It’s been used so much in the self-help world that it’s become something of a cliche: the analogy of putting your own mask on first as a metaphor for self-care. However, this analogy has a special significance when it comes to recovery from alcoholism, or any other kind of addictive behaviour, particularly as this relates to parenting. It’s an idea I want to explore in a little more depth, for the benefit of anyone like me who is a parent in recovery.
Put your own mask on first – really?
In the early days of my recovery from alcoholism, I had support from a friend who was also a flight attendant. She described how she relapsed into drinking after having children, explaining it to me in these terms: ‘I was putting their oxygen masks on first, before my own.’
I debated this with my husband, who said no way would he put his own mask on first: ‘they are telling you to save yourself and let your kids die.’
‘No,’ I disagreed ‘they are telling you to make sure you don’t black out before you’re able to put the masks on your children as well!’
He insisted he would put their masks on first. Many parents would try to do the same. I would sacrifice my life for my kids; don’t get me wrong on this point. Their continued survival is more important to me than my own. But that is exactly why I would put my own mask on first. Understanding this is, I think, the cornerstone of successful recovery from alcoholism, or any other type of addiction.
The Hypoxia Analogy
I think it goes against the grain for many parents, that advice to put their own mask on first. But to me it always made sense. Perhaps it’s because I’ve experienced the initial stages of hypoxia. Whilst on honeymoon in Hawaii, my husband and I drove to the summit of Mauna Kea (4,207.3 m above sea level). We rented a pick-up to make the ascent, following the advice to spend at least half an hour at the visitor centre (2,804 m) in order to acclimatise.
Even at the visitor centre, I remember feeling a little sick, and a little drunk: my brain was not functioning normally, even at this altitude. When we thought we’d been there long enough, we drove up the steep gravel road to the summit, as we wanted to take in the all-encompassing view and see the telescopes of the world-famous observatories.
The view from the summit was magnificent – like nothing else I’ve seen on earth. But we couldn’t stay long enough to take it in because we were, as they say where I come from, ‘away with the fairies’ due to lack of oxygen. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling – there was a kind of high to it – but it certainly wouldn’t have been pleasant tumbling down the side of the mountain having lost control of the pick-up, so we headed straight back down.
What we experienced on Mauna Kea was the early stages of hypoxia. In a cabin depressurisation, the event would be much more severe and dangerous. Apparently you can lose co-ordination within 20 seconds and lose consciousness in 30. That’s basically enough time to think ‘mask,’ look up and put the strap around your head. It’s certainly not enough time to co-ordinate a family masking-up exercise whilst losing consciousness yourself, even if we are far more skilled at donning masks these days than we used to be…
Forgive the pun, but the crux of this analogy comes in what happens after you put your mask on: you begin to breathe normally again. You have a steady oxygen supply. You can think clearly. It’s taken you 10 seconds to put on your mask, and you still have 20 seconds to put on your kids’ masks before they pass out. You have the clarity of thought needed to achieve that. You all recover.
Imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t put that mask on? You would maybe get the mask over one of your children’s faces: they might pull at it, confused – they might take it off again as it felt uncomfortable – but you wouldn’t be able to put it back on them because guess what? You already blacked out. Not to mention the fact that if you had more than one child to fit with a mask, the others would all have passed out by now.
Parallels with recovery
Some years ago, when I was an active alcoholic and severely co-dependant, I spoke to a counsellor by telephone in desperation. I explained to her all the problems I was carrying on my shoulders: everyone else’s problems but my own. She said ‘it doesn’t sound like you are taking any time for yourself?’ This was a completely novel concept to me: why would I be so selfish as to take time for myself? Why would I put my own mask on first?
Because if you don’t, you end up in a downward spiral until you can no longer take care of yourself, and everyone around you suffers.
I am now grateful to say I am a mum in recovery from alcoholism and codependency. There must be thousands more like me out there. There are tens of thousands more who are still denying themselves that oxygen mask and trying to fix everyone else’s problems before their own. I have put my oxygen mask on, and as a result I am always there for my kids. I have learned the warning signs of becoming overloaded, and I know when I need to take a break, even if it means the kids watch TV for half an hour longer than they ‘should.’ The result is a clear-headed mummy who will be able to help them through any crisis life might throw their way: a mum who is able to fit them with their own oxygen masks. Recovery is the gift that keeps on giving, both to you and those around you.
If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed above, please feel free to leave a comment below, or contact me by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out my other posts on recovery: