Many years ago, as a wife and mother of three young daughters, with aging parents living next door, I awoke one morning to the normal sounds of my daughters getting ready for school. Instead of getting out of bed, I uncharacteristically pulled the covers up under my chin, giving in to my desire to ignore the call of yet another busy day.
My husband worked rotating shifts; he was on the early watch that day. With a 45 minute commute, he was up and out of the door before dawn, having made his own breakfast. It was the one indulgence I’d claimed from the beginning of our marriage. I’ve never minded rising early, but my brain doesn’t fully engage for an hour or more. Trying to make breakfast is comical at best, sometimes even dangerous . . . cooking with gas. Tea and quiet contemplation are more my style.
This day, I begged off getting breakfast for the girls and overseeing their morning rush, saying I maybe had a cold coming on. I had that tell tale achey and fatigued feeling, despite having slept through the night.
The girls ate cold cereal and got themselves out the house and down the driveway to the school bus. Eventually, I had to get up and into my day, but when I tried, my back seized in pain, paralyzing me in place. Living on our little hobby farm, with large garden, a small menagerie of livestock and heating our home entirely with wood, any number of daily chores may have been the cause of my pain.
Even the slightest movement was excruciating. Anybody whose ever had back pain realizes very soon how much of our movement is supported by the back—it hurts even to breath. All I could manage was to roll to the edge of the bed and drop to the floor. I crawled on my hands and knees to the phone, to call my mother for help.
At the ER, a breif exam and X-rays revealed nothing more than severe spasm of the major muscles in my back (oh is that all?), and a bit of spinal misalignment. I was fitted with a soft support brace and scheduled for physical therapy. It ended up being months of therapy—six before the pain wasn’t a constant companion and nearly a year before doing even light work didn’t cause a flare-up.
It was that incident that started my journey to self care. I was the “backbone” of our family. I kept everything running, kept everybody on schedule, provided comfort and nurturing for my growing family and companionship for my aging parents. I worked out of the house part-time, but was home when my children were home. I cooked, cleaned and was responsible for most household maintenance as my husband work hours were long and demanding.
I didn’t just “have it all” as they promised young women of the day, I was doing it all . . . all by myself. I didn’t realize exactly how ego driven my need to be needed was.
The Natural Remedy Book for Women, by Dian Stein, introduced me to the idea that our body’s dis-ease is often the best clue to where we are suffering imbalances in our life. It sometimes takes a little detective work. For example, the skin is a barrier for the body, hinting that unexplained skin conditions could be the symptom of poor emotional boundaries. Chronic sore throats or difficulty swallowing may indicate feeling unable to speak freely or to call out untruths as you see them (a lot to swallow).
For years, even before my marriage, I was the fixer, the family mediator, the one jumping in wherever I saw the need to smooth things over, or maintain harmony. I was carrying the load, physically and emotionally, for too many who were willing to let me. And who would blame them? I was filling all the space, patching all the cracks before anybody had a chance to see them.
I didn’t know how to step back and leave enough room for others to step in. When my back gave out on me, I had no other choice.
It would be even more years before I awoke to the ways of witchery, and still more before I delved into my shadow work, where I would begin to understand that my desire to make others happy is a desire for their appreciation. I am a praise junky, no doubt because my parents showed love through expressing appreciation, whether for a job well done, a story or joke well told, a kindness given—any notable action or accomplishment. A high achiever, I became an expert at cultivating heaps of praise.
My default for receiving love is co-dependent, basing my sense of worth on what others tell me is valuable to them. I’ve learned to resist my first impulses to jump in and save the day, but it’s like fighting any addiction—my craving for acknowledgment and appreciation is always gnawing at me. Before I offer help, I have to ask myself if I’m doing it only for the praise I might get, and would I still do it if I knew for certain there would be no pay-off.
I once cooked meals for a woman after she’d done me serious harm that effectively ended our relationship. Her husband was dying of cancer. She was working full time and couldn’t quit her job. She’d asked among her friends and family if somebody could make meals that she could easily reheat at the end of her long days.
Nobody else responded to her need for this small comfort, so for several months I cooked a week’s worth of meals at a time, arranging for a mutual friend to deliver them to her. It was one thing she needed that I was capable of giving. If there were never a single word of thanks, I knew, without questions how much those meals would be appreciated.
I’ve also learned there are healthier ways to channel my penchant for trouble shooting, as I did when working as an events coordinator—there’s always at least one fire that needs dousing at every event. And there are far more enjoyable ways to receive accolades, like performing in community theater for one.
My mother used to say I’d cut off my nose to spite my face. As a headstrong and persistent teenager, I didn’t understand what she was trying to tell me. I spent a good part of my life, bending over backwards, doing cartwheels and handsprings, trying to get people to do the same for me. It’s taken me a long time to figure out I could put all that energy into giving myself what I need, instead of begging others for crumbs.
You don’t have to love yourself before others can or will love you; but if you don’t love yourself at least as much as you expect others to love you, there will be an emptiness in your heart that remains unfilled.