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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