Leftovers: You can’t be strong for others if you’re not strong yourself

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Someone I know well and love deeply is in need.

This person has been experiencing physical health problems that are manifesting in several ways and are unlike anything either of us has ever seen before. Aside from these things being uncomfortable, foreign, and scary, they seem to be doing OK. 

But “OK” is subjective.

Natalie LaddThis person is intensely private (hence I cannot identify them) and has a tendency to hyper-focus on one potentially negative thing at a time, ignoring life’s other details. But the health issues puzzled even their primary-care physician, who downplayed the symptoms in their earliest manifestations. 

“Let’s keep an eye on it,” and “You’re fine with this or that over-the-counter medication,” were the doctor’s unsatisfactory answers. Add this to their already suspicious mindset around the medical community and this person was spinning. 

Like many in the U.S. today, they are worried about marginal health care and possible needs if the condition is something that requires long-term attention. Their family members are scattered around the globe.

But before this turns into a sanctimonious soapbox lecture about caring for each other, and being kind, and patient, and grateful, and helpful, and all of that, I’ll stop. Those things should be givens, but that isn’t the point.

The point is counter-intuitive to the rhetoric of a pre-Thanksgiving column and is not something I focus on often, if ever. 

The point is, if you don’t advocate for yourself or put yourself first once in a while, you’re screwed. It’s what flight attendants have been trying to tell us for years by instructing us to put on our own oxygen masks before trying to help others who are gasping for air. Boat captains, too: Tighten your own life preserver and then help others get into the life raft. Even in the animal kingdom, the strongest of wolves will bring up the rear, protecting themselves from predators while watching the pack closely to be able to spring into action.

But my friend doesn’t need an oxygen mask (at least right now), or examples from other species. People like me in particular need to take good care of ourselves so we can help people like them down the road. I’m no leader of the pack, but this person needs me to hang back while they forge ahead with research, their own educated questions, and making their own decisions. And yes, all of this is tied to my own self-care. 

Self-care is not a new concept but is still perceived as a luxury instead of a necessity. Images such as relaxing in a bubble bath or slowly sipping a tawny port by the fireplace come to mind, but it is way more. It is saying no to the neighbor who takes advantage of your goodwill one time too many. It is eating dessert for a change because your favorite pie is being served. It is wearing something fun and funky because it makes you feel good. It is passing on the family Zoom this week because attending will be stressful. It is things that may seem selfish to others – but they don’t have the rearview into your life. 

Specialists have been seen and a plan is about to unfold. While I wait to hear how I can help, I’m taking care of myself. I’m drinking that reserve wine, walking an extra block or two in the crisp fall air, and saying no to people as gently as I can.

This Thanksgiving, do something different for others and take extra good care of yourself. Dig deep and ask yourself what that looks like, no matter how selfish or self-absorbed it may seem. Then, as I’m trying to do for this person, hang back and howl like a wolf with all the love you have in your heart.

Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].