Last Thursday as my husband was wheeled into the recovery room after having eye surgery in New York City, my cell phone rang. It was my sister calling from Toronto. Not a good sign. She was calling to say our mother had been rushed to the hospital after losing consciousness at her seniors’ residence. My mind turned numb as I absorbed that I had two loved ones in hospital in two different countries. But while my old response would have been to panic, I decided to try something fairly new: Saying “om” when I want to scream “OMG!”
As I sat beside my husband, who was still foggy with anesthesia, and heard my sister explain how Mom had passed out during breakfast and that the nurse at her residence had been unable to revive her; I felt the tension of wanting to be in two places at once.
My mother has had a tough go of it recently. She was discharged less than a month ago from a three-week hospital stay for pneumonia. And a month before that she was in for a week as they monitored her heart after another passing-out episode. So my mind definitely pondered booking the next flight out. But then I looked over at my husband and his eye patch and, as strong as he is, I realized he needed me too.
But after we returned to our Manhattan apartment later that day, and my husband seemed to be recovering nicely, my mind again turned full force to my mom and her delicate health.
She has advanced COPD (today’s term for emphysema and chronic bronchitis), heart issues that have given her mini strokes and now cause her these episodes of lost consciousness, and dementia, which makes being in the hospital a very disorienting and scary experience for her.
So while part of me was tempted to go down my well-worn path of anxiety, staying glued to my phone for updates from my sister; I decided to try something radical.
I went to a yoga class.
From numb to namaste
As I walked to the YogaWorks studio on the Upper East Side, my feet headed in the right direction but my mind hadn’t yet let go of mixed feelings.
I knew my husband was going to be napping off the remaining effects of the anesthesia and that I would be gone only a little over an hour. But my mother was another story.
Wasn’t I being selfish by taking care of myself while she was lying in an ER? And how could I try and relax when my sister was likely pacing the hospital hallways back in Toronto?
But then I started the class and while I was still feeling far from Zen, the poses started to have their effect. The wonderful yoga instructor Lisa Bennett Matkin had themed the class on the third-eye chakra, the seat of intuition. Gradually in focusing on doing the asanas correctly and keeping my balance in challenging poses I got my head out of Toronto and back on the mat and in the moment.
The after effect
The class didn’t “cure” me of worrying about my mom. But I did feel calmer and better able to be there for both my husband and my stressed sister in Toronto.
That’s the irony. Sometimes the “selfish” thing is the thing that turns out to be most helpful for other people. I used to be proud of my self sacrifice: whether it was over-working at my job, putting my mom’s needs ahead of my own, or any other hallmarks of the unrehabilitated martyr.
I now know I wasn’t doing anybody any favours with this approach. I felt burnt-out at work and my mom probably felt the strain of my unspoken “can’t you see what I’ve sacrificed for you?”
Those in their middle years are sometimes called the sandwich generation, with the dual obligations to both children and aging parents. While I don’t have kids, in the past I’ve definitely felt pulled between my mom’s needs, being married to someone who splits his time between two cities, and the demands of my own career.
Like many women, my previous go-to solution for finding the time for everyone was by cutting my needs out of the equation. And, in the process, I became more and more stressed-out and not so fun to be around.
So, am I totally recovered from this martyr tendency?
I’d be crazy to think that I was.
However, I also know that thinking of healthier choices for myself, if not quite as ingrained as anxiety, is now part of my psyche.
A week later, my mom is still in the hospital. And while I continue to call my sister daily for updates, I’ve also decided, barring any further emergency with my mother, to stay in New York until my scheduled return flight.
I know there will be continued worry. But I also know I’ll be saying “om” again soon at a yoga class.