I’m fairly convinced my mother died before she had to because of the stress of taking care of my father, who had dementia.
While trying to be everything to her husband, she failed to take care of her own needs and her own health. The result was not just that she passed away too soon, but even in her own eyes she passed away before what she saw as her job was complete. My father outlived her by four and a half years.
You hear it at the beginning of every airplane trip:
If needed, oxygen masks will be released overhead. To start the flow of oxygen, reach up and pull the mask toward you, fully extending the plastic tubing. Place the mask over your nose and mouth and slip the elastic band over your head. To tighten the fit, pull the tab on each side of the mask. The plastic bag does not need to inflate when oxygen is flowing. Be sure to secure your own mask before assisting others. (emphasis mine)
This isn’t selfishness — just the opposite, in fact. By ensuring you’re taken care of, you won’t add to the problem, and you’ll be there to help others around you. Yes, the steps to putting on your own mask are perhaps lengthy, and complex, and take time. Yet, if you fail to put on the mask, but instead end up passed out due to lack of oxygen while you’re trying to help the person next to you, you’ll have failed both yourself and that person, and possibly even made the situation worse.
It’s important air safety, to be sure, but it’s a more important metaphor for life.
If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll eventually be unable to care for the people that matter to you. Do it long enough, and they — those least able to do so, perhaps — will need to take care of you.
So, what does it mean to take care of yourself? What’s the daily equivalent of “secure your own mask first”?
Naturally it depends, but generally:
- Eating well and staying healthy.
- Getting enough sleep
- Taking time to de-stress.
- Avoiding taking on more than you can handle.
- Knowing when to letting others take care of themselves and not feeling like you’re responsible for absolutely everything.
As I said, it depends, and I don’t mean to over-simplify it. Taking care of ourselves is the work of a lifetime, after all. It, too, can be lengthy and complex and time consuming.
And taking care of others is part of what makes a community, or a family.
But there’s a threshold below which if we’re not taking good enough care of ourselves, we’re of no help to others. We might even make things worse for everyone.
Stress, more than anything else, is perhaps the greatest risk. When you’re stressed — due to the situation, due to having taken on too much, due to your own issues — you’re at much greater risk of experiencing health and other issues impacting your ability to be there for the people you care about.
Prioritize self care.
Before life releases the oxygen masks.