Put on Your Oxygen Mask

In past years, working in an air-conditioned office while the kids were in summer camps and organized activities, I kept summer at arm’s-length. Summer was a thing that happened on weekends, or on a patio with a gin and tonic after 6 pm. It was scheduled into my tidy and organized days and didn’t infringe on my 9-5 world.

For the past few summers, I’ve worked from home. The heat and proximity to the garden or ocean throw a veil of innate laziness over even my busiest days. I bring my laptop outside and work in the sun. I have meetings on coffee shop patios. I go to the cottage and sit on the dock while I write. Time slows to a crawl. The kids roam around like feral animals, spending days in their pyjamas and emerging only to forage for snacks. All structure is gone. The world condenses into hazy thoughts, blooms of honeysuckle, and quiet bird song.

This lack of structure worked for me, in the past. This year, though, I’m struggling. I’ve spent the past week being, basically, a lump. I’ve tried and failed to muster the energy to make it though my growing to-do list. I start ten different things, but at the end of the day stare at a blank computer screen. I am horrified by the dirt in the corners of the bathrooms, but have no energy to do anything about it. I drink too much coffee. I spend a lot of time staring at honeybees and wondering how such small, fuzzy creatures get the energy to do bee stuff all day.

I have run out of oxygen.

Puck wants to be a pilot. He’s obsessed with airplanes. And one of the first things you hear on a plane is the warning that in case of emergency, put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else.

My plane has been in a nosedive all year, and I have not put my oxygen mask.

One thing I’ve learned in my 48 years on this planet is that there is always ‘stuff’. There are jobs to do, bills to pay, relationships to navigate, fix, or leave. To be an adult is to tread water in a sea of stuff. For me, though, this year’s stuff has been dragging me under. I’ve questioned my own life-choices, and dealt with job uncertainty. I’ve spent sleepless nights worrying about Puck, and whether he will ever be okay. I’ve stayed with him through months of missed school and rounds of testing and medical appointments. I’ve been stabbed by guilt from not being with my parents more often as my mother’s memory slips away and my dad struggles to cope.  I’ve worried that I’m not doing enough to live up to whatever notion of ‘success’ society tells me I should attain today.

I realize now that I’ve dealt with it all by just diving into that deep pool of stuff — holding my breath, and not wearing a lifejacket. It’s been months since I came up for air. Only now that the pace has slowed — no school, fewer appointments, less anxiety, less structure — can I feel the shortness of breath, the heaviness in my very bones.

I am going under.

I’ve spend the last seven months slapping oxygen masks on everyone around me. Now that everyone else is breathing, I can’t even find my own.

My body has become so used to a fight-or-flight rhythm that the slower, sleepier pace of summer is sending it into crisis. I suddenly can’t sleep. I can’t focus. My brain is revving at a much higher rate than the rest of the universe. I’m out of synch with everything around me.

The irony is, of course, that as a social worker in a mental health field, I preach ‘self-care’ everyday. I post inspiring self-care things on Instagram. I advise people to take time for themselves and to reflect.But I haven’t done that myself.

In the past, when I’ve been overwhelmed or have neglected myself, the signs have been obvious. I’ve been irritable. I get headaches. I eat too much, or not at all.

Perhaps these signs were there months ago and I ignored them. Perhaps there was too much going on all at once to pay attention to what my body was telling me, and I just needed to push through. Now, the signs are different, and they won’t be ignored. I am tired, yet I can’t sleep. My stomach is constantly unhappy. My mind is an endless loop of ideas and issues that need immediate attention, but I have no attention span or energy for follow-through. My entire being feels heavy and slow, body and soul.

I need to breathe. I need to slow down, quiet my mind, and listen to what my body is trying  to tell me.

I know the Fall is going to be hard. Puck will start a new school, and our brief reprieve from anxiety will end. I have only a couple of months to get some oxygen into me. I need to recharge, relax, and rebuild myself so that I’m ready to take on the challenges September will bring.

So, despite my growing to-do list, I am taking some time to breathe. The to-do list will still be there.

There is no right or wrong way to take care of yourself. We all like different things. Some people like bubble baths. For me, I’d need to clean the tub (and likely my whole bathroom), so the idea of a bubble bath actually causes more stress. Identify your own oxygen mask, and strap that baby on.

  • Get outside and move. Spending time walking in nature works wonders for me. Lucky for me, my Springer Spaniel loves long walks as much as I do. The exercise is good for my body. It improves my mood, and increases cognitive efficiency and sense of well-being.

A suggestion for those of you who enjoy walking or running: leave the earbuds at  home. I used to use my walks to listen to podcasts (about work-related stuff) or news shows. But I realize that even listening to my favourite music stops me from really engaging with my surroundings, and being present with my own thoughts. When your mind has been whirling in crisis mode, you need time and space for quiet.

  • Setting boundaries is important, and can be hard. It can feel really selfish or antisocial to say ‘no’. I have to remind myself that I’m not saying no forever. I need to take this summer to recharge, and to say ‘yes’ to myself. By the Fall, I hope I’ll be feeling stronger, and able to say some selective ‘yeses’ to others.
  • Get rid of clutter. I know, for some people, this is stressful. I personally get stressed around clutter, so cleaning is helpful. I also find it helpful to let go of things I no longer need. I go through my closets and get rid of clothes we no longer wear. We give away or sell toys and books we’re done with. We make space for new things to come into our lives.
  • I’m an introvert, so being social isn’t an intuitive way for me to recharge. However, I’ve learned that connecting with others who are on a similar journey — either as a parent, or as a child of an elderly and unwell parent — is a critical support. I’ve recently connected with other women who work from home and sometimes question what they’re doing, and breaking through the isolation that can come from self-employment has been wonderful.
  • Visit your happy place. For me, having grown up by the ocean, the beach is my happy place. I go there in person as much as I’m able. I collect sea glass. I walk on the sand. I sit and stare at the horizon, and watch my kids throw themselves in the water and chase each other with seaweed. When I can’t go in person, I go in my mind. When sleep won’t come, I close my eyes and picture myself at my favourite beach. I smell the salt air, and I hear the bad 1970s AM radio tunes that provided the soundtrack to my early days at the beach.
  • Find something to look forward to. You don’t want to put all your happiness eggs in one basket, but having something to plan for and look forward to can help get your  through rough days. We’ve started planning big family vacation that will cover my birthday, Daisy’s, and Puck’s, later this Fall. We don’t often do big vacations, so it’s a big deal, and it gives us all happy things to focus on and plan for. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive, though. You can look forward to the changing seasons, a favourite holiday, or new opportunities. Find something positive to look forward to in an otherwise stressful time.

I’m making some time and space to breathe this summer. I’m confident that by September, I’ll be recharged and ready to face our new challenges. Being the baloney in this ‘sandwich generation’ isn’t easy, and there is no shame in reaching out for support when it’s needed. If you’re struggling to handle everything you’ve got on the go as a parent or a caregiver, make sure you’re not isolating yourself. Reach out to others who understand. Contact your local community resource service for information about support groups in your area. Ask your child’s therapist or medical professionals for a referral to a counsellor.

And don’t forget to breathe. You’ve got this.


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