Self care gets mentioned a lot. By my mom, by the members of my various online support groups, by my therapist, by me to other people. I have a lot of feelings about the concept, which include but are not limited to:
1. What is this vague concept? Am I doing it right? Where do I even start?
2. Isn’t it selfish and narcissistic to put myself above others?
3. You SHOULD be doing this, you MUST do that (ad nauseum).
I find self care difficult. I’ve been running on a workaholic/burnout cycle for most of my adult life, going from one extreme to the other with precious little in between. It’s unsustainable. Balance, I am told, is key. I’ve been trying to get balanced for the last 23 years, can’t seem to get off the seesaw.
I’m going to use a cliché now because this is how it was explained to me – you can’t help people evacuate the plane before you put on your own oxygen mask first. I like to help others out if I can. I spent three quarters of my college career training to be a nurse. I’m obsessed with mothering my beautiful queer babies. I take the second of Christ’s commandments very seriously (“Love your neighbour as yourself”). Sometimes it’s altruism. Sometimes it’s avoiding my own brain by focusing on other people’s stuff.
When I got sick a few months ago, I had a lot of talks with my various healthcare providers about coping skills. Did I have any? What were they? How often did I use them? (Of course, I know them. Sure haven’t I been in and out of therapy since I was 18.) I know a lot. As it turns out, knowing and doing are very different things. My therapist had me make a list of five things that I could do every day (or most days) to maintain myself. Not improve or cheer up or anything. Just prevent anything getting worse. I came up with these.
2. Leave the house and interact with others
4. Prayer/devotional time
I try and do them. In spite of their simplicity, it’s a rare day I’ll do all five. Most days I get at least three. Motivation is a barrier. Why would I put in effort when I can just watch Netflix in my pjs? Some days are Netflix and pjs days. Most days aren’t. Most days are days that I have to shower and leave the house and move and write and pray if I want to feel normal. And that’s just keeping it at neutral. Bringing my mood up is an even bigger endeavor and one for which I am often unprepared.
When you Google ideas for self-care, the most common suggestions I find are a good night’s sleep, a healthy diet and regular exercise. Which can be difficult when you’re chronically ill. I can’t exercise every day. I sometimes won’t sleep or will sleep way too much. I am exhausted and impulsive which makes a healthy diet an every day challenge of will. I feel like a failure at self care, which is a ridiculous premise for something that is literally minding yourself. Besides, the volatile cocktail of physical and psychological symptoms that I experience means that even if I think I’m a failure, I have to do it anyway.
Self care is a habit that I am not very good at. But it is something that I think I am getting better at. I am learning to sit with myself through mindfulness meditation. I am trying to move for the sake of moving and to loosen up my aching joints rather than for weight loss, which is only going to lead to disappointment and an unwanted ED spiral. I am explicitly including God in my day which is helping me deal with the anxiety I have around the future. I am becoming reacquainted with myself. Alone, rather than as one half of a couple. Maybe the greatest act of self care is taking the chronic illness, mental health problems and weight issues and making space for them. Accepting that they are a pretty permanent part of my life now and trucking on anyway. There is a peace to be found in knowing you’ll be “sick” forever. It means I’ve stopped wasting energy worrying about when I’ll be “healthy” and started using it to make this life more doable.
It is scary.
But I am doing it.