Tell Me Something Good

I’ve got a fair amount of readers here for which I’m very thankful.  Rather than sit in the dark and ruminate in my own worries, I thought I’d ask.

I have to get a lumbar puncture aka spinal tap.  Oh boy! I sure am excited.  I have a thorough neurologist, and I do love her for that.  You see, I developed trigeminal neuralgia (TN).  The trigeminal nerve is one of the cranial nerves that runs through your face–down your forehead, brow bone, somewhere around the eye, down the cheek, and into the jaw.  Some elderly people will contract shingles, and the virus will attack the trigeminal nerve.  It’s very painful for them when this happens.

My recent MRI was ordered because of the emerging TN presentation.  It’s often a presenting symptom of MS.  I just found out yesterday that my brain looks the same as it did in March.  All the white matter lesions look exactly the same, and there is no demyelination of the trigeminal nerve.  That’s the good news.  I’m relieved, but I have to have the spinal tap because my neurologist wants to see if the recent lupus diagnosis is progressing.  Is there inflammation in my brain? In other words, is my immune system attacking my brain? TN can be a presenting symptom of connective tissue diseases as well.

Hmph.  I’m put out by this.

Frankly, I’d just like the TN to go away.  It hurts like a motherfu…Well, you know what I mean.  It really hurts.

My mother has MS.  She, of course, had a spinal tap in order to confirm the diagnosis, and, as usual, it was a horrible experience for her.  She ended up with the spinal headache from spinal fluid leakage post-procedure.  After watching her suffer as she did, the spinal tap went on my list of Dreaded Medical Procedures that I Never Want.  Of course, I have a friend who endured a spinal tap, and her procedure was equally terrible.  She, too, had spinal fluid leakage as well as a mean radiologist.  It seems that I’ve not met anyone who has actually had a good experience with The Tap.

My neurologist has reassured me that it’s not a big deal.  She is sending me to the Big Hospital here where there is a neuroradiology department populated by very experienced radiologists.  According to her, I’ll be in and out, and I won’t get a spinal headache because it’s rare.

Okay, okay.  I can go with that.  In the meantime, if you or anyone you know have had a good experience, relatively speaking, with getting a spinal tap, then I would love to hear those stories.  They are, of course, not nearly as fun to tell.  Who doesn’t want to hear about someone’s Uncle Harold who got the needle stuck in his spine, had a seizure, inadvertently punched the radiologist, and was nearly drained of spinal fluid? Not me.  Not now anyway.  After.  Tell me after!

I’m agreeing with Chaka Khan and Rufus on this.  If you’ve got something good to share, then I’d like to hear it!

Tell me something good.

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Endings and Beginnings

2014 is coming to a close, and I am so glad.  This has been one helluva year.  I’m having yet another brain MRI today–the day after Christmas.  The year has to go out with a bang, I guess.  Well, I say, let it! So long as 2015 is inaugurated with celebration.  We made it through 2014, and we’re better for it.

My girls and I spent an afternoon with one of my favorite friends the day before Christmas Eve.  Our two families have had a tradition for a decade now.  We get together and make gingerbread houses.  When we began this tradition, our children were young, and it was really just the two of us frosting and decorating the cookie cottages while attempting to keep the little hands from stealing all the candies.  Odd traditions began.  My friend would unfailingly put the roof on her house upside down.  Every year! She would yell out in frustration, “How could I do this again?!” This year, however, we reminisced about all those imperfections and repeated errors.  It has become mandatory that she put her roof on upside down.  It’s part of the charm.  Our kids, however, took over all the decorating this time.  Eadaoin is sixteen this year.  My friend’s daughter is eleven.  The kids no longer needed our help or advice.

We were able to relax in her living room with our warm beverages and chat while our kids decorated the gingerbread houses completely on their own–even Grace.  What a strange feeling.  She asked how I was doing.  Being a close girlfriend, she went for the jugular: “How’s the marriage?”

