Why You Need to Put Your Oxygen Mask On First

The hardest thing to do when you have a child in active addiction is to put on your oxygen mask first.

We all know the rule. If a plane is going down you have to put your oxygen mask on first because you can’t help your child with theirs if you’re unconscious.

In our own lives we can’t help our children if we don’t help ourselves first.

Our children are sick. And so are we. If we don’t take the necessary steps to heal ourselves, the stress of dealing with an addicted child will burn us out faster than can be imagined. And we will be totally ineffectual in any attempts we make to help.

It’s been over 10 years since my daughter’s addiction first manifested itself. What began as drinking and smoking pot, progressed rapidly to ecstasy, speed, crack, Oxycontin and finally heroin. I’ve seen my beautiful child thoroughly ravaged by this disease. It’s been heartbreaking and the hardest road I’ve ever walked. And for many, many years I didn’t even know that metaphorical oxygen mask was there, let alone put it on. Despite attending workshops and support groups I didn’t understand how ignoring my own needs and desires was a huge detriment.

Years passed and my life became lost to me, The stress and day to day drama of parenting an addict was soul crushing. An eternal roller coaster of hope and despair. I couldn’t muster the energy to do anything but deal with next crisis. I was so entangled in her sickness that I allowed myself to be manipulated, over and over. With no strength to fight it, I just allowed it to happen and tried to mend my broken heart as best as I could. My other four children felt understandably resentful. My work as a nurse suffered, compassion was not something I had left to give. Other relationships suffered, my daughter’s disease swallowed my life whole. And finally my health suffered.

I became seriously ill. I couldn’t keep any food down and lost weight rapidly. I couldn’t keep my blood pressure up or my heart rate down. I couldn’t work. I could barely get out of bed for 2 months. In the midst of many, many doctors visits, I began to participate in one on one counseling that was available through a local addiction and family services center.

It was a game changer for me. Over the course of several months my eyes slowly began to open. Even though what she told me was, in hindsight, nothing new, I was ready to really hear it this time. Sure it was cathartic to be able to talk openly and honestly with someone who could guide, advise and support me. However, there was more to it than that. In the middle of the constant crisis that was my life at the time I found a little center of peace. I began to take care of myself.

Each week she would ask me to list seven things I was going to do for myself and have me assign a day for each item on the list. And she would hold me accountable for getting them done.

Just to be clear, she was talking about little things. Especially at first. Things that could be accomplished in 5 minutes or less. When I couldn’t think of anything at all that I could do, she offered me some suggestions:

  • Light a candle and just sit and breathe for 5 minutes. Or 3 minutes. Or whatever you can manage. Turn off or dim the other lights. Lock yourself in the bathroom if you have to! (Which is how I’ve done it more than once.)
  • Sit outside on a nice day, close your eyes and just listen. Try to identify all the sounds you hear and focus in on those you find particularly pleasant. Again, try for five minutes but do what you can.
  • If the weather is bad and you can’t or don’t want to go outside then play a song that particularly stirs you. Feel the music and allow yourself to be uplifted. Headphones and a closed bathroom door work wonders for those of us who can never seem to find time alone.

Simple and short daily exercises such as these helped me to become present in my life again. They taught me that the world would not collapse if I wasn’t hyper-vigilant twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. I could take just five minutes and decompress, just a little. This is so very important during a crisis. Something that could help me get through the next day or even the next hour.

She helped me set other small goals. To actually take the vitamins and supplements that I bought. That takes what? two minutes? To eat breakfast. Even a banana, piece of good bread and almond butter would do. To read supportive literature for five or ten minutes a day. Especially prior to a difficult time or event if you see it coming. Things that didn’t take a lot of time or emotional energy. But created a tiny shift in perception which can be enough to precipitate change.

Finally, she taught me to see myself with compassionate eyes. I began to put on my oxygen mask instead of fighting with my daughter to put on hers. I slowly began to detach from my daughter’s addiction and I began to be present in my own life again.

I’m not perfect. Although there have been long (to me) periods of time when she has been clean and sober, sadly there are still relapses. When that happens, I never fail to get caught up and feel overwhelmed by anger, hurt, anxiety and disappointment. But I’m soon reminded that I can’t control any of it. However, I can control myself and my reaction to it. So I step back and take five minutes. Then I plan what I will do when I take five minutes tomorrow. Whatever the future holds for my child, I’ll be healthy enough to help and discern when to let go without withdrawing my love for her and my belief in her future.

I can hand her an oxygen mask but only she can put it on. As for me, I’ll make sure mine is firmly in place.

Carolyn Bateman

Carolyn Bateman

Carolyn Bateman is a mother of five and grandmother of a very active three year old. She spends as much time as she can reading, painting and hiding out at the gym.

Previous projects include project21days.blogspot.com where she explored aspects of a healthy lifestyle.

She can be found at parentofanaddictcdcb.wordpress.com and on Instagram at cb_shanti
Carolyn Bateman

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