Part of the trouble with caring for (or loving) someone who is ill is that you can find yourself thinking and feeling ‘for’ them.
You see how they are, and you put yourself in their shoes.
If you and they are happy and healthy, this may be a pleasure, not a problem. But if they have some symptom of illness or disability, you may find yourself thinking and feeling as if you had the same symptom.
If they cannot walk, your own legs or feet may become a problem. You may buy yourself more shoes than you did before. If they have a stomach pain or a headache, you may develop one too.
If they cannot think, you may find it hard to think yourself. You may also try to think for them. You may lose touch with your own thoughts ; you may stop thinking for yourself and try to think only for them.
If they are confused, you may be unable to think clearly in the same room as them; you may have to go out of the house and talk to someone outside before your own thoughts clear.
If they are depressed, you may become depressed. You may feel guilty if you allow yourself to enjoy anything.
If they are suicidal, you may for a while feel suicidal.
Sometimes this happens when the person who is ill is not admitting to feeling suicidal, but their partner or carer has ‘picked up’ the feelings without recognising that they come from the ill person.
For a time, you may feel you are them. You may not realise you have lost yourself, until you regain yourself some time later.
The ‘them’ in your head will not be the same as the ‘them’ out there.
Identification processes are complicated by the way people confuse their own feelings and thoughts with those of people they love. They may think they understand the other very well because they attribute their own thoughts and feelings to them, when in fact, the situation looks very different to the other person.
You may not be able to see all the things which are wrong with them – for example, you may at times forget they cannot see, or think clearly, or understand quickly, because you cannot see these things.
You may find yourself using language about ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ with someone who has difficulty seeing or hearing, even though you cannot see these problems and you don’t consciously remember that they have them. It is as if part of your mind knows, and is reminding you, while the conscious part has forgotten.
The ‘them’ you are ‘being’ may actually be more stern, more demanding, more cruel really, than the real them. The ‘them’ in your head may not want you to have a life at all, while the real them, ‘out there’ does.
If they have been lying in bed, unable to do anything for a long time, they may see the world very differently from the way they saw it before. This kind of difference can make it hard to know what the other person is really feeling or thinking. They may have changed their opinions dramatically – but be unable to express it. Trying to interpret behaviour and expressions we ‘copy’ these in our own minds and use this to detect what they are doing and feeling. If they can no longer control their face or their hands or their body, this may not work.
Identification can be a way of trying to keep someone alive
It is as if we are saying ‘I haven’t lost them, they are here, just the same as they were, inside me’. ‘I am them, I’m not me!’
We do need other people. Their health and happiness matters very much to us – often more than our own. It is very difficult to feel healthy and happy when someone you love is neither.
Sometimes, after a time, people become afraid that they they will be lost, drowned in the other person. They may feel they have to get away in order to reclaim themselves.
Separating at all can feel very threatening. It can feel as if it would kill the ill person; as if you are keeping them alive by being them, by keeping them in your head, your body.
Separating in your head may be important, particularly if the person is not going to get better. Separating in your head means ‘allowing’ the other person to be different; sorting out the differences between you and giving yourself permission to let them be.
Separating in your head may be necessary before you can allow yourself to leave them with someone else, or alone, for a while. It may be necessary before you can go out and find ways of regaining some pleasure in life, some enjoyment, some rest and recuperation. It may be necessary before you can attend to other members of your family, including your children.
Children who make demands may help parents to find ways of separating themselves when one has become too ill to care for the children. Children who try too hard not to cause trouble may end up deprived of significant aspects of their parents. (Children and parents may not be aware what they do for each other, and how much they need each other, at any age.)
When people lose someone, they may be particularly aware of identifying with them for a while – perhaps to keep them alive in their mind. Children may become like a parent who has left them; abandoned partners may find themselves behaving more like the person who has gone.
After a while fears of becoming just like them in some way may surface.
If your friend has died, you can be afraid of dying like they did. The connection may not be clear – you may just feel certain a particular bad thing is going to happen, without realising it is what happened to someone you cared for recently. This does not usually last for ever, but the ‘you’ you get back eventually will be a bit different, changed by your identification with them.
Sometimes people are so afraid of becoming like someone they care for that they avoid being like them in any way. Which might mean they cannot admit to understanding how the person feels at all, even though they really understand only too well.