If you have a son or daughter with a substance use problem, worry, frustration and feelings of helplessness probably consume large amounts of your time and energy. As you focus on your child, taking care of yourself probably falls to the bottom of the list, if it makes the list at all.
You might reason that you’ll feel better when your child gets better, so it makes sense to prioritize his/her needs at your (and perhaps the rest of the family’s) expense for now.
This impulse to suspend paying attention to your own health and happiness is understandable, but may contribute to more problems than you realize if it causes you to be reactive, anxious or easily frustrated. Your child is struggling with a variety of issues and she/he needs you to be strong, calm and optimistic. It helps if you are sleeping, eating well and finding some comfort and joy in your life. It helps if you don’t hang your well-being on his/hers. Having your health and outlook on life be dependent on the choices your child makes can be too much for a child – even an adult – to bear.
Taking care of yourself is vital to helping your child and the rest of the family. Try to resist putting your life on hold and living only in emergency/panic mode. How can you possibly go to the movies when you’re worried that your child is out getting high again?! Well, what if taking a break from worrying is the most helpful thing you could do right now?
Remember the safety announcement on planes before takeoff: secure your own oxygen mask first before helping someone else. This is for the benefit of the whole group. Helping works the same way on the ground. You need a certain amount of “oxygen” (sleep, nutrition, exercise, socializing and fun) to sustain you as you help your child. Without attention to your own needs, you risk collapsing before you manage to help. Even if you stay standing, you won’t be able to think, plan, act and troubleshoot as effectively as you can when you’re healthy, optimistic and resilient.
Helping your child change his/her relationship to substances will likely be a long-term project that’s better approached as a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll need to keep your energy reserves up and pace yourself for the long and sometimes bumpy road ahead. You’ll need to prepare for hills, weather and competition. Even if your situation improves fairly quickly – and we hope it does – you’ll be more helpful if you bring your best self to it.
We are not being touchy-feely psychologists when we say this. We are trying to help you be tactical in the midst of a difficult struggle, and it matters.
We recommend that you spend some time each week doing something that makes you feel good, relaxed, content, soothed…something that’s a WANT, not a SHOULD. We recommend that each week, you take a few minutes to review how your self-care is going and to set reasonable, SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) for taking care of yourself in the week ahead.
You might find yourself wondering how in the world you can make this a priority when you have so many other, more urgent demands to attend to. We ask you to try, because the oxygen mask metaphor is true: you won’t be any good to anyone else if you are not taking care of you.
So, what’s your self-care goal for this week?