Brain Injury, Caregivers, relationships

The Courage to Speak

Saying we care is easy, but acting on it means taking a risk

I made one of those discoveries that you wish you could go back in time and undo, put the curtain back in place to hide what you wish you never knew. But you can’t take back the knowing, can you? This must be what they mean when they say that ignorance is bliss.

I learned, with great pain, that years ago someone had seen me struggling in my role as caregiver; saw the toll it took on me physically, emotionally, and mentally. They were able to describe it in detail, not just a passing, vague comment. But they didn’t press in to intervene. They let me have my privacy.

I can understand that way of thinking. We are afraid of being seen as too nosy or as a meddler in other’s affairs. We think if they need anything, they’ll ask, right? It’s not our place to press into their well being, their life. Or is it?

All those years when I was early in the struggles of balancing our life with my husband’s brain injury, navigating our new life without a guide, I felt I had to keep up with the expectations of life. Because there seemed to be no place or no one that offered a wedge to opening the discussion that my life was harder than most, I just continued the pretence that I had it all together. I was good at that. Really good. Probably too good, in retrospect.

So when it was revealed to me that someone saw my struggles, I was angry that they observed, but didn’t press, didn’t try to wedge open the door to my suffering. And I was hurt. The implicit suggestion was that my isolation was my fault because I was too private, not forthcoming enough. Yes, I acknowledge it’s a risk to ask someone how they’re really doing and leave space for an answer that’s hard to hear. But if you’re already hurting, it’s a bigger step to ask for help than the step of a person in a stable place reaching out. It’s a risk with an opportunity to build connection instead of isolation. And feeling connected, that someone cares, is a lifesaver to those drowning in their overburdened daily responsibilities to their family.

Saying we care is easy, but acting on it means taking that risk. A risk you might offend the person. A risk you might have to hear what you don’t want to because it’s difficult to hear another’s pain. A risk of not knowing what to do and feeling helpless. All of these are possibilities. It’s also possible that the person you care about continues to feel isolated and alone, increasingly afraid to reach out.

I can’t say I know the difference between someone who takes the risk to ask and someone who decides to let them be, respecting their privacy. I can only say I know the difference between being asked if I’m okay or feeling the pain of isolation. They both bring tears to my eyes. One is tears of exhaustion, frustration and shame; the other tears of gratitude that form at the mere bidding of the memory of someone reaching into my world. Even as I write this I feel the emotion in my eyes, filling with gratefulness that drops onto my cheeks.

It came from an unexpected source, and maybe that’s what made the act of reaching in so impactful. Having just started at a new location for my work, I’m still learning about my colleagues: Who is quick to laugh, who likes to follow the rules, who relies on coffee to start their day, who is uneasy with change, and who likes to be noticed.

One of my colleagues with a more vibrant, extroverted personality than my own, quietly approached me one morning after break and said “ I dreamed about you last night”.

Panic flew through me. I’m never sure if it’s a good thing when someone you barely know dreams about you. Why would she dream about me? We hardly talk.

She continued, “you’ve been kind of quiet lately. And I just want to be sure you’re okay.”

What should I say? Blame it on the catastrophic flooding that has devastated our region the last couple weeks? Brush it off, and just say I’m normally quiet anyways. I take a breath and choose honesty.

“Yes, the past few weeks have been hard for me. I don’t talk much about my home life. My husband has a brain injury, and although you can’t tell by looking at him, it means I carry a lot.”

She was sympathetic and kind. I was glad she’d asked, but just as glad that she’d left it at that for the moment. She’d opened the door for me. She took the risk. And I ended that day with a much needed boost to my spirits, feeling cared for, with a new resource to help get me through the next day.

I’m so grateful she had the courage to speak. Thank you to all those who speak up when they see someone struggling.