Isn’t it funny how girlfriends waste no time? We simply ask.  There is no chit-chat.  My answer? Everyone who reads my blog knows that this year has been grueling.  “Better.”  2013 ended on a precarious note where my marriage was concerned.  2014 will end on a better note.  Perhaps in a major key.

So, what happened? I’ll be as honest as I can be in hopes that it might help someone else should they find themselves in a similar spot.  The day I began writing this blog, the clinicians treating Grace–and there were many–believed that she was bipolar.  Within a month of that diagnosis she declined rapidly and was then diagnosed with a schizophrenia spectrum disorder.  She was not yet 11 years-old.  Her overall decline from healthy child to psychotic happened in less than a year.  It changed our entire family life.  Eadaoin is in therapy today, in part, due to witnessing Grace’s psychosis onset.  Doireann is a completely different young woman today because of Grace’s disease.  We are all different now.  Severe mental illness in a family affects everyone, and everyone behaves differently in terms of coping strategies.

Ordeal has a way of distilling personalities and bringing forth cracks within character and the relationships therein.  I am inherently tenacious.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  I do not give up.  I will hone in on a problem and attempt to fix it until it is no longer a problem or until I have died.  This approach to life worked well where Grace was concerned.  This approach to life worked well in almost all former circumstances.  It does not work well within a marriage when the problem is perceived to be a person.

My husband is as avoidant as I am tenacious.  This is his primary character flaw.  We are both exceedingly stubborn in our positions.  The more I pushed him to deal with those things that increased his anxiety, the more inert he became.  This only increased my drive to “solve him”.  What I did not understand was that he was coping with watching his daughter fall apart by using avoidance–his primary coping strategy.  Avoidance behavior is one of the go-to coping strategies used by those with anxiety disorders.  I do know this, but I couldn’t grasp it at the time.  How does one avoid one’s entire family? Why? One does this because one really lacks the capacity to deal with what is happening.

I observed this and insisted that he see a doctor in order to start anti-anxiety medication.  After almost 17 years of living with his anxiety disorder, I needed him to get his head in the game.  I needed my partner, my friend! I couldn’t do all this alone.  So, I issued him an ultimatum.  How awesome.  Ultimatums are never great, but he did see his internist for a physical.  It was then that he casually mentioned his anxiety.  He was given the standard anxiety check list; he passed it with flying colors.  He left with a prescription for Zoloft.  That’s it.

I must pause and say this.  If a person sees a psychiatrist, then one goes back to the psychiatrist every four weeks after beginning a new medication to discuss how one feels after beginning the drug.  The drug is tweaked or even discontinued in favor of a better or different one.  Internists should not manage psychiatric conditions.  This is where we went wrong, and this is also where I knew we were going wrong.  Recall what I said about my husband’s inertia.  Inertia was settling in at this point.

My husband had never taken a medication for his anxiety.  He had self-medicated with alcohol.  He stopped using alcohol at this point in favor of Zoloft.

A word about Zoloft: Zoloft is an SSRI.  On the spectrum of SSRIs, it is the most emotionally blunting while Prozac is the most activating.  Zoloft is also not a well-known anti-anxiety drug.  It does have some effectiveness for social anxiety, but it is not effective for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).  Lexapro, on the other hand, is in the middle of the SSRI spectrum as far as emotional blunting and activation.  It is also known to treat depressive symptoms as well as anxiety without some of the better known side effects like suicidal and self-harming ideation for which Zoloft is known.

My husband, however, had never known life without his crippling anxiety, and Zoloft’s emotional blunting was just what he was looking for.  That dead feeling inside that the drug provided helped him cope with his own life as a father, provider, husband, and man.  He liked it.  He liked it a lot.  Perhaps he even needed it.  I, on the other hand, despised it.  He went from an anxious but likable man to a vacant, emotional corpse of a human being.  It seemed that there was no middle ground.  It was one extreme or another.

