I have to come to realize that I am super bad at self-care. For a long time, I didn’t even know what it was. Now I know I’m just actively resisting it.
I thought “self-care” was some kind of Oprah phrase for affluent white women, a concept that conjured up images of fancy tea and bubble baths and fluffy $100 robes. I also thought maybe that idiotic “she shed” commercial was even attempting to explain self-care very badly: eating crappy processed snacks as you hide out in an ugly floral room. (And in reference to that commercial, which is possibly the most irritating thing I’ve seen in many years, who the hell thinks Fiber One bars are a luxurious treat, anyway? And who came up with that annoying AF phrase “she shed”?)
But I am figuring out the hard way that for me, self-care is pretty close to imposing a hospital-type stay on myself. I recently suggested to my husband that I should try to recreate the experience; I called it a hospital day at home. That would entail basically just reading and watching TV and staying in my pajamas in bed all day, having meals and fresh water refills served to me, being free to take naps as needed. Not leaving the house. Not doing any work, paid or otherwise.
He has been all for the idea ever since I suggested it and keeps bringing it up. He would definitely help me do it. And the thing is that I have a million excuses for why not to do so. I just can’t seem to do it. I would be too aware of what was not getting done during my day off. It seems like the re-entry day would be twice as bad, so I’m better off just not taking that kind of lazy day in the first place. (And yes, I think of a rest day as “lazy.”)
I mean, even when I was actually in the hospital, I couldn’t stop working. Once I was admitted and had to stay, I asked my husband to bring me my laptop so I could still get my work done. You know, in between the MRIs and heart tests to see if I was having a stroke or an MS relapse. “Fortunately”, it was the latter. But even in the hospital, I couldn’t totally let myself relax. I still stayed up too late and worked too much. But it’s telling that I still got much more relaxation time there than I normally allow myself.
I even worked while I sat with Cammy in the last hours as he was dying. Part of that was to distract myself, and part of it was because I needed the money and freelancing meant I had to work even during one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. (No days off, even when my greatly beloved cat is dying? It’s no wonder the FT freelance life was total garbage to me. I deserve days off, especially for illness or family traumas.)
When I was younger, I said I wanted to avoid the treadmill kind of life. And yet here I am anyway. Being your own boss doesn’t eliminate the treadmill. If you do it wrong (as I have) being self-employed gives you less freedom.
Part of my resistance to a hospital-day-at-home is that my bed is really uncomfortable because it’s way too squishy, so it would cause me considerable MS-related pain to stay in bed all day. And realistically, with two kids starting to drive in the next six months, I probably won’t have the money to get a new mattress for a while (unless I keep freelancing while working to save for one, which is tempting.)
But even if a magical fairy just poofed a perfectly supportive new mattress into my bedroom tomorrow, I would still resist taking care of myself. It’s the same reason I find it so hard to stop freelancing even when I also have a full-time job. I always feel like I have to push myself a little bit harder — or a lot harder.
In truth, I know what self-care means for me. It means turning down lucrative freelance projects that I know are going to tax my brain almost to the point of meltdown. It’s eating way more vegetables and virtually no processed food. It’s forcing myself to drink a ton of water all day long, instead of avoiding it because I’m afraid of having to use the bathroom while I’m picking up the kids.
It’s finding a way to incorporate moments of self-care into every day, instead of making it the last priority I only allow myself once I’m nearly at breakdown point.
It’s getting enough exercise. It’s avoiding situations and people that make me feel threatened or stressed out. It’s keeping up with a regular meditation habit.
It’s admitting to myself that I really do have multiple sclerosis and that does require making some major changes. And that there’s a link between how much I hurt and how much I do (or don’t do) the “right” things for self-care.
In short, self-care is all about finding the balance between saying no to the things that are bad for me and saying yes to the things that are good for me.
But that sounds so much simpler than it is. It’s actually painfully difficult for me.
I have serious problems with saying no, especially when it comes to people I care about or opportunities to make more money. I will drop everything to help a friend, even putting myself out there when my help isn’t asked for. I have a hard time even feeling justified in telling my husband there’s a change of plans because I suddenly feel unwell. I just have terrible boundaries in general.
Unfortunately, I’m also pretty indiscriminate when it comes to freelance work. No matter how unpleasant the work sounds, no matter how much I know it will be too much for me to handle, as long as it pays enough, the extra money is nearly always too hard for me to resist.
These poor boundaries and constantly accepting more work are the exact opposite of self-care. In some ways, pursuing a FT job outside the home is a step in the right direction, adding some predictability to my life and income, and paying attention to my own inner truth that I am too social to be happy at home. But I know from experience that just having a FT job doesn’t eliminate my tendency to push myself and deny taking care of myself, either.
I’ve always had this perception that self-care means only doing the things that feel good as you’re doing them. Going to the spa! Getting new bedding! Going shopping with the girls like in a movie montage! That self-care should be “fun” and pampering and luxurious. Like it’s a brief vacation from life that you only deserve if you work hard enough…and I never feel like I work hard enough, because “enough” for me is based solely on income. And I’m never at that point of comfort.
And actually, I think for me self-care is doing the opposite of what sounds appealing. What sounds appealing is eating salty junk food and drinking tons of coffee and burning the candle at both ends (and in the middle as well.) Staying up way too late. Competing with friends about who took off fewer days from work last year.
Going to bed early? Eating mostly vegetables? Meditating? Exercising and doing yoga? Boring. Oh god, sooo boring.
Maybe that’s a sign that I still haven’t grown up yet at 44 years old. Maybe it’s just that I’m a product of our modern 24/7 culture. I don’t honestly know why I have this deep, innate belief that whatever I’ve done still isn’t enough and I should be doing more.
I have read before that many people with MS are similarly hard on themselves. It’s hard because I’m trying to resist blaming myself for my illness, especially since many people have similar traits and don’t have MS. It’s not my fault I have MS and I can’t control it. But I do know I’m apparently capable of making it worse.
But staying well may depend on my ability to overcome my tendencies. To not feel like I’m a complete failure as a person if I don’t work every day. I have to get over my intense lifelong FOMO. When I was a kid, I resented my way-too-early bedtime because I was just sure something exciting was going on without me and that’s why they wanted to get rid of me so early. But for how long will I let my childhood rule me? It’s over.
I may not be able to do everything because of the MS, which also ramps up the FOMO. I know for sure that I can’t keep up with the over-scheduled life that is so valued nowadays. I may have to have some weekends (or even just one whole day, ever) when I’m not going anywhere, not trying to work, not feeling the stress of “you should be doing more” hanging over me.
I just don’t know how to get to that point. That will probably require something good for me that involves self-discipline that I don’t want to do, like meditation. Because being good to myself is really hard, but my health depends on it.