The importance of self-care when living with a loved one’s addiction (and what this looks like for me)

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Small, simple acts of creative self-indulgence can make an enormous impact on our sense of well-being. This antique wheel barrow was planted with alyssum…to feed the soul.

by Patti Fish Stephens

January 26, 2017

A few months ago I promised a post on self-care for those dealing with the effects of a loved one’s addiction. It has taken me a while to write about this, but I am glad I waited, because recently I happened across another blogger’s post about self-care for persons with depression. Then a reading at a recent Nar-Anon meeting focused on grief. Reading these two pieces helped me to think about the connections among addiction, depression, and grief. I personally have struggled with depression, grieved a complicated grief, and currently live with a recovering addict, so I have had to redefine self-care for myself numerous times. What amazes me is how difficult it can be to practice during the times I most need it, and how similarly the stresses of living with addiction, depression, and grief have affected me. Here I will be sharing what has worked for me; maybe some of it will work for you, too.

On self-care

Before talking about how I personally practice self-care, I want to comment on the term itself. The blogger who wrote about self-care during depression commented that this phrase is thrown around so often in professional development programs for social workers that it has become virtually meaningless. My own experience in the workplace supports that claim; I was one of only three non-nurses in a department of more than twenty full-time and many more part-time nursing instructors at a small college. All of these nurses either had practiced or were currently practicing in area hospitals. During department meetings and professional development programs, self-care would be stressed alongside the statistics of burnout, medical errors, and other major issues of this helping profession. But during these same meetings with exhortations to take good care of ourselves –get plenty of rest, eat healthfully, exercise, drink plenty of water, etc.– I was, on numerous occasions, the recipient of thinly-veiled martyr-complex comments simply because I went to the ladies’ room. Comments like, “I have worked 12 hour shifts without ever taking a bathroom break” and “You’d never make it as a nurse” or “As a nurse you learn to hold it because you have to” were common.

These comments, although generally spoken in good humor, contained an undercurrent of judgement which I found to be not only unkind, but hypocritical. (Now, lest I sound judgemental here myself, I freely confess I have been guilty of the same kind of self-martyring comments from time to time; just ask my husband about the “definition of full handed for moms vs. dads” diatribe I have spouted at him periodically since our kids were in diapers.) Freedom from physical discomfort, including hunger, thirst, cold, heat, need to void, etc., is the most basic human requirement on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. “Holding it” is, therefore, a denial of a most basic human physical need, and is nothing to brag about or shame someone else for not being able to do, especially after encouraging “self-care.”

Meeting the body’s most basic physical needs is self-care, but it is only the beginning. Self-care ideally encompasses the mind and heart and spirit as well as the body, but during crisis mode–such as a bout of clinical depression, the sudden onset of grief, or living with active or recovering addiction–taking care of even the most basic physical needs can be overwhelming. This means self-care will look different not only from person to person but from time to time in the same person’s life.

Over the past year I have sincerely tried to embrace self-care, especially since my daughter’s overdose in March of 2015. When she came home from the hospital I spent so much time taking her to appointments with specialists, driving her back and forth to IOP (Intensive Out Patient therapy) each day, and making sure she took her medicine every 12 hours that I had begun to ignore my own basic needs, as well as the not-so-basic ones. What made this worse was that when she relapsed again just a few weeks after her nearly-fatal overdose, I felt betrayed. I had worked so hard to help her stay healthy. How could she do this to herself–and to me?

Nar-Anon Family Group

This is where Nar-Anon came in for me. My husband and I started attending meetings while my daughter was still in the hospital, and those meetings soon became our lifeline. It was in these meetings that I found the strength to refocus my energy on myself instead of the addict in my life. By listening to the experiences of others in the group, I was able to see that focusing on my own needs–that is, practicing self-care–was truly the only thing I could control in my life. I couldn’t control my daughter, her addiction, her recovery, or others’ response to this crisis in our family. The only thing I can control in my life is my own response to whatever occurs around me. While this has always been true, it took my daughter’s journey through addiction to teach me that this is simply another way to express the core belief of recovery: that I am powerless over anyone else’s life choices.

