When it all gets too much
Sandra van Scheppingen is an Agile coach at COO/Global Know Your Customer. A few years ago, her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and gradually required more of Sandra’s care. In 2020, it all became too much for her.
Read on about the steps she took to regain her mental strength.
it’s OK to admit you are not OK.
A difficult period in my life started around four years ago when my mother starting showing unusual symptoms. First, she lost her sense of smell. Then she fell off her bike. She also started having problems planning simple tasks.
In 2018, I took my mother to a neurologist, who already in the first meeting said, “I think this is Parkinson’s.” I had no idea what that was. Parkinson’s is a neurological disease, caused by a lack of dopamine, that distorts the signals from the brain to the rest of the body. The symptoms are very broad.
Things improved when she started taking medication. But even so, Parkinson’s is a progressive disease. Eventually, my mother couldn’t do simple things like clean the house anymore. She gets exhausted very quickly – another symptom. My father is in his 80s, so there are limits as to what he can do as well.
While helping my parents and coming to terms with the disease, I also had my full-time job and a family with two children.
Things came to a head during the corona lockdown. We needed to find someone to help in my parent’s household, which wasn’t easy because the agency we were working with stopped helping us due to all the insecurities and safety issues at the beginning of the pandemic.
To top it off, after we finally found a new person, my brother called one day to say he fell off his bike and broke both arms. He lives alone, so I now had to help him with his household too.
That was a turning point for me. You carry the load and go on and on without whining. But how much is ‘too much’ is a very personal thing and at that point it was becoming too much for me to handle. At work, I noticed I was becoming more tense, more emotional in meetings. I once cried in a meeting. I was so tired.
Afterwards, I had a separate conversation with my manager, who asked me: “Are you all right?” It was hard to admit that I wasn’t. My manager suggested I take a week off to reconsider things. I added another week to that.
During that time, my doctor confirmed I was heading toward a burnout. She gave me access to an online module with information, tests and advice on how to deal with it. I also found a course about the role of being an informal caregiver (‘mantelzorger’ in Dutch). I learned that I first need to take care of myself before I can take care of others. And I talked to the wellbeing coach at ING in the Netherlands.
When I returned to work, I was lucky enough to have a colleague that could take over some work to lighten my load. I also started to set some boundaries in my personal life. For example, I learned to respect the autonomy of the people who need my care so they can appreciate the independence that they still have.
My story is not unique. This is happening to so many people. As a coach, I know all about the reluctance people have in opening up about their problems. But it’s OK to admit you are not OK.
So if someone snaps at you, ask them, “How are you doing? Let’s have a coffee and talk about it.” When your car has a problem, you bring it to the garage to get fixed. If you have mental health issues, what’s wrong with going to a psychologist to get help?
We need to get beyond this idea that you shouldn’t talk about the challenges you’re facing in your life. We all live in our own bubble. But I noticed that once I started being open with others about my life, they began opening up about theirs too.
Free to be yourself
This article is part of a series in which ING colleagues tell their personal stories. At ING we celebrate inclusion and value a diverse workforce, as we know people are most motivated when they are free to be their whole selves.