Back when I was a frequent flyer in 2019 BC (BC = “Before Covid-19”), I heard all the information the flight attendants gave before takeoff. 

Seatbelts firmly fastened. Phones off. Reminders that in the unlikely event of something going drastically wrong midflight, the oxygen masks would drop from above our heads and we would have this lifeline, this resource to help us through. We were reminded to put on our own masks first before assisting someone else, including our own kids. 

Why? Because good intentions, bold heroics, and helpful plans for those we love don’t help us if we can’t even breathe. Like most others on the plane, I read magazines or sent texts during this speech. After all, I was a frequent flyer. I knew what I was doing. Yet, one of the life lessons that being “grounded” for more than a year has taught me was that in the event of something going drastically wrong like, say, the events of 2020, I didn’t always use my lifeline first when I was trying to help those who needed me most. 

The year 2020 took its toll. The devastating loss as a result of a global pandemic. The grief and anger in the midst of a long overdue racial reckoning. The pressure of economic instability. The weariness produced by a bruising political cycle. These things were not issues happening “out there” somewhere — they were lived experiences for our family and friends, conversations at the dinner table, and stresses carried in my body. And in response, I tried to live life with a version of good intentions, bold heroics, and helpful plans. But putting on my own metaphorical oxygen mask so that I was in a position to help when my people needed me? To be honest, I’m not sure I would have recognized a lifeline even if it was handed to me.

Some mornings, I’d open my eyes and realize I was holding my breath. Again.

As I breathed in, my mind flooded with endless lists of things to take care of…

Remember the laundry.

Book that appointment.

Search for masks and toilet paper. 

Then, there were the people to take care of…

Check on the kids.

Check their homework. 

Check their feelings. 

Call my mom. Is she feeling OK? 

What about my friends? How are they feeling? Are they OK?

Then, there’s work to do. I’d get dressed enough and take the commute to the work corner of my house. But some days, it was hard to feel creative and show up fully when my mind was so full, burdened, anxious, and stressed. On top of it all, I’m self-employed. Would the work keep showing up, or was it time to — ugh — pivot?

One year into an era that has upended our lives, I’m relearning that the basics matter. I cannot take good care of my people or my work when I’m not taking good care of myself. So, instead of existing from the embers of my good intentions, I’m remembering that I need to take the time to find my own oxygen mask and wear it. I didn’t find a perfect formula, and it’s been a journey of discovery, but this is what putting on the oxygen mask looks like for me these days:

1. Breathing — I’m not even being symbolic here. Many a meltdown (my own, not my kids’) has been avoided when I’ve stepped back from a situation, stepped outside my front door, and given myself a minute or two to take some slow, deep breaths.

2. Movement — Long walks, a good stretch, and a run all help me clear my mind.

3. Being moved — Creativity and art have been really helpful. It could be something I’ve made, but also someone else’s expression of art — a good book, a great TV series, good music. Art is good for my soul. There are definitely days over the past year where I have been pulled back from the precipice by a strong dose of ‘90s and 2000s R&B. 

4. Connecting with my people — My ride or dies, those friends where I don’t have to explain myself have seen me through this time. Even though it’s been virtual, it’s been life giving.

5. Grieving There have been some very raw and vulnerable days. And nights. I’ve needed to cry my tears for the loss and pain of this era. I’m 100 percent sure I’m not done grieving. I’m okay with that because grieving is part of the healing journey. I need to hold space for that.

6. Play Do you remember this thing in 2019 BC we used to do called “fun?” In my case, no, because I’ve needed fun to make a comeback for a long time, even before the start of the pandemic. I was busy — too busy — with “important” things. Now, I’m seeing that play and fun are important things.

Do you know what putting on your oxygen mask looks like? Maybe it’s something on this list, or maybe it’s something else entirely. That part doesn’t matter. What matters is that you discover what works for you and you do it. Because when you put on your own metaphorical oxygen mask, you can just breathe — and then yes, help others breathe, too — until we all land on solid ground.