Monday, February 07, 2011

How I Stopped from Drowning

In response to my last post at Hopeful Parents, Get in the Pool, Louise of BLOOM left the following comment:
WOW!!! What a powerful post! I love this analogy of drowning and it is perfect and meaningful!!!  When you say you went through your own "drowning," when your body was failing you, how did you rescue yourself?
I told her that was a very good question, one that I have been thinking about a lot lately. I promised her I would post a follow up on my blog to answer her question. I have never written in detail about what happened in our family in 2010 but you can get a sense of my emotional state here and here.  But more specifically here is an answer to Louise's question about how did I rescue myself from drowning :

First, it's important to know that at the time this was all happening (my son in treatment 2 hours from our home, becoming a one income family, our youngest asking to schedule meetings with us in order to spend time with us) I was not aware I was drowning. I was doing everything I could to just get my son somewhere safe. Once he was safe people kept telling me that now things would get better - but they didn't get better for me, not for a long time. I had been waging my own private war for years and now my mind and body could not stand any longer. I sank under the water. For a while I just succumbed to the drowning and then things started to change over time - what follows here is my attempt at organizing and summarizing those changes.

I stopped overfunctioning more by necessity than by choice in the beginning - I looked like crap, I felt like crap. I didn't try to put on a fake smile and get through the day.I stopped feeling responsible for everyone's happiness around me - cause I could barely put my socks on or complete a sentence. I let down my guard and when people offered to help - like to make us a meal or take my younger son for a few hours, I just let them because I was too tired to try to fight it. I was too exhausted to worry about what people would think of me. I stopped cracking jokes to hide my pain and instead wrote emails and had face to face conversations with people where I cried like a baby and I told them my biggest fears. I let people hug me and offer me comfort. I stopped working and it felt like the world was ending.

While there were many things I loved about my job, it was a huge burden to me at the time. One more very big thing that needed my full attention and commitment. Attention and commitment that I just couldn't give. Freeing myself of that obligation was a huge weight off my shoulders.

I stopped offering to assist with community events etc for our local parent network. I couldn't make commitments to anyone for a period of time. I temporarily resigned from all committees and task forces (except one that only meets 4 times a year).   I told myself I wouldn't volunteer anywhere for anything for 6 months (in my head I doubted I could make it to 3 months). A year later and I am just now starting to volunteer again. 

Several times a day I begin to slip into old patterns - opening my mouth to say "yes" impulsively but now I'm finding it is taking less and less effort to slow down and sometimes say "no" or to delegate things to C's school, treatment team or in home workers. It's taking a lot of practice and while it feels foreign to me most of the time, in the end it also feels very right. I'm hoping that one day my default setting will be one of self preservation first and foremost rather than one of constant sacrifice.

Asking for Help and ACCEPTING Help
I began to understand that no one could hope to parent our son alone. I needed to ask and then let people help me more, to help him, to help our family. I needed to step back and allow others to have more of a role with our son - and people really began to step up to the plate. My Sister in law began visiting him whenever she was in the city he was in. She would bring him special treats and play with him in a way that others at the centre were envious.  Other extended family members wrote him letters and called him. I could relax about not always being with him because others were helping to fill in the blanks that the distance was creating. He began to see that other people loved him unconditionally as well, not just his mother.

As I wrote about here, I also needed to get clear about what our family realistically needed from government services and the community professionals in order to be able to plan for our son's return and to be preventative. We needed to do everything in our power to try not to head down this path again. My husband and I spoke at length and he came to more meetings with me during this time. I knew I could trust those at CPRI so I leaned heavily on them during my son's time in residence there and I did not allow myself to feel guilty about it for more than a minute.

I sent out an email to all my close friends and co-workers explaining a little as to what was happening in our family. I was clear, no sugar coating it, that our son and family was in crisis. That we were feeling isolated and overwhelmed. I asked people to not only keep us in their thoughts and prayers but also to please stay in touch - as living with a child with severe and complex mental health needs can be so isolating.

In response my co-workers started up a meal chain for us - It was a huge weight off my shoulders when someone brought a meal twice a week and I could relax and know that if nothing else happened that day at least my family ate a good healthy meal. It also made my friends feel useful, they felt like finally there was something they could do to help our family after watching us struggle for so long. They had all stopped offering to help years ago because I thought it was all my burden to carry and it felt weak and wrong to accept things from people in that way. But when I was travelling 4 hours several times a week to see our son it no longer felt weak or wrong to accept - it felt right and we were (are) so thankful for that. I see now that it was my pride standing in the way.

