Self Care in the Age of Trying-Not-to-Kill-Yourself

It has been a very long time since I wrote about my feelings in a “medium” (see what I did there?) intended for the eyes of anyone aside from myself-looking-back-on-past-words-to-fuel-my-self-loathing-by-picking-apart-how-wrong-I-always-am-about-everything.

And yet, here I am. What brings me here, to a computer for the first time in who-knows-how-long (because I don’t own one and it seems inappropriate to write about what a mess I am while at work at an elementary school), is the quest for true, non-performative (yet here I am performing!) self care.

Two — or three or four or five or eight — years ago, if someone had asked me what self care was to me, I probably would have said it was whatever I needed to do to keep myself from feeling bad. The catch is, I felt bad most of the time, and no matter what I did, that was still who I was. How do you care for a self that doesn’t care for itself? Mostly, you get drunk. You spend money. You poke holes in your skin and hang shiny things from it. You smoke or snort or swallow whatever crosses your path. You have careless relationships and lament the damage you’ve done well after the fact. You stop feeling bad for a fleeting second, and this is somehow the kindest you can fathom being to yourself.

A year and a half ago, I decided that self care meant packing up my shit and going somewhere where none of my previous means of self care were haunting and taunting me. It meant moving somewhere warmer and sunnier (this, I still stand behind). I was thoroughly convinced that a new place would mean a new me. I had a vision for myself for the first time in years. I was going to be the happy-successful-confident-content girl of my dreams.

Honestly, that worked for a time. But newness, like drinking and spending and fucking and forgetting, turned out to be just another distraction masquerading as self care. And newness, by definition, does not last either. I needed another idea — something I had never tried before.

In June of 2016, I woke up one morning and decided I was going to devote myself to physical fitness. It was *definitely* something I had never tried before, and as any person who scans internet headlines will tell you, exercise is linked to happiness! It was foolproof. Nothing precipitated this decision, but from that day on, I started working my ass off. I started small, but by fall, I was working out seven days a week: I regularly ran a 6-mile loop, did an hour of body weight exercises every other day, rode my bike 6 miles to work and back, spent at least 30 minutes daily doing yoga, meditated every morning for increasing lengths of time, meticulously tracked macronutrients, and chronicled every tiny detail of this regimen in a journal. I felt total control over my body, and I was in seriously great shape.

You’re going to be shocked where the story goes from here: none of that made me feel okay. Sure, endorphins are a factual thing that causes pleasant feelings for the duration of their release, and spending more time outside was a fortunate biproduct of my regime, and eating better made me less constantly tired. But the feelings I have been running from for as long as I can remember still surfaced in every sliver of time I couldn’t fill, and mixing a sensation of total control with that of absolute helplessness gutted any semblance of hope I had for a day that might pass without questioning the value of my own existence.

Here’s a thing that made this an IMPOSSIBLE quest up to this point: I had not come to terms with being a person with a mental illness. Specifically, I was diagnosed with cyclothymia, a mild form of bipolar disorder, by multiple psychiatrists in late adolescence, in addition to OCD, generalized anxiety, and insomnia by one or another. I sometimes used these labels when it was to my advantage (sorry I was an asshole! I’m just bipolar!), but I always believed that all people felt the way I felt; that some day I would look back on those diagnoses and have a good laugh; that the right combination of actions and surroundings would pave the way to stability and contentment.

The many-years-long quest for self care taught me two things: one, I knew nothing about self care, and two, if I wanted to understand it better, I needed to start by understanding and accepting who I am. No matter how many Buzzfeed-Thought Catalog-Elite Daily (barf) articles one might peruse on the topic, there is no formula for being kind to yourself.

For me, this may very well mean a life on medication — a path I have cringed at since trying a myriad of pills without success; since not once but twice trying to use those same pills to kill myself. The fact that I have horrendous anxiety about phone calls/new experiences in general and terrible stable attendance to my commitments makes finding and securing psychiatric care in a new location feel like an impossible hurdle. I have seriously been working on it for over a month, and I am an expert at coming up with reasons it hasn’t happened yet; I’m too busy working during office hours! My Michigan-to-Virginia insurance conversion isn’t feasible! I don’t want to work with an old person who still believes marijuana is bad and all these people look old in their online psychology.com ratings pages!

But but but — and here is really the tl;dr of this entire excessively long shit post about myself — real true self care means taking allllll of that comfortable bullshit, shoving it to the side, and doing what you need to do for you to get through life in this shit storm of a world. For a lot of people, I think maybe baths and tea and walks and candles and meditation are sufficient (otherwise where did the authors of all those Elite Daily articles gather their material?). For me, that means accepting and addressing my mental health needs before I fuck something important up royally, for the thousandth time, without using all those little momentary happy-makers as excuses as to why I have already done enough.

In the future, I would like to write more about how my differences manifest in my sensation, perception, and behavior. I would like to talk about relationships, especially the one that I have somehow managed to maintain for an inordinate length of time. I would like to write about having an abortion. I would like to talk about my experiences with the health community; with the art community; with the entirety of a new city.

I chose to write about self care first because this is integral to it. I find myself letting go of a lot of shame and releasing such a weighted denial, and I want the words for that to exist. Affirmations can be really difficult, but here it is — my experiences are true and valid; my existence requires no justification, not even to myself.

Thanks for reading ❤