Anxious Parenting Practicalities, Pt. 10: Keeping Things Going
When I first started consulting publishers for my book, I was often told that the real work of being an author would begin after my book was finished and published, not before or during the writing phase. I've heard this sentiment echoed in lots of other sectors: hunters will tell you that the real work of a hunting trip begins after they make their kill, not before; teachers will tell you that the real work of teaching begins after you've spent hours making detailed plans. In the world of #OCD and #parenting, I've found an interesting commonality: treatment is hard work, but the work of maintaining your gains and using your newfound skill set to manage unexpected lapses and incidents is also hard work.
The problem is, many people think that mental health treatment is like fixing a broken bone: you reset the injury, you do some rehab, and ideally, life returns to normal. My experience suggests that that's just not the case. Just as your life and mind evolve, so too do your mental health needs. In the world of parenting, evolution is an even more apparent truth, because your kids are evolving just as fast, if not faster than other aspects of your life, and your mind (my son recently told me that two people talking is a 'conversation'...last year he couldn't accurately pronounce the word 'play').
So what are we to do with our mental health in the face of so many moving targets? Well, to be honest, the choices are relatively simple: we do our maintenance, or things break down. I'm grateful to say that I've experienced some relative calm and equilibrium in my mental health over the last while, but I've also noticed that some habits need to be maintained for that balance to stay put. Here are a few things that work well for me:
I've droned on about journalling endless on this blog, and in my book; with damn good reason. Journaling is cathartic. It's reflective. It takes everything in your head and lets you get it out, into the world, in a medium that you can choose to share, or choose to burn. It's empowering, it's therapeutic, and in my case, it's vital. Often, after a session of pouring my thoughts onto paper or a screen, I feel a sense of peaceful emptiness, almost as if I've cleaned out a clogged engine. It's not as if other thoughts and stressors don't build up again, but there's no denying that journaling helps me put my thoughts, lapses and concerns into perspective. Journaling also helps me track patterns in my thinking that I can bring to my therapist, if they prove to be maladaptive. There's no other way to say it: journaling works. Try it.
Check-Ins with my Therapist
This is a relatively short point, but one that I feel is worth mentioning: I don't attend regular therapy sessions anymore, but I do check in with my therapist every four to six months. In these sessions, we talk about patterns in my thinking and frustrations in day-to-day life, but we also acknowledge and consolidate gains that I've made and maintained in the time between our sessions. It's helpful to have a neutral sounding board, and to get semi-regular reminders of strategies that work for managing the ups and downs of living with OCD, especially when those reminders are bolstered with acknowledgement of success and continued progress. In short, maintaining an ongoing relationship with a good therapist is a great, great thing.
I've gotten back into the habit of morning workouts. They're not the crazy heavy-lifting workouts I used to do in my early twenties, but they're plenty intense for me, and they have several benefits:
They get my ass up and out of bed in the morning. That's important. Waking up early gives me a leg up on the day's productivity, and it forces me to keep somewhat regular sleep hours. You can't wake up at 5:30 if you stay up until midnight day after day. Trust me. I've tried.
Exercise gives me a great big hit of endorphins before I even leave for work, and man, does it help when I get out into hectic highway traffic and the stresses of the workplace. Best of all, the hit of endorphins is natural, legal and sustainable.
Exercising in the morning intrinsically drives me to eat a healthy breakfast. I generally don't want to wreck an hour of effort in the morning with a starchy, processed breakfast. More importantly, I don't want my blood sugar and energy to crash at 10:00 am. A good breakfast of protein, fat and some healthy carbs goes a long way to repairing my body after a workout, and to maintaining a healthy energy level throughout the day.
In my book, I talk about how exercise is not a cure for mental health symptoms, but it sure helps with regulation of symptoms, and maintenance of gains. Two years later, that's been my exact experience. Also, it's worth mentioning: any kind of exercise works. Don't listen to social media pundits who insist you have to join a Crossfit gym. Movement is movement.
Family Time (with breaks)
I went through this therapy journey for my boys, and there's no better place to both enjoy the benefits of the work and apply the skills I've learned than time with my boys. It doesn't really matter how we spend the time: play time, swimming, grocery store trips, hikes, crafts - any time spent is valuable. Time with my boys gives me regular opportunities to use the gains I've made, and to identify areas for growth, such as a new trigger or anticipating a new risk my boys want to take and working through my thoughts about it before it becomes a reality (I did this when they went off to preschool for the first, for example).
I've also learned that intentional time away from my home life makes me enjoy my home time that much more. In my previous days of excessively rigid thinking, I held the belief that I needed to be present with my boys at all hours of the day. I would only take breaks in times of absolute necessity, even when my frustration and exhaustion were obvious and palpable (usually to everyone but me, but sometimes to me as well). These days, I'm better at monitoring my levels of fatigue and irritability, and I'm more comfortable expressing my boundaries and trading off with my family in the care of my boys. It's been an immensely positive change.
So, there you have it; my strategy for keeping balanced, and for avoiding relapse. I doubt any of those strategies sound overly remarkable, but I think that's the point - continued effort with effective (if somewhat ordinary) strategies for health is a good recipe for continued wellness. If you're not in a place to keep those habits, seek out the help you need. Don't be ashamed of it. Start the process. It works, and you deserve it.