He disappeared from our entire life, but, in his mind, he was present.  He wasn’t.  He was like a wraith.  We stopped having sex.  For two years.  He had no desire.  In fact, he had no desire for anything.  He described it as feeling paralyzed under a heavy blanket, but he sort of liked it.  He just wanted to do nothing.  He wanted to lie in bed all the time or sit in his room.  He slept all the time.  A ridiculous amount of time.  He, however, was not anxious.  I don’t think he felt anything, and that’s the point of Zoloft.  Imagine a person who feels too much or a person who is completely overwhelmed to the point of being almost non-functional.  Zoloft would be very helpful because it would provide a much needed emotional balance.  Or, perhaps not feeling very much for a time would be helpful in order to learn to think rather than feel all the time.  A drug like Zoloft can be very helpful given the right brain and circumstances.  It was, however, not the right drug for my husband.

After living with him for almost two years on this drug, I truly began to believe that perhaps I was worthless and unlovable.  He did almost completely ignore me almost all the time.  There was, however, much to be learned here.  At some point in the middle of this, I realized that, as a woman, I gleaned a great deal of self-worth from the success of my relationships.  This is a rather female point of view.  I gave up a career to stay home and raise my daughters after all.  It’s not as if I have a career to fall back on at this point.  In my mind, what does it say about me if, after all this time, I come out of this with a shitty marriage and mentally ill children? I thought I had to be Martha Stewart for Pete’s sake!

What now? What if he really didn’t love me anymore? I had to get a life.  That was the loudest message that I heard throughout 2014.  Build a life.  I saw it everywhere.  A stranger in a restaurant even came up to me and told me that very thing if you can believe it–“Don’t wait for your husband to figure out what he wants.  Go out there and do what makes you happy.  Build a life for yourself.”  What an empowering message.  So, I stopped looking at him and what he was doing.  I started looking at me.  I aimed that tenacity at myself and left him alone.  I let him sit alone in our bedroom for months on end.  I let him sleep the days away.  I started making weekend plans with the girls.  I started…living.  It was hard because I felt like I was leaving something behind.  Something symbolic.  I realized, however, that we must always be bringing something vital into our relationships.  We must always be building our own happiness and internal resources as individuals if we are to attempt to build something worthwhile with another person.  Grace’s illness tapped me out, and I became so focused on her and my other daughters.  I forgot that I was a separate person, too.

So, what happened? He felt my emotional departure.  I didn’t abandon him.  I simply left him alone, and that changed the dynamic in our relationship.  He started asking to join me on our outings.  He was still emotionally comatose, and I was still seething with resentment; but, something was thawing.  Two months ago, he finally saw a psychiatrist, and she switched him from Zoloft to Lexapro.  He recently told me that he had no idea just how dead he felt on the inside on Zoloft until he didn’t feel that way anymore.  He then said, “I should have never been on that medication.”

Yes, I wanted to punch him.  The past two years have gutted me.  Our marriage has suffered in ways that I never thought it would, but perhaps it needed gutting.  There was never going to be an easy way through this leg of the journey with Grace.  It was always going to be horrendous.  We did what we had to do.  I, however, wonder if my health would be better today had he not abandoned ship as he did.

So, what’s the takeaway? I suppose that it’s this: Even if everyone else abandons you, don’t abandon yourself.  There will be crises in life.  Once those crises settle, come back to yourself.  In the end, no one is going to take better care of you than you.  Man or woman, we must always invest in our own development and healing.  That says that we are worthwhile and lovable.  We can’t expect others to love us if we don’t love ourselves.  It is, therefore, crucial that you find those expressions of self-love that are meaningful to you and claim them.  Make them a part of your life in a consistent way.  In this way, you will learn to weather the storms in life be they circumstantial, relational, or existential.  And practice the art of forgiveness.  This has been my greatest challenge and lifesaver.  Learning to move forward without giving up self-respect and, at the same time, granting pardon.  This is the grittiness of life. This is the hard stuff.  Knowing that pain and love often weave themselves together as we grow, and one doesn’t cancel out the other.  They often coexist.  Forgiveness doesn’t ease the pain, and pain doesn’t minimize love.

This is what I’ve learned in 2014.  It’s been a very painful year, but, as I said, I’m better for it.

