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Failure Bites - Self Care with Chely Lopez-Zavala


KB: Welcome to the Failure Bites podcast, where we take the bite out of failure, one story at a time. I'm your host, Dr. Kristin Brynteson. It is an understatement to say that this past year has been difficult. It's been difficult for all of us, but it's been extremely difficult for our caregivers. The first responders, medical and mental health professionals, educators, and all those individuals who put the needs of others ahead of their own. In this episode, we hear from Chely, one of those caregivers who has spent the last year, making sure others have what they need while at the same time, failing to pause, to take care of her herself.

CLZ: Uh, so this started at the beginning of the pandemic. So, at the beginning of the pandemic, we closed down, we really didn't know, you know, what was going on exactly. Everyone was scared. We didn't have a lot of information. We just had to stay home. So, as a program coordinator, I went on to, what can I do mode to help the parents at Parent University?

Because many of them were families who depended like a lot of us on our income. So many of them could not go to work. And many of them had to have their children at home with online learning. Now the parents in our group have some limitations regarding technology and it was how can they support their children if they are not very familiar with like Google Classrooms or Google platforms and all that stuff.

So, I started doing little workshops on, this is how you do this, and this is how you do that, and, and let's do some Zoom meetings, so we can get you set up. I try to go on to problem solve mode as much as I could. My failure was is that I stopped taking care of myself. I burned out. By that summer... So, we started this in March of last year, by June.

I was miserable. I was depressed. I had heigh levels of anxiety all the time because I was hypervigilant for so long and looking for financial resources to help out our community. I was looking for teaching opportunities so the parents can learn how to support their children. I was sending workshops for the kids to also help them on the social, emotional part.

These are the children from Parent University. I was trying to take care of my own children, my husband, who also went on to panic mode because he just was having a hard time with understanding the pandemic. So, I went on to being a caregiver for everybody else but me. And I've always heard about, Oh, take care of yourself and you know, rest.

And I thought I was doing that, but then I realized that I wasn't. And I crashed, I crashed really hard. I was crying all the time. I was very angry a lot of the times for no reason, I was just a chaos of emotions. And I went to the point that I'm like, I'm done. I'm done. I can't help anymore. I would get phone calls from our families, just simple questions.

And I would be afraid to answer the phone because I did not know what was on the other side of the phone call. And I felt that I had almost no energy left on me to take care of that. I was running on fumes. I did not listen to my body, to my brain, when it was talking to me before I got to that point to say, Hey, slow down.

My children said you're on beast mode. I was, on beast mode, according to them all the time, I was like running around like a chicken without a head. Cause I needed to get everything ready. I needed to support everybody. And I, I went down hard, so it took me months to start feeling better. And that was my failure. I went back to not understanding how to do things. I failed myself and I think about the saddest part is that Parent University's vision statement or why we do things is for personal growth. You know, we, we use that example of put the oxygen mask before you help your children. I did not put my oxygen mask. I didn't.

I went on to helping, without caring for myself. And so, I did the opposite of what I preach.

KB: So, what was your turning point? Because I think a lot of us have been in that situation. Those of us who are educators, caregivers, health workers, we all had this, what can we do to help the world through this pandemic? Even when it's not a pandemic, we tend to be the ones who are out there taking care of people. And it could be easy to like, never find that point where you turn it around and you start saying, wait, I need to do better. What got you to realize that you were in beast mode and that you needed to make a change?

CLZ: I think it was recognized in it, through my children, through my family, because they went also onto caregiver mode for me. My 14 year old, my 20 year old, even my six-year-old were on to mommy, what can I do for you? And I recognize that. So, owning it, owning it, because it's really hard to own that we have failed.

It's hard to recognize that we are, have done something wrong, especially when we are... We did that while trying to do good. So I was trying to do good. I was trying to be that caregiver, but I didn't do that really. So, it was hard. It was hard. I knew it, it felt like defeated. And I was kind of like beating up myself because I'm thinking, come on, you should know better.

You're in grad school. They tell you this all the time. Why didn't you listen? So, it was my children on kind of like me recognizing… and on me recognizing that on, on them. And then just being able to own it and say, yep, yep, you did this. So how are you going to change it? And that's when the baby steps started to happen.

And I think that's another thing I learned from this, that I went to this hole in months and it was going to take months to get me out of it. It wasn't going to be just a, Oh, I'll feel better tomorrow and go back into a healthy routine. No, it took months. 

KB: Yeah, you can't just flip that switch and go, okay. I'm better now. 

CLZ: No. 

KB: So what's different now than six months from now? How are you taking care of yourself so that you can take care of others more effectively? 

