“Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.”
This is excellent self care advice, but for parents of addicts it’s an oversimplification. If your child has SUD and especially if it’s combined or other mental illness this advice can feel impossible. I believe in self-care, but it can be very hard to accomplish.
I think of it like this. The airplane is flying along when suddenly there is turbulence and the flight gets rough. The masks drop down and you reach to put yours on before you try to help your child. Normally, you would place your mask on yourself and then reach over and place your child’s mask on them. Everyone is safe and you both get the oxygen you need. Care for yourself first, then care for the other person.
However, if you child suffers from SUD it’s never that easy. Imagine this instead.
The flight gets bumpy and your addicted child immediately begins to act out, yelling and panicking as the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling. You reach for your mask as you simultaneously try to calm them down. They flail and scream knocking the masks around and your mask is swinging wildly, making it difficult to grab. As you work to get your mask with one hand and push your child’s flapping arms out of the way the other, they begin to cuss at you.
“Don’t touch me, why aren’t you helping me? Give me my mask!”
You try to explain that you are attempting to get your mask on, then you will help them with theirs, to no avail. The thrashing and panic continues as you work desperately to reach your mask. You finally seize it and try to place it on your face only to have your child knock it from your hands in their erratic grasping.
You reach for it again, but you are getting short of breath and it’s getting harder to fight for that mask. Your child seems unaffected by the lack of air, drama and chaos they are causing, but you are overwhelmed and afraid you both may die if you don’t get the damn mask.
You tell your child they must calm down, and let you get masks on you both and they argue with you about your ‘demands.’
“How dare you tell me what to do, you don’t understand me”. They draw more of your energy and further exhaust you as they argue about how you are handling the crisis.
With a single minded determination, you ignore the tirade and push them away so you can reach your mask.
“How can you be so heartless?” they yell, “You know I need your help! How can you push me away?”
It hurts to have them attack you when you’re only trying to help you both, but you don’t have time to deal with the hurt or even acknowledge it. As they rant you make one last grab for the mask. Your fingers wrap around it and quickly you pull the elastic over your head. You feel the fresh air filling your lungs and for just a moment your body relaxes as oxygen renews you.
Then to your surprise your child, suddenly aware of the life saving mask, tries to pull the mask off of you instead of reaching for their own. You work to protect yourself, and reach for their mask, hoping to get them the air they need, but they push your hands away. In their irrational state they think your are trying to take something that is theirs. They lunge for it and in their anxiety and frustration, they rip the mask from the ceiling and pull the tube loose. Their mask is no longer functional.
Their eyes go wide with realization and they start pulling and fighting for your mask again.
You realize that someone is going to suffer, maybe die. Will it be you or them? You want them to calm down, you want help, you want it to stop, you want this to be easier, you wish you had never gotten on this flight.
You wish it was a movie, where something magical happens and at the last minute someone comes along and saves you both. This isn’t a movie and the flight may last years.
Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.
I try not to beat myself up because it feels so hard to care for myself, because loving an addict is incredibly complicated and simple answers have a way of becoming very convoluted when addiction is involved.
It’s not simple and it’s not easy. I need help and support. I will go to a meeting, see a therapist, take an antidepressant, detach, block phone numbers, go no contact for a while. I will do what I need to. Self-care isn’t just scented candles and long walks. Sometimes it’s protecting myself and preserving my very survival and my mental health.
It’s gonna be a long flight.