When I was preparing to become a lifeguard in high school, I remember some of the more rigorous requirements I needed to meet before I could be certified as a professional lifeguard. While there were mental tests to sharpen book knowledge and techniques, most of the tests very physical. In order to help a drowning victim, my body needed to be able to do certain things. I remember treading water for 30 minutes or longer while holding my arms above my head. This prepared me to stay above water for a long period of time (while building a killer core). I remember swimming a consecutive mile or more to build up lung capacity and stamina.
The hardest test involved rescuing the program instructor’s son from the bottom of a pool and delivering him safely to the pool deck. There were a few conditions, though, which made this a potentially difficult task. Her son was a 20something year old college football player. He was over 6 feet tall, weighed more than 200 pounds, and most of that weight was muscle. He was a rather ornery dude who really enjoyed making this process difficult for future lifeguards, so he took his part of playing the flailing, panicked drowning victim very seriously. He had done his homework. I am also 97% positive that he oiled his skin up before jumping in the pool just to add an extra layer of complexity to this exercise.
I remember standing on the side of the pool waiting my turn to dive in and thinking, “Something is required of me if I want to help struggling people.” Even though I am no longer a lifeguard and have forgotten much of the training I endured to become one, I know now – maybe more than ever – just how much is required of me and anyone who steps into a helping profession. Therapists, instructors, first responders, nurses, doctors, surgeons, missionaries, and military service personnel know how quickly burnout can happen if we/they don’t care for the self before engaging in the care of others.
While I have always “known” this, I have recently been faced with some very real reminders of it as I have battled burn out. In spite of all of the hours I have spent in counseling, recovery groups, support groups, doctors offices, and self care books, I am still so quick to forget that I must take care of myself if I am going to be healthy enough to care for others. While the requirements for being an addiction and trauma therapist may not be the same as being a lifeguard, the same principles apply. If I am not relatively healthy emotionally, I will look to my clients for approval and affirmation. This is a HUGE danger zone in the world of therapy. If left untreated, this leads to therapists ignoring clear boundaries, having affairs with their clients, or worse. If I am not physically healthy, I am also not healthy mentally. 70-80% of our bodies’ serotonin receptors – the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood – live in our guts. That means whatever I put in my stomach greatly affects what happens in my brain and in the rest of my body. Simply put, I can’t think clearly if I am eating crap. And if I am not spiritually healthy, I will make idols of people, places, and things that were never meant to satisfy me.
Here is the catch: for the longest time, I confused “healthy” with “perfection”. Health does not equal perfection. We each have different health goals because each person is created differently. What works for one person’s physical make up may not work for someone else’s. For example, I have polycystic ovarian syndrome. This means that I am also insulin resistant, which means that my body over-produces insulin to compensate for the the fact that my body doesn’t metabolize insulin well. This affects my pituitary gland, my weight, my reproductive system, and my mental and emotional health. While I CAN eat whatever I want, it is not healthy for me to do so. My body does not process refined sugars or carbohydrates well, so I am prone to weight gain and dramatically slower weight loss. I take some medications to regulate this, but the best way to manage it is through lifestyle choices. The same goes for my depression and anxiety. I have lived with both for as long as I can remember. This doesn’t mean that I am a broken toy on the side of the room, but it does mean that I need to know how to care for my mind, heart, and body well so that symptoms don’t flare up and cause panic attacks or depressive episodes.
Some platitudes, however, do apply to all of us. Smoking is bad for everyone. Cocaine is bad for everyone. Lunchables are bad for everyone (sorry, babe, but there is plenty of research to back this up). We all need to get to know our brains and our bodies well enough so that we know what we need in order to be healthy.
So, back to my original point. What happens when I put care of self on the back burner for the sake of helping others? Well, it isn’t pretty, it helps no one, and this mostly what my last post reflected. Last week, through a flurry of unfortunate circumstances, I put self care so far down on the list that I physically, mentally, and emotionally crashed and was not in a place to help anyone. I let myself get to a place of drowning. So what does it look like to prevent this?
It looks like learning to swim. All hurricane puns aside (hurricanes aren’t funny, but sometimes the memes are), we will never be able to avoid all of life’s storms so we have to learn to swim. And everyone swims differently. You may tread water differently than I do, but at the end of the day both of our heads are still above water.
My challenge to myself, and to anyone reading this, this week is to learn how to keep swimming even when the storms around us rage. I think there is a reason other than biology that fish swim in schools. They accomplish so much more together. Whether it is finding food or regulating the current, they are more powerful in a group than in isolation. We are not too different from our fishy friends. Sometimes we have to tread water alone for a little while, but there is always someone nearby who needs us just as much as we need them.
My goal this week is to just keep swimming. Thanks, Dory.