Taking Care of Yourself When You are Hanging by a Thread

With autism comes a lot of other stuff. It can be truly hard to find time for taking care of yourself.

I’ve written a post on comorbidity (disorders that occur frequently with autism), and you can read that post “Comorbidity: Life with Autism and Its Closest ‘Friends,'” but in addition to other types of disorders that can come along with autism, there’s a bunch of other stuff.  A bunch!

There can be financial stress, time management issues, relationship issues, dietary issues, you get the point. There are just so many things that come along with autism.

Frankly, managing all of it sometimes can become totally and completely overwhelming, even for me, and I’ve been doing it for 45 years.

The Simplest Strategy Can Bring the Greatest Success…

What we found at our house is that when we feel like we are losing, when life proves overwhelming, or when we are hanging by a thread, there is one strategy that we, as our fallback, know we need to immediately go to and employ. We know that if we employ the strategy, very slowly, but certainly, life will start to get a little better.

It’s a super simple strategy.

It doesn’t cost a lot of money.

It is so versatile it helps with everything from overcoming a bad mood to recovery from a mental breakdown.

It’s critically, critically important.

I cannot tell you how important it has been in our lives. And while it seems really, really simple, in the midst of everything going on around you in a difficult time, it’s really, really hard. Really hard.

So when I have friends who are struggling, or my daughters are struggling, or I am struggling, we have this mantra that we just repeat over and over and over again. We actually have to HELP each other do it, that is how hard it is. I’m going to share it with you now:

“Three Meals a Day.”

I know, sounds so simple. After all we began learning this habit in probably kindergarten, and yet, when we are struggling, it seems to be one of the first things that gets lost in our day. It actually, for us, begins the slippery slope to loss of our health and stability.

Really, it is easy to do, but soooo easy to NOT do.

…And Yet Be Super Difficult to Implement

If you’ve ever been in really tough, stressful times, whether because of autism, a mental illness, caring for someone else, etc., and my guess is if you’re reading this and you’re on an autism website you probably have, you maybe know and you can think back on a time that life was really hard. If you’re really being honest with yourself, I bet you realize that you probably did not, during those really, really hard times, eat three meals a day.

So why is it so important to eat three meals a day? Well, nutrition is good. It’s good to keep your body fueled. It’s good to have the right things in you that keep your energy level up. It helps you remain calmer, but there are other reasons as well.

Three meals a day is kind of this foundational thing that helps you get back to the simple things in life and build back up from there. It reminds you of the importance of taking care of yourself! You might be worried about all kinds of stresses and tasks and appointments or even the needs of other people, and you might be feeling like you are not really succeeding at any of these things.

But if you go all the way back to the most fundamental thing, eating, you can see that all those things, as important as they are, are not as important as making sure that you’re doing the most essential, basic, simple thing – taking care of yourself.

Saying It and Doing It Are Different

Here is a true story:

Last night, I got a phone call from a friend who knows our focus, and sometimes struggle, to eat three meals a day. She was having a really, really rough night — a night that was the culmination of a number of weeks and months of things just getting progressively more difficult.

She was saying to me, “I don’t know how you do this on an ongoing basis, but it’s awful. It’s just not fun, and I’m not enjoying it.” She went on to say, “I know you tell me that I’m supposed to eat three meals a day, and I want you to know that today, I ate two meals, and when I realized I wasn’t going to get my third meal of the day, I grabbed a granola bar. So I’m not eating my third meal, but I have this granola bar, and I’m going to eat this granola bar because I’m supposed to eat three times a day.”

Now, if you listen to what I’ve said, I didn’t say to eat three times a day. I said to eat three meals a day. I encouraged her that as she had a friend coming to meet her, maybe that friend could stop and get her that third meal!

Doable when we focus on it!

In telling this story to my daughter, she got a little giggly and she said, “You know, last week I was having such a hard day and things weren’t going well. I was totally falling apart and maybe close to a panic attack. I was going to get lunch, and I was really busy, so I was going to grab a granola bar myself. But, I got sidetracked on the way to the granola bar, and I ended up eating two Fig Newtons for lunch. I came home, and you saw me – I was a total mess.”

WOW! You can see just how fast you can slide down the slippery slope from eating a meal to a granola bar to two Fig Newtons!

Our minds get so wrapped up in all the things the world says we’re supposed to be doing that are so important and yet those things are actually crushing us and making us feel like we can’t cope.

In fact, those things are actually distracting us from the simplest task of taking care of ourselves.

