What does self-care mean anyway?

A post I wrote at the beginning of the year about New Year’s resolutions for moms starting me thinking.  The post talked about how difficult the media hype about New Year’s resolutions can be for our children and others suffering with eating disorders.  In it I talked about some alternative resolutions involving self-care that were outside of the standard dieting and exercise which was all over the TV and radio during the months of December and January.  After I wrote the “resolutions” post, I began thinking about the idea of self care. What does that really mean?  It is thrown around so casually these days, almost like “how are you?” How many people really answer that question with honesty?  How many people really ask it and want an honest answer?  It is really just a greeting that has an expected and socially acceptable response.  I noticed recently how often people that I don’t even know very well end a conversation with phrases like:  “take good care”, “take care of yourself”, and “take it easy”.  It seems to me to be a bit like opening a conversation with ‘how are you’?  Those phrases ending a conversation really don’t have much meaning anymore.  They have become a routine way to end a conversation.

What does taking care of yourself really mean?  There are the general principles of self-care that were taught growing up.  That includes making sure you are getting your physicals, going to the dentist, exercising, eating and sleeping well.  To the mom, dad, or caregiver of someone with an eating disorder, self care takes on a very different meaning.  The general rules of self-care are hard to follow or even remember while you are in the midst of what seems like a hurricane.  One wonders how you will care for yourself when you are feeling that you cannot take any more surprises, tricks, or lies and wondering when the next one is coming.  The parents or caregivers live a life of wondering if they’ll ever be able to stop being required to have eyes in the back of their head and actually sleep with both eyes closed.  It is feeling required to have their senses tuned to maximum alert status all the time as they constantly scan the landscape for the hidden surprises of the eating disorder to spring out of thin air.  It is feeling every muscle tighten and their stomach in knots as they sit at a very tense dinner table trying to get their child/loved one to finish his/her meal.  It is wondering if they will ever enjoy a meal with their family again, much less digest one.   It is isolation as their world narrows while they deal with the struggles and unpredictability of the eating disorder and their child’s changing moods.  It is constant worry and anxiety.  It is often feeling misunderstood, angry, and depressed.  It is finding the energy to give to siblings who are hurting also.  It is sometimes despair that this will never come to an end.  It can often feel like a tsunami crushing everything in its path and stirring up constant chaos externally and internally so that nothing seems settled or stable.

Self-care for the families battling eating disorders has some common themes, but still, like all self-care it is individual.  Some of it depends where their loved one is in the process:  has recovery not begun yet, are they dealing with running back and forth to an inpatient unit, or is recovery under way and outpatient treatment begun.  All of those stages put different demands and stressors on us.

There is no amount of self-care that is going to take away the pain and the feelings described above.  That comes with loving someone that is suffering and the feelings of helplessness, sadness, anger,  panic, and sometimes even hopelessness are all part of working through to the other side.  For caregivers and parents of those with eating disorders, self-care is sometimes just finding a way to keep yourself grounded when your world seems so unreal.  It can be just finding little periods of relief in all of the chaos.  It can be as simple as having someone holding your hand while you vent.  The thing about self-care is that “self” part.  Only you know what would make you feel better and mothers, in particular, are often reticent to ask for help.  Self-care can be something big, something added to the daily routine, but it doesn’t have to be.  It can be something that is subtracted from your schedule; it can be taking turns with your spouse or other caregiver, or even a friend to help each other reduce the stress load.  It can be something so simple that it isn’t visible to anyone but you. It can be setting boundaries and saying no to added work, activities, or volunteering.  Self-care to the eating disorder mom, dad, or other caregiver is whatever lifts your spirits, gives a short sigh of relief, and makes the load less heavy.  I am certainly not suggesting that we abandon those tried and true standards of self-care.  Those are the ideal that we should always strive to achieve, but aren’t so easy to work out in the midst of the eating disorder hurricane.  Sometimes, those general rules of self-care have to be broken down into smaller pieces for us when our world is turned upside down.

