“Why do I need to focus on my self care? I’m fine, because finally, my son is out of the house, he is in a robust program and soon, he’ll be back home and everything will be back to normal.” – I was perplexed why the family therapist at this program kept bringing up selfcare for me. “Afterall, my son is the one who is struggling and if only we find him the right kind of help, we’ll be fine.” – It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had it backwards. That I had been ignoring how much I had been hurting, how traumatized I was. Up until then, I had thought of myself as self aware of what is going on with me and always knowing what I needed. Perhaps it was my belief that I had to be able to help him, regardless of what I needed. Wasn’t that my job as a dad? Now I understand that I didn’t allow myself to admit that I was hurting, that I was traumatized seeing our son struggle the way he did.
If you have paid attention to the airline staff going over the safety protocol before take-off, you have heard the oxygen line: “If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.” This advice seemed so counterintuitive to me, “Of course, I am going to put the mask on my child first!” It’s natural for parents to put their kids before their own needs. When they were newly born, we had to watch over them like a hawk, and protect them. Fortunately, I eventually learned that that approach was not very practical and not sustainable. Parenting a kid who struggles with mental health and/or addiction is not a sprint, but rather a marathon and eventually, ignoring my own self care would have caught up with me. Recently, I heard another analogy touching on the concept of the ‘oxygen mask’. “Keep an eye on your fuel tank and refuel before you run on empty. Once you are out of gas, it’ll take longer to get back on the road.”
A common mistake of mine used to be to ignore an injury and push through, rather than heal. If we truly buy into the notion that parenting a child / a young adult who is struggling is like running a marathon, how much more likely are we going to ‘perform well’ when we are not injured. In my family’s recovery journey, focusing on my own healing turned more and more into a practice that ran parallel to all my other responsibilities. There is another benefit in that by focusing on our own healing and self care, we model to our loved ones that it is ok for them to take care of themselves (as long as it is done in a healthy way). The cliche quote: “Do as I say, not as I do!” seems so antiquated and yet, that is exactly how I used to show up in my family.
In my case, there was another struggle that I had to resolve for myself, before I could shift my approach as a dad: the pain around guilt and shame. One school of thought differentiates the two painful emotions as: guilt = I did something bad; shame = I am bad. It is understandable for a dad with a child who is struggling to feel like they caused their kid’s struggle. It seems so logical that even questioning that notion seemed wrong. I used to be convinced that it was my fault, after all, I had been his dad for over 15 years and now he is struggling. Shifting my perspective took time, many conversations, books, podcasts, TED talks and the understanding that there are certain things that I cannot control and that there are other things that are completely in my control. With that understanding I have been able to develop empathy for myself that I did the best that I could and that there wasn’t any proof that I could have averted my son’s struggle. I still cry at times, mostly when I’m in a group meeting with parents who have been on a similar journey and that will probably continue for a while. I’m ok with that, because shedding the burden of blame has freed me up to work on our relationship and to love my son for the person he is.