As we come to terms with my husband’s cancer, and to a lesser degree, my disability for my progressive illness, one thing has become painfully clear: my husband and I both suck at self-care. Our entire lifestyle was centered around poor self-care.
We each failed to find balance in our own ways, though we were both prone to overwork. One thing my middle child says often is that he learned from us what not to do, because neither my husband nor I have been really good at just sitting still and taking time for leisure. My son would rather have a low-paying job and more time for himself than pursue a high-pressure career.
On the one hand, his view of our lifestyle as a warning also means he is the least concerned with success out of his siblings. And while he’s really stepped up with helping the household and never missed a day of work when he had a seasonal job last fall, he probably has the weakest work ethic of all our kids. But he’s also the most relaxed.
It’s definitely one of those messages you don’t realize you’re sending until you see the results of it, but it’s now pretty clear to all of us. Working hard is important, absolutely. But failure to seek balance is also not only a bad thing, it might be actually detrimental to your health.
Does that mean I blame overwork and inadequate self-care for my MS or for my husband’s cancer? No, of course not. I’ve had MS symptoms for 18 years (even though I only got diagnosed 6 years ago) and my husband has a long family history of cancer.
At the same time, I think our lack of self-care and balance was so extreme that it was like tossing a match in a very dry forest.
It wasn’t that we had bad habits like smoking (which we did, but gave up years ago) or heavy drinking. No, our issue was the same that many people have: the glorification of being busy.
We’d stay up way too late, not prioritizing sleep. My husband used to frequently say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” which now takes on a much more ominous tone. I’ve known very few people who push themselves quite as hard as he did. It was how he was raised and he took his responsibilities to me and the kids very seriously, so taking care of himself was way down on the priority list.
While my requirement for more sleep than I wanted to get was one of the most obvious symptoms of my MS, I still tried to push beyond it for years. I had bad habits (particularly of not getting enough sleep) that were harming me and I had to give them up. It hasn’t been easy.
I also had been that way for years. Even when I was 16, I had a full-time nanny job in the summer and worked part-time at a restaurant. I didn’t see anything wrong with that and my parents endorsed it, even though I was working 60-70 hours a week.
I still don’t know how I managed to get through even two months of a full-time job last year because I was constantly extremely sleep-deprived. I was still freelancing on the side, too, so I’d come home from work exhausted, take a nap, then write articles.
Right before my husband’s cancer diagnosis, I was still thinking I could be a full-time grad student and part-time freelance writer, despite not having anywhere near that many usable hours in a day anymore. I was still ignoring my limitations and thinking I could push myself harder.
And yet, even now, I still look at the people I know who claim they function great on four hours’ sleep a night with admiration and awe, rarely stopping to think that they might be full of shit. But it’s hard to break that decades-long habit of shortchanging myself.
Look at our culture, at how we are likely to brag about how little sleep we got, how much coffee we’re consuming, how few days we took off, how little we’re taking care of ourselves. It’s almost like a very twisted competition we voluntarily signed up for, in which rest means you lose.
When was the last time you heard a conversation where people were talking about how well they take care of themselves? I know that in my workplace experiences in recent years, people bragged about how little they slept, how much they worked, how much alcohol they drank.
Cancer has made rest a necessary part of our lives now. My husband’s in bed at a good time every night and naps whenever he needs it. I nap whenever I need it, too, though I still often resent needing to do it.
We’re learning to change our default habits. Now it’s about saying that getting enough sleep just isn’t optional anymore. For me, it’s that a very hot summer means I need more sleep to counteract the effects. It’s about saying no to that less healthy but more convenient dinner and opting for something with more vegetables. It’s about saying that sorry, two hours of shopping is our physical limit. It’s about making the kids pitch in with housework a bit more instead of doing it all by ourselves as a default.
Sometimes it’s even about just sitting and reading a book. Not because we’re taking a class or trying to study for some certification, but just because it’s okay to have a little bit of leisure time.
It’s a hard change to make and we’re nowhere near where we need to be yet. But finding some balance is no longer optional. I’m starting to think it might literally be a matter of life or death.