This picture presents a perfect example of what a parent must do when in the middle of a mental health crisis or other types of crises. If you are keeping up with my posts and made it all the way through the previous post, What I Want You to Know, then you probably realize that we've spent a good deal of time operating in a crisis mode in recent years (multiple). Crisis mode for us began with finding our child clinging to life, through days in ICU, inpatient and outpatient hospitalizations and through the next 18 months or so afterwards. During this time, we slept little. When we did, sleep was fitful, involved nightmares, fear and terror, and frequent waking and checking breathing. Eating became difficult due to the amount of stress we were under and our bodies reaction to it. When you aren't eating or sleeping much, thinking is fuzzy at best. We were having to consider and make such important and crucial life-giving decisions that we could not think about or make decisions about the "easy" things. Thinks like what to eat for dinner, what clothes to put on, and what to do next. Even following a well-used recipe or making a grocery list felt overwhelming. Remembering to take a shower, eat something, take your own medication--all things that can quickly be dropped as a parent focuses all they have on a child in crisis. Tears were always at the ready. For days on end, we would get in fearful, panicked modes where we would search the house and every crevice again making sure we hadn't missed anything that could be used to harm or kill oneself since the last time we looked, only hours before. Friends and therapists who were involved in our lives then and now, tell us how pale, gray, and zomby-ish Keith and I were for a long time. I mostly paced at night. Keith avoided sleep all together. During the day when both kids were back in school, I slept and Keith worked from home. We jumped any time the phone rang, as there were some rough days at school. We lived in fear, as the statistics say after such a young person makes such a serious attempt, there would likely be more attempts in the coming days and weeks. The only details I could keep up with involved multiple therapy appointments each week and getting everyone to these appointments and school on time. I forced myself to put up Christmas decorations those first couple of years, though my heart was definitely NOT in it. We went through the motions for the kids. We needed friends and support, but we had nothing to give in return. And we were not easy to be around as we paced, grieved, screamed, cried, searched, and floundered. We couldn't make plans, because life was not stable, and we could barely think about today. We were taking life from one breath to the next. We couldn't even do day-to-day yet.
Several people talked with Keith and I during that time, primarily the kids' therapists, psychiatrists, administrators, etc. urging us to make sure we were taking care of ourselves. WHAT? I'm supposed to worry about myself when a bomb went off in our home and family, with my children as the biggest casualties? SERIOUSLY! This even sounded ridiculous to us in the beginning, even though we knew deep down there was truth in it. But we are parents. And parents do whatever it takes, including putting their own needs, desires and wishes on the back burner, when their child needs. We hear all of the time still from therapists and doctors that we have done EVERYTHING we needed to do for our kids. They wish all of their patients' parents followed through and did the hard work of restructuring, adjusting, and learning all that was necessary to MAKE SURE our children had every therapy, every need met, and every opportunity to reach their full potential. Our attitude was FORGET ABOUT US. This is ABOUT OUR KIDS. And we'll throw ourselves under a bus FOR OUR KIDS. THEY ARE EVERYTHING. THEY ARE FIRST. We don't care what you think about us. Just SAVE OUR KIDS!
At the same time, we knew we had to be in good enough shape to get through the day for our kids, and so we knew intellectually that we had to do something for ourselves to be able to keep this up. We knew we had to do whatever it took to keep our family intact, which meant also taking care of our marriage. I can say that, miracle of miracles, Keith and I were always united--and we weren't faking it. We agreed 100% about what we needed to do for the kids--including therapy decisions, medication decisions, restructuring our home, family decisions, setting boundaries and enforcing them. We have been fully committed at all times to each other. We have never blamed each other for anything that has occurred or the place we find ourselves in now. Y'all, that right there tells me THERE IS A GOD! YES, JESUS! AMEN? Most couples struggle, don't see eye to eye, and butt heads over the types of decisions we've had to make. And families frequently fall apart as marriages crumble.
It is in this time of crisis, that the oxygen mask becomes uber important. While this is not a new analogy in care-giver circles, it bears revisiting. Parents MUST do whatever they have to do to take care of themselves. If we are not taking care of ourselves we will not be able to take care of our children. We must have something in there to give them. That means we have to sleep, eat regularly, get a little exercise, and find a way to decompress. We must put our own mask on, even though it feels counter-intuitive, and breathe deeply before we turn to our children.
At some point, we knew that we had to take care of ourselves just to keep functioning at a basic level. Enough people kept telling us... At first, though, it still seemed ridiculous. And when people would tell us to be sure and take care of ourselves and each other, we didn't even know what that meant or what it looked like. Because I was in crisis mode, I didn't even know the 1st step in doing that self-care thing. No one ever explained that part.
Fortunately for me, I have a dear, treasured friend who is a therapist. She is not my therapist, though she does counsel me sometimes with such love and dignity. <3 I finally said to her one time, "What does self-care look like? I can't even begin to think of what that means or looks like." I didn't even know what my desires, wishes, or needs were any more--other than food and shelter and for my life to go back to "normal." She gave me a list of things she'd created for herself in one of her graduate counseling classes. I looked at her list and I knew I COULD DO THIS. I still initially had to work through some guilt in focusing on myself, but this is GOOD HEALTH, folks. So, I'm going to share some things from her list. I'm also going to add some things we figured out to do.
