I know many of you are caregivers of one kind or another, particularly for people affected by mental health challenges. And like my friend Tina Henningson, you may have learned the hard way that you can’t neglect yourself for long and still have what you need to give to others. Well, during this Mental Health Month we haven’t forgotten about you! Tina (you can read more about her and her work at the end of this post) is a life coach who is serious about helping others be their healthiest, most empowered selves. Enjoy her wisdom and practical ideas in this post.
I called it “The Great Trilogy”: three dramas that unfolded into one larger-than-life journey for me.
First I discovered that my college-age son was addicted to prescription drugs. Second, my husband Steve’s chronic pain led to three surgeries and a period of being temporarily disabled. Third, both my aging parents, who lived in North Carolina, developed debilitating health issues, making me the long-distance caregiver and household manager. They eventually died.
Each event included unpredictable subplots. With my son, I was forced to deal with his chronic relapses during his five-year recovery process. This meant I had to make many difficult choices and set heartbreaking boundaries. The 2008 stock market crash severely impacted my husband, a financial adviser (and me!), both emotionally and financially. The responsibility fell on me to take care of my ailing folks, requiring daily communication with in-home health care and numerous 3:00 a.m. telephone calls. For over a year, I searched for an appropriate assisted living facility where they could live, finally sold their home, and moved them in.
During this time, I found myself holding my breath and waiting for another shoe to drop. I was worn out. Mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted! In fact, I found out the hard way that burnout happens when a person spends too much time caring for others in crisis while ignoring his or her own self and soul. That described me. Tired, over-committed, and overwhelmed, I negated my own God-given needs and desires. And when others continued to clamor for my attention, my response was to rush to meet their spoken and unspoken demands, leaving little to no energy to take care of myself.
And I see this pattern repeated in many of my clients. They give without replenishing. As a Life Planner and Coach, I now work with women in life transition. So in my office hangs a sign saying, “It’s All about Me.” Before you gasp and stop reading, please hear me out. When I help create a Life Plan for a client, we spend two days reviewing where she’s been, where she is, and where she wants to go. During this two-day process, we focus on her life story. I ask questions in order to discover her level of satisfaction in her current life roles. In my experience, I’ve noticed that many women pay little attention to the role of self-care manager, just like I did. This discovery has led me to realize how important this role is in our lives.
So how does one “do” self-care? What are some next steps you could take if you find yourself constantly drained as a result of caring for or about another? Below are a few tips I found most useful for me. Maybe some will work for you. At least I hope they will help you think of self-care tips that fit you.
Walking: Surprisingly this was one constant that I maintained throughout my whole ordeal. I had been a fitness walker for years prior, so the habit had been established and was easy to continue. Being able to get outside and get away helped keep me sane. Many times I had to field phone calls, but I didn’t let that stop me.
Journaling: A year before my adventure began, I had established a habit of “brain dumping” for 30 minutes a day. When the trilogy-craziness hit my life, this became a therapeutic tool for me. I processed on paper what was happening deep inside my soul. I’m convinced that this too kept my mind steady.
Prayer: As a Christian, I had a previously established prayer practice. But that went out the window. With this new season, I had to learn new ways to connect with God. A particular devotion book, Streams in the Desert, by L. B. Cowman, helped me cry out to God in a new way, giving me hope.
Happy Place: My “happy place” is the beach. A 30-minute drive from my house and I can experience a mini-vacation, which I need on a regular basis to manage the demands on my weary soul. I relish the sand between my toes, the healing salt water lapping at my ankles, and the dolphins playing between the waves. It is a time of renewal and restoration–soul care at its best. What is your “happy place”?
Counseling, Coaching, Spiritual Direction: I have employed all three of these at different times during my journey. The counseling was necessary when it became clear that I needed a professional skilled and trained in addiction. I faced a crossroads and needed a reality check and direction. I moved on to coaching when I decided it was time to “take back my life.” My coach lent clarity to my current reality and together we created actionable “baby” next-steps. This began my restoration process. In tandem with coaching, I sought out a spiritual director who helped me piece back together my shattered faith.
Support Groups: Some people find that 12 Step programs can be instrumental in boundary setting. I did. The groups can provide a safe place to tell your story and you can gain insight as you listen to others.
Doctor/Nutritionist/Naturopath: Weariness and stress wreaked havoc on my body. I learned that I needed supplementation in the form of additional vitamins, minerals, and herbs. Seeing your choice of medical professional can help you understand what you may need to help you through this stressful period.
Yoga: My naturopath suggested yoga as a way to calm my parasympathetic nervous system and to learn how to breathe properly. All the stress caused me to “hold my breath.” By implementing simple techniques along with gentle stretching, I began to relax and process through the aches and pains.
Massage: Along with yoga, my naturopath recommended massage to alleviate stress. I struggle with spending the money on what I consider a luxury, but the times that I’ve allowed myself the “indulgence,” I always find it beneficial.
Girlfriend Time: My close circle of friends became a lifeline to the outside world. They provided a barrier of protection and a source of hope and encouragement. By carving out an hour of time in the midst of demanding pressures, I received relief that bolstered me for the days ahead.
Family Time: When my oldest granddaughter was born, our family started a tradition on Wednesday evenings called “family night.” Cooking with my daughter, sharing dinner, and playing with my grandchildren created distraction from the everyday chaos and became a source of great joy for me.
Margin: I learned to say “NO.” This remains vitally important in my self-care and recovery process. The word “NO” (without explanation) became a complete sentence for me. By doing this, I freed up time in my schedule to implement the other self-care practices.
These are the next-step practices that I found useful. They were tailored for what fit me best and filled my empty tank. You are the temple-keeper of your body and will need to discern what next-step practices could be created to support your personal role as self-care manager. What is most important is not what you do, but that you do something that gives you life and refills your tank.
Self-Care Challenge: Could you take 15 minutes right now and brainstorm some ideas for next steps you could take that would help guide you in managing your self-care? Allow these 15 minutes to be all about you. Be aware of the excuses that creep in and the gremlins that try and convince you that there’s not enough time, money, or energy. If you have to, lock yourself in the bathroom while you do this.
Tina Henningson is a Life Planner, Coach, and Speaker who lives in Orange County, CA. She, a passionate cheerleader for those facing adversities and uncertainties, enjoys guiding people toward help, healing, and hope. Tina serves at theeffect church, a faith community and recovery ministry in San Juan Capistrano, CA. You can find her at www.tinahenningson.com.
© 2016 Amy Simpson.