By Linda Snow-Griffin, Ph.D.
What airline passenger truly loves flying in turbulent conditions? My husband, who is a private pilot, likes to remind me that turbulence is like driving on a bumpy country road. While this can seem reassuring, I still dislike the feeling of being out of control. Thoughts of “will I survive?” still freak me out until we get to a smoother air space.
Being out of control is just what I felt 19 years ago when my son told me he believed he had schizophrenia. As a psychologist, and as a mother, I was in disbelief. At the beginning, our journey felt worse than a bumpy country road. I frequently wondered how we would survive. Taking care of myself was the last thing on my mind.
What I learned is that there is a reason that flight attendants tell adults to put the oxygen mask on themselves first before putting it on the children traveling with them. How would a small child feel if he or she was comfortably breathing with their mask and discovered their parent was passed out in the seat next to them? Similarly, I needed to be conscious and available when my son needed me in the early years of his diagnosis.
Self-care is not particularly novel or difficult to execute. What is hard is making self-care a priority when you need it the most. I recall a time when I was in the swirl of anguish. Jacob, my son, was close to graduating from college, but he also wanted to move out and leave the structure of our home that had been so essential to his school work. I felt that was a terrible decision and it would keep him from graduating that semester and yelled at him. Jacob just looked at me calmly and said, “Mom, are you still meditating?”
As a psychologist, I had learned ways to deal with stress, such as various ways to meditate, and I frequently shared stress management methods with my clients. I already knew from my own line of work that stress affects healthy behaviors and choices, such as how much sleep a person gets or what foods they eat. Eventually, high levels of stress reduces the immune system.
Despite this knowledge, when my personal world began to tumble, I felt that all I could do was tread water. During the more challenging times, I really didn't think about my needs; not because I was a martyr, but because it was just not a priority.
A friend of mine whose sister has schizophrenia believed that her mother's health deteriorated because of the stress of her daughter's illness. How I was handling my stress was bound to affect my health, too. Jacob's response to my out-of-control yelling was a wake-up call. I needed to develop an action plan that made me a useful advocate for him, instead of a basket of out-of-control emotions.
My first step was to resume my former routines. For many years, I engaged in a 20-minute focused meditation once or twice a day. That was my most effective way of maintaining calmness and control in my life. A focused meditation using a repeated calming word as a mantra (i.e., relax, peaceful, serene) or a visual image representing peacefulness (ie,,walking on a beach) helps me slow down and gives me a special time to take care of myself, even during a busy day.
A lot of people try meditation but give up because they find that their thoughts stray too much, especially when they are stressed. The ironic truth is that wandering thoughts are a normal part of the meditation process. Becoming aware of these distractions and gently bringing your thoughts back to the mantra or image is practice for when you’re stuck in your head in your day-to-day. Learning the process of “letting go and returning” is one of main benefits of meditating regularly.
The next thing I did was to think back to other times in my life when I had experienced unusual amounts of stress and what I did to manage it. I easily identified graduate school as a time when I was juggling work, classes and dissertation writing. Looking back, that time period seemed easy compared to what I was going through with my son's illness. However, during those days, I began practicing yoga in addition to meditation to manage stress. I bicycled every week to a yoga class near campus and immersed myself in the calming movements and breathing exercises.
I didn't have as much time to bicycle to a class anymore, but I did order some good DVDs. With the help of the videos, I added yoga to my stress management routine in the comfort of my home. I now have a special space in my house devoted to meditation and yoga. While in that space, I look out the window and see tree branches that change with the season and part of our backyard and garden. I also routinely light a candle with a calming scent at the beginning of my practice. At the end, I try to recognize how good it feels to take this special time for myself.
Other important resources have included walking, participating in support groups, reading biographies of resilient and courageous people, baking and cooking, going to work, and, for me, praying a lot. I also know that thoughts and words are powerful. I do not mean that by thinking everything is rosy that schizophrenia will disappear. I am a firm believer in reality. However, reality consists of the good and the bad. Of course, I sometimes become discouraged, upset or angry during turbulent times — that's reality. But, I also take care of myself enough to focus on Jacob's progress and celebrate the “up” times — and that's reality, too.
Linda Snow-Griffin, Ph.D., is a psychologist living near Cincinnati, Ohio. She taught classes and counseled students at several colleges and universities and published articles in the areas of sexual functioning and in wellness. She recently retired from a private practice of 30 years. During that time, she worked with adults and children with diverse issues and presented workshops on stress management, parenting and clinical hypnosis.
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