One of my favorite metaphors for life is that part during the airline pre-flight safety demonstration when they say, “In case of cabin depressurization, an oxygen mask will drop from above.” No, not that part, the part afterward when they say, “Make sure and secure your own mask before helping anyone else in need.”
Make sure and secure your own mask.
Because if you can’t breathe yourself, what good are you to others? If you can’t breathe, what happens to you? Spoiler: nothing good.
When life starts to depressurize or even plummet, there’s no convenient oxygen mask that automatically pops down from above to bring you needed air. This has two important consequences: 1) you may not be aware that you’re in a critical situation, and 2) you may not know where to turn for help.
According to the Internet, signs of an insufficient supply of oxygen for prolonged periods include poor coordination or judgment, difficulty completing simple tasks, agitation and even aggressiveness. Other symptoms can include headaches, drowsiness and visual impairment.
You wanna know something interesting? These are some of the symptoms that I experienced last year. Yes, these are also common symptoms of what we call burnout.
Burnout is a state of physical, mental and/or emotional exhaustion, and when left untreated, it can have devastating physiological and psychological effects.
Burnout is a form of oxygen depletion, and can be just as debilitating and dangerous.
I don’t have emotional problems
My mom used to have a friend who suffered from depression. I don’t actually know this, but it’s what I’ve inferred. What I do know is that this woman used to cry a lot, and that my mom spent significant time with her on the phone or at her house off and on over a period of several years.
One day I asked my dad about it and his face did a sort of eye-rolly thing, the kind of expression that’s somewhere in between incredulity and annoyance, and he said, “She has emotional problems.” The answer was meant to cover all the bases and avoid further questioning. It was something he clearly didn’t take very seriously, but that he didn’t want to talk about either. Whatever “it” was, it wasn’t good. It was something I should avoid having or suffer my father’s (and possibly the world’s) disappointment.
Sometime during college, I developed recurring back pain. At first I thought it was due to the heavy lifting I was doing, working events and moving concert and other stage equipment around as if I were a few inches taller, a few pounds heavier and with muscle mass that I did not have. This easily explained away the physical pain I was enduring.
Except that the scans and visits to the doctor and various specialists were inconclusive. No one could identify any physical attributes that would be causing me such pain. So after a few cracks and realignments and pain killers, the doctors recommended I take it easy, avoid heavy lifting and work on strengthening my abdominal muscles.
Not only did the pain persist, it got worse.
One day it was so bad, I walked into the student medical center in tears. There was no one there to greet me initially and so I cried out for help. A nurse poked her head out, and asked with a startled look, “Are you okay?”
“No,” I wailed, “my back is killing me, please do something!”
She approached me slowly as I continued to sob and then said, maybe not as gently as I would have liked, “Can I call someone for you? Do you need a psychiatrist?”
I, of course, didn’t have emotional problems; I had back pain, and so I spent the better part of the year on pain killers and with a lumbar pillow, taking many of my classes lying on the ground and getting unsympathetic looks from professors.
Shortly after graduation, while back living with my parents and looking for work, I wandered into a local bookstore. There, I stumbled onto a book by a Doctor John Sarno entitled, Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection. I took it home and devoured it while propped up with my little portable lumbar pillow that hadn’t left my side (or rather, my back) for over a year.
Three days later, I tossed my lumbar pillow in the trash.
We all have emotional problems
Physical pain or injury is tangible. We can see it on a scan. We can treat it with a bandage or medication. We usually know what caused it.
Emotional pain or injury isn’t so simple. It involves feelings, which as we all know can be messy. The source of the pain can run deep, and can involve stress or experiences that range from the mundane to the severely traumatic. Fear, anger, shame, jealousy, inadequacy and loneliness are very real and very hard to talk about. They can be self-actualizing and self-reinforcing.
In Sarno’s book, for example, he talks about how the fear of pain acts to reinforce the pain. We fear the pain, so we crisp up, using defensive posturing thinking that we are protecting ourselves, when in reality we are creating more stress instead of the relaxed state we need to avoid pain. The more we fear, the more we hurt and so the more we continue to fear.
But what he really touches on, is the fact that the pain itself is emotional.
Why? Because it’s easier to talk about. We believe it’s easier to treat. Because as a society we don’t want to be seen as having emotional problems. Those are not the acceptable type of problems to have. They are a sign of weakness, or worse. Because society values success, strength and carrying the extra weight no matter your weight class.
What I learned was that physical pain can manifest from an emotional place, a form of hypoxia warning us that we are in trouble, that we need to take care of ourselves, that we may need help.
Just as we all need oxygen, we all have emotions that can tear and fracture and break as easily as a bone, muscle or tendon. And just like our bodies, our minds need exercise, rest and care.
We deplete our oxygen when we run from our problems, when we work ourselves into the ground, when we carry a heavy load for too long, when we try to carry all the weight by ourselves, when we don’t set boundaries, when we stay in unhealthy or vampiric relationships, when we don’t share our burden, when we don’t stop to breathe.
We replenish our oxygen when we are attentive to our needs, when we recognize that if we do not place the mask firmly over our own heads first, we can be of no use to others, that we can even become a burden to others and that we risk our very well-being.
I do think these conversations are getting easier and more common, that more people are talking about emotional struggles, and that in the same self-actualizing way, the more we talk about it, the more others know it’s okay to talk about, the more we collectively relieve ourselves of the stigma. Like an oxygen bar, every time we are willing to step up and share through a phone call, a hallway or watercooler chat, a blog post or a personal newsletter, we can open ourselves up, learn, ask for help, admit when everything’s not great, take a deep breath and oxygenate.
This text is originally from my newsletter, Making Connections, and may have been modified for publication here.