When I trained to become a yoga teacher, one of my instructors reminded us of the great wisdom we hear from airline attendants. Just moments before taking flight, they all typically say the same thing: “Before you assist others, remember to put your own oxygen mask on.”
At nine years old, my 39-year-old mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although I didn’t understand much about it, I saw the struggles it created for both of my parents. My dad took wonderful care of my sister and me as he simultaneously displayed steadfast devotion to my mom. I was fortunate enough to enjoy Mom’s presence until she passed away at the age of 76. All along, there were times when it was so hard that it felt difficult to breathe. And, for much of her journey, I was far too young to understand the message of self-care wrapped in the advice of every airline attendant demonstrating how to use an oxygen mask.
And self-care has become increasingly difficult to prioritize as the years have gone on. That same Dad, who, along with Mom, taught us the meaning of unconditional love for others, now suffers from Dementia. Mom’s death set him on a downward spiral that we were not prepared for. Caring for aging parents is one of the most difficult challenges one can imagine. It is exhausting on every level. The days are full of worry. Your chest can get tight with anxiety on a dime. And as a daughter-in-law, I’m also witnessing the hardships my husband has encountered in caring for his own parents. Thankfully, his brother has taken on the majority of that responsibility; nonetheless, it is heart-wrenching for everyone involved. It adds to the difficulty of finding enough air to soar at all, in any area of life. And to make matters worse, I’ve noticed a pattern: each of us tends to put that metaphorical oxygen mask on others before ourselves because we think it’s the most loving thing to do. However, it ends up compounding already-unmanageable stress levels.
As a mom to an 18-year-old with autism, I’ve learned to embrace the ever-present reminder to wear that symbolic oxygen mask. When you are the adult caring for a child with this neurological disorder, you need to bring your “A-Game” to each and every morning. You need to take flight and soar all day long, whatever storms you’re traveling through. You’re the advocate. You’re the voice. And oftentimes, other than your spouse, you’re alone in flight and through the plight. Many of us crash and burn before realizing that unless we care for ourselves, we’ll have nothing to share with the child who needs us more than anyone.
Enter that metaphorical oxygen mask.
For me, it’s come in many forms. Yoga has helped me breathe slowly and deeply, and it offers restoration and renewal. My family also renews my spirit and reminds me to take time for myself so that I may fly again. And our extended family at Anderson Center for Autism, where our Owen is now a full-time resident, has helped me breathe in a way that for so long seemed impossible.
And with all of these channels to help me care for myself, I’ve found that Owen seems to make greater strides as well. His progress has been extraordinary since he became a full-time resident at Anderson; we see it on the weekends when we bring him home. He’s a bright shining light that leads the way, no matter where our journey is heading. And now I have the time and space to help attend to the needs of our parents, even on the most demanding days.
Although I’m on hiatus as a yoga teacher myself for Anderson Center for Autism, I’ll return. I just need to have enough air to soar again.
And that starts by continuing to put the oxygen mask on myself first. I tend to forget to do this. But I know it’s essential to fly. And I’m going to keep trying.