Last week when I talked about autism and how to keep your home and family happy and functioning I hit the topic of practicing open communication pretty hard. Have you begun that? I hope so. This week I want to talk about something a little different from the other two topics. This one doesn’t focus so much on work with others or between others and yourself. This one is all about you, the autism parent. Because it’s not enough to have to take care of everyone else, is it?! You still have to take care of you!! 🙂 I know that people think this is easier said than done. But I want to give you a piece of advice from a man I really admire. He has suffered much, physically and in other ways, throughout his life. Robert D. Hales said, “When you cannot do what you have always done, then you only do what matters most.”
Did you read that?! How true is that statement?! I think no one knows that truth so well as those stricken with a long illness and parents of special needs kids. Right?! (Although I will also concede that parents with a newborn soon discover it as well! HAHA!) When your autistic child came along, didn’t your world change dramatically?
You are given a diagnosis or something like it, and suddenly life changes in a myriad of unexpected ways. HUGE demands are made of your time and energy. Out of necessity, many things that were previously deemed of utmost importance are left behind or tossed away. There is a major shift in priorities, and it needs to be that way. It really does. We end up realizing that we can only do the things that really matter. (If you are new to this journey, just do this already. You’re life will be happier! Trust me.)
Let me give you an example of this in my life. When Mr. Fantastic and I first married, I thought one of my crosses to bear was the fact that my husband didn’t put the DVDs back in alphabetical order. I mean, COME ON! IT’S THE FREAKING ALPHABET! How hard can it be?! But I persisted with that alphabetical arrangement, believing he would learn that it meant a lot to me…and thus one day start doing it. It didn’t bother me at all that people around me thought this was silly. I was right!! Well, along came J with his own little circus of flying monkeys that I had to manage, and I’m telling you…Sadness. I swear to you now that while that dream still lives in a part of my mind called “LaLa Land”, all I want in the real world is for those blessed DVDs to be put away in a drawer out of my sight. They can look like a blind octopus put them in there for all I care. As long as that drawer closes, I literally do not care anymore. I don’t have the emotional energy to spend on the issue. There is no space in my brain for it. I like to tell my husband that the RAM in my brain is full. If anything else wants in, something else has to be deleted…permanently. That’s usually enough to frighten him into holding off on requests. I mean, who knows what could be deleted?! Birthdays maybe? Or, heaven forbid, HIS NAME?! 😉
So priorities shift. Rightfully and needfully. But people, we have to be careful here. We parents are wonderful beings, capable of great and miraculous things. Unfortunately we can do some really stupid things if we aren’t careful. All for the best reasons, of course. 😉 But hear me when I say this. As a matter fact, hear it and feel it. DO NOT let one of those mistakes be the casting off of self-care as a priority! DON’T! Just don’t do it.
I could cite statistics for you. I could sit here and tell you how science has proven what terrible things stress can do to your body. I could tell you that they have proven that investing a little time in you pays HUGE dividends in every other part of your life – mental, physical, spiritual, emotional. But I won’t because that’s not something you don’t already know. Also, facts aren’t very interesting on their own. Facts don’t tell us what something looks like in real life. So I’ll tell you something you don’t know yet…another story.
All my life growing up I was active…basketball, volleyball, softball, cross country. It was fabulous. I also played the piano a ton! After marriage, I evolved a bit but was still very active in other activities while maintaining softball and the piano. Then came the beginning years of J’s stuff. My level of activity, the kind devoted to me, not running around chasing him, dropped to sporadic bursts. This is also, coincidentally, during the time that I wasn’t communicating well with my husband! (Remember that?) Talk about a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, we still loved each other and persevered. But when J was 5 we had another baby, and my activity practically stopped. I didn’t want it to. But “I didn’t have time” to do all the things I used to do. I was too tired. I was worn out. I ate foods that couldn’t sustain me long term because they were “easier” to fix. Countless days I would forego fueling my body all day long out of complete neglect. It was never intentional. I would just forget about myself and my hunger, my body’s needs, until we all sat down to eat at night. Needless to say, my health suffered greatly. It was awful, and I’m not just talking about the physical.
