First rule when helping others: you need to be alive and present. Therefore, put on your oxygen mask first!

If this sounds trivial and natural to you, congratulations!

I find myself tredding the very fine line between guilt, charity and self preservation whenever I am asked to put my mask on first. Many times I don’t even notice the mask until I start suffocating. All the while I had been holding masks to others with my both arms and sometimes an elbow too.

The other day someone I know looked into my eyes with desperation and asked me to go down with her to a dark place life had pushed her into. It wasn’t the unknown, I had been there before. I looked back at her and for a moment paused to hear the small voice inside my head that cautioned: watch out, there is danger there! But there was another voice that rang louder, the voice of my superhero ego, who pushed the image of myself in shining armor front and center, silencing everything else. You can do it, you are out of the darkness so you owe it to others to help! How could you turn your back! I was to be the saviour of the day, the can-do-it-all, fear-nothing warrior princess. Ignoring the rapidly beating heart, the sweating palms, the clenched jaw, I went down into the darkness with this human who was asking for help.

Chivalrous? Naahh …. Actually … quite stupid. Egotistical. Irresponsible. Courage is indeed fear walking. But so many times, we, the wounded, mistake recklessness, misplaced self sacrifice for courage. And we get wounded again.

It has taken me the entire past week to remember that the darkness is not mine. Going down I forgot that our brains are not wired to understand what is reality and what is not: whatever we put through their neurons, they believe. Fantasize for a day that your most beloved human passed away and your brain will be in mourning, grieving intensely. It has taken me efforts I thought I was done needing to make to gather enough strength to look up and notice a light, to start making my way once again towards it. It has taken days of bitter tasting depression and arms numbing anxiety to shed the engulfing tendrils of fear, self doubt, rumination that used to run my life once upon a time.

I have not helped anyone. Instead, I put a useless dent in my protective gear, I wasted hours of my life battling ghosts that were not mine to fight. Not anymore. Because when I chose to go down into the darkness, the ghosts of my anxieties past, obsessive thoughts that have lied dormant for years, images of myself as small, insignificant, worthless, visions of doom on all accounts, all of these welcomed me with open arms. Clingy arms. The biggest trap of mental challenges is how the same brain can fully believe two almost completely different realities, always forgetting the other exists. Until they meet again, that is.

We are never “grown up.” We learn for as long as we live, some lessons we go through repeatedly because, for some reason, they don’t stick. I know I have to learn this lesson over and over and over again: it is not selfishness to care for oneself before you decide to care for others. Boundaries are not selfishness, they are survival techniques and sometimes bandages for wounds better left unopened. And boundaries don’t mean the lack of love. They are the clearest mark of self love that we can bring to our lives and in turn a wonderful gift to the people who love us and want us near.

Photo by Carolina Pimenta on Unsplash

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