So, my journey of self-care began at Nar-Anon, but seeds of certain aspects of recovery had been planted before this at family programs we attended at our daughter’s outpatient and inpatient rehab. I have mentioned in previous posts that my daughter had two especially gifted rehab counselors who not only helped her but our whole family. One of these counselors suggested I try, among other things, restorative yoga to help relieve my symptoms of stress, which had reached an all-time high. I was most appreciative of her kindness but highly skeptical of her suggestions, which all sounded like New Age mumbo-jumbo to this WASPy, midwestern, middle-class mom.

Restorative Yoga Classes

It’s funny what you’ll try when you feel you have nothing left to lose.

True story: I cried through most of my first yoga class. I left puddles on my mat on either side of my head where the tears silently dripped off my face as we did “legs up the wall.” Mind you, this was a Gentle 1 yoga class. In other words, the only level below this class would be sleep (which also happens to be highly therapeutic). All of the poses are done on the floor; there are no standing poses. There is nothing highly strenuous–physically or mentally–about a Gentle 1 class, as it is meant to be restorative. Yet the simple act of stretching out my over-stressed body released so much tension that it hurt, both physically and emotionally. We talk about being “stressed-out” in our society, about getting tension headaches. We know that when we are stressed, our shoulders get tight. But what happens to our bodies when we let go of that stress? There has to be a converse reaction (Newton’s third law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction) and this is just as true for our physical bodies as it is in science class experiments and car crashes. So when we release our tension, stress, and emotional pain, it is no surprise that we then feel physical pain, as our bodies are reacting every bit as much as our minds. This is the mind-body connection at work.

Meditation Classes

While attending weekly yoga classes I saw a flyer for six-week meditation sessions offered by the instructor I had come to trust during gentle yoga. I had, for some time, been curious about meditation, but once again my conservative upbringing judged this to be another New-Agey fad. The yoga had helped my stress levels so much, though, that I decided to give it a try. Another true story: I cried through almost my entire first Yoga Nidra session. By now my instructor knew me a little bit and I had shared some of what was going on in my life, so she probably wasn’t too shocked when the pools formed on my mat again. I, however, knew I was crying for more than stress relief: during the guided meditation of Yoga Nidra, I envisioned my brother, who had been dead for ten years by then, and physically felt his presence. New Agey mumbo-jumbo? Sounds like it. But have you ever had a dream about someone you’ve lost that seems so real that you forget for just a moment when you wake up that they are gone? That’s what this was like, except I knew this was just a visit. It was so intense and so real that I could barely contain the noise of my sobbing during the meditation. Meditation, like yoga, has both physical and emotional/mental/spiritual benefits.

Individual Counseling

I had actually begun seeing a therapist several months before my daughter’s addiction came to light. I had been having a difficult time managing several chronic health issues–mostly related to or exacerbated by stress–and had tried everything I could think of on my own. I had implemented an exercise routine, lost a significant amount of weight, and completely changed my eating habits. I had read self-help books, worked through their exercises, and tried to change my mindset in addition to my body. But still my physical symptoms persisted. I was beginning to show signs of depression from dealing with the frustration of so many chronic health issues, and that was the tipping point for me. I had tried to change everything about my self that I could control and I was still stressed beyond reason. Clearly, I needed another perspective. I did some research on the Cleveland Clinic website and found a psychologist who specialized in dealing with chronic health issues and grief, among other things.

From my first meeting with my therapist, I knew I had made the right choice for me. I know that I was lucky, as not everyone develops a good rapport with the first counselor they meet, or even the second. It helped tremendously that I live in a suburban area flush with hospitals and healthcare providers of every stripe. I had a lot of options. Not everyone is so fortunate. I also have excellent, affordable healthcare which allowed me to visit my therapist as often as once a week if necessary. I am aware that many do not have these advantages, and for what I have, I am truly thankful.

