Life is just one big ongoing disaster. I say this a lot around here, and September was a perfect example of why.
The Medic was injured at work when a patient fell on him, Little Bit developed a persistent ear infection, and I came down with some kind of flu thing. The Medic’s grandpa had heart surgery, and we celebrated Little Bit’s birthday. Then the Medic was admitted to the hospital with complications from his injury that we thought might require surgery (luckily it didn’t), while Little Bit and I both came down with chest colds, and I developed a bladder infection.
That was just the first two weeks of September, friends.
Plus, I’m still struggling to find pain management that really works, and stress makes my arthritis flare. Oh, and I currently have a choice between constant agitation and obsessive thoughts, or well-controlled anxiety with a side of dizziness and chronic overstimulation.
When Life Gives You Lemons, Curl Up and Cry
I remember the moment I gave up. The Medic was already admitted to our local hospital and I was home with Little Bit, still trying to act like everything was fine. Daddy was sick, but he was getting help, so Mommy still had to work. All signs indicated that this would just be a short hospital stay, no big deal.
But then the message came that the Medic was being transferred by ambulance to a more specialized hospital, and I froze. I couldn’t move or focus on anything important about the mounting catastrophe. All I could focus on was the gnawing irritation that my mother-in-law had called my mom with this news instead of me (I’m really good at displacing my emotions). All I could do was lay broken on the couch and cry.
And there I stayed, wallowing in my self-pity, until the next update came in: forget the ambulance, they’ve called for a helicopter. Mom said “You need to go. NOW.”
Let me stop right there, dear reader, and reassure you: the Medic is fine. As I write this he’s back home and back to his uber-energetic ways. All is well in Medic-land.
But it was at that moment that I let go of any remaining semblance of control. I held on to “normal” as long as I could, but when everything’s going wrong eventually even I have to take my own advice.
So how do you survive when everything’s going wrong at once?
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STEP 1: Let Go of Control and Expectations
Survival mode means letting go of everything that isn’t absolutely necessary to your ongoing existence. And in a world that applauds impossible levels of productivity that’s freaking hard. Even in the midst of my emergency, I remember thinking maybe I should take my computer… I should get some work done while we’re waiting at the hospital… NO.
NO, YOU SHOULD NOT.
That shit’s going to have to wait until your brain’s not so overloaded and mushy that trauma makes you want to giggle.
Survival mode means giving yourself permission to be absolutely 100% unproductive. And if that means you find yourself ordering pizza for the third night in a row that’s absolutely fine. Whatever you need to do to keep the kids from going hungry.
STEP 2: Figure Out Your Bare Minimum
This is significantly easier to do when you’re not already maxed out, but don’t panic (any more than you already are) if it’s too late for that. Take a moment and think back to another time that you were absolutely-beyond-words-overwhelmed, and tell me…
What three self-care habits kept you from losing your shit completely? (Or, if you did completely lose your shit, what was missing?) These are your bare minimum self-care needs.
These vary from person to person, so you really need to consider what works for YOU when everything’s going wrong. But for those of you who crave examples, here are mine:
#1: Continue taking your medication on schedule.
Please, for the love of all that is good in this messy, chaotic world: take your meds. The last thing you need when dealing with a crisis situation is to start messing with your body’s chemistry.
And don’t be afraid to lean more heavily on your only-as-needed medications, mobility devices, or anything else that you sometimes use to make life more manageable. For example, I needed my panic attack meds more than usual this past month. These are exactly the situations that stuff is available for, and you absolutely should not feel embarrassed to use them.
#2: Maintain basic hygiene.
For me this means
- facial cleansing wipes that don’t require any water (you can use them on more than your face btw)
- lip balm
- hair clips (to kinda-sorta tame a greasy pixie)
… and that’s it. Not gonna lie: things like dental hygiene don’t rank for me when I’m at my worst. My primary goal is to contain the smell at least a little bit until I can force myself into the shower again.
So these were the things I grabbed before heading out the door. Please don’t think this was in any way organized. The only reason I took anything with me was my mom telling me I should grab a change of clothes and a book.
(And in case you were wondering: YES, books rank high on the list of emergency supplies in my family.)
Your list might look completely different. Maybe grabbing a shower in the morning is what helps you get through the day. That means you should absolutely make time for it, even while you’re in survival mode! But if you, like me, find showers exhausting to the point you can’t carry on with your day, give yourself a break.
#3: Do whatever you have to do to make sure everyone gets some sleep.
Sleep is a foundational habit for me. What that means is that without sleep everything else falls apart (even more). So trying to make sure I get a decent amount of it is always at the top of my priority list.
This time around ensuring sleep for everyone meant someone sleeping with my daughter every night. Survival mode is not the time to reinforce sleep training when everything else is already so out of whack. It’s hard enough explaining to a two-year-old why Mommy and Daddy have to be gone for a while because Daddy’s sick.
She needed continuity, yes, but she also needed reassurance and physical presence. She needed to know that someone was there, especially when she woke up in the middle of the night. So whichever grandparent was staying with her each night slept in her bed with her. And when the Medic and I finally came home, we continued the trend for a while.
Do we want this to be a long-term solution? HELL NO. But if that’s what it takes to help her through this rough patch, and ensure that we’re not ALL waking up every two hours throughout the night, that’s what I’m going to do.
STEP 3: Now Hold On For Dear Life
Read this carefully, and as many times as you need: At some point, the crisis will be over. I can’t tell you how long it might take, or what the resolution might be, but I can promise it will eventually end. You will see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The problem, dear friends, is that your body and brain might not immediately recognize the end. It probably won’t resolve in a satisfying feeling of DONE. And those feelings of agitation and anxiety might linger on, even after you can see that things are going to be okay.
And then comes the crash.
When you’re running on empty for who-knows-how-long, burning days’ and weeks’ worth of energy you don’t have, this is kind of inevitable. It’s that moment when your brain and body suddenly realize that they don’t have to keep pushing, and they just pull up full stop no matter what you happen to be doing at the moment.
For me, the biggest symptom of a crash is sensation overload or brain fog. I can barely focus on even one thing at a time anymore, and I’m easily overwhelmed by information, sound, and light. I struggle to complete the most basic self-care, and the smallest decisions become too much.
And with the brain fog comes bone-numbing fatigue. It takes a measured act of will to move, and when I do it’s like pushing my limbs through syrup. Sometimes I spend minutes at a time willing my body to move before I can actually summon some kind of response.
All I want to do during these moments is curl up alone in a dark, silent room and sleep for days. And under ideal circumstances, that’s exactly what I would do to recover. But of course, we all know life isn’t ideal. UGH.
BONUS: Recovery + Getting Back Into Your Routine
The annoying truth is that we don’t often get a real recovery period following a crisis. Once the crisis is over you kind of have to just… go back to life. And because so many things were pushed aside while you clung to sanity, this in and of itself can be overwhelming for an already physically and emotionally exhausted mom.
Focus on getting back into your normal routine, and let things stay undone for a bit. At this writing, my usually-somewhat-neat bedroom is a disaster, and I still haven’t unpacked my hospital bag completely. I’ve focused on my morning routine with Little Bit, dealing with some lingering health issues, and gradually catching up with my work.
It takes time, and it’s going to be messy and imperfect. C’est la vie, right?