However you personalize your self-care, you are setting a wonderful example for your child or loved one with the eating disorder and you set that same good example for other siblings who do not have an eating disorder.  Bottom line, you are a positive role model even though you feel like you have been dragged through a keyhole.  Self-care sets boundaries and boundaries are sometimes difficult for those suffering with eating disorders.  It gives you a sense of self and helps reinforce to you and everyone in your world that you are not just an extension of everyone else and you need to be cared for as well.

It is sometimes hard to find what works for us, especially when we haven’t been taught to think of ourselves as anything but selfish when we need to take some time to care for our own needs.  While it is personal, I do have some suggestions that I have tried to tailor to those caring for a loved one with an eating disorder.  I hope you might find them helpful and can personalize them to suit your individual needs.

Talk with your Primary Care Physician:  Make your primary care physician aware of what is going on.  Have regular contact with him/her and be sure that you are very honest with the how the added stress is affecting you.  Be sure to talk about how you are sleeping, eating, what your mood is like, as well as any somatic complaints, no matter how small.

Consider a Therapist:  Having a therapist of your own can be a life line during very stressful periods.  This is a place that you can be totally honest and express yourself with complete confidentiality.

Consider joining a support group:  Support groups for parents and caregivers can also be a life line for stressful times in your life.   They are a place to express yourself, to learn from the experiences of others going through the same thing, and many times friendships develop which can provide additional support and relief.  Support groups help reduce that feeling of isolation.

Set Boundaries:  Setting boundaries and limits while you are feeling overwhelmed can go a long way in helping your feel more in control.  It is OK to say no to additional volunteering and taking on additional tasks.  It is OK to reduce your activities and even suspend your current volunteer responsibilities.  It is OK to set limits with answering unwanted questions about the eating disorder and you don’t have the right to decide what you want to divulge to others and what you don’t.  Work with your child/loved one’s therapist or treatment team and work with your own therapist, if you have one, to set reasonable boundaries and limits regarding eating disorder behaviors.

Consider FMLA:  If your child or loved one is in the hospital or is just coming out of the hospital and requires a great deal of care and supervision, consider FMLA.  If this is available to you, it can help reduce the stress of trying to work and provide supervision simultaneously.

Have a Crisis Plan:  Develop a crisis plan for both you and your loved one.  Know ahead of time who you are going to call and what you are going to do if your loved one’s symptoms become more than you can manage.  Also develop a plan for yourself.  Set up a plan with a therapist, good friend, or other support that you can put into place when you are feeling very overwhelmed yourself.  You and your spouse or other caregiver can even have an agreement to signal each other when feeling overwhelmed and allow each other to take some time out to regroup.

Get help with meals and housework:  Having someone to help you with preparing meals and household chores can be a tremendous relief.  This is especially true when you are running back and forth to an inpatient unit, PHP, or IOP.  Sometimes just seeing your house cleaned and the clutter put way (even if only partially) or having a meal ready and waiting can help make things seem less chaotic and help to ground us a bit.  Many organizations to which we belong are only too happy to help their members by setting up meal plans and household help.  If you don’t belong to any organizations, grandparents, other relatives, and friends would likely love to be asked to help and can relieve their feelings of helplessness when you ask them.  Hire a high school or college student to help out around the house for awhile.  Ask coaches and other parents to help out with transportation to activities for your other children.

Work in tandem with your spouse or other caregiver:  Work together!  Be a team.  Be patient and understanding with each other and listen to each other.  Take turns going to bed early and each take a weekend morning to sleep in.  Take turns giving each other time away.  Talk with each other and share your feelings.  Tell each other what helps reduce your stress and try to find ways to allow each other to do those things that bring relief.  Find a babysitter and go out together.

Remind yourself that this is a season in your life:  Remember that this is a hurricane and hurricanes don’t last forever.  No situation is hopeless and you will come out on the other side.  Remember that with every setback you gain knowledge and experience that you didn’t have before.

There are so many ways to exercise self-care and I know that I have just touched on a few.  Getting “grounded” is so important for your loved one and it is equally important for you.  Find support and do those things that help you regain your balance in the storm.  That is also self-care.



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