By Morgan Blair – MA, Intern
My partner Erik and I like to joke that when it comes to our relationship, we each have our areas of strength. I am the one who is good with money, while he has a talent for organizing – be it fitting our mountain of luggage into our medium-sized car, or putting away the groceries in a way that grants me easy access to the soy milk.
He has above average cleaning skills, and I have a good sense of how to decorate a home; believe me, I shudder at the thought of leaving Erik home alone with a naked house. Being able to recognize the strength in one another keeps us balanced and happy: we don’t have to be good at the other person’s thing, his strength boosts my weaknesses and vice versa.
So what happens when a person has an area of weakness you yourself can’t make up for?
In the years before we started dating, Erik was in a freefall. After a successful high school career, he left for nursing school at Loyola University of Chicago – a well-respected and established program – and three years later, was home living with his parents after a series of depressive episodes and panic attacks.
A quick rebound followed, and then Erik decided to give nursing school another shot. This time, he was medicated, seeing a therapist, and exercising. A year and a half later, Erik found himself sitting in a parked car in his garage, the engine on, ready for the end. Thankfully, before he closed his eyes for good, he realized what he was doing and stumbled into his house, coughing and crying for parents.
It was his therapist who then recommended that Erik attend an intensive outpatient program. Erik tells me that they got the description right when they named it intense.
Five days a week, eight in the morning until three in the afternoon for five weeks. After the first day, he hated it. He felt like he knew everything already: as unsuccessful as he was in nursing school, Erik is smarter than he ever admits, the pharmacology class he took, along with countless hours of practicing how to take care of others, made him sure he knew everything IOP had to offer.
He didn’t need to sit in a stuffy room with eight others, nervously picking at his fingernails, awaiting his turn to check-in. He didn’t need to sit through the boring lessons, “Your meds and you,” and “Understanding your diagnosis,” he had seen it, bought the t-shirt.
To be honest, when Erik tells me these stories, they don’t sound like the Erik I know now. Today Erik is an enthusiastic, extroverted, happy individual. He isn’t the kind of person to stubbornly reject someone’s advice, or seethe with anger. So what happened? how did Erik manage to get himself out of that situation?
After the first day of IOP, Erik went home frustrated at the lack of new information, convinced he wasn’t going back. Why continue to do something if there is no benefit? Erik was already working three times a week, three to eleven pm at a hospital.
He tells me that with all the time he spent going to intensive outpatient, and sometimes having to go to work right after, it was like working two jobs. It could have been so easy to quit. Instead, the next day, Erik begrudgingly drove his mom’s red beetle to the low nondescript office building, quietly made himself a cup of coffee and sat down for another seven hours of group therapy.
On that second day of treatment, during one of their breaks, he was approached by one of the other members, a short older lady, there for anxiety and a suicide attempt. She touched him lightly on the shoulder, and in a quiet voice, said, “just keep going” and walked away. So how did Erik get better between almost three years ago and now?
He kept showing up. He just kept going. In the five weeks, he was in intensive outpatient, Erik was not late even once. He attended every day, the whole seven hours, and to his own surprise, he actually enjoyed it. Once he got over the first-day hump, he actually began to learn how to better manage his anxiety and depression. He learned how to use grounding and deep breathing. He learned how to accept his past for what it was, and accept himself, scars and all.
Erik tells me that that time in group therapy was probably the first time in his life where he focused on his own healing. Growing up, Erik was always the caretaker, the healer, the mediator, but for others.
Even as the youngest of two children, he says he was always the older brother. Being the younger brother to a drug addict will do that. For Erik, it convinced him that his own wellbeing was secondary. That idea took root early on and didn’t let go. Not until he was forced to focus on himself.
For the rest of us, we hope that we won’t need such drastic measures in order to prioritize our self-healing. What we can learn from Erik’s story is that your own mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health matters. More than you probably realize. It’s not selfish to focus on yourself.
Taking Care of Your Self
Whatever you need, is what you need. Be it taking time to read a book for pleasure, listening to your favorite song on repeat, or going on a long walk by yourself and making an effort to notice the nature around you. Self-care is for you, first and foremost. Even if self-care is not your strength, even if you have never stopped to practice self-care, now is as good of a time as any.
The things you do in life that make you happy, that feed your soul, that is self-care.
And making it a focus will help you to help others, in ways you might not realize yet.
Erik is currently re-enrolled in nursing school and is now ready to make taking care of others his full-time job. He says he couldn’t do it without having first worked on himself.
My challenge for you is to find time to work on your own self-healing. Reflect on areas in your life that have been neglected, and dedicate some time to them. You will be glad you did.