I hope that as 2014 ends you are able to see where your paths have taken you, find a new horizon line, and begin the next leg of your journey with hope.

Shalom…

Developing Distress Tolerance

One of the core principles of DBT is mindfulness.  Mindfulness has suddenly gained momentum in our culture.  It made the cover of TIME magazine.  It sounds like an Eastern principle or out-of-reach way of life.  To me, it sounds like something that one of my husband’s friends would pursue back in the day.  My husband had a friend who fancied himself a writer.  I don’t mean that he wanted to write.  I mean that he wanted to cultivate a rarefied writer persona in which he grew out his hair, never shaved, drank scotch, started smoking, and talked about himself.  A lot.  He began wearing black turtlenecks and refusing to read genre fiction anymore.  When I hear the word ‘mindfulness’, I imagine my husband’s friend taking a drag on one of his filterless cigarettes, exhaling, and then saying, “I’ve decided that I need to go out into the desert to become more mindful.  Perhaps I will bring my Dostoyevsky and my typewriter…and an extra turtleneck.”

Incidentally, he did finally write a novel and self-publish it.  It was one of the worst novels I’ve ever tried to read.  He went back to being a programmer.  Oh, and he started bathing again.

So, what is mindfulness? I’m going to define it quite simply.  Mindfulness is being present.  That is as simple as I can put it.  I can almost hear a crowd of people say, “What? That’s it? Well, that’s easy.”  Not so fast.

To be truly present in each moment means that you do not try to escape whatever is happening around you, to you, or within you.  It means that you stay put and become an observer of your surroundings, others, yourself, your bodily sensations, your thoughts, and your own responses to all the above.  This requires distress tolerance, and it is the level of distress tolerance that a person has that, in my experience, determines how mindful they can be.

Let me give you an example from the adult experience:

Bob and Anne are married.  Anne is 8 months pregnant with twins.  Anne has been on bed rest for almost the entirety of her pregnancy due to complications brought on by hyperemesis gravidarum.  For Bob, this has meant no sexy times.  For 8 months.  Bob is about to lose it.  He thinks about sex all the time.  He misses his wife.  He misses what their lives used to feel like.  He wants to have sex.  He feels like he needs to have sex.  He’s pretty sure that he can’t take another second of feeling this sexually amped up.  He would ask her for oral sex, but he doesn’t want to make her throw up.  He’s been watching her suffer, feeling helpless, so that her body can bring their two beautiful babies into the world.  He doesn’t want to add to that.  What about manual stimulation? She’s so weak and completely uninterested! He doesn’t want to be that guy.  He loves her! But, he’s going crazy! He hates feeling like this.  Sex, sex, sex, sex.  That’s all he thinks about now.  Not the babies.  And he feels guilty.  And horny.  All the damn time.  He wants to get away from himself.

Welcome to adulthood.  It sucks, doesn’t it? This is a very realistic picture of the Mindfulness Crossroads.  Bob could look for a short-term exit strategy to avoid feeling as he does, or he could develop distress tolerance which would develop emotional maturity, empathy, and a stronger relationship with his wife.  Make no mistake.  It is very hard.  This is why mindfulness sounds like a pretty word but can feel almost impossible in the moment.  It’s the distress tolerance factor.

In cases like Bob’s, porn would be the go-to imaginary partner/exit strategy.  It’s a quick shot of anesthesia in the moment, but, after it wears off, Bob is right back where he started.  It’s certainly understandable.  Bob, however, would not develop the distress tolerance to get in there, neck deep with his wife and ride out what is sure to be one of the hardest things she’s ever endured as well.  Ordeal is a powerful experience that forges lasting bonds between people particularly partners.  It takes a great deal of mettle to volunteer to stay in the ordeal experience when there are so many exits available through cultural distraction like pornography, endless entertainment options, the legitimacy and worship of busyness, consumption, and the cultural acceptance of personal entitlement at the expense of others in the name of the pursuit of happiness and personal comfort.  The development of distress tolerance so that we can learn to stay present and aware of our own changing inner climate, be present for others, and develop interpersonal skills that will cultivate stronger bonds be they in personal or professional relationships is not an idea that is promoted, but it’s impossible to develop mindfulness without it.

