Being the Eye of the Storm: Crisis Counseling + Motherhood = Self-Care Not Optional

Those of you who know me well know that I juggle a lot of intense and high-stress stuff daily. My oldest son’s special needs, my youngest son’s intense and sensitive personality, my 3 part-time jobs (one of which is working at a domestic violence crisis center and shelter, thank God the other two are relatively tame), being a wife and not just a roommate to my husband, managing my own anxious tendencies….all of the mundane things I loathe like laundry that cause me anxiety, but still have to get done….it just overwhelms me to tears or “Mommy meltdown” sometimes. Most days, however, I feel grateful, happy and like I can handle my crazy life because of 4 secrets I will share with you:

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1) I am fiercely protective of my time and my self-care. I don’t let people guilt me into doing stuff. I’m already giving all I got…thankyouverymuch.

2) My work reminds me to stay in gratitude. I am not a victim of abuse. I am not scared of my husband. No one is stalking me or trying to hurt me. My kids are safe and healthy. I am physically healthy and able to work, in spite of dealing with some health challenges and life-long anxiety. I am grateful to have a home and a bed and plenty of food in my pantry. I am thankful for the laundry even though I would be even more thankful if someone would invent a laundry folding machine. I am thankful for those dirty dishes because we had a good meal on them. There is always something to be thankful for. Working at a shelter makes it pretty darn easy to re-evaluate when I have to be thankful for.

3) I know my place. Being clear about your role, what you can control and what you can’t, etc. is IMPERATIVE when you work in helping professions. It’s all too easy to get sucked into all the drama, get too attached or worry yourself sick about people. My role is not to rescue you (unless you are about to harm yourself or others, in which case I will call 911 to rescue you), become enmeshed with you or be your mama/BFF/babysitter. My goal is to empower you as an adult woman/mother to rescue yourself and your kids. My role is to care and help, but to not get overly involved beyond the scope of my role as a counselor. When you get too buddy-buddy with clients, it actually hurts rather than helps them and you. Healthy boundaries are a really good thing to model for people. It also makes doing my job possible when every single person is always desperately in need at all times and pulling me in a million directions. Don’t pity people, see their strengths and help them utilize them rather that doing things and solving their problems for them.

4) I come back to the mantra that came to me as an epiphany as I was lying on the table with needles sticking out everywhere praying during an acupuncture sessions a few years back: “be the eye of the storm” that still small voice inside myself urged.  The eye of the storm is calm and non-reactive, it is the place of peace within the swirling, violent clouds of the storm all around it. I accept that I do not have the power to calm the storm that is my life, but I do have the power to determine how I react to the storm and to keep my peace when everyone around me is freaking the heck out. Sometimes, I am good at this. Others, I blow it and have to remind myself “where did that eye of the storm go? Find it!”

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I am more than willing to help and do what is needed, but I am not willing to give myself a panic attack in the process because you are having one. I will strive to pull people into my peace rather than letting them pull me into their storm, as the meme I love to see on social media says. I am like a fierce mama lion when it comes to protecting my peace. I pray daily about this, but I am also a big believer in doing my best and using my common sense then letting God do the rest. If I know something wrecks my peace, I’m not going to just keep doing that and praying about it when I can change it. God gave me the sense to change it. Every time I pray I feel him gently urging “you are doing enough, just relax, don’t feel guilty or compare. I’ve got you where I want you.” 

Sometimes, I feel guilty or isolated because I am not the extrovert I once was. I need more time to recharge and find my peace than I used to when I just worked as a waitress and had no kids. People who have non-crisis related jobs or don’t have challenging children just can’t understand how emotionally exhausted I am from pouring out so much to people who are so desperately in need. My job involves safety planning with people who are worried they will killed by their abusers and their children will be kidnapped or worse, making DFCS reports, trying to calm someone who is having a panic attack, facilitating groups which are sometimes wonderfully inspiring and supportive of one another or also sometimes dealing with difficult or disruptive behavioral issues and trying not to worry that clients will relapse, commit self-harm, go back to abuse or commit suicide. I rarely clock out at the time I am scheduled to because just as I pack up and get ready to walk out the door, a traumatized child has just walked in the door wanting me or a crisis happens and it isn’t something that can wait until tomorrow. These are people’s lives. I must do my best. I can’t commit to doing anything after work other than coming home to decompress, eat and spend time with my family. I must keep my own peace. Managing my own emotional state so that I can be empathetic and effective with clients who drain the life out of you is a huge challenge of working with people in crisis.

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Then, I go home to my sons who are not the easy “Mommy, let’s color together and relax” kids at all. I love them to pieces and we have so much fun together, but having a child who has autism and another one who is “spirited” “sensitive” and “intense” to say the least is not a relaxing day at the spa or walk in the park to come home to. There are therapy appts to bring my son to, IEP meetings, calls from the school, everything must be taught, retaught, prompted, etc. Fights must be refereed. Bedtime is a constant daily dramatic battle with my youngest. I don’t mind meeting these challenges as long as I have taken good care of myself and have it to give. I start getting snappy and then feeling guilty if I haven’t done a good job with my self-care. My son deserves me at my best. I deserve to take the best care of myself possible. Thankfully, my close friends understand (many of them have special needs children too) and we connect how we can by phone or FB message or maybe just maybe having a girls night out once a year.

