Dear Ann Cannon • Our daughter is in the middle of a messy, protracted divorce. During the whole ugly event, I’ve made it a point to “be there” for her, helping out in the all the ways she needs right now. She’s a good woman and my heart is broken for her. The problem is that I’ve begun to internalize everything myself. I’m having a hard time eating and sleeping, and every time the phone rings, I expect to hear bad news. I fear that I’m on the verge of going down some dark rabbit hole myself. My question is this: How do you help someone you love who’s going through a hard time without being eaten up by that person’s problems yourself?
― Distraught Mama
Dear Distraught • First things first. I’m so sorry for the pain that all the people involved in this situation are experiencing. This is hard, hard territory. The older I get, the more aware I am that nobody gets out of this life unscathed. Nobody. We all have our stuff and at times it certainly feels like we have way, way more stuff than we can bear.
As for your question, let me remind you that I am not a therapist — and that seeing a therapist, if that’s in the realm of possibility for you, might not be a bad idea. Still, because I’ve watched situations like this play out before, I have a few ideas to share.
I think it’s great you’ve already recognized that you’re not in a good place and you’re also in danger of heading toward an even worse place. Give yourself plenty of credit for that! It’s hard to help a loved one if you’re emotionally and/or physically depleted yourself.
It’s probably wise for you to regularly remind yourself that setting some boundaries is a healthy practice for everybody. Look at your reality right now. Assess what you’re capable of handling at the present time, realizing that things can and do change. A month from now you may be better able to deal with certain situations than you can today. And that’s OK.
Here’s another thought. You may be doing more for your daughter than she actually needs (or even wants) you to do. How many times a day does she call you? If those phone calls are difficult for you right now, ask yourself if you really do need to take every single one of them. Your answer might surprise you.
It’s also useful to remind yourself whose problems are whose. Of course having a daughter in the middle of a messy divorce is hard for both of you. But, as difficult as this is, the process can present her with the opportunity to learn, to grow, to acquire a range of life skills that will serve her well down the road. Choose to believe in that possibility and express your confidence in her abilities to manage her affairs whenever possible.
Speaking of problems, remember that your daughter is NOT her divorce. That’s just one piece of who she is right now. Same goes for you. Deliberately resist the impulse to catastrophize what the future holds. And if you feel overwhelmed by worry in the present moment, channel your inner Scarlett O’Hara. Tell yourself, “I’ll think about that tomorrow, y’all,” and then visualize leaving your worries at the front door.
(Not that Scarlett O’Hara actually said “y’all.” It’s not like she was Tami Taylor on “Friday Night Lights” or anything. But whatever.)
Meanwhile, do something EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. that elevates your mood. Get outside and take a long walk. Ride a bike. Read. Spend time with a friend. Listen to music. Bake. Go to a local nursery and see what’s growing. Watch a silly superhero movie. Whatever floats your boat. You choose.
Finally, your question has triggered memories of my dad, who always used to tell us when things got hard that “this, too, shall pass.” Guess what. He was right.
Hang in there.