Learning to increase our tolerance for distress so that we can be mindful is probably one of the best things we can do for ourselves not to mention one of the best things we can teach our children.  We might start feeling like we can’t deal with certain things at all.  I used to feel this way about my mother.  I had zero distress tolerance for her or for anyone who behaved like her.  Over the years, I have learned to tolerate behaviors that remind me of her.  What’s more, I can stay present to myself and my surroundings when I’m with someone who decides to channel Joan Crawford’s Mommy Dearest.  I have developed distress tolerance.

We are teaching Grace to develop distress tolerance.  It’s a process made up of baby steps, but it’s an important process.  She will like herself more and more when she knows that she can tolerate and even do well under pressure.  She may not be able to tolerate as much distress as others, but she can learn to tolerate more as she matures.  This is not an accidental process.  It’s deliberate.  That is the choice set before all of us.  For me, when I’m experiencing a feeling that I strongly dislike like rejection or emotional pain, I will sit with it for at least five minutes.  I will not compartmentalize it or try to escape it.  I will practice tolerating the pain.  Please note the word ‘practice’ here.  Mindfulness is a practice.  We practice observing the thoughts that are floating through our minds without judging them.  We practice paying attention to our feelings.  We practice observing our environments.  We practice staying present to our feelings no matter how uncomfortable.  When we’ve had enough, when we’ve stretched ourselves as far as we can, then we stop practicing.  This is how you increase your mindfulness endurance.

I want to refer you to a resource.  It’s a curriculum called Mind UP.  It teaches mindfulness combined with neuroscience to children and teens.  DBT shows up in there as well.  I have a friend who is using this curriculum at home with her daughter, and it’s proving to be very successful.  I am going to implement this with Grace, Eadaoin, and Milly.  Distress tolerance is something that we will continue to talk about as we continue our mindfulness journey.  Life doesn’t get any easier as we grow.  We need to add to our toolboxes so that we’re successful both personally and professionally.

Resources:

The MindUP Curriculum: Grades 6-8

The MindUP Curriculum: Grades 3-5

Whole-Assing It

I think it’s a good thing to remember what it’s like to be young.  I have vivid memories of middle school and high school.  I even remember Ms. Mercado, my fourth grade teacher, who never let anyone go to the bathroom even if they really had to go.  Consequently, Tyson Landry peed himself in the cafeteria.  I remember turning 18 at the beginning of my senior year of high school.  I was a legal adult! I could vote on who would become the next leader of the free world, but I still couldn’t go to the bathroom without a pass.

I also remember feeling out of place, insecure, and like I was under a captive audience.  That “feeling” that permeates our adolescent years is called the imaginary audience.  When Eadaoin and I were taking the DBT skills class together last summer, the group leaders discussed it.  Apparently, this is a developmental stage in adolescence, and everyone experiences it.  It’s what makes everything seem so much bigger and so much worse.  Those bad hair days are really bad because the brain somehow believes that it’s being watched and even judged by the entire world.  Every detail of every item of clothing is being looked upon.  Every tiny imperfection is magnified and picked apart.  That’s the perception.  This is the reality for adolescents without any DSM diagnoses.  Imagine what the invisible audience might be like for someone with an anxiety diagnosis or a mood disorder.  I think their audience might be full of hecklers and rotten tomato throwers.  What about shy people? Do people carry their imaginary audience into young adulthood? I did although it got better.

I spent most of my 20’s feeling exactly as I did in my teens–anxious and judged.  I spent my 30’s dismantling…everything, and now I don’t really care.  The adolescent experience, however, isn’t the 40 something experience.  As a parent, I must remember what it was like when I was 14 or 16 if I am to make a connection with my daughters even though they are wearing me out.

I think Eadaoin and Grace have crafted a plan to exhaust me before Hanukkah.  I’m not sure to what end but the means are clear.  Eadaoin’s school counselor phoned me yesterday morning.  She had her “I need to handle the parent” voice on.  Oh boy.

