Put Your Mask on First

In reply to my previous blog entry about getting help, Ephrenia wrote: “I’ve been a caregiver for a very long time. My 20-year-old son has bipolar disorder. I became a mental health advocate, very active in several organizations, as well as being a single parent and holding down a job (or two sometimes).


“Now I’ve got arthritis, asthma, diabetes, and major depression. I worked so hard caring for others, I ended up disabled myself. It is very hard to ask others for help. I feel I should still be the caregiver because that was part of how I defined myself. Now, I can’t even work a regular job, much less the other things I used to do. How do you get past the feelings of guilt for being ‘needy and weak’?”

A lot of people share histories like Ephrenia’s. We get so locked into caregiving all the time that we don’t save any care for ourselves. This scenario applies to both women and men. With women, it’s usually caring; with men, it’s providing for their families. Either way, our bodies suffer.

I discussed these issues with my wife. She spends a lot of time taking care of her mother and a fair amount of time taking care of me. I asked her Ephrenia’s question about guilty feelings. She told me that she does feel guilty sometimes for being healthy when her loved ones are sick. But she is good at getting help for herself when she needs it. She says, “I had to recognize my limits, and when I can’t do any more, I stop.”

But when you have people who depend on you and need you, how do you stop? You have to get help for yourself and for them, either from other family members, friends, or social agencies. It’s not always available, but often it is. Perhaps your hospital’s social services department, or your church if you have one, can help you find some help.

Perhaps you just need to be bolder about asking family members to pitch in. We might also ask ourselves if the person we’re caring for really needs all that help. Is there more they could do for themselves? From the point of view of someone who needs care, I can tell you it’s frustrating to see your loved ones knocking themselves out for you when you’d really rather do it yourself.

As far as “feeling weak and needy,” I usually tell people that asking for help doesn’t make you weak. It makes you smart. People helping each other is how the world works. You’ve helped others and it’s only right to give them a chance to help you. You have to be selfish some times, or you won’t be able to help anybody else.

It’s like when you get on the airplane and the flight attendant tells you that “in the event of a loss of air pressure, an oxygen mask will come down from the ceiling.” If you’re traveling with a child or a disabled person, what are you supposed to do? Put the mask on yourself first, right? And why is that? Because if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to help anybody else. Then you’ll fall out, and everyone else will have to take care of you.

Yet most of us never stop to put the mask on ourselves. When we run ourselves down to “help others,” we’re usually not doing nearly as much good as we think we are. We’re impaired, tired, irritable, and resentful. Even if we’re not aware of these feelings ourselves, others will be. We and the people we care about will be much better off when we learn to take time for ourselves. For Ephrenia, even with arthritis, diabetes, asthma, and depression, it’s not too late to start being good to yourself. We’ll all be cheering you on.

What have your experiences been with caregiving and finding time for yourself? Have family demands made it harder to manage your diabetes? Please post comments and questions here.

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  • Sharon

    I couldn’t agree more. When I was taking care of my mother, being a wife, and home schooling two children, I nearly burned out. Friends tried to tell me what was happening to me but I didn’t see any way out. Now that that experience is behind me by several years, I can look back and understand how I could have changed things if only I had been willing to honestly look at my situation. It seems so selfish to say no when you know if you really pushed yourself, you could help more. But, now I’ve learned to make appointments with myself. The appointments can be for all sorts of purposes: Shopping alone, reading a book, staying in my room to watch TV, have lunch with a friend, or to take a walk. These appointments are as important to my well-being as any other appointment I make. I make and keep doctor’s appointments so why shouldn’t I make and keep appointments for myself? This has helped me tremendously.

  • David Spero RN

    Good for you, Sharon! Thanks for your words or wisdom. It’s really not selfish to take care of ourselves. Our bodies are the greatest gifts we will ever be given, and the most valuable assets we will ever have. Can’t we put at least as much care into them as we do into our cars?

  • maggie

    I really wrestled with this topic – over several years. While discussing my newly diagnosed diabetes with my doctor, something I said made him comment that having a physical ailment isn’t a character defect, it just is. I had never looked at it that way. That was very helpful for me.
    Then in another discussion with someone about how busy I was with this and that and couldn’t seem to find the time to exercise, she made the comment that I might need to consider who I am primarily responsible for. Also very helpful, once I could admit that I might not have my priorities as straight as I thought I did. A big shift in my thinking is something I have to do a little bit at a time. Good luck. You can do what you need to do.