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Investing in Your Oxygen Mask {A Lesson in Self-Care}

self care

{The Panic Attack}

A panic attack? Was I having a panic attack? I’d discussed the clinical side of them in my graduate counseling classes, and I had witnessed students have them throughout my career in higher education. It’s possible that I’d even had a mild one before, but this – this was different.

I quickly made a few frantic phone calls, unsure of what to do. As I was unable to clearly choke out words to a friend over the phone, it was obvious I wasn’t going to overcome this independently. I called my husband and almost immediately after he arrived to pick me up, I knew what was next.

“The hospital,” I said. “I want to go to the hospital.”

Want to go to the hospital? Yeah right. Who actually wants to go to the hospital? But the perfect storm of triggering events had bubbled up around me, and it clearly was time for help. I’d had this feeling before and I was consciously aware I was at the precipice of falling into a state of depression. I needed the assistance of a professional to pull me away from the edge.

For some context, before I became pregnant with my daughter, I had battled with a bout of depression. Life circumstances including a car accident and a miscarriage only a few months later added to the sadness and anxiety I had been feeling. But when I became pregnant with my rainbow baby, my life had new meaning, and the therapy sessions that I had become accustomed to seemed to lose their significance. 

Throughout my pregnancy and the birth of my daughter, I was content. I did battle some long, dark days of isolation during her first few months, but once the snow melted and I was back to work, I felt much better. Of course, the exhaustion of parenthood took its toll, and adjusting to life with a child was new terrain to navigate, but I was determined to run on the endorphins from baby giggles and breastfeeding for as long as I could.

Until one day, it hit me that I just couldn’t anymore.

Even once that feeling began to settle in, my self-care wasn’t a priority. I had a million other things to do, and seeing a therapist was pages down on my task list. Looking back, I know it should’ve been a high priority, but at the time it just wasn’t.

{The Realization}

So, there I was – being escorted back to the Crisis Intervention Unit at the emergency room by a nurse and two security guards. No phone. No jewelry. No hair tie. No shoes. “It’s protocol,” they kept repeating, attempting to reassure me that they only took my possessions because that is what they did for everyone else. I asked if there was a different option for me – a place to go for care, but that wasn’t as drastic. I was told there was not, and that this was my only option. 

I’d been in this place behind the double metal doors before but never as the one wearing the skid resistant hospital socks. I’d been here while observing with a class or checking in on a student in distress. I respected that space and I was thankful that it existed for those who needed it, but I didn’t want to go back there. I knew what was behind those doors.

Yet in that moment, what I wanted didn’t matter. Once I was settled in a room, I tried desperately to ignore the noises around me. I could hear a doctor interviewing a patient about the five men she thought were living in her attic, and a nurse trying to calm a young man who said he was hearing voices of the villains from his favorite video game. Every time I thought about exactly where I was, hot tears rolled down my cheeks. I knew better than this. I’d gone to school for this. I’d preached self-care to everyone around me for years. How could I let this happen?

But through all my education and presentations, what I hadn’t been prepped for was motherhood. Regardless of how many books I’d read on parenting or how many discussions I’d had with other mothers, the truth is becoming a mom is simply baptism by fire.

And while being a mom is a thing of beauty, it also is very complex. It’s a game of a thousand moving pieces, and you try to juggle and maneuver them all on the board of life the best you can. Sometimes the pieces pertaining to your own self-care end up off to the side of the board or in the box, tucked high up on the shelf. Maybe it’s been so long since you’ve seen them that they’ve been buried behind other boxes, seemingly misplaced forever.

But in that chilly whitewashed hospital room, I realized that it was time to rearrange the pieces on my board; to prioritize doing the things that would keep me healthy. I actually started to draft this post in my mind (no pens allowed – obviously) during the time I was in the CIU, partially as a coping mechanism, but also out of a sense of responsibility to remind fellow mothers that we all need to take care of ourselves. Of course on the surface level, we know this. But do we know this? And more importantly, do we act on this?

{The Investment}

For those of you suffering from depression, either clinical, seasonal, or postpartum – I see you, Mama. I see that you’re tired, lonely, and feeling lost amid crushed up Cheerios and endless mounds of unfolded laundry. I see that smile you try to pass off as a sign of being happy when really all you want to do is scream. Some days, all you crave is for somebody – anybody – to acknowledge the true labor of love being a mother actually is.

So I’m giving you permission to do what you need to do to keep yourself well. Go to the doctor, the dentist, the OBGYN. Make an appointment with a therapist and/or a psychiatrist. Hit the gym. Get a massage. Take a few minutes to meditate. Stop saying yes to every volunteer opportunity that presents itself. Read a book. Take a nap. As the famous instructions heard before air travel state, “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting those around you.” If you neglect to put that oxygen mask on yourself, how are you going to be able to put it on someone else who depends on you?

You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself first. While it may be against our maternal nature because it seems selfish to invest time into ourselves, at the end of the day, this self-care results in our ability to be there for our family. We can’t have one without the other.

The morning after my panic attack, I started seeking appropriate outlets to ensure that I would soon feel much better. The path won’t be easy, but with the help of some special people in my life, I’ll make it through and hopefully be stronger than I was before.

Please don’t forget that you are too important to let your needs fall by the wayside. Invest in your own oxygen mask, and invest in yourself. You and those who care about you will all be better for it.

If you or someone you know is in need of assistance regarding a crisis, 9-1-1 and your local emergency room are best for immediate response. Dialing 2-1-1 also gives you access to free, confidential services. You can learn more about this service here.

Header photo courtesy of Miikka H.

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2 Responses to Investing in Your Oxygen Mask {A Lesson in Self-Care}

  1. Judy Majneber March 29, 2017 at 11:38 AM #

    This is a wonderful article Caitlin! Honest, insightful and helpful!

    • Caitlin
      Caitlin March 29, 2017 at 7:46 PM #

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Judy. My hope is that sharing my story may help others mothers feel that they are not alone 💜

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