“Hi, this is Ms. Payne, Eadaoin’s school counselor.  I’ve got Eadaoin in here with me.  I think we need to talk together so I’m going to put you on speaker, okay?”

I rolled my eyes.  I know, I know.

“One of Eadaoin’s friends was concerned about her which is why she’s in here today.”

Oh boy! One of her friends was concerned? What is Eadaoin up to?

“It seems that Eadaoin is cutting.  Now, before you get upset I just need you to understand that cutting is not a suicide attempt.  So, let me tell you what cutting is…”

Stop.  Hold it.  I know what cutting is.  Eadaoin knows that I know that she cuts.  Eadaoin usually gives me her X-Acto knife when she starts cutting, or, at the very least, she tells me that she’s doing it.  I grew up with a mother who cut often.  It’s not something that causes me to run around flailing my arms in the air.  People generally cut for emotional pain relief and the subsequent endorphin release.  Our pain receptors and emotional pain receptors run on the same neural pathways in the brain.  This is why cutting makes sense as a coping strategy.  It’s highly maladaptive, but it is a strategy nonetheless.

I interrupted Ms. Payne, “I know that Eadaoin cuts.  I know the reasons behind cutting.  Eadaoin has been cutting for over a year.  This isn’t new to me.  Is this why she’s in your office?”

“Oh, well, okay.  No, there is another reason.  Apparently, she has been, on occasion, making herself throw up after she has eaten.”

And, there it is.  My empathetic parent wanted to get up and leave the house.  I felt done.  No more.  My inner well of patience felt dried up.  I needed to start digging.  I did not know what to say.  I could hear Ms. Payne say, “I would say that this is disordered eating.  It’s early.”

My next question was, “Does your therapist know, Eadaoin? Have you told Jessie?”

I knew exactly what she looked like when I heard her quiet response, “No…”

“Why?”

Ms. Payne answered for her, “She was afraid of telling you.  She thought that if her therapist knew that you would find out.”

“Why?”

“What have I ever done that would provoke fear?”

“Nothing.  I don’t know why I’m scared.”

Doireann has always said that everyone is afraid of disappointing me.  No one cares if they disappoint their dad, but it suddenly becomes real if I know.  From my perspective, I just want to know the truth so that I can connect them to the right resources.  They are afraid that I’ll be disappointed.  Truthfully, I was pissed.  I was angry because we’ve given Eadaoin every therapeutic opportunity possible short of an inpatient setting, and she half-asses her way through all of it.  I’ve got to agree with Ron Swanson on this one:

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I really want Eadaoin to whole-ass therapy.  So, I asked her directly, “Eadaoin, do you want the inpatient experience? Are you trying to ask for that by increasing your target behaviors? It’s not enjoyable.  Grace can fill you in on that.”

She was quick to deny it.  No! She didn’t want that at all!

“Then, what is going on?”

Little was resolved on the phone what with Ms. Payne trying to be the counselor.  It wasn’t a long call.  She commented on what a short call it was.  Well, we’re not novices at this point.  Eadaoin may appear to be the mental health ingénue, but she’s far from it.  When I finally was able to speak to her in person, she admitted that cutting had become a habit.  She did it when she was stressed.  She also said that she wasn’t quite sure why she was making herself throw up.  She didn’t understand her own motivation.

It’s complicated.  I know that this isn’t necessarily uncommon for 16 year-olds with developing mood disorders.  I also know that it’s also common for teens to think that the rules don’t apply to them.  Somehow they are the first person in the world who doesn’t need to try in therapy.  Sure, their therapist has a PhD, but they know better.  They know more than their doctors.  I saw this in our DBT skills group–adolescent hubris.  No one wanted to look like they actually cared.  I recall feeling the same way as a teenager.

To be honest, Grace is easier to manage than Eadaoin because Grace knows that she needs help.  Grace seeks it out.  Eadaoin, on the other hand, isn’t attached to reality.  She seems to think that cutting and purging are all signs of mental stability and appropriate stress management tools.

