That Oxygen Mask: Self-Care When You Feel Like You’re Drowning

canstockphoto17316349For some people, self-care is reflexive – a function of healthy esteem and respect. I am not one of those people. On a sinking ship, I’d lower the lifeboat and wait for everyone else to get in. It’s not altruism. It is that I tend to put myself low on the list of priorities. Everything and everyone else comes first. There are scenarios where this is lovely and heroic, but in most cases, it just means at some point I’m going to be drowning and I won’t understand how I got there.

I tend to learn the hard way, but as I round the corner to fifty, my self-care skills have improved. Not stellar, but improved. I have a cue card on my desk to remind me of daily self-care habits. It seems strange that an adult woman who is fairly confident and self-aware would need to cue herself to floss or read a book or take vitamins, but I am easily convinced that doing the dishes or volunteering an extra shift is more important than taking time for my mental or physical health. It’s a bug in my system and it’s too late to rewrite the whole program, so I find workarounds.

This is my cue card. It’s laminated. I’m weird.

I’ve used this card off and on over the last six months. It took me a long time to figure out priorities. The red ones are critical for me. When I don’t do those, my brain and body functions decline and my judgment is impaired. I imagine that this card would look different for each person. I don’t do everything on the card every day, but I do more of them than I would without the reminder. It’s about bringing mindfulness to one’s life. Lately, I’ve been forcing myself to really adhere to it, just to right the ship.

A lot of people are experiencing anxiety right now. I ingested the toxicity of politics and it left me depressed with bouts of anxiety and insomnia. I tried to counter with action and will continue to do what I can, but the detachment I’ve begun to feel from my country and fellow citizens tells me that the grieving stage is over. I’m stepping back, re-orienting myself and getting back into the fray with more thoughtfulness and less fruitless engagement.

canstockphoto469949That being said, I unraveled quite a bit. Sleeplessness and anxiety will do that to a person. I had to remind myself that I’m no good to any person or cause if I’m letting myself fall apart. My self-care dropped to minimal standards. Good job on that shower, lady.

As someone prone to depression, listening to and reading all the hostility and feckless commentary meant that it was internalized and became universal in my thinking – the world seemed full of horrible, hateful humans. That thought would bring anyone down. Detaching from everything sounds suspiciously like not giving a shit, but I’ve come to understand that space and boundaries are critical to one’s mental health.

When I was in the Army, one of the training exercises involved reacting to a flare attack under direct fire. Flares turn night into day and can be very disorienting. The key strategy is to move out of the illuminated area through a series of rushes and crawls. Once out of the lit area, you regroup and reorient to continue the mission.

canstockphoto13687973Regroup and reorient. It’s mission critical, whatever your mission might be. There’s a lot of disoriented people running around striking out at any moving target. Even the proverbial winners of this election seem a little discombobulated, still hollering campaign insults and meming away.

On a personal level, rest, decent food, exercise, connections with the people we love (who aren’t still acting like politically deranged assholes), this is the way forward. We don’t owe our mental and physical health to political entities or causes. Get off Facebook and Twitter. Take a moment to breathe. Go outside. Take a shower. Get some rest. You can’t save the world if you can’t save yourself.

25 thoughts on “That Oxygen Mask: Self-Care When You Feel Like You’re Drowning

  1. Another wise and deeply useful reflection, my friend. I especially appreciate the regroup and reorient metaphor: Thank you. My (hypothetical) laminated card looks a lot like yours, by the way. 🙂


    1. I wondered how weird a practice that was, but I am someone who takes in information through print form, so it works for me.
      I’m trying really hard to get my shit together and writing it out here, in post after post, seems to be one of my ways out. My blog, which used to have a little more variety, might need to be renamed Therapy for Liberals if this keeps up!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This is truly amazing! As someone who is trying to save myself from drowning right now, I really needed to read this. So thank you!
    Btw, I always look forward to reading your pieces and I hope that one day I can be close to being as good as you are! Have a nice day!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. After witnessing a mind-boggling-ly vicious attack on FB yesterday, I asked myself for the umpteenth time – why am I subscribed to this?

    Like you, I’ve struggled with disengaging because that’s head-in-sand stuff, right? Well, no, it’s not. It’s saving one’s skin, is what it is. Or rather, one’s emotional and spiritual sanity.


