Struggling with a mental health disorder can be an exhausting journey. I’ve spent many sleepless nights fighting with OCD and Excoriation Disorder (aka Dermatillomania or Compulsive Skin Picking Disorder). I’ve spent days in bed so lost in a fight between depression and intrusive thoughts that I could barely move. Taking care of myself was difficult, but I kept it together as best as I could. I recently found myself in a very scary place; struggling with mental illness and caring for my son, who also lives with mental illness.
When you fly in a plane, the flight attendants give you the rundown of basic flight safety rules. In the case of loss of cabin pressure, they show you how to use the oxygen masks. You are instructed to put on your own mask first before helping children or others around you. This is for an important reason. You cannot help anyone else if you are not getting enough oxygen. This is comparable to parenting; you cannot properly take care of your children, if you are not taking care of yourself first. For years I poured everything into taking care of my kids. I didn’t do very much to take care of myself aside from the basics necessities. I hardly ever spent money on myself and when I did, I felt incredible guilt. I gave up hobbies I enjoyed, time with friends, and my own pursuits of happiness. I began to feel worse as the years went on.
When my Excoriation Disorder became so severe that I was spending over 8 hours a day compulsively picking my skin, I decided it was time to seek help. My first long-term therapist spent three years encouraging me to engage in this amazing thing called self-care. I hated it at first and was a bit pissed off at my therapist for asking me to prioritize myself. However, as time went on, I began to see and feel the benefit of it. Joy came back into my life as I started listening to music again, journaling, writing, colouring and spending time with my friends. I learned that I was not being selfish. I was storing up happiness and strength for when I needed it.
Dealing with your own mental illness is tough but caring for your child with mental illness is a test of faith. As mental illness tightened its grasp on my son, I needed to be in the best possible shape to care for him, advocate for him, and love him as much as I could. I blamed myself for his mental illness and I spent hours crying over his absence while he was being treated as an inpatient. I questioned the decisions his dad and I had made about his care. Did we do the right thing? Did we make the right choice? Will he hate us for leaving him at the hospital when he begged to come home? The days where I only spoke to him on the phone, when he lived at a residential placement were tough. I wanted to hold him and reassure him that everything would be okay. My heart and mind were taking a huge beating. The difference now was that I had a place in my mind that I could draw strength from.
Mental illness affects a family in ways that can be traumatic, but with proper support and resources families can make it through. Navigating through the mental health care system for my son was sometimes overwhelming. We were lucky because we had health insurance that covered his care and mine. We had an outpatient care team that not only cared for him but also cared for our whole family. We had a team of family therapists that address family concerns and relationships and his dad and I had a support partner who encouraged us to take time for self-care. We needed to be on our best game to make the road to recovery a successful one for our son.
I thought back to the encouragement I received from my first therapist to make myself a priority. I didn’t want to do it back then, but I did as she asked and “trusted the process”. While caring for my son through his struggle with mental illness, I made sure I was taking time each day to do some mindful breathing meditation, watch a movie, or sing like nobody could hear me while driving to work. I began more specialized therapy for OCD and currently continue with that care. (Therapy is self-care too!) My son and I have both made significant progress. We are learning to have a different relationship with OCD and depression. I no longer spend hours zoned out in front of a mirror picking my face. I encourage him to do the things he loves. He encourages me with his hard work and the smile on his face that has returned. The road to mental wellness can be long and full of obstacles. Caring for a child with mental illness along with yourself can be scary and draining, but not if you put on your own oxygen mask first.
Beth Washburn is a mom to 3 kids. Born and raised in Iowa, she has lived the majority of her adult life just south of Boston, Massachusetts. She works as a nanny and attends college full time, pursuing a degree in social work. She is passionate about mental health awareness, mindful and gentle parenting, and showing love and kindness to her community in practical ways.