Right.  And I want world peace and a self-warming toilet seat.

And a unicorn.

 

Putting on Our Oxygen Masks First

Put on your oxygen mask first.  I’ve been told this a lot.  It’s not advice I’ve really taken to heart nor truly understood, and I’m not the first mother or caregiver to admit that.  At least I’m pretty sure I’m not.  It isn’t because I’m a martyr.  I’m not.  That was my mother.  “I’ll just sit over here while everyone has a good time over there! I won’t have a good time! I’ll cry! I’ll be sure to look like I just ate a lemon, too!”

Our mothers.  They do have an influence on us and how we parent particularly if we are women.  I am who I am as a woman and mother, in part, because of who my mother is.  I see that so clearly now.  The epiphany hit me while we were decorating our Christmas tree oddly enough.  Grace and Milly chose the Christmas-themed movie again.  Last year, they chose “Elf”.  This year, they chose “Home Alone 2”.  My husband groaned at that, but I think it’s a funny movie.  I happen to like the pratfalls and the chemistry between Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.  As we watched the plot unfold, once again seeing young Kevin get left behind but this time at the airport, I remembered my mother.  It wasn’t a painful memory.  Just a reappearance of forgotten facts.  My mother left me at the airport when I was about seven years-old except, unlike Kevin’s parents, she did it on purpose.

It was a strange thing to ponder.  The juxtaposition of experiences wasn’t lost on me.  Remembering my mother’s behavior and my childhood predicament in the midst of decorating the Christmas tree with my own family was surreal.  As a child, I recall thinking that it was normal for my mother to do odd things, and I never thought much of it.  She dropped me off at the airport on a Friday afternoon and simply left me there.  She had “plans” i.e. It was Friday night in 1979.  Let your imagination run wild, and you’d probably land on the right thing when it comes to my mother in the 70s.  I was supposed to take a flight to a tiny airport near Louisiana where my father lived only the flight was cancelled, and I was alone and essentially abandoned at the airport.  She never stayed to see to it that I actually boarded a flight that took off.  I was at the airport until the wee hours of the morning hanging out with the flight attendants in their “room”.  I remember that they smoked and talked about dating, handsome pilots, and sex.  It was the 70s after all.  My father was forced to drive two hours to retrieve me because my mother was unavailable after she left me at the airport.  He finally arrived at almost 3 AM.

All this is to say that it occurred to me in a tangible way that my mother was an irresponsible party girl who simply abandoned her young child at one of the largest airports in the United States so that she could go out and get drunk and get laid.  I’ve always known that on some level, but I really understood that on Friday night.  And, I’ve spent a huge portion of my life not being like her. Defining myself in terms of being her opposite. Where she spent her entire life only putting on her own oxygen mask, even stealing everyone else’s, I have spent my life making sure everyone else had theirs at the expense of myself, in part, to prove to myself and others that I am nothing like her.

This is the root of my caretaking.  Not caregiving.  Caretaking.  Why discuss this? I’m talking about this because it’s December 1.  For many, the advent of the holiday season is the beginning of the most stressful time of year.  We caretake by spending too much money on everyone at the expense of our own financial health.  Guilty! We do too much, never saying no, because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  We stay up far too late baking, preparing, decorating, and making sure that everyone else has a meaningful holiday even though we might feel like we’re going to collapse.  We feel as if we’re responsible for everything even though we’re not, but when you’re a caregiver you are responsible for a lot.  This is a triggering experience because it can bleed into old caretaking habits and beliefs like, “I’m responsible for you and your happiness.” So, we put on everyone else’s oxygen mask and become too exhausted to put on our own.

Some people get an emotional charge from doing this.  They need to feel needed.  It gives them a sense of worth.  Me? That was never my thing.  I tend to feel cloistered.  I needed to know that I wasn’t her, and, at the same time, she parentified me.  I was forced into that caretaking role at a very young age.  Children of alcoholics will be familiar with this dynamic.  The best thing you can do for yourself and your family is a personal, fearless inventory and be honest.  Is this familiar?