    1. I have both Twitter and Facebook accounts collecting dust. Every time I dip my toes in, I feel mentally assaulted – too much information, too many typos and too much vitriol. I don’t know how people do it.
      I think it’s okay to take a timeout. Right now, it feels like if we look away for even a second, something catastrophic will happen. The fact is, it will happen whether or not we’re looking. That drama is addictive, though, but not necessarily useful.
      There are scads of people who are reactors. There’s still room for people who stand back a minute or two and assess things more thoughtfully, before taking action.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agreed.
        I’ve been thinking more about your post since I first commented, especially the military angle.

        I feel compelled to “go to battle” in terms of speaking out, fighting back. But from a military POV, the smart commander doesn’t send in the troops who are not equipped for the job in terms of proper gear, proper intel, proper conditioning.

        And it occurs to me – this is what’s happening on social media – all of these enraged and blood-thirsty civilians “taking up arms.” Am I equipped to meet them head on and challenge their statements? Hardly.

        I keep coming back to my old position of looking after myself, and the ones near and dear, and my community.


        1. I’ve seen very few conversations on social media that are inviting civil discussion, so no amount of knowledge or rhetorical wizardry will make a difference. People just want everyone to know their opinions and they are right and that everyone else is stupid. There’s just nowhere to go with that.
          As much as I love words and writing and reading, the biggest way we impact others is by leading through example. And that always starts at home.


  4. Wise advice, Michelle. I find it encouraging that so many people are now acknowledging the need for self-care and discovering/sharing our own strategies for staying sane and strong. I think this bodes well for the sustainability of the resistance. Cathy over at Healing Through Connection posted a link to a great article on self-care for the long haul (plus she wrote another terrific post).
    P.S. – I don’t find your daily self-care card weird at all (not even the color-coding). I think there are many of us who rely on visual cues to remind us of things that sometimes hide in cozy corners of our brains.


    1. I think the realization that this is going to be a long haul is finally hitting a lot of us. As you say, all this anxiety is not sustainable over the long run, so self-care is a critical piece.
      I’m glad that my card is not completely out there (although I’d still use it, even if it were). I like, too, when I’m stuck or during a gap in my schedule, I look at it and think “okay, what can I knock out now?”


  5. I am like that about self care as well. In fact I can barely type the words SELF and CARE. I do a lot of stuff that I like to do (writing, for instance), but I don’t take care of my body at all. I keep meaning to, but then I don’t. But I do stuff for the cats, the hubster, and even my adult kids before myself. So the card is intriguing. But would I use it?


    1. I think the process in even creating the card is beneficial, whether it’s used or not. I had to figure out what keeps me ticking and grounded. I made a huge list of things and I really had to think about what was most important and what values I was trying to live.
      It helps to have a 12 year old who still looks to me for example. It adds a little more pressure to live in balance!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I had a very similar thought this weekend. I wrote a blog post about the need to catch one’s breath in this political environment. I really appreciate your approach. It definitely added a new perspective. Thanks for sharing!


  7. I feel exactly the same way, the anxiety, the hopelessness, the detachment and disconnect, pulling away and regrouping. You’re ahead of me though. I’m still very discombobulated. Good, thoughtful post. Thank you, Michelle.


    1. Unfortunately, Walt, it’s not a one-and-done kind of deal. Every single day I have to talk myself down from the tree. My goal is to get faster at it and to give myself longer breaks between headlines for sanity’s sake.
      I realized today that President Trump thrives on dominating the news and our lives. He’s an invasive species that can only be put down through starvation. I’m trying to maintain focus on what is actually being done, not what is being said or who is saying it. It’s a hard task, but less emotionally-draining.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Love your reminders. I have a door that serves the same purpose. Whatever works, girlfriend.

    I’m committed to pointing my compass toward beauty, displays of compassion, the quiet moments of kindness that pass before we can hardly register them. It’s remarkable how divesting from social media has lightened my friends who were squashed flat by it. One friend, who suffers from crippling anxiety, went cold turkey and is finding her voice and purpose again.

    What we think, what we throw our energy toward, creates our reality.


    1. I suspect, Sandy, that your skill set when it comes to self-care, is more finely honed than mine. My challenge at the moment is to stop reading the news incessantly. It really does warp my world view. And warped I am these days, struggling to maintain sight line with my own values and resist being pulled under by those of others. The other thing I need to do is nurture my connections here on the ground. My goal this week is to call, write and email friends (you’re on the list, sister, beware).

      Liked by 1 person

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