Staying Healthy: For Myself and for My Son

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I have to be strong to be Leo's mom. Both physically and mentally. Not just now, but forever. My son needs me to be healthy and have stamina -- because however intense his needs are now, he will need as much if not more support when he becomes a man, and I need to be able to take care of him. He's almost ten, nearing puberty, nearer to adulthood than not -- I need to take care of health factors over which I have control, so that I can be here for him as long as possible.

Taking responsibility for staying healthy sucks, honestly. It means coming up with a plan, and that means extra effort when I'm already cruising on effort fumes. Taking action to stay healthy means less free time when time is already scarce. And I don't want to even partially surrender my stress-relievers of choice -- sweets and reading -- though I know that overindulging in either is contraindicative to my physical health.

people bicycling

But I have to start taking care of myself. I've been lucky with my physical health so far, hitting 40 without chronic health issues beyond uneven sleep-deprivation skin and a waistline of unusual size (for me). The latter wouldn't normally chafe -- I'm cool with my body -- but, according to my doctor and the elevated cholesterol test results she recently chastised me about, my curves are becoming dangerous. It's time to straighten things out.

I also need scrutinize my mental health. Though I work hard to maintain a positive attitude, like many parents of kids with special needs, I am prone to deep funky depression. I self-medicate with adrenaline and overscheduling, because, hey, if I don't sit still, the sad won't have time to settle. But that approach is not exactly... healthy.

I need a plan, a road map, for both physical and mental health. Here's what I'm going to try, for starters. (I'd welcome any additional suggestions.)

  • More sleep. To be accomplished by saying "No," with increased frequency, and through choosing the pillow over TiVo, or that book I so desperately want to read (whimper).
  • More exercise. I've signed up for yoga, so there. And I'll step up the hiking with Leo. Also, if anyone wants to prod me, there's a hiking trail outside my back door -- want to be my weekly hiking buddy?
  • Less eating of the sweets. Via small choices: black coffee instead of lattes, only one small daily treat
  • Portion control mixed with variety. This is effective but will require planning. I am always amazed by how full I feel after one of Starbucks' egg/biscuit/grape/cheese packages, though it is free of nasty reduced-fat/sugar anything, and only packs 370 calories.
  • The effect of posture on attitude. Whenever I feel myself schlumping, physically or mentally, I roll back my shoulders and hold my head high -- and feel better almost immediately. When I'm out with Leo, these adjustments turn me into a proud confident autism mom. (I hate thinking my posture could be interpreted as an implicit apology for my son's presence.)
  • Ask for help if I need it. This could lead to progress on No. 1.

It also helps to know good role models. Laura Shumaker, a writer and autism parent, said in her book A Regular Guy that, when she found herself on the verge of a mental crisis as evidenced by panic attacks, she found herself a good psychologist -- one who both listened to her concerns and guided her towards action. Laura considered their weekly therapy sessions "healing." I am going to have to follow her self-aware example one of these days.

Susan Senator, another autism parent, has always taken good care of her physical health -- she's a belly dancer, runner, and cyclist. I once asked her how she fits all her activities in, given that she -- like Laura, like myself -- has two typical children in addition to her son with autism. Susan said she simply made exercise it a priority. I'm going to have to follow her example, as well.

I also spoke with another special needs mom, Sarah Oriel of Planet Josh Mom, about her experiences maintaining physical and mental health. (Sarah's son is an older version of Leo. She is also currently training to run a half marathon.) Here's what she said:

Even though I've always known on some level that my importance in Josh's life meant that I really needed to do my best to be around and healthy for as long as possible, it didn't quite become a conscious realization until I started experiencing some issues as I've gotten older. Some acute, though not life threatening, but enough to jar some reality home pretty fast. I had a basal cell carcinoma diagnosed a few years ago. I am fair skinned and have a history of some pretty terrible sunburns throughout my life, so, it wasn't really a surprise, but, the reality of the word "cancer" is frightening, even for an easily treatable one like that. I think the greater impact was knowing that because of the diagnosis, I was at significantly higher risk for developing more cancer down the road than I would have been otherwise. That really made me think about Josh.

I can't control that though. The best I can do is make sure I see my doctor regularly so if anything else ever does come up, hopefully it will be caught early. I was never one to go to the doctor much before, really only when I absolutely had to. These days it's a different story. If it weren't for Josh, I would very likely have put some things off much longer than I should have.

I can control things like my weight and my over-all fitness though, and admittedly, that's been a struggle. Never had a weight issue until my kids were born, since then I've been a bigger yo-yo than Oprah. There have been periods where I've been in better shape than women half my age, and there have been times when I have carried enough extra weight that going upstairs in my house put me out of breath. It's hard and I know I'm not alone with this one. But for me, I always have to come back to getting the weight off and staying fit because I know my health will be better in the long run and I know that Josh needs me healthy.

These days, because I have unfortunately inherited my parents' hypertension (they both have it), I must make sure I manage my weight better than I have in the past, so, I watch my diet carefully and I exercise. I see my doctor regularly. I realize that many people do these things regardless of whether or not they have children, let alone children with special needs, but for me I find that there is a sense of it being that much more important, and that I need to be diligent about it all.

I'm not as good on the mental health side of things, as evidenced by a near-nervous breakdown last summer. I've always been one of those people who will say that "everything's fine", even when it's not so much. "It's fine. I'm fine. It's all fine." Then one day you start crying every 10 minutes and you can't stop ... not so fine. With a lot of love and support from my family I got help, and things are better. I have learned to not be afraid to ask for help when I need it, to let those who love me be there for me -- and I'm feeling better than I have in years. Recognizing that I needed to pay more attention to my mental health was the most difficult thing, I think.  Poor mental health can take you out just as easily as any physical ailment, I understand that now.

The combination of taking care of myself both physically and mentally truly has made a huge difference in almost everything -- my own sense of well-being, my attitude in general and with my kids, and especially my ability to take care of Josh day-in and day-out.

Cliche as it sounds, you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else. My depression/break-down taught me that and it was a hard lesson at that point. It might seem difficult, but you will feel better, and when you feel better, you will find that you are better able to take care of your children. Your children need you. Children with special needs will need you for a long time. You can only be there for them if you take care of yourself now. I know I said it before but this is important -- don't be afraid or ashamed to ask for help if/when you need it! You will be amazed at how much people really do care.

You want some irony? I proposed this article to my editor months ago, but then had to keep pushing it back. I wasn't taking care of myself, I felt like hell, and it showed -- so I couldn't quite stomach the hypocrisy of not practicing what I'm going to be preaching.

I swear I'm going to do better from this point on. Please do share any tips you may have; I can't be the only parent in our community who could use a nudge towards better health.

More parents of kids with special needs on strength and self-care:

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Shannon Des Roches Rosa needs to keep healthier hours while writing and editing at www.squidalicious.com, www.canisitwithyou.org, BlogHer.com, and www.thinkingautismguide.com. Even though she adores the work.

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