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Ask JJ: Self-Care When You're Caring for Someone Else

When you're not at your best, you can't help those around you. Self-care ultimately becomes the most important thing you can do when you're caring for someone else. When you're at your best, you can bring that best to someone who needs it.
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A cropped shot of a stressed businessman sitting at his desk
A cropped shot of a stressed businessman sitting at his desk

Dear JJ: You mentioned on a podcast recently your son had a near-death experience a few years ago yet you remained at the top of your game at the hospital. I've never experienced anything as traumatic, but I struggled with self-care when I cared for a loved one last year. How did you manage to take care of yourself when everything seemed to be falling apart?

In September 2012, my first book The Virgin Diet was getting ready to come out. I'm a single mom and the sole financial support for my two sons, who at the time were 15 and 16. I invested everything in that book. I wanted to show how addressing food intolerances could change lives.

Simply put, if this book didn't launch correctly, I would go bankrupt.

Shortly before the book came out, my son Grant was out crossing the street at dusk and became the victim of a hit-and-run.

No one saw the car, going about 35 or 40 miles an hour, hit Grant. He was basically left for dead in the street with a torn aorta, which kills 90 percent of people on the scene. He had multiple brain bleeds and 13 fractures. Literally, he had bones sticking out.

I will never forget going in to the hospital. "You've just got to let him go. He's too far gone," doctors said.

Looking back, walking in to see him becomes a visual I'll never get out of my head. No one should ever have to see their son with a machine monitoring the pressure on his brain, on a ventilator, with tubes coming out of everywhere.

"He'll die somewhere in the next 24 hours," doctors told me. When every parent hears that, they will probably respond like I did: "Not on my watch." That became one of my first lessons: Ask the right questions.

"What would you do if this was your kid?" my ex-husband asked the doctor.

"Well, if there is a doctor that could perform the surgery that he really needs, do that," that doctor replied. "But it's not here. He'd never survive the airlift, and even if he did, he wouldn't survive the surgery. Even if he survived the surgery, he'd probably be so brain dead it wouldn't matter."

I'm looking at the doctor thinking, What difference does it make if he's definitely going to die here? Let's get him on the plane!

"Sounds like a .25 percent chance," my other son said.

"That's about right, son," the doctor replied.

We immediately overruled that doctor.

Besides asking the right questions and refusing to succumb to doomsday doctors, we mustered the energy and foresight to focus right then about what needed to happen. I got in a car and drove three hours to that hospital. That's when everything really started.

Grant survived that first surgery. I launched The Virgin Diet from the ICU. He was in a coma for weeks, but I knew he could hear me, so I talked to him.

He said later, "You know, Mom, the gray man came and asked me if I wanted to live or die, and I really did not want to live, but I kept hearing you."

When your son's in a coma, you look for every small win to celebrate. We don't celebrate the little wins enough. When something like this occurs, you hear him sigh, you see him flutter an eyelash, he squeezes your finger, those kind of things are huge.

Grant was in the hospital four and a half months. They actually set up a room for me to do interviews there. I was running out periodically to go do shows and I launched a New York Times bestselling book from there.

I would get there at 5:30 a.m. because I wanted to be there for grand rounds. I'm not a superhero, but I made that sort of thing happen by focusing on my own health and wellbeing.

I would do burst training on the hospital stairs for exercise. I asked for help. I had friends delivering food. I got a lot of kale during that time.

Anyone who's been at the hospital knows you have to be on all the time, because stuff happens during shift changes and whatnot that you need to remain aware about.

One of my friends said, "Just relax. Have a pizza." But I had no margin for error. This was not the time to let those walls down. The only hall pass I gave myself was the Starbucks across the street. I drank a lot of black coffee during that time.

Other than that, I was getting eight hours of sleep every night, I was exercising, I was supplementing smartly, I was controlling stress as best I could, I was eating well, and I relied on friends and colleagues. I asked for a ton of help because I knew to get through what I experienced, I needed mass energy to focus.

When your kid's in the ICU, you cannot get sick and visit. You can't go in. I couldn't catch a cold. That alone inspired me to be the top of my game.

When you're not at your best, you can't help those around you. Self-care ultimately becomes the most important thing you can do when you're caring for someone else. When you're at your best, you can bring that best to someone who needs it. Optimal health becomes the best gift you can give yourself and the person for whom you are caring.

Besides exercise, healthy eating, stress control, and optimal sleep, what strategy would you add to be your best during a crisis? Share yours below, and keep those great questions coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.