Do you find yourself always concerned about other people’s needs? Do you feel that your needs don’t really count? Do you feel as though you have to take care of other people’s feelings, but no one seems to care about yours? Are you surrounded by people who need you? Is your self-worth dependent on being needed?

Do you go out of your way to make sure that you don’t cause anyone discomfort? Do you find yourself trying to help someone with an addiction, but you just enable them to continue? Do you believe that you know better than other people how they should run their lives?

If you have the Caretaking Pattern, you are caring and compassionate toward others, but often at the expense of your own needs or desires. If you have this pattern strongly, you will find yourself constantly taking care of others, financially, logistically, and emotionally. At some level, though, your caring comes with some strings attached. You have a deep desire to be appreciated for all that you give to others, rather than giving without concern about what you get back. You may hope that people will like you or not leave you in return for your efforts.

You may take pride in being a “mind reader.” With a strong Caretaking Pattern, you get a lift from providing assistance that you believe people need, even before they ask for it. You may frequently give too much help, and often at the expense of taking care of yourself. You may regularly be the last person to leave a party even when you’re exhausted because you’re always helping the host tidy up. You may believe that all of your giving to others is building up a pool of help and favors that you can call upon someday. Or you may believe that by reading the minds of your loved ones, you will be able to expect them to do the same for you—that they will know and deliver the support you want without you ever having to ask.

Some level of the desire to help others is natural and healthy. We are, after all, social beings who need interpersonal support to get along in the world. But if you find yourself regularly sacrificing your own comfort for the sake of helping someone else—for instance, if you give up a therapeutic massage appointment because your sister “just has to have your opinion” on a new couch she’s buying—you very likely have the Caretaking Pattern.

In fact, your Caretaking part may assume that other people aren’t as capable of taking care of themselves as you are. You might believe that you “know better” when it comes to what would be good for someone else. Unless this person is a small child, though, it is unlikely that your perception of someone else’s needs is more valid than their own.

For a variety of reasons, you may not have received feedback from others that your Caretaking is a problem. If you have the Caretaking Pattern, you probably attract people who may, on some level, like being taken care of or who become dependent on you. If you have a Caretaking Pattern, you may have people in your life whom you believe would suffer if you were to stop caretaking them, and you may have a sense of enjoying “being needed.”

The key to knowing if you have the Caretaking Pattern is to look at how often you are meeting your own needs. If you are always putting yourself last, if you are tired and feel as though you are responsible for making sure other people are okay emotionally, logistically, or financially, you have the Caretaking Pattern.

False Belief of the Caretaking Pattern: I am responsible for other people’s feelings. I must do what I can to make them happy and keep them from feeling pain or discomfort. (from Beyond Caretaking)

Be good to yourself this holiday season and put on your oxygen mask first.  If that idea is foreign to you, makes you feel guilty, or even causes you to think something like, “I can’t do that! What about ______?”, then explore those responses.  Develop some curiosity around why your needs are secondary to everyone else’s.  I know what drives me.  It takes time to learn new habits even when you know what you should be doing.  The ‘doing’ is the hard part.  Let this be a gift to yourself and consequently those you love.  The gifts of personal responsibility, respect for boundaries, and autonomy are three of the best things that you can offer someone.  In turn, you are left with a sense of freedom, a sense of self, and personal empowerment.  The result? Peace within our relationships.  Whatever your belief system, peace is one of the primary blessings of the holiday season.  It is one of the wishes that everyone passes on to another during this time of year.

Shalom.  Peace.  Pax vobiscum.  Peace on Earth.  Good will towards men.

May that be true for you as we all find our way through the din of the holidays.  May you make your peace as you put on your oxygen mask first.

Shalom…

Resources:

Beyond Caretaking: Balancing Giving with Self-Care by Jay Earley PhD

Dr. Earley’s website

Stop Caretaking the Borderline of Narcissist: How to End the Drama and Get on with Life by Margalis Fjelstad