'7 years ago I had a catastrophic breakdown. Last week, I found myself spiraling.'

Why is it so hard to put my own oxygen mask on? 

It is easy to think that someone like me who is very open about my struggles with mental health - especially anxiety (which, when it is bad, tips over into a period of black depression for me) - would be able to recognise the early warning signs and act upon them immediately. 

But that isn’t how my brain works.

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In the last seven years, since my catastrophic breakdown, I have done a lot of 'work' on myself, learning to recognise those early warning signs and how to act on them.

I have learnt 'on paper' what those early warning signs look like. But accepting them and living with them is something completely different. 

I am a helper. I want to make a difference in the lives of others. I like to look after people around me. I make sure they are looking after themselves and putting on their oxygen masks. When it comes to myself, that is so much harder to do. 

I often say to my psychologist that I share my story so that other people know they aren’t alone. I write about it in the hope that even just one other person recognises something in my story and reaches out for the help they need. 


So why is it so different for me? Why do I hold myself to a different level of accountability that means I have to be at breaking point before I reach out? 

Read more from Cathy: 'I have been in survival mode for the past two years and I am not okay.'

Somehow I equate boundaries with letting people down. In my mind I have created a story that if I say "no" or "not right now" to someone, they will not like me.

I work in emergency services at the moment. We have been a little busy over the last few years. Between fires, pandemics and floods there hasn’t been an awful lot of time to put on an oxygen mask. And yet there has probably never been a more important time to look after myself. 

I tested positive for COVID back in March before a shift at work and burst into tears. Not because I had COVID - I figured that was inevitable. I sobbed because I knew the resource team would need to replace me on the night shift - I was more concerned that I was letting the team down than thinking about my own wellbeing. 

It turned out to be a particularly nasty time with COVID for me, with two weeks in bed and an added dose of pneumonia. You would think that would be enough for me to recognise I was taking on too much. But no. Because for me, to let go equates to letting others down.

I kept pushing through. My body was letting me know I was doing too much. I needed to rest or at the very least put an oxygen mask on if I insisted on pushing through. 

Since my bout of COVID in March, my shoulder has frozen up and for a time I couldn’t move my arm properly (this was something that happened when I had my big breakdown.) My shoulder is ok now, though my arm likes to let me know now and then I am doing too much. 

I had a short break in Fiji; it was glorious. However, I didn’t really give myself time to bask in the post holiday glow! Throwing myself - boots and all - straight back into life. That slower pace I had enjoyed while I was on holidays quickly became a very distant memory. 


My body very quickly let me know that all was not well - I suffered another bout of pneumonia - but even that wasn’t enough to slow me down, for me to recognise I couldn’t keep going at the pace I was, to ask for help, to stop and put my oxygen mask on. 

It wasn’t until I had an argument with a colleague and there were tears rolling down my cheeks for two days at work that I recognised I had to stop. 

I had to put my hand up and say that the water level was no longer just 'at my head' but well over it and I was actually drowning. 

A colleague said they hadn’t realised things were that bad for me. To be completely fair to them, they would have had no idea because I didn’t want them to. I am a master at putting on a brave face. I have over 30 years of practice at pretending to be fine when I am actually anything but fine. 

At my core, I am terrified of letting others down. I allow people to think that they can ask me to do anything and I will be there for them. I very rarely say no for fear that if I do, they will think that I am not reliable or dependable. I simply don't know how to set boundaries.

It is much easier for me to push all of my own feelings down than it is to speak up or step away. This only happens when I am past the point of breaking. 

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When the tears were rolling down my face, all I could think was, "how can I get through this and not let others around me down?"

It wasn’t until I was sobbing at my desk that I began to think about my own wellbeing, about letting myself down. I reached out to my manager and said I needed to take a break. I spoke to my doctor and my psychologist about taking time off.

Everyone told me I was most certainly not letting anyone down. Most importantly by looking after myself I am actually helping those around me.

I want to believe that it gets easier to ask for help. I think it does as you practice looking after yourself. I don’t think it will ever sit easy with me to put my needs before those of others around me. I have a long way to go. I need to practice putting my needs before others. 

However, because I did put my hand up and say I am not ok, I now know that in time I will be. 

For more from Cathy, you can follow her on Instagram here.

Feature Image: Instagram @cathy_l_obrien.

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