Real-life Recovery – Entering the New Normal
Mother daughter relationships can be complex – incredibly close or laden with conflict. My relationship with my mother has gone through a profound shift. A month ago she was critically ill in intensive care. Now we have entered a new normal where the roles have reversed and the daughter is now the one who mothers her mother. This rite of passage finds me doing things for her at the end of her life that she did for me at the start of mine.
This role reversal is surprising and strange. A fiercely independent woman is now dependent. Her child is now the adult carer. It is bittersweet every time I find myself doing something that she would have done for me at the start of my life. She says ‘thank you very much’ – a phrase that is back since she lost much of her communication with the stroke. As I walked her to my car a few days ago she said “you’re looking after me very well.” “It is a pleasure” I responded adding that she had done the same for me when I was young. “Oh that was a long time ago” she replied. It is an honour to be ministering to her as she did for me in the bookends of life.
I watched her take a test for aphasia, the condition that many stroke victims experience where communication is affected. At first glance it looks like a children’s picturebook – you see a picture like a cat or a flower pot and have to name the object. How poignant that the retired schoolteacher is made to use a book that wouldn’t be out of place in a primary school.
The roles I perform have broadened considerably and I find myself acting as a nurse, occupational therapist, physiotherapist and speech & language therapist with no training to guide me but a daughter’s instinct. Having a background as a coach is helpful – talking my mother around from heavy sedation was like a reverse kind of hypnotherapy. Now I’m using my skills to support her in her recovery and applying my expertise as a positive psychologist.
There is cause for optimism – I have witnessed first-hand the brain’s plasticity. Her communication is improving and she is stronger in body and clearer in mind. Either the brain is healing or the neurons are finding other ways to connect. Things are more flexible than they are fixed. You can go on forging new neural pathways throughout life which is a source of hope.
My mother sometimes feels down about her chances of recovery but the ‘growth mindset’ shows us that with enough motivation, concentration and application, we can become better at most things. So I keep feeding back to her the evidence of her improvement and encouraging her to keep trying rather than giving up as someone in a fixed mindset would do.
Occupational therapy tends to focus on relearning basic skills such as making a cup of tea but thanks to inspirational OT Jen Gash, I have discovered the real meaning of occupational therapy, which is to engage the client in something that has interest and meaning for them. Engagement is one of the five elements in the PERMA model of well-being. So I try and engage my mother in life as she comes back to life. Engagement can take the form of glancing through photo album, a creative or craft activity or something physical like gardening. Here we see many parallels with ‘flow’, the concept that Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi has charted. It is the balance of skill and challenge that takes people into flow. Too much challenge relative to skill and anxiety is provoked while too little challenge leads to boredom.
This period is all about healing and healing is so much more than the medicines. It is the human interaction in the care that restores the patient’s well-being. These are some of the characteristics of love, the supreme positive emotion. Love nourishes our relationships and heals our physical and psychological health.