When I was six, my parents adopted a drug baby. Time revealed he had more challenges than we originally thought. There was ADHD, asperger’s syndrome, and anger management issues, to name a few.
At a very young age, he was diagnosed as emotionally disturbed, and was put on medications, enrolled in therapy programs, and given dietary restrictions. These resulted in a lifestyle change for our entire family, as he demanded much more attention than we’d anticipated.
When one is forced to learn big lessons at a young age, it’s easy to fall into a trap of unhealthy habits and damaging boundaries by default. I found this to be true for myself.
I loved my brother immensely and desired the best for him. I wanted to contribute to making our home environment optimal for his recovery. So I embraced small sacrifices, which I thought might be helpful. What I didn’t realize was that these small sacrifices were the very things that fed my soul. The very activities that I cut were the things that made my heart beat and allowed me to feed into him in the first place.
We learned that my brother wasn’t left or right brain dominant. He had to start therapy sessions to retrain his brain, which included not listening to music with words. We were told that our brain processes the instrumental portion of music in a separate place than the words. He was only allowed to listen to classical music during the four years of switching his brain function. I felt guilty listening to any of my own favorite artists because I knew he’d feel like he was missing out, so I decided to stop listening to music with words altogether.
In addition to giving up music, I also changed the kinds of food I ate. When we found out he was allergic to sugar, I too embraced rice product ice creams and other odd foods to demonstrate to him how tasty they were. “I prefer Rice Dream to regular milk products,” I claimed openly. I thought, Who needs extra sugar anyway … this is the healthier choice. I convinced myself to actually believe I didn’t like sugar even though I’d go to birthday parties and binge if my brother wasn’t around, not knowing when the next opportunity would come when I’d be able to eat cake.
The ups and downs of my brother’s emotional swings, his destructive bouts, and his medication schedules were very draining. My energy and emotional levels plummeted to the point that I stopped painting. It seemed like a draining task to throw into the mix, so I cut it from my activity list.
These were all well intended decisions, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that I turned something good — the desire to help someone — into something personally detrimental. By cutting out the things I loved, I drained my stored resources. I stopped functioning because my own heart and soul were no longer being nourished. Over time, I found myself in a place where I was so dry of nutrients that I had nothing left to give. I was malnourished from my inability to maintain the proper boundaries of balancing the things that fed into me with the things that took away from me.
My mom once told me a story of a mother who always cut the end off the ham before putting it in her roast pan. When her daughter was grown, she asked her mom one day the purpose behind the tradition.
“I don’t know, my mom always did it, so I just followed her example,” the mom answered contemplatively.
The daughter, still wanting to know the tradition’s purpose, called up her grandmother to ask why she always cut the end off the ham before baking it.
Her grandmother responded simply, “Oh, I never had a roasting pan large enough to fit the whole ham, and it was easier to cut it off than to buy a new pan!”
In applying this story to my own life, I wondered, How many things do I do that appear to have purpose, yet really are quite meaningless? How much of my perfectionist tendency or people pleasing nature is actually trimming the meat and nutrients out of my life?
I realized that God created me to function a certain way by giving me talents, strengths, and capabilities. I needed to remember that my heart was created uniquely, and in order to operate at my fullest and be able to nurture others, I must nourish the strengths He has given me.
After so many years of sacrifice, I wondered if I missed the point of my placement in life because of an image I wanted to maintain. I focused on being a helpful sister and daughter, rather than functioning in life the way I was created to.
I began to dive into the core of my own heart and discover how God had created me to function. Giving up music, painting, and consumption of enjoyable foods were not areas in which I needed to make sacrifices. In fact, creativity and the ability to bake and explore the tastes of foods were gifts and talents God gave me. I felt drained because I literally had created a situation where I allowed myself to give too much without filling back up, until I was so drained that I didn’t know how I could fill up again.
Many years ago a good friend challenged me by saying, “You need to learn to set low expectations for yourself. If all you get done today is going to the grocery store, and the house is still a disaster, and you ordered take out for dinner, you can still feel like that was an accomplished day.” At the time, I thought it was an odd thing to say to me, since it went against the very grain of how I was functioning, but I came to see the wisdom of her words.
Once I narrowed down how my soul was created to function, I started being proactive in setting aside disciplined time to nurture myself. I enrolled in a painting class. I stayed in bed every Saturday morning for an hour to read a book of my choice. I lowered my expectations of tasks and time management to eliminate any outside voices in my head that might make me feel guilty for going to my painting class instead of volunteering at church. It was important for me to break the habit of constant perfectionism and people pleasing, and my friend’s words became sound advice for me.
I had to set lower expectations for myself and be OK with a slower pace rather than the multi-tasking mania I was used to. I had to tell myself over and over that I couldn’t volunteer again until my heart was full. I had to nurture my own heart before I could nurture anyone else.
Now, when I interact with my brother, I am able to enjoy the time spent with him more. I have more tolerance to withstand the tug of his draining nature, and because I’ve put up proper boundaries, I find myself more patient and loving toward him than I used to be capable of offering. Because I am filled from other activities, I’m able to feed into him and other people again, yet not walk away feeling drained.
I found that I function best when I nurture my God-given talents, and others can benefit more when I take time to fill my own heart too. Family dynamics can still be challenging from time to time, but I can choose to handle it in healthier ways that allow me to be my best self, the way God intended when he created me in the first place.
Brie Craven resides in Los Angeles, California. She graduated with a BA in English with a creative writing emphasis from Cal State LA. In 2009, she did play writing for 3ofakind Theatre Company in North Hollywood. She has also done freelance copywriting, and has led writing workshops on the side. When she isn’t writing, or brainstorming writing projects, she usually paints to unwind from life. Brie blogs at Growing Up with a Crack Baby.