Connecting with People
Beyond accepting help - I knew I needed to end the isolation that had crept up on me and my entire family. When you have a child with unpredictable rages and out of control anxiety and severe loss of reality there is no safe place in the world but home is your best bet. So I made a concerted effort to find ways to share with trusted people about the trials and tribulations in our day to day life that would make me feel less alone but would not be speaking ill of my struggling child.  I needed to let my guard down and allow myself to be vulnerable to people who could be trusted. I needed to know that although it felt like if I allowed myself to cry that I would never stop, that it wasn't true. I could feel and face the emotions without being destroyed by them.I discovered that it felt really good to be hugged when I was in pain.

Taking Care of Myself
I admit it - I would always cringe and maybe kind of go "ya ya whatever" in a dismissive way whenever people, books, media would talk about how important it is for parents of children with complex needs to "take care of themselves". I always brushed it off and was more than slightly annoyed. Sure, take care of myself when I can barely get through each day. Sure, let me get right on that.

The truth however, long before I became a mother I had decided that I wasn't worth spending time, attention, money on. I did the very basic as far as hair and clothes and rarely went out or spent time with friends. The why of this could be a whole other book post. All I know is that having the children I have just severely decreased the likelihood that I would take any time for myself.  Hitting the bottom of that pool and almost drowning changed that. Being a martyr wasn't working for anyone. It was time to create "me" time and to not only NOT feel one ounce of guilt about it but to also defend that "me time" and activities within an inch of my life. My soul, my very existence requires me to protect the time to do activities that I enjoy - that fill up my lungs with air so that I can swim to the edge of the pool and hoist myself out.

I needed to find ways to take care of myself - to unplug from the world and find inner peace and joy. I needed to reach out to friends and acquaintances and go for coffee and get a massage (*note: I have some serious sensory issues and it was a HUGE leap for me to give and receive hugs, to move on to getting a massage was monumental). I needed to put down all the books about disorders and government and lack of funding. I needed to focus on reading silly, lighthearted books and taking bubble baths. I needed to get my hair done and drink way too many coffee's. I needed to do things that felt good, that felt freeing, that I had long ago abandoned and forgotten.

I also spent money I didn't have to go back to therapy. I needed to be able to talk to someone, to process with someone all that had and was going on in my life. I needed a safe place to fall apart and to explore and to sort through. It was a hard decision in that it was not cheap and I always felt like I should be able to do it without therapy. But that argument with myself was short lived. I was fighting for my life and I believe in therapy and so I went and I worked hard.

I needed to fiercely believe that my son would be ok and I needed to believe that even if he wasn't that we would survive it. I needed to purge our lives of the negative, naysayers who did not support our son and/or did not share his vision for how he wanted his life to be.  I will write more about this later.

So there is my first attempt to summarize how I stopped drowning. Really it was a combination of learning how to swim better and grabbing hold of the lifeline's that people threw to me. I'm curious to know - have other parents felt like they were drowning at times? If so - what did you do? what helped you?  Post a comment or link to your blog. I'm far from done this part of my life - I feel like I'm hanging on to the edge of the pool catching my breath - fully aware I could start to sink any moment if I don't keep moving. 


  1. I seem to be missing words right now. Thank you doesn't quite cover it. How about this. I understand all too well and I am grateful that you express your experience with such honesty and clarity. It helps all who read your work not only "get it" better about you and your experience, but it helps me and others understand ourselves too. That's what I mean by Thank You.

  2. Thanks Pam. Sharing with others, at some point, is also one of my ways of coping. It's as if by sharing I can hope to reach out to others - either give them a different perspective or commiserate. I'm glad the post touched you. hugs

  3. Thank you for sharing. We are at the very beginning of our journey with our little one.(home six months) In trying to do it "right", in other words perfectly, I have found myself so alone. I think the hardest part for me was that I CHOSE to adopt a child with Down Syndrome so in my mind I am not allowed to feel anything other than happy wonderful feelings. I WANTED this, and still do. But that doesnt change the fact that I am human.

  4. Anna - thanks for leaving a comment. I remember all too well that feeling that I couldn't really open up to people that (a)hadn't adopted and had no frame of reference and (b)might just say something like "well, what did you expect when you adopted an older child?" (which some people did!). Its horrible though - do people tend to say that to people about their biological children (well I guess in some instances but it's not the norm). Hang in there - none of us is perfect and striving for it will only exhaust you!

  5. I feel so much like I'm at the bottom of that pool right now, not able to breathe. Your posts (I went back to some of your links) made me feel like at least I'm not alone. But the details of your rescue "so far" have offered me some hope. I just need to follow some of the rescue breathing you've offered here! Thanks.