May I vent for a moment? It’s that thing about oxygen masks.

Oh, the oft-uttered parlance double-entendre that so many self-bootstrapping theorists love to cram into their nutshell of life balance: be sure to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others put theirs on.

"I'm Balance! Fly me!"

Because you very well can’t help the adorable small child to your left put on an oxygen mask if you’ve blacked out. And the odds of surviving whatever incident led to those little masks dropping down from the false ceiling above you diminish greatly. Brain damage? Definitely the potential is there.

I get it. But I can’t get it. Know what I’m talking about? Then let me quote the immortal Dr. Ruth (as delivered in a great joke by Debbie Reynolds in her Vegas show): “Sex is like air. You don’t know how important it is until you’re not getting any.” No, this is not a post about Dr. Ruth’s specialty. It’s about the oxygen I know I’m not getting.

The thing is, I’ve gone without an adequate supply of that oxygen for a number of years. I recognize that. I’ve been able to function well enough, but I’ve also been very aware of how I could have functioned much better had I an adequate supply of oxygen.

Thanks to the wonderful folks who assemble Myers-Briggs inventories, I know I’m an introvert. One of those personalities that can interact with others for set periods of time, but need time and space to myself where I can replenish my “be nice to others” reserves, maybe get in a nap, and typically take some action that implies I can control some of the randomness of this universe. Like detailing the toothbrush holder in the bathroom.

That Myers-Briggs thing also told me (before Charlie Sheen’s rants became so darn popular) that I had Labrador blood coursing through my veins, like many a good Midwesterner. Pleasing others while needing very little for myself was the gold standard. And the occasional pat on the head I’ll get reinforces for me that “sure, I’m a bit wiped out/burned out by that, but it wasn’t all that bad. Was it?”

Last night I was going to stay up past my bedtime (sacrificing sleep for a hit of oxygen). Deal with some clutter in the dungeon that is our “home gym” to make it more hospitable for getting up at the crack of early to do something good for myself that doesn’t taste like chocolate. Because as I toil at my physical well-being, I face reminders of that which erodes my psychological well-being: piles of things that were set aside with the intention of “getting to that” someday but ultimately languish in forgotten recesses of our not-a-mansion. So I avoid the exercise thing to avoid the mental torture that is clutter.

I psyched myself up for it all day. I remembered how, last summer, I stayed up to the wee hours working on a bathroom project while my husband was off camping and I was the single parent household for a week. How fantastic that focus felt – I was accomplishing something I really wanted to do, and the fatigue was not an issue because (light bulb going off, here) through the project I was getting the oxygen I needed.

I went to my book club meeting, as planned. I came home, and within 5 minutes all the oxygen was sucked out of my resolve. I couldn’t even find a damn mask to put on. An hour or so later, airflow was restored to normal levels, but the loss of positive pressure undermined my desire to do that project I knew I would feel good about. And I’m not happy about that.

The fact that I cannot recall exactly when I last had a good hit of oxygen tells me a couple of things. First, that I can function on less oxygen. So, if NASA ever wanted to colonize some remote planet and was looking for crew, that could be a second career option for me. Second, while I may not need it all the time, I do need some oxygen soon.

So, what’s stopping me? When I look around at my life, I can identify a lot of things that are going great. So why doesn’t that liberate me to grab that mask and do a few really deep inhale/exhales?

To be honest, I’ve tried. And this is where I need to vent about the whole oxygen mask analogy. To summarize from that laminated card tucked into the seat pocket in front of you, you don’t just place the oxygen mask over your nose and mouth and the little cabin fairies do the rest. You have to pull it towards you, fit it snugly around your head, and know that the air will flow even if the little marsupial pouch attached to it isn’t fully inflated. You use both your hands. You focus your mind on that little mask. And then look around at what fresh chaos erupted in the time it took to do all that. Which is my quibble.

In my attempts to put on my own oxygen mask first, dishes pile up. Litterboxes fill. Emails sneak into my inbox. And the snail mail? Don’t even get me started on the snail mail. Nonnegotiable demands of my diaper changing and storytelling skills appear to accrue with interest. The tubing connecting the emergency supply of oxygen to my face mask is only so long. Eventually I’m faced with the choice of taking deep lung-fulls of air or walking through my living room without doing a Monty Python-esque silly walk to dodge days-old newspaper ads, building blocks, books and the occasional cat vomit. Any argument that the extra oxygen helps you manage the rest of life’s little quagmires that accumulate while you’re busy breathing is pretty much equal to the fine feline outputs I scoop from the litterbox every other day (on a good week, that is).

Lest you think this is an elaborate finger-pointing at the rest of the house not picking up slack or dumping too much on my shoulders, it is not. It just isn’t. These oxygen masks have a faulty design for this writer. I see the kind of balm – sick as it may be – that an orderly and clean house is for me. I see how other parts of me suffer the consequences of that; but, at the rate I’m going, I’ll lose enough brain cells where I won’t really notice that any more.

I don’t have an answer that’s clear or even fuzzy. Which is why I needed to vent. I know it’s important to get the oxygen I need. But today, at this particular mental wayside, I just can’t see making it happen for me. But if anyone has some fairy dust or even a bag of peanuts to spare, perhaps that would work…in the meantime, enough with the oxygen masks. I’m starting to think they’re just full of hot air.


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