One day I saw a picture of myself on vacation, and I was horrified. It didn’t even look like me! I’m not just talking about the obvious weight gain, forty pounds heavier than I am now! It was EVERYTHING!! My face looked sad even thought I was smiling. My hair was thin. My eyes were dull. It actually makes me cry inside to see that picture. I’m not saying that weight is always an indicator of how well a person cares for themselves, but it was for me. It was alarming, actually. I was hurt and humiliated to see what I had become.
Thankfully this realization came after the hubs and I were already doing better communicating, so I was able to go to him and declare that I needed a gym membership again that I had previously given up. I later added that I needed to change my diet, and subsequently everyone else’s. That was a little alarming for him, but Mr. Fantastic loves me. He went with it. Then I added that I needed to spend time alone. There were other things as well. The important thing to know here is that these weren’t all revealed to him at once. They were told piece by piece. If I had tried to implement all of this at once, I would have succumbed to the overwhelm of it all. I would have quit and felt like a failure. But I could do one thing, couldn’t I? Just one thing for myself?
After a long time, trips to the doctor, prayers, work, and patience, I have begun to feel better inside. Sure, 40 pounds came off, but my mind is sharp again. My heart is full and strong instead of strung out and weary. My body is much more capable of withstanding the stress that my life puts on it now. But do you know the coolest part? As I have begun to take care of myself regularly, my hubs has supported me. He has even encouraged me to do more. But you know what’s even better?! ALL of my children have begun modeling my behaviors. They have taken an interest in taking care of the great gift they have been given – their bodies. Themselves. Who’d of thunk it?! Who could have known that making myself & my care an equal priority to that of other family members would change my family so much? And give them more opportunities for growth? Who could’ve known? 🙂
Now, listen. Maybe your self-care isn’t going to look like mine with a change in diet or exercise or the expansion of talents like writing and piano playing. Maybe your self-care will be other things like taking a little time to see your friends or join a book club. The point is to do it. Your needs must be equal to those of everyone else in the family. Ask yourself if you would ever treat your children the way you are treating yourself. If you the answer is no, then something needs to change. No one is saying to abandon your responsibilities and such. That’s just a part of life, and we are raising our children to accept that as well, aren’t we? Instead, stop abandoning yourself. No one will take care of you if you don’t take care of you. Let your children grow and see what it means to be a healthy, happy, functioning adult.
And time isn’t an excuse! Remember my sister the homeschooler? She has almost 8 children! She exercises EVERY DAY. She has a son who has therapy appointments, psychologist appointments, children in 4H and sports, and a husband who is out of town 4-5 days a week. But she does it! Why? Because she knows the difference. After 7 kids, she told me that she could barely keep up anymore and was exhausted at the end of every day. She resolved to try exercise, and after a week she never went back. Her poor body had been so neglected, she didn’t understand the mixed signals. The less she moved, the worse and more fatigued she felt. The more she worked her body, the more energy she felt. So people, if she can do it, if that lady can find the time to take care of herself in her crazy hectic life, we all can.
You might need help. You might need outside support to start this and be able to maintain it. Don’t be afraid of seeking that help. I promise you that people that want to support you are there. They are. You might be a single parent or a parent that is thousands of miles from extended family. It doesn’t matter. The people who will be capable of supporting you are there. Ask. Open the lines of communication. (I already talked about this here.)
If you aren’t sure where to start, I encourage you to pray. Ask the Lord to help you find or remember what it is that you need or find the support to begin. Larry Lawrence said, “The Holy Ghost really does give customized counsel.” But, “We must be willing to act when we receive an answer.” If you aren’t religious, talk to the people in your life that love you. Be open to their input. They might be one of the Brave Souls discussed in the first post this month and say things you don’t like. Just listen. And don’t forget to follow through!
And guys, can I just say here that part of self-care is encouragement? It’s so important. You know it is. You give it to your children ALL the time. Please remember to ask for this either from your Father above or from family and friends. Heck! Do what I just started to do! I started paying myself $1 every time I exercise. I stick it in a jar for me. Then every $100 goes to whatever I want to buy for me! It sounds silly, but hey…seeing money fill up the jar is really encouraging. HAHA! (Plus, I needed it to get back on the wagon after my surgery. It’s been a rough few months, and this is helping!)
Just remember, guys. You matter. You matter as much as your child or your spouse or your parents. You can do this…if you want it. It’s up to you. Take care of you!
Take It, and Be Thankful