Getting sick and never getting well again is like crucible, burning up any extra bit of energy, allowing the pace and demands of life to come into sharp enough focus that we might come to understand the critical importance of self-care. Perhaps, you were raised as I was, with the belief that self-care was selfish. Unlearning this belief has been key to my wellness, to my staying as healthy as I’m able – both physically and mentally, knowing that in order to provide any care to others, like the oxygen mask on a plane, I must first secure my own. It isn’t until filling my own cup that I can pour into others. This has been a lesson hard learned, and then forged, like metal, hammered again and again into some shape recognizable as “me,” as I’ve learned to rise to the occasion of meeting my own needs. Here are some of the ways I’ve cultivated these skills.
First, I looked for teachers. Who around me is practicing self-care and what does it look like? From my friends who could say “no,” to a request that didn’t work for them, to the lady who left the yoga class before it was over (I don’t know why, I can invent all sorts of reasons. The point is: it wasn’t over, and she left. Who knew you could do that?!) Teachers can take many forms. They can be our people we know, or they can be on TV. I remember in the first episode of Friends, Ross asks everyone to help him move, most of them begrudgingly agree but Phoebe says, “Oh, I wish I could. But, I don’t want to.” ! What a master. She said what was true and took care of herself. We can look for models anywhere and then we can take their examples and put them into practice.
One of the most basic skills that is so easy to overlook: tune into your body’s needs. If you are tired, rest. If you are hungry, eat. Why is this simple maxim not so easy to practice? For many of us, we have spent years tuning out the signals of our bodies. Whether because we were asked to subvert our own needs and desires to others, or because, we’re trying to ignore the pain we’re in, the first step in self care is like turning a dial on an old-school radio: tune in. We must practice paying attention to our self and then allow our behavior to be guided by what we learn. The building block of this skill is the body scan. Starting at either your head or your toes, take a minute or two to scan your whole body, what are you experiencing? For many of us it will be easier for us to turn away from our feelings to our thoughts or emotions – when that happens, notice it and turn back to your bodily experience. Are you comfortable? Do you have pain? How bad is it? Do you need to go to the bathroom? Are you thirsty? Allow the information to come. Once you notice what’s happening for your body, ask the question “what do I need?” and listen for the answer. When the answer comes, do what you can to do as your body needs. Practice this body scan every hour (or more!) set alarms and reminders to help you remember to tune in.
When going out, get in the habit of doing recon. That’s right, just like a spy, we chronically ill need to do reconnaissance work. Perhaps a friend invites me to attend an event with her. In order to go I need to do my homework: the seats are general admit, what time do the doors open? With those seats, how far will I have to walk/how many steps to get there? Can I rest up and reasonably participate for the duration of the event plus the time to get there, get our seats held, get back home? Now, have I investigated parking? Is it so far that we should take a Lyft/Uber? Will my friend help me carry bags, open doors, lift things, etc. to make the trip easier? What do I need to bring along (mask, sanitizer, snacks, meds, mobility aids, O2) to make it through the event? Is this tedious? YES! And yet, as we can attest, these are the kinds of things that mean the difference between enjoying an event and being flattened before the event begins. Just as a parent of an infant has to plan for what goes in the diaper bag, those of us with chronic illness have to be prepared to advocate for and anticipate our needs so that we can participate. Oh, and while you’re there – do some body scans, maybe you need to change something, leave early, get some water, I don’t know – and neither will you if you don’t do a body scan!
Self-care, for me, also includes a contemplative practice. Do you meditate, pray, do yoga, or something else to cultivate a quiet mind? The healing benefits of a contemplative practice have been demonstrated scientifically again and again. On a personal level, meditation gives me a way to reset. It does not remove the obstacles from my path or take the pain from my body. However, it reminds me that I am not the pain. Meditating regularly gives me one more layer of awareness, the opportunity to check in with myself providing a moment of space between what happens and my reaction to it. It’s a bit of grace in the midst of feeling “acted upon” so much of the time.
In today’s world, self-care is so often bandied about in terms of lighting a candle, taking a bath, or playing your favorite song. These are all worthwhile things and can indeed lift our spirits. However, my intention of talking about self-care really goes deeper. Perhaps I should look for another term, maybe it would be less confusing if I called it “soul-care.” What does it mean to be looking after our souls? When I say, “whether or not you are healthy on paper, you can be well.” It is this part of you to whom I am speaking: the eternal, deep, wise, loving part of yourself. The part that is full and whole despite how broken your body may seem. How do you tend to this part of yourself? How can you be true to her? How can you prioritize her? Shower her with love? Let her know that she is the love of your life?