Self-care: that’s for wimps, right?

Five years ago I was a stereotypical Alpha type. I worked 80-90 hour weeks in a very high stress job. On principle I worked with the people reputed to be the most demanding. I was the one who stayed up the latest, partied the hardest, drank the most, made sure everyone had a good time, was first into work the next morning.

On holidays I got up earlier than I did for work – 3 or 4 am – to climb (and sometimes ski) serious Alpine peaks. I was the sole woman on a 15-strong expedition to a technically difficult Himalayan summit. I frequently ran marathon distances off road at the weekend.

In order to do all of this, I learned to block out physical and mental pain almost entirely. This was useful, until I overused it: once after doing two marathons in two days in Somerset I had four blood blisters the size of golf balls, and I hobbled for a month.

When I had my breakdown I didn’t think I would have to change my lifestyle. I had no sense that it might have contributed to me now being immobile in a darkened hospital room, tears streaming down my face, brain utterly blank. Crazy, I know.

I blamed the breakdown instead on the retriggering of childhood trauma; and there was good justification for doing that. With that explanation firmly in mind, I intended as soon as possible to return to my old life.

That didn’t happen.

The breakdown was officially ‘very severe’, and as I’ve struggled back to health there has been complication after complication. I’m also having to deal with the underlying reasons. (‘Developmental’ or ‘complex’ PTSD is the technical term for what I’m recovering from.)

After five years of doing this, it is very clear to me that my energy and resilience are not what they were. I simply can no longer force my body and mind to do things in the way I used to do. I cannot overspend my physical, mental or emotional energy.

I’ve learned the hard way that I need to place restrictions on myself and on what I do, to care for myself. That has been hard to accept.

It was entirely new.

Wrapped up in my old world of constant activity and achievement, surrounded by people pushing nearly as hard as I was, the idea of ‘self-care’ was alien to me. All it seemed to mean was choosing to achieve less; it was laziness in more palatable words.

But suddenly I had to do it. I didn’t give up easily: I did try to go back to my old way of doing things, and I collapsed again and again. Slowly even I came to see that self-care was my only option.

Having to do ‘self-care’ has changed my mind about what it is. It is not laziness, it is common sense. It does not mean doing less; it means optimising my life to be the most creative, energetic, successful person that I can be.

Partly it is purely physical. Rather than eating chaotically and getting energy from caffeine, adrenalin and alcohol, I have come instead to accept that my body is a physical organism that needs enough sleep, good and consistent nutrition, and a low intake of toxins in order to perform sustainably to its full strength.

The other physical element is exercise. I used to do it brutally, to take on the biggest challenge, drive myself through it whatever the cost, and collapse afterwards. Now I do it for its own sake, not for the achievement. I only do it if I enjoy it. I do yoga, because I like it. I have started to run again, and I enjoy my surroundings and meander where I want to go rather than pounding the same route repeatedly because it is on my schedule. I exercise regularly not on a famine/feast basis. (Those golf ball blisters left me unable to run for a month and nearly scuppered the Himalayan trip.) My approach to exercise now is how it should be.

I have learned that doing anything that is not enjoyable for too long is a mistake. I have learned that enjoyment generates energy, and that grinding away at a task depletes it. Work, obviously, is necessary and not always enjoyable; but even there I need to be aware that anything that is depleting me physically, mentally, emotionally can only be done for short periods of time and requires recovery time afterwards.

Recovery time is important.

And I also now do other self-care type things. I own moisturisers and fragranced candles, because I’ve discovered they give a pleasant effect. I walk in parks and notice the breeze, the birds, the children, the picnickers. I put the heating on when it is cold. I try to talk to friends every couple of days. Occasionally I buy myself flowers.

What is beginning to come out of this behaviour is a sustainable energy that allows me to create the life I want. That life involves work and family, but also writing, physical fitness and friendships. My old life was constantly hardening and depleting me. When I get the hang of this new one it will be invigorating and opening, and I’ll be a lot more productive as well.

 

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4 thoughts on “Self-care: that’s for wimps, right?

  1. Totally understand this. I’ve had bouts of depression over 20 years and with the last one, a couple of years ago, I finally started to learn the importance of self-care. It took my husband to drill that into me.

    Left to my own devices, when I could detect depression coming on, I would massively step up my workload and just do ‘all the stuff’. Upon reflection I can see I was trying to take control over other aspects because I was losing control to depression.

    Now I’m well, I do regularly check I’m doing good self-care, and when I’m not I have the husband making sure I do! It’s all about self-protection.

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    1. Good for you. The lightbulb moment for me was the realisation that I actually get more done if I take care of myself than if I don’t. Most obviously, I can find the time and space to write regularly and with concentration only if I am looking after myself. And writing is what I want to do.

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  2. Hi Kate,

    Really enjoying your blog. When I did my yoga teacher training last year, a lot of us on the course were runners; I remember the teacher asking one girl why she ran. She gave an answer along the lines of ‘to win’ or ‘to get a better time’ or ‘to get fitter’.

    ‘And then what?’ he kept asking. ‘What happens after you win, or get a better time, or get fitter?’ And the answer was that a new goal is set: the original achievement is never enough. One is always in competition with oneself or with others. Of course, it’s not just the case in running, but in how we run our lives. ‘I wish you’d all stop running,’ said the teacher.

    I thought I’d take him literally: stop running and see what happened. I’m someone who has been competitive in the past and who was depressed for 17 years (failing until the age of 30 to realise that it wasn’t normal to wake up every day and assess whether or not suicide was a viable option between breakfast and bedtime); it was nice to let go and not self-flagellate about another perceived failure. Meanwhile, yoga taught me to be more in the present. I’ve started running again but these days it’s about taking my shoes off and feeling the grass, actually looking at the landscape around me, stopping to walk or sit on the hillside if I’m not enjoying it, and not beat myself up if I don’t do it for several months on end.

    Same with life. I feel as if I should be applying for ‘big’ jobs because that’s what everyone else I know is doing. Yet I actually like where I am, having time for yoga and writing on the side. In a way, it takes a certain stubbornness, a certain strength, not to get pulled into a life of competition – and competition for what?

    You’re so right that self-care is not for wimps but for those who are strong enough to not get buffeted along by the rest of society – for those who are strong enough to stand back and say ‘actually, this isn’t for me and I’m just going to sit quietly here and enjoy the view and the wind on my face and the grass under my feet’.

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