Relationships, Part 61: When Illness Take Over: Put On your Own Oxygen Mask Before Helping Anyone Else

You’ve heard it. You’ve been on airplanes when they go over the safety procedures. They always say put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else. I’ve never been in a situation in which the oxygen masks are needed, but I think it’s good advice. It’s even good advice when you’re dealing with a sick person.

There’s are lots of ways in which illness takes over a relationship, but the surest way is when the caregiver forgets to take care of herself. She becomes entirely preoccupied with what the sick partner needs. For good reason. The sick partner’s needs scream the loudest. They’re the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. Your needs can wait, you think.

No, they can’t.

I’m not talking about emergencies, of course. If a carotid artery is severed, then, yes, forget that you need to go to the bathroom. Call the ambulance and apply pressure to the wound. You can pee later. You can pee in your pants. In fact, you might be peeing in your pants anyway if someone’s carotid artery is severed in front of you. Other than carotid arteries, there may be a few other kinds of emergencies that require you to forget your needs completely; but not many. Not everything is an emergency. In fact, very few things are. I know, I used to work in an emergency department.

When I worked in the emergency department, I was the guy who handled all the psychiatric emergencies. There were the suicidal people who came in, the homicidal people the police brought in, the domestic violence people who wouldn’t settle down, the psychotic people who were about to fly off buildings. Often the people who brought them in, the friends, the relatives, and the Good Samaritans, were breathless with excitement and trepidation. People couldn’t wait to help. I had just the thing that would make them all feel better. I had a waiting room.

We even had a name for it: waiting room therapy. There’s a change for the better that occurs when people don’t do anything; provided they’re safe, of course. When you don’t do anything, your heart stops beating so fast, your adrenalin wears off. You have time to think, to talk, to reconsider options. When someone else doesn’t rush to solve your problem for you, you often solve it yourself, you discover your own abilities. You learn that you can bear most things, they are tolerable, you develop endurance.

It’s not like I purposely made people wait. Far from it. I was always gung-ho about seeing people in a timely fashion. Most of the time I was interested in learning about new cases and, even if I wasn’t, it was in my interest to conclude it. Sometimes I would see them when my bladder was bursting, when I needed to eat, when I should have taken a break. But all the waiting couldn’t be helped. We were in a emergency department, after all. It’s busy. It’s understaffed. There are a bazillion forms to fill out. That’s what people do there, wait. I was forced to learn the therapeutic properties of the waiting room.

When you rush to take care of your sick partner’s needs while neglecting your own, you are not only doing yourself a disservice, you are also doing a disservice to her. You don’t give her a chance to solve her own problem or, at least, to learn that it doesn’t have to be solved right away. If you make her dependent on you, she’ll resent you for it and her illness will get stronger. You’ll hold all your sacrifices against her, especially the ones she never asked you to make. Furthermore, by neglecting your own needs, you decrease your own effectiveness. How good a listener do you think I was when I took a case when I really needed to pee, to eat, or take a break?

So that’s why you should always put on your own oxygen mask before helping others, literally and figuratively.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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