Then, there is the fact that I am married. My poor husband usually bears the brunt of my frustration. He also reaps the richest rewards of my love. I sometimes come in from work feeling some kind of way, irritated, drained, or crying on the drive home. Having our particular children has caused many disagreements and heated arguments. We have scapegoated each other “they are acting this way because of how you parent them”, we have played the classic “I work harder than you inside and outside the home” game, we have taken out our raw emotions and exhaustion on each other, we have both had escapist behaviors when our son was first diagnosed and we were in the trenches of autism. And yet, we have also learned to lean on one another out of sheer desperation and compassion. Being a special needs parent or parent of challenging children is not for the faint of heart. It is also not something anyone should have to do all alone. It’s been 10 years, but we have finally learned to work together as we “tag team” and help each other carry the load. He makes breakfast and hangs out with the boys on Saturday mornings while I go to yoga class and run. I come home and take them to lunch and swim lessons so he can get out in the garden and relax. I tell him “hey its your turn to do the dishes” rather than huff and puff as I do them and then go ballistic about how I’m the only one doing anything around here 2 days later when we are supposed to be enjoying a date night. Our main strength is that we have always refused to let physical intimacy die out because we need all the free stress relief we can get from each other. Desperate times can drive you into each other arms or into separate houses. I’m too overwhelmed already with my life to try being a single mom so that just isn’t an option. It is not smooth and easy, but it is worth the immense emotional energy it takes. My husband now fully understands how much self-care I need in order to not be a total b$@%$ to everyone. He facilitates it for his own good. 🙂

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I WILL ask myself each day, “what do you need right now?” Some days, the answer will be coffee with a friend. Some days, the answer will be to snuggle with my cat under a blanket and read as soon as I get home from work and get the kids fed. I WILL listen to my needs and try my best within the constraints of reality to meet them. I WILL go to my yoga class 3 times per week and run when I can to relieve my chronic muscle tension/anxiety. I have struggled with anxiety all my life as far back as I can remember and this is how I have learned to cope without medication. Medications always made me feel worse. I’ll take a steady regimen of yoga and running over pills anyway. That’s what works for me. Also saying the magic word: NO!  No, I WON’T head up that committee and Martha myself into exhaustion when I am already tired. I WILL spend time with God in prayer and reading devotions, inspiring stories, and the Bible as often as possible. I WILL not get up at 5am to do so like some people recommend. I WILL find what works for me and my life. I WILL go to my acupuncture appt every other month. I WILL go see my own counselor to debrief of the secondary trauma my work gives me. I WILL do whatever I need to do to stay balanced, even if that means I’m not very involved in anything except keeping my head on straight and above water with my family and work. I WILL NOT take any kind of leadership role in anything that is not required. I WILL not spread myself thin as butter by being a “yes girl” and volunteering for things I feel no call to do whatsoever. I WILL say “no” and decline things that I just don’t have the emotional or physical energy for.  I WILL NOT force my kids into extracurricular activities when they have no interest. I WILL do something to nurture myself everyday even if that is something small like hiding in my office for 15 minutes to deep breathe and listen to some relaxing music with my door closed or watching a funny YouTube video with a coworker and a “do not disturb, session in progress” sign on my door.

You may be reading this and think you don’t have the “luxury” of self-care and coming up with a list of reasons why you must martyr yourself because your situation is different from mine. You can do that, but this is a marathon, not a sprint, honey. What good will you be to everyone when you end up in the hospital from a heart attack or a mental breakdown? I challenge you to make one small change, which may look completely different from my list of self-care stuff, to take better care of yourself. It could be something as simple as making sure to eat or taking a walk around the neighborhood or getting a cat to cuddle up with. It could be finding local respite care providers for your special needs child so that me-time IS possible. In my community, there are 3 churches and one special needs school that offer free respite care. Search or you won’t find. Ask other parents, therapists, or local mental heath/developmental disability service providers. Reach out to Parent2Parent for a list of local resources. It could be popping in your earbuds and listening to some uplifting music instead of the kids bickering while you cook dinner and fold the laundry.  Self-care isn’t meant to make you feel more pressure. It doesn’t have to be a schedule spa day or anything fancy. It is just anything that makes you feel BETTER.

I know this is a season and my challenge/test in this season is to stay in gratitude and “be the eye of the storm”. I accept the challenge and am thankful for this testing ground that is my life so that I can learn to cultivate peace and patience as I practice nurturing myself and others. One day, maybe the storm will blow over and I will find myself bored and floating on calm seas missing the chaos, but for now I must stay in the eye of the storm by cultivating gratitude and taking care of myself or get blown to bits.

Are you going through a season that demands you give your all? How are you taking care of yourself? Let’s wing it together as we work on being the eye of the storm with gratitude and peace this week alright?

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