I am not sure how many of us pay attention to the pre-flight videos where information is given on the location of the bathrooms, the emergency exits and other pertinent safety features on the plane. One of the most life-changing [experiences I recently had] was [due to] the afore-mentioned pre-flight instructions. I am unable to quote verbatim what the melodic voice said, but the general gist goes along these lines: ‘If, for whatever reason, the cabin loses pressure a mask will drop down from the cabin above your head. Pull on the mask to activate the flow of oxygen. Place your mask securely before attending to those in your care’.
Imagine that! In order to [assist] those in your care properly you are instructed to don your mask first, then [to] put on your child’s mask or that of your elderly father who is on his first trip to ‘over in away’. As selfish as it seems, it makes perfect sense. In order to function efficiently and effectively, any given individual must be operating at his or her best.
Would you like to have your spleen removed by a surgeon who has not slept in two days? How about being driven by Mr. ‘X’, who has worked three straight shifts from the Airport to Speightstown, one after the next? These are not specific persons but situations which are not so farfetched. So, if we would not knowingly entrust our lives to persons such as these, why is it that every day by not taking care of ourselves, we short-change those persons with whom we come into contact?
I believe that high on the list of persons caring for everyone but themselves are mothers. Let me categorically state that I have not done any scientific studies to determine the prevalence of maternal self-neglect on our island, and neither am I in possession of statistics comparing the rates of the consequent societal degradation in Caribbean countries. The foregoing statements were based solely on casual observation and information gleaned from encounters with several mothers over the years.
As recently as yesterday, I was chatting with a young mother of two who reported that she went without lunch [so] her children [could] receive all they needed to be comfortable for school. Another felt guilty about updating her wardrobe because she might need the money for something for one of her three children. And whilst these feelings are more commonly relayed by women, there are many fathers who find themselves in a similar predicament.
Caregiver burnout is a well-documented syndrome where the individual who is caring for someone becomes overwhelmed by the task at hand. This is not uncommon in our setting in Barbados, where, for example, a previously independent elderly lady has a stroke and needs additional care. She is known to have six children, four of whom are males. However, only one daughter, for an innumerable list of reasons, becomes responsible for her day-to-day care, hospital follow up visits and management of the financial affairs.
In addition to the physical symptoms such as fatigue, sleeplessness, back pain and headaches, these persons experience symptoms of depression, anger, feelings of guilt and they can even become dependent on alcohol and other legal and illegal drugs. Ironically, the caregiver becomes insensitive and uncaring towards the individual for whom he or she is caring and may even harm that person.
I felt like Einstein when I realised that self-care is not selfish. As a matter-of-fact, self-care is absolutely necessary for optimal individual functioning. One of the first hurdles which must be crossed is the intense guilt which seems to ‘magically appear’ when one is considering a purchase of a small item or a few minutes in solitude. There have been occasions (after they were calling me almost ad nauseam) where I have said to my children, ‘The person you are trying to reach is not available at this time; please try your call again later or leave a message after the tone’. And yes, I did make the ‘beep’ sound and allowed them to voice their complaint. What I did not do was intervene in whatever nuclear battle they were having at the time. After I had my time of reprieve, what I realised as many of you caregivers will, is that they did not die and they had sorted out whatever grievance one had committed against the other.
Did that make me a bad mother? No. On the contrary, I think it made me a better mother because I recognised that I needed some time alone. Perhaps if I had intervened in my tired state, the situation may have resulted in either or both of them getting a stern look or some pleasure being taken away.
What can you do to get in some necessary selfishness? I was going to recommend a long shower, but I recall that [this is] a water scarce country, so perhaps a walk around the neighbourhood or some other form of exercise. In addition to improving your mood, there are so many other physical and emotional benefits of exercise. If finances are an issue, the purchase of a small item for which you set aside a small amount of money weekly can be uplifting. Treat yourself to a new scent, or other cosmetic item; watch a movie; call, not text a friend and have a ‘belly laugh’; prepare a meal that you love to eat; go to the beach and watch the sunset; pick up a hobby such as gardening or learning to apply makeup; read the Bible or other uplifting material.
I have mentioned before that the answers to many life circumstances can be found in the Bible and today’s scenario is no different. In Matthew 22:39 the latter phrase speaks of loving your neighbour as yourself. Note carefully, it didn’t say love your neighbour more than you love yourself. Love yourself today and be selfishly ‘self-full’.
(Renee Boyce is a medical doctor, a wife, a mother and a Christian, who is committed to Barbados’ development. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)