When we don’t take care of ourselves, we actually can’t function. When we’re maybe not as healthy as other people anyway, those three meals a day become critically important.

Sometimes It Is More Important Than Others – And More Difficult

Now, unfortunately, sometimes at our house, someone has an actual mental breakdown.

In fact, we’ve had some hospitalizations. We’ve had some real, real struggles. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know that someone who has had a breakdown may not only not want to eat three meals a day, but actually may struggle to get a spoon or a fork from the table to their hand, to the plate to their mouth. This process may actually require someone sit there and talk them through it.

I’ve had times I’ve had to sit with one of my daughters and say, “Okay, it’s time to take the next bite, that’s it, now put it in your mouth.”

Unfortunately, on more than one of those occasions, my daughter really didn’t smell very good.

She hadn’t bathed; she hadn’t been taking care of herself at all.

She’d been sleeping, and sweating, and well, maybe developing an odor.

She had kind of been sleeping and healing, and we were just working on three meals a day.

It was really tempting at that time to say, “You know, I think we’re going to get you in the shower.” If I am being honest, she wasn’t well enough. She didn’t have the energy. All she could do, with help, was come to the table and eat that meal and go back to bed. So every few days, we would make sure she got in the shower.

Our focus, though, wasn’t on that yet, the smell/personal hygiene. It really, truly was on three meals a day.

We feel like having this focus, using this strategy, not only helps with recovery from a breakdown, but using it early, before a breakdown, has probably saved us from getting to that point again.

It Is for Everyone!

I am going to tell you one more story to show you just how versatile this strategy is and how early it can be employed. It helps in so many contexts. This one doesn’t involve autism or a breakdown; it involves a former coworker. I tell it here to show that we all need to be eating.

So, I had this coworker, and in the early afternoon, he would just be a bear, seriously, a bear. (Incidentally, I once ate chocolate the night before work, so he experienced my dragon-like persona on chocolate, which you can read about in my post, “Autism, Chocolate and a Fire-Breathing Dragon,” so this was really kind of fair!)

For the first few months, I thought, “It is so not fun to work with this man in the afternoon. He just gets so grumpy sometimes.” Then, I realized there was actually a pattern to his behavior. On afternoons he had a lunch meeting, he was fine. On the days he did not, he was well, um, yeah, let’s stick with unpleasant! He wasn’t grumpy; he was hangry.

At the time I was realizing this, coincidentally, one of my girls was struggling, and we were at home just hammering away at the three meals a day mantra, and he came in, and he was super grumpy. I just smiled and I said, “So, what’d you have for lunch today?”

He blushed a bit, and he said, “I didn’t have time for lunch today.”

See how that works? So simple, but SOOO hard!!

From that point on, we made sure that we both ate lunch every day. (And that I did not eat chocolate!)

Eating, it turns out, is just crazy important to our functioning. We, as humans, have to do it! All of us! Especially in the times we feel like we do not have time, are too stressed, or just don’t care enough to do so!

I Am Sure You CAN Do It, But Do You?

Pay attention to whether you are eating three meals a day.

On the days you don’t eat three meals, how do you do? Are you more stressed out? Do you lose track of things more quickly? Do things start to slip away from you? Are you grumpy? Do you take things out on other people? Do you have trouble dealing with things that you might actually otherwise be able to deal with if you’d eaten?

As you take care of maybe someone in your family who’s struggling because life is really, really hard, watch them. Watch them, and I bet what you’ll see is that the thing that they’re giving up is eating.

They’re not eating three meals a day, in fact, they may not be eating at all. (They also may be overeating, which is a post for another day!)

Now, just a quick side note. I know some of you have digestive issues, so some of you eat maybe six or seven times a day. When I say three meals a day, what I’m saying to you is, whatever is your normal schedule that your body needs, that is your “three meals.” If, for example, you have to eat five smaller meals a day on a normal day to be okay, then when you are not well, you need to eat those same five small meals a day. Or if you have to follow a doctor’s orders, your “three meals a day” is to follow those doctor’s orders.

I mean meals. Not just a granola bar. A granola bar is a great snack, or maybe it’s a great part of a meal. It’s not a meal unto itself.

The number of people who skip meals and the rapidity with which we give up eating is just amazing.

So I know that in lots of areas in life, you already feel like you are different than other people. I encourage you to keep focused on having those differences be positive and on sharing those differences with others.

Be the person in your world who eats three meals and encourages others to do so. I bet your stress level, your overall health, and your friends will thank you!

You gotta eat!

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