I had been seeing my psychologist for several months and just starting to get to the root of some of my issues when my daughter’s addiction came to light. All of my focus turned to dealing with this new challenge in our family. I have, for about two years now, largely been operating in crisis mode. My therapist, in conjunction with my Nar-Anon Family Group, have helped me to focus on taking care of my own needs while also trying to support my daughter in her recovery. It was my therapist who helped me give myself permission to leave a position in a workplace that was so ill-fitting and toxic that I could no longer deny it was the major source of my stress. My daughter’s disease was the factor that tipped the scales and finally gave me the impetus to leave, but it was my psychologist who helped me through the practical steps of actually quitting and embarking on a new kind of life, one that truly suited me and that helped reduce my stress levels despite being in the worst nightmare a parent could imagine.

Gardening

The summer before I left my job I had grown various herbs and tomatoes in containers on my deck. For years I had fantasized about having a garden, but it always seemed to be such an overwhelming task to undertake for someone who hadn’t grown anything since about first grade. The following winter was when our daughter’s addiction came to our attention, and by the first summer of living with her disease, the planting a real garden had taken on a great deal of symbolism in my mind. I needed something to focus on other than the physical and emotional pain I was in. This was during the time of my worst chronic health symptoms, and my therapist fully supported and encouraged planting and tending a garden as a therapeutic exercise. I was still at my job but taking extensive FMLA time to try to get my health issues under control and also deal with my daughter’s ongoing battle with alcohol and heroin addiction.

That summer was a revelation. Planting and tending that garden was truly life-changing for me. Not only did it give me a place to focus my energy, it gave me tomatoes. And basil. And lemon thyme. (How did I ever cook without it?)  And a sense of purpose. And real, living proof that something I invested in did indeed reap a harvest. The garden was a tangible reminder that, despite how long it took to be visible, real growth was occurring, both in me and my daughter. In a word, the garden gave me hope.

Journaling/Writing

The first thing I did upon leaving my job that summer was to start blogging about my garden. It was the smallest of gardens, but that didn’t deter me from sharing my thoughts, experiences, successes, and failures with others. I was done with being self-critical, so I just wrote. My 4 x 4 foot garden plot was worthy of my time and attention, and it contained revelations I had never imagined. Soon I was writing about other things as well: my quest toward minimalism; the whole-food, plant based diet we had adopted; different types of exercise I had experimented with; recipes I concocted and, more recently, my experiences with my daughter’s heroin addiction.

In addition to writing on my blog, I returned to my practice of journal writing. I had kept a journal on and off for 15 or more years, ever since first reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way in the late 1990s, but while working full time I had let go of the habit. Writing just 3 pages first thing in the morning, in longhand, helps me purge my anxieties onto the page, leaving the space in my brain to process and address the more urgent issues in my life that need attention. These journal entries are never meant to see the light of day; they are not structured or planned in any way. They are free-association, stream-of-consciousness babbling with no regard for grammar, punctuation, handwriting, or even logic. They are simply a means to an end: a warm-up exercise for the brain, if you will. And you don’t have to be a writer for this practice to help you. Everyone and anyone can benefit from the practice of Morning Pages. For more information on this practice, check out The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron from your local library or used book store.

Walking in Nature

One of the other things that has helped keep my stress level in check these past few years has been exercise. When I first started my full-time job in 2012, long before my daughter’s addiction was on our radar, I handled the stress of all the changes in my life by hiking almost every day in Cleveland’s MetroParks. Admittedly, we have one of the best and most enviable MetroPark Systems in the country, but anyplace outside with fresh air will do. For me, the benefits were many: first, the fresh air and natural surroundings had a calming effect on me; second, the aerobic exercise was good for my circulatory system, my respiratory system, my weight, and my muscle tone; third, the time with my husband (my hiking partner) helped us stay connected and strengthened our bond; and finally, talking about our respective work days helped us work out our frustrations and celebrate our successes.

Other Exercise

Eventually I added Barre classes to my exercise regimen, and these classes, which combine yoga, pilates, strength training, and ballet, helped me lose a significant amount of weight. I also developed more core strength and muscle tone than I had ever had in my life. My husband and I purchased a pair of bicycles for each other for our 25th anniversary, and we added that to our exercise routines as well. Being active is the best anti-depressant I have ever known, and has at least as many mental/emotional benefits as it does physical benefits. But I suffered a serious injury on my bicycle in June of 2014 which has plagued me ever since, and I have not yet achieved the previous level of physical activity we enjoyed up until that time. After my injury (a tibia bone bruise) hadn’t healed in over a year, I was put in a boot in the summer of 2015. I was supposed to taper off the boot and do physical therapy starting around Labor Day, but my daughter had a major relapse that weekend and I transitioned out of the boot too quickly and delayed my physical therapy. I can see the negative consequences of not making exercise a higher priority in my self-care regimen, and plan to work very hard this spring and summer to get back on track in this area, as I know how much better I feel physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually when I am exercising regularly.

Small Creative Indulgences

I have always been creative. I loved art class in elementary school almost as much as I enjoyed writing and reading. I also loved singing and dancing. But somewhere along the way from junior high to high school, I lost my confidence in doing most of these things (as most adolescent American girls do). I still loved writing, but I felt sure I was no good at anything else. I now know that’s completely untrue, and what’s more, why does it matter if I am any good at it? If I want to draw a totally crappy drawing, who cares? If it makes me happy to paint a terribly cliche, saccharine painting of wildflowers, why shouldn’t I? There is no reason I shouldn’t. And so I have.

A few summers ago (okay, maybe 10 or more) I was at an estate sale where I stumbled upon an old Roger Burrows coloring book from the early 1980s. I was delighted! I had had one of these as a kid and spent hours upon hours coloring the geometric designs with crayons, colored pencils, and markers. I loved the feel of the slick markers on the smooth paper, the waxy smell of the crayons, the pastel subtlety of the pencils, and the planning of what color scheme I would use. If you aren’t familiar with Burrows’s books, they are full of geometric patterns that can be colored in infinite combinations to emphasize certain patterns over others. Long before the adult coloring craze began, I bought this cast-off coloring book and rummaged around our school supply cupboard for some colored pencils and stealthily colored when no one else was home. It felt like stolen bliss. It felt like childhood. So it was no wonder to me when the adult coloring book market exploded a few years ago…my only question was, why did it take so long for others to discover this joy?

The discovery of that Burrows coloring book made me realize something else, though. And it’s that small acts of creative indulgence can go a really long way toward restoring our sanity in this crazy world, especially when we’re dealing with predators as big and scary as  depression, addiction, or grief. I have developed several creative hobbies through the years–chiefly scrapbooking and rubber stamping–and while my craft room is currently a source of stress due to my over-abundance of supplies, I try to take a creative respite at least once a week, even if only for a few minutes, and make something. Lately I’ve been making greeting cards and inspirational bookmarks. Last winter I was into coloring with glitter markers in a snowflake-themed coloring book.

And last summer, I splurged and bought two whole flats of alyssum to fill a trash-picked wooden wheel-barrow with a sea of pastels–just because it made me happy. It made me happy all summer and fall to look out my kitchen window every day and see the delicate lavender, pink, purple and cream blossoms peeking over the edge of the whitewashed wood. And it makes me happy still, every time I look at the photo I took of it. Really, what other purpose is there for us to plant flowers, other than to make us happy? Isn’t that why we buy hyacinths–or alyssum–to feed our souls?

Find what feeds your soul and do it as often as possible.

Practice self-care for your body, mind, heart, and spirit.

And remember, you don’t have to go it alone. Reach out.

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If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my blog to get email updates about new posts.

If you liked the idea of morning pages, regular walks, and creative indulgences, check out The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

If you want some sweet coloring pages, check out any of Roger Burrows’s geometric design books.

And if you want a reminder that you don’t have to go it alone, listen to “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” by U2. You can find it on YouTube, or on their excellent 2004 album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.