Putting on the oxygen mask

Nobody can ever know what it is that hits someone, that causes a change in their perspective or behaviour. It could be something which appears significant, such as a friend who was involved in a rail crash, or a motorbike accident; or it could be something that appears relatively trivial. It doesn’t matter, beyond the fact that it has taken place.

We are all weak, vulnerable, messed up. From an early age we learn coping strategies, we get on with life as being better than the alternative, but in the knowledge that it isn’t quite right; we laugh and joke, and have moments of joy and peace even as we struggle to make sense of it all. And then, at a moment in time, we decide, no. Something gives up inside us, is no longer able to keep up the appearance.

At the same time, stress. It’s impossible to know what the number is, of thoughts we can keep in our heads at any moment in time. As a race, we’re pretty good at processing information; we also have a (bad) habit of seeing ourselves as invulnerable, even as we take on more and more. We fill ourselves up, swimming in a tank of our own making, squeezing out oxygen until we leave ourselves only an inch or two of breathing space.

And still, we cope… until the point hits when we need far more headspace than we have allowed ourselves. Suddenly, and usually though some unexpected, external event, we go from a semblance of normality to a situation where we are gasping for breath, desperate. We choke, we become addled, we kick out in frustration and fear. Why is this happening to me? Why me? stops being a question, becomes a mantra.

The new situation it exhibits itself differently for different people. Some get depressed, locked into their own trauma; some get angry, unable to control themselves even long after the situation has abated or gone away; some consider the option of taking themselves out of the situation, permanently. All are vulnerable, weak, as they do not have the space to process what amounts to all of life, which means they can react to even the smallest of triggers.

What’s the answer? Acceptance, ultimately, that we are not superhuman, that we have frailties that only we can deal with, that we deserve our own attention, that we have something to offer, that it all makes sense. That none of it matters, but all of it is important. And time, time to understand, to work through what may be long-standing issues. And, yes, change.

Not only does the answer often look very different to the expectation, but also, we need to create space if we are going to find it. Which means taking responsibility to stop, to fall back, to let the tank drain, to breathe clean air. To accept that each individual must first (to switch analogies) put on their own oxygen mask, if they are to help others.

But more than this. Crisis may be a problem with no time left to solve it: it may have been building up for many years, lurking, being put off. At the same time, it is an opportunity: if we, as humans, can only stop when we have no choice but, then the fact we have been forcibly stopped is a gift.
The present may feel bleak, but so does a field in winter, when all has died. The field doesn’t matter; more important is the first, tender shoot of new growth, then the second, each of which extends naturally towards the light.

We can try to be selfless, we can feel our problems are not important enough, that we will still be able to employ coping strategies just like we used to. The first step is to recognise that the moment has passed, and then, if that is a case, to make a decision: whether we are important enough to put first, not in an indulgent way but because, ultimately, we are all we have.

This journey is unique to everyone, but the pattern is not. From the moment of crisis, people choose to continue as best they can, for as long as they can, or they choose to tackle it head-on. Many never reach the point of decision (which is tragic), and many choose not to (equally tragic). Some, perhaps a minority, decide, or find themselves with no option but to scrape off layer after painful layer before they can be themselves again.

Also published on Medium.

Putting on the oxygen mask

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