A REAL therapist's self-care list:
o Orange Ginger Bath & Body Works
o Candles – vanilla and lavender
o Blue water (ocean, beach)
o “Mindless” TV or movies
o Dark salted chocolate
o Comfort food (pizza)
o Rain/waves sounds
o Shoulder rub
o Petting the dogs
o Meditating on Scriptures
o Going to church and Life Group for community
o Hanging out with close friends during the week for fellowship
o Daily devotional and prayer time
Some things that STILL work for us in our self-care:
- Seeing a therapist to focus on processing all we've been through, but also to really focus on our marriage.
- Massage appointments.
- Lunch date with my people (my sister-girlfriends) once a week.
- Holding my dear friend's infant son while he napped during our once a week lunches.
- Once a week lunch dates just Keith & I.
- Date night once a month. (We were already doing this as a couple, as well as monthly dates one on one with our kids.)
- Attending support/education classes through our NAMI chapter. Attending their parent support groups. All free of charge and all life changing. National Alliance on Mental Illness
- Reading a book for pleasure.
- Going alone to a movie while the kids are at school.
- Taking a nap.
- Taking Xanax (because sometimes when it's hard, and it's hard all of the time, and the psychiatrist says you need to do this occasionally so you can check out, you listen, and you do it and you don't feel guilty. And you can face life again afterwards with a lighter countenance.) Tis is allowed on the actual airplane, too!
- Unplugging from the internet, social media, and everyone "playing" at real life on there
- Going to the gym.
- Getting a pedicure.
- Playing poker with the guys.
- Having pajama days and watching movies.
- Eating ice cream floats.
- Planting & digging in flower beds. (I call this my dirt therapy.)
This is a big one: BOUNDARIES. Boundaries are also a crucial part of self-care. Boundaries keep out people that bring stress, because in a crisis you don't need more stress or anyone pulling your time or attention away from the immediate needs of your little family. Boundaries circle the wagons closer with those who have proven they are safe, and they are not afraid or run off by your tears, anger, guilt, second guessing or inability to make a decision on what to eat off the menu. These are the people who hold your arms up like Aaron and Hur did for Moses. (Exodus 17:11-13) They are the people who pray, meet needs before you voice them, and don't care that it is a one-sided relationship for a while. These are the few who you can give your prayer requests for them to pray, because you aren't talking to God yet, but someone needs to. These essential people do not judge you and do not give advice that you haven't asked for. These are also the people who do not expect you to be over this now and back to your old self. You will never be the same. These people will not either. That is ok, because you are all going to be stronger and more compassionate as a result of living with you, daily, step by step, in your crisis. Boundaries do this and they don't apologize, because you should not have to apologize for taking care of your children, spouse, or yourself--especially in a time of crisis. And frankly, you'll care a whole lot less what others think when you know you are doing the RIGHT THINGS. Boundaries say NO. You need to take time and step away from extra activities, committees, and volunteering. Your 1st ministry is to your family--and this includes the necessary step of self-care: putting on your own oxygen mask, taking some deep breaths, and clearing your head so you are ready to care for your struggling children/family.
These things will give you a starting place to think about and brainstorm/start some things for yourself. Because if you don't take care of yourself, then your child or any other person you are caring for, will NOT have the HEALTHIEST caregiver. And they need us. And they need us to be healthy. We are not only modeling good mental health for our kids by doing this, we are providing a solid foundation and a place for them to feel safe and loved and for them to feel secure, because there is an adult that is not going to let them fall to the bottom without a ladder to climb back up. They don't have to fend off hurtful, ridiculous statements and questions people pose to them. We keep those people away. Outside the wagons. The healthy, in control adult is going to provide the safe boundaries for them, and we are going to protect them as their health dictates their needs and THEY WILL KNOW THIS.
So, folks. Start a self-care list for yourself. No guilt. Do the right things. Therapists, when you recommend self-care, give those zomby, sleep deprived parents an idea of what that looks like. They really can't access all of their brain at this time. Just get them started. If you know someone in crisis now, share this post with them. Even better, call them and tell them you are coming over to make a grocery list and then run that errand for them. Set up a night that you, or another trusted adult, can manage the home front for a couple of hours so a mom and dad can have dinner out without having to manage melt-downs, feeling plans, etc. We ALL have something we can offer here.
P.S. Our children in crisis do NOT need "helicopter parents." (Really no child does, but it's easier to fall into it with an ill kid.) Keith and I were never the "helicopter parents" hovering over our children every second, intervening and preventing consequences, or believing our children could do no wrong and things were never their fault. I'll tell ya', though when your kid tries really hard to die on you and then comes home in an extremely fragile state, which your other kid ends up in also because of all the trauma, IT IS HARD to not be a helicopter parent. Resist. It is not best for your child. Your child needs your support, boundaries, and solid foundation, but they need to learn the coping skills to continue to function in the real world that will not always be on their side. Success is not avoiding struggles or difficulties. Success is facing hard things and obstacles, failing, getting up again, and continuing on.