CLZ: So I set up boundaries, so I was thinking, okay, so what can I do? And the only thing that was with my control, because I couldn't control a lot of the chaos that's still going--that still goes on because we still in the middle of the pandemic. Right. I just started to set up boundaries for myself. And being able to follow through with those and to stay organized with my time and to basically use what I was telling other people to do. So, follow my own advice, but self-compassion was also a big thing.

I needed to be kind to myself because that's something that I did not know how to do when I started to go back into being in the healthy path. I wanted things to go fast. I wanted things to get better. And when I went back to doing a little bit too much, I would get mad at myself and then just kind of, you know, just be angry.

So, keep on thinking of those… boundaries and professional boundaries, personal boundaries, and even boundaries with my own children. As of like a mom boundary. All those different roles that we all have in place then just self-compassion, you know, being kind and understanding what I needed to do.

If I needed to close my laptop, if I needed to take a walk or if I just needed to own again, that I slipped back onto not respecting my boundaries and just be kind and saying, okay, we can try this tomorrow. Something like, you know what? People are in a diet, and they're like, Oh, I kind of ate a cheeseburger today.

I shouldn't. Well, I own that cheeseburger. And I said, okay, I'll eat healthier tomorrow. And that's what I did. 

KB: So don't get overwhelmed by the mistakes or falling back into that pattern, but continue to move forward. And as you said, I tell a lot of people, this is the time we need to give ourselves grace.

CLZ: Yes.

KB: Just admit that we are going to make mistakes and it is going to be hard, but it's hard for everybody and not feel guilty when you take the time you need.

CLZ: Absolutely. And for me, it was also recognizing what productivity looked like. For me, productivity was also taken a nap if I got up really early and I had a long day and I was able to take a nap in the middle of the day, or at least just take a break from work that was also being productive. And I did not think about that before I couldn't lay down and just sit down and watch a TV show with my son.

That was just wasting time. No. So it was, it was understanding what productivity look like in the time of COVID that really allowed me to also feel comfortable with, at the end of the day, looking at what did I accomplish today? Spending 20 minutes of quality time with my son was not a waste of time. 

KB: And I think that as we all reflect back on the pandemic, what I think it will be for as the pandemic years.

CLZ: Yes. 

KB: Those important things that come out of it about, as you said, defining productivity, defining what's important and our priorities for ourselves, because I think we lost that pre-pandemic. 

CLZ: Yes, absolutely. I think you're right. We are… So we, many of us were on pilot mode. Right. We do a automatic pilot, so we always just like, okay, this is what we do.

I remember there were a lot of these podcasts and information about mindfulness and what we do and, and being in the moment and the here and now, and an understanding, defining things for ourselves. And we had lost that. And that's why we saw that all over the place. But to me, at least it didn't click or it didn't make sense until now the pandemic until, okay, yes. What does that mean to be present? What does it mean to understand what my really my roles are? Because many of us have more than one role in understanding that we have more than one role in being okay to choose at a certain time what role was going to be our main one at that moment and not try to do everything at once when we just burned out by trying to do so.

Not everything can be a priority. That's something else I've learned. 

KB: If we make everything a priority, nothing gets done well. 

CLZ: Yes, absolutely. Yes. 

KB: Well Chely, thank you so much for sharing your story with us, and I'm glad that you're doing better and you have found those boundaries and priorities and you've shared your story. And I think that will help a lot of others do the same. So thank you for taking time today. 

CLZ: Oh, thank you so much for having me. And I guess the only thing I just wanted to say, we, we all hear about self care, self care, self care. And I guess I just wanted to add that self care is what it's, it's personal and it's not just Netflix.

It's not just exercise. Self care can do just be dancing. You know, it can be hugging someone. Self care is not prescribed. Self care is self prescribed. And so I just, I just wanted to add that because sometimes it's just terms that get thrown all over the place and it was like, what does that mean? It's honestly personal. And I think I, I found that out the hard way and I just, I wish people can, can just say self care can, can just be a second just by getting back to your breath and, and being kind to yourself. 

KB: I think I learned this year that never underestimate the power of a random dance break. 

CLZ: Yeah, absolutely. 

KB: Oh, well, thank you so much Chely. It was a pleasure to talk with you. 

CLZ: Thank you, Kristin.

KB: Admitting you need help is not easy. Accepting help, or taking time to help yourself, is even harder. Chely’s story is a common one today, as we hear about burnout and fatigue in those who have been taking care of us all year long. For some of you, it's not a story. You feel it, you've experienced it. It is time for us to listen to Chely’s message on the importance of self care.

One of the best ways to take care of others is to also make the time to take care of yourself. To all the caregivers out there, first I say, thank you. Thank you for taking care of us, and now take the time to take care of you. Better yet, let us take care of you now. Thank you for listening to Failure Bites.

Subscribe so you don't miss an episode and leave us a review. We'd love to hear from you. Thanks for listening. This podcast was produced by NIU STEAM at Northern Illinois University. Your future, our focus.