Looking back, I can still recall the feelings that came along with being a newbie therapist. I embraced the excitement of a new career. As well as the challenges that came along with working in mental health. I also had a level of vigor that seemed to be natural and abundant.
I had a great colleague/mentor. My mentor was instrumental in guiding my will to be healthy. This allowed me to continue doing what I loved: guiding others to be healthy as well. At that time, I was married with two children, with a third on the way. I exercised regularly and had a satisfying social life. Many things have changed since those days.
Now, still joyfully married, I have five children, one that has left the coop, one that is getting ready to fly and the youngest still working on potty training.
I have worked with hundreds of families since those days. But I still find the work challenging and energizing. On a drive home from work a few weeks ago I found myself pondering why this is.
I had the thought because of a talk I was listening to. The message from the speaker was that if we don’t take the time now to be healthy, we will surely be taking the time later to be sick. These words reminded me of the strong warning I received while in graduate school, that a large portion of those that work in the mental health industry burn out in a few short years.
My mentor from years ago taught me the simple concept of balancing out life between work, love, and play.
I define work as what we do to keep life going. Simple examples might include getting the kids ready for school, doing laundry, or punching the time clock.
Love is the energy that we put into maintaining relationships outside of work—our spouses, friends, or children.
Play is how we take care of ourselves, physically and mentally. Things like exercise (physical and mental), enjoying personal pleasure, or even that late night ice cream with a little extra fudge can all fall into this category.
Putting Balance into Practice
One exercise I enjoy doing with parents of my clients is to take an inventory of their balance between work, love, and play.
It is a challenging situation your family system is in. It is a sudden crisis and the unexpected choice of having to place a child in treatment. The balance of your family and personal life has been skewed. In my experience parents in crisis tend to place much of their energy into:
- Trying to get their child back on track.
- Doing everything possible to regain control.
Some parents may escape the reality by focusing efforts on their work and spending late nights at the office.
Almost across the board, and most times rightfully so, when a family is in crisis, parents lose sight of the value of nurturing themselves through play and nurturing their other love relationships. I regularly hear from parents “Now that my child is in wilderness, I don’t know what to do with my time.”
Recently I had a parent reveal that since having their child away, they are able to look back and reframe their previous few months as traumatic. Time that had been previously filled with managing crises is now void. Thus guilt can be another common emotion that parents experience.
I give parents “permission” to play and take time for themselves. Parents go on a date, join a hot yoga class, read a book, or spend time with other children. Other important balance activities might be engaging in therapy, joining support groups, or exploring other areas of their personal lives that may need attention. Divorced parents sometimes need to put energy into aligning expectations.
My counsel to parents is this: while your child is participating in wilderness treatment is a time to regain the balance.
In a short enough time, you are going to be called back into full action. One of the best things you can do to help your child in treatment is to invest energy back into yourself and your relationships. It’s okay for you to self-care in order to regain the balance.
Although being a wilderness therapist is most often rewarding and fun, it can also be emotionally taxing while traveling the journey with clients.
After two days in the field with groups and conducting sessions past when the sun goes to bed, I can be emotionally and physically depleted. I know that as I return to the office there are emails and voicemails waiting, and parents are anxious to hear how their children are doing.
I have two rituals that are almost never disrupted. One, I call my wife and family to check in. Two, on Wednesday morning before the workday gets going, I go for a run, play a couple of sets of tennis, or go for a bike ride.
I’m planning to do what I love for a long time—being a dad, a husband, and an effective therapist; for this to happen, I must always be working towards the balance.