Self Care in Survival Mode.
A few years ago, I found myself barely holding it together as an overworked and underpaid barista. My shifts began at 5:30am most days, and 4:15am on Fridays, in order to put away our weekly shipment of coffee and sugar syrups.
It was a difficult, often 6 day week (my record was a 12 day streak) which involved a 4am alarm, and not enough sleep. I’ve always been a night person, but my store needed an opener, and that came with the promise of slightly higher tips, and a consistent schedule. Most days went like this:
Alarm 1: 4 am. hit snooze.
Alarm 2: 4:15. groggily roll over. one more snooze.
Alarm 3: 4:30. roll out of bed, crawl to the shower. Attempt to wash off the old coffee smell from my hair, my skin, my fingers.
4:45: Change into my work shirt and pants which had coffee grounds pressed permanently into the hem. Collect my apron which perpetually smelled like yesterday’s milk foam. Sit on bed. Check Twitter. Try to stay awake.
5:10: Walk to the store, or, if running late, order a cab.
Work from 5:30–2pm, with a 30 minute lunch somewhere in the day.
2:15pm: Walk into apartment, collapse. Sleep until 5:30
5:30: Watch tv, eat chips, dread going to bed, feel weird because I haven’t eaten normally, and am likely dehydrated.
7:45: Browse Twitter, watch YouTube, attempt to do something with my day.
8:30: Get ready for bed, a 9pm bedtime.
9:00: Lay in bed, eyes wide open.
10:00: Lay in bed, eyes wide open.
11:00: Lay in bed, eyes wide open, dreading the impending alarm and expected five hours of sleep.
What little sleep I’d get would often turn into anxiety dreams; I would be the only person at the counter and at the espresso machine, a line out the door. The only way to make these dreams end was to realize that it wasn’t real, and calmly ask the line of customers to leave, because “I have to sleep now.”
I was a barista for three years, and it nearly killed me.
There’s a lot of talk about self care these days, and it’s an important conversation to have! But I couldn’t afford to take the day off and play hookie. I couldn’t always afford to “treat myself.” At times, there was little room for anything more than the bare minimum, what with a 9pm bedtime, and no cash. My friends weren’t always available when I was, and there was a period of time when I lived out of town, completely cut off from my community.
Towards the end of that stretch, I did lots of reading and narrowed down the four areas that I should focus on, in order to survive. I created a routine, and did my best to stick with it.
Some days were easier than others. Some weeks I had something to look forward to, or I’d pick up a long shift and have a couple days off. But when it got rough again, (and when it has since, even in my current job and circumstances; a near 180) I try and focus on the most vital pieces:
Focusing on my body meant giving myself the elements needed to keep going. Drink enough water, and more water than caffeinated drinks.
I tried to eat more foods that made me feel good — not emotionally feel good, but vegetables and meals that were satisfying and didn’t leave me feeling bogged down. Eat something warm. I would eat only cold, often nutrient void snack foods, and my body never felt nourished. Soups were a great option for me; I could make a big batch early in the week for cheap, and keep eating for a few days.
Cut down on caffeine. It disrupted my sleep patterns (I needed it to!) but too much had some really weird effects. I was consistently shaky, perpetually cold, I didn’t sleep well at all, and I think it impacted my sense of taste for a while. Coffee kept me going. I had to keep going. I’d switch to herbal tea and juices later in the day, and try to only rely on coffee in the early mornings.
I made an effort to take a walk and do yoga on a semi-regular basis. Pretty much anything to get me out of the same patterns I’d experience, day in and day out. This wasn’t even really about exercise-it was about moving, and ending the stagnant cycle of alternating between standing and sleeping.
Never underestimate the healing powers of a hot shower. Soap, steam, washing my hair, brushing my teeth, scrubbing my face, and taking that quiet space was vital. I got in the habit of playing some really relaxing music (if you need a Spotify playlist suggestion, hit me up) and turning the lights off, leaving a candle, hall, or night light on. It’s a little trippy and wonderful. When you get out, slather yourself with moisturizer, and put on clean PJs. It feels like a deep breath, and should be repeated frequently.
Focusing on my soul meant engaging a creative or curious side. This could be knitting or writing or painting or doodling; I’d put on some music and shut off my devices, spending time in my own head, not trying to escape the present. I needed to create something that was for me, and for joy, not just survival. One time, I made rainbow cupcakes. This was wonderful for even short periods; bare minimum,I’d give myself 30 minutes of decompression time, even if it meant less sleep. I’d sleep better, and deeper when I was nurturing different areas.
This was a space to address the swirling thoughts that would wake me up, or those chores I’d dread at work all day. Set a timer and clean for 20 minutes. When the 20 minutes is up, you have full permission to stop. If you want to keep going, be my guest- but this strategy helped me actually get stuff done, knowing that there was an end point. Take a break, then set the timer for another 20.
Engage your mind in something unrelated to your job or current events. Read, preferably something not on a screen. Watch a tv show that makes you laugh! Listen to a podcast! (Also offering suggestions)
I noticed that my work anxiety dreams were less awful or even nonexistent when I had something else in my brain. I’d watch a favorite movie and paint my nails, draw, or even just relish curling up under the covers. My mind needed to be fed something different, in order to keep me going.
Make a plan. Look at your week and schedule activities. Write out a budget. This can be simple and short-term, but it’s helpful to see what you’re working with. Avoiding your bills and responsibilities will not make them go away, or easier to deal with later. This is a great time to ask for help when you need it. Ask about adjusting your student loan payments for a little while. Look at where you’re being stretched and see what can give.
I’d ask myself What is required of me, (by myself or others) and what is expected of me? (by myself or others) When the going gets tough, when you’re reaching your limits, separate what has to be done from what is expected to be done. It was required of me to show up to work. It was expected of me to pack my lunch. Some days, the stress of planning and preparing ahead of time meant that it was worth buying lunch that day. When I was strapped for cash, packing lunch was a requirement, not an expectation.
Engage with the world around you. Reach out to friends, or use the internet to reach out to strangers. Change your scenery. Look into day trips in your area, or see what kind of deals you can get by bus or by train. Decorate your surroundings or re-arrange your furniture. There’s something about customizing your space that can really help it feel like home.
Find something you care about, and commit to investing your time. This can be in person, or online- there are a lot of ways to make a difference at odd hours with no money or experience.* Those experiences helped me look beyond myself and my situation and I needed that balance.
Finally, give yourself some grace. Take a moment to step back and look closely at the cards you’ve been dealt. If you’d asked me be a barista today, I don’t think I could do it. I don’t think I could find the energy or the motivation, but I did was needed to be done. There wasn’t an option to just stop because it was difficult, and I hope that if you’re in that situation, you can find the ways to care for yourself exactly where you are.
*One such organization I know of is called Missing Maps, an organization that lets you volunteer from home, graphing details of a map over satellite images, so that humanitarian and rescue organizations have some guidance on where roads and buildings are/were.