One of the critical pieces of making life work around mental health issues is self-care. How do you minimize the effect that mental health issues are going to have? How do you give yourself the resiliency to bounce back if something happens? How do you maintain the self-care to survive situations that feel more like a gauntlet than a punch in the gut?
I was planning on writing this article about self-care before I had a really bad week. My wife and I were in a car accident, totaling our car, and I lost a really good friend within two days. I shut down. I came to work and sat at my desk and watched the minutes and hours pass. I did my best to come back, but I was numb and frantic, trying to find another car because it provided a distraction from the pain.
Yesterday I met with one of my friends. A PhD level social worker, Joannie specializes in crisis and trauma. She said that self-care is so important because when single traumas hits, we are able to bounce back if we have the resilience that comes from good self-care. But when we are traumatized over and over again, it can rewire how we think semi-permanently. In those cases, self-care is a life preserver to keep us alive.
I thought about the last week. What was going on? Last week I did not work out. I ate worse than normal. With a ton to do at work, I took time to test drive a couple cars instead. From the outside it looked like my self-care was slipping. Instead of my normal self-care, I gave myself permission. I would allow myself to feel and grieve as I needed to without forcing myself. As grief came (and will continue to come) I allow myself to feel it fully. I allow it to hurt. I allow it to be here. I choose to remember the good.
My friend who passed, spoke love and life into me at every meeting. Before the birth of my son, I had been stressing about being a dad. Was I going to be good enough? Was I going to be present? What was I going to screw up? Was my marriage going to be ok after the birth of our first kiddo? I had so many questions and no answers. I was terrified. My friend said, “You need to hear this. You will be a great dad. You are already a great dad.”
When my son was born, he did not sleep very well even for an infant. I was on the verge of major burnout, struggling in every facet of life. I felt like I was breaking and there was nothing I could do about it. I was doing every self-care thing I knew to do: meeting friends to create community, eating well, exercising, sleeping as well as possible. It was not enough. I could feel myself slipping. I became a worse husband, a shadow of a dad, and a ghost of an employee. I remembered what my friend said every day, “you are already a great dad.” I tried to remember when it felt like I was falling apart because maybe, I could be the man I wanted to be. On my bad days it kept me closer to my family and gave me the shot of confidence I needed. I was going to be a good dad because I was already a good dad.
This last week, I took the time to be thankful that the car accident was not worse. Our car is gone. Our family is here. The cumulative damage was 3 bruises and a necessary trip to the chiropractor. 50 years ago we would have been a family ad in the obituaries. Instead, I was scared, but alive with my family.
Then I took the time to remember the good about my friend. I remembered how he spoke life into me when I felt I had no life. I remembered the times together and how he forced me to be present. I loved how in many ways, his words and actions were an anchor to me when I had none. I remembered the anchor tattoo on his right forearm and am thankful for the anchor he was to me. Maybe I could help others have that anchor too.
Last week, that was the best self-care I could manage.
Today self-care means giving myself permission to be behind at work. There are countless projects I want to get going on. There are grants to chase, newsletters to send, thank you notes to write, check-ins to do, and I am behind on all of it. That is ok. As I worked through this year I had a mantra for everything, “all the ground is good, and I am good on the ground.” This space I sit in now is good. I cannot be everything and meet every need, but I can my best to be present and attack the thing in front of me, even if that is being overcome by grief. I can give myself the grace and space to do my best knowing that it is good. I make a difference in the world especially when I give myself the space to breathe, be myself, know God loves me, and center.