am the queen of saying the wrong thing so I’m not complaining about any specific comments we’ve had that have been said out of love and encouragement. And if someone is hiding how they are really feeling how can you possibly know if they are ok! But I suppose I’m saying that if you don’t know, just don’t assume, and maybe think twice before telling someone how well they’re coping.
I am a 30 year old living in Leeds with my husband and two children. I am a full time mum and carer to Lauren, 4.5 years and typical, and Izzy, 3 years with Down's Syndrome. Izzy has complex health needs mostly due to her low muscle tone, and struggles with feeding and breathing, resulting in tons of appointments and hospital admissions. Both children are happy and full of life, and our family all love each other very much.
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