I Know How to Take Care of Myself
I know how to take care of myself. I know how much sleep I need and how much alone time I need. I know I need to drink a lot of water. I know which foods make me feel full, which make me gassy, and which give me a headache. I know too much social media makes me anxious. I know certain things trigger bad memories. I know my alcohol limit and my hangover cures. I know that I should exercise, dammit.
But sometimes I have a hard time taking care of myself. Sometimes I drink more than my body can handle, eat foods that make my tummy angry, and don’t get enough sleep. Sometimes I say yes to things I don’t want to do and play the tape in my head that tells me I’m a loser and not good enough. Sometimes I see the world through my self-doubt lens, convinced that everyone is rooting for me to fail and that no one actually wants my company. Sometimes I put everyone’s feelings before my own and convince myself that positive feelings are fleeting and negative feelings are forever.
I know how to take care of myself, but sometimes I don’t.
One night in high school, my mother knocked quietly on my bedroom door. “Cath?” she said, somehow knowing — as mothers always know— that I was stewing on the other side of the door.
“Yeah,” I said with all the apathy I could muster because nothing was really wrong per se although everything felt wrong, like my whole world was falling apart. She opened the door to find me sitting on top of a pile of clothes and papers and looking very distraught.
“Cath, what’s going on?” she asked.
I looked up at her with the bewilderment of a confused baby, and I burst into tears. “My room is so messy,” I wailed. My mom tried not to laugh.
“It’s so messy,” I said again, picking up a pair of gym shorts and dropping them back down on the floor before hiding my face in my hands. “What is wrong with me?” I pleaded.
What my mother knew and what I would later learn myself was that nothing was “wrong” with me. I was depressed.
Each day of high school felt the same way:
At 5:45 in the morning, my clock radio goes off. It’s set for 5:45 because that’s the exact time I need to wake up in order to finish my AP chemistry problem set. I’d worked on it the night before, but between swapping music over instant messenger with boys, watching episodes of The Office, and telling myself that I would never ever have a complete grasp of AP chemistry, I hadn’t finished it. So, at 5:45 in the morning, it’s dark and it’s cold (because it’s always winter) and it’s time for me to bullshit my way through the rest of the chemistry problem set.
Nothing was really wrong per se although everything felt wrong, like my whole world was falling apart.
I cry big baby tears then because the weight of the upcoming day feels like more than I can bear. I allow myself 30 seconds of tears before I pull the covers off and put my feet on the cold hardwood floor. (It never occurred to me to get a rug. Every winter morning, I’d put my cold feet on the cold floor and think, “I hate the cold!” and yet it never occurred to me to buy a goddamn rug.) I grab the problem set off my desk and crawl back into bed because it’s warm there and I hate everything. I spend exactly 45 minutes on it. Then I get dressed, wash my face, brush my teeth, and go downstairs to eat an Eggo waffle that my mom has made for me — except she hasn’t done it right. I sigh and get the butter so I can make sure it goes in every square of that Eggo waffle.
Kathy Burton, a senior, picks me up in her blue Volkswagen bug that we’ve named Phoebe because “we’re fun.” We don’t talk on the way to school because “we are so not morning people.” We walk into school, bring our instruments to the band room (my clarinet is named Penelope, and her trumpet is named Bernard — again because “we’re fun”), and we climb the stairs to our respective homerooms.
In homeroom, I put the finishing touches on my shitty chemistry problem set. I don’t understand 67 percent of it, and that makes me feel stupid. I tell myself “I am stupid” at least 47 times that day even though I earned an A+ in five of my seven classes last quarter. I go from class to class, scrambling to finish the homework during the four minutes between each one. I am tired, and I want to cry. But I don’t because crying is for private times in the day.
I was depressed, but I didn’t know that yet. I didn’t know that depression was feeling shame for every point I got below 100%. I didn’t know that depression was eating three buttered rolls before dinner just because it was something to do, that depression was feeling like it was my fault that the guy I was dating slept with my best friend, that depression was weeping over a cluttered room. I didn’t know that I was depressed because what right did I have to be depressed? My mother made me breakfast for god’s sake.
I was depressed, but I didn’t know that yet.
The first time I wondered whether I was depressed was when the nice days of spring arrived and waking up still made me feel like a naked rat hiding under a blanket. That was when I stopped being able to save my tears for private. That’s when my mom called the therapist whose name I had gotten from my guidance counselor a couple months earlier — the therapist I’d refused to call because I was afraid to be “the type of person who needs therapy.” I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know how to take care of myself. My mother made my first appointment for me.
The therapist looked at me with kindness. Her breathing helped me breathe, and I allowed myself to be sad about my high school problems, about my juvenile world falling apart. I took a step back and realized that I was depressed. Outwardly, I was killing it: ranked at the top of my class and dominating extracurriculars with a good number of close friends and a tight relationship with my family. But inwardly, I was killing myself with not sleeping, overeating, and pushing myself to achieve things in order to compensate for a deep-seated feeling that I — my person, my mind, my heart — wasn’t enough. I didn’t do things because I enjoyed them; I did things as self-flagellation.
Slowly, with my therapist, I started to get to know myself. I realized I was pretty cool. And strong. And funny. And kind. It turned out that underneath all the negative self-talk, I really, truly liked myself. I think that might be the single most powerful discovery I have ever made in my dang life. With that discovery, I knew I was worth taking good care of. So I started to learn how, and I continue to learn how.
I’ve talked to that therapist on and off since I was 17. She has helped me realize that sometimes I feel bad about myself because the world is a fucking garbage fire (my words, not hers) and I internalize that garbage fire. Sometimes I let others’ poor behavior feel like a reflection of me. Sometimes I have a hard time processing disappointment — the shit in life that I can’t change, or rather, the things that suck because they just fucking suck.
I am a sensitive little flower. But sensitive doesn’t mean not tough.
I still meltdown at times about seemingly small stuff: a messy room, a less-than-perfect social interaction, someone else’s success, running out of money on my Ventra card, or an asshole who cuts in line. The depressive audio track of “what is wrong with me,” “this is too much,” and “I can’t deal with this” plays in my head. I am a sensitive little flower. But sensitive doesn’t mean not tough. Sensitive means I feel all the things, and feeling all the things takes strength — boatloads of strength.
Sometimes I stop taking care of myself, perhaps daring someone else to take over the job. But no one can do that; the job is mine. Like any job, I get sick of it at times and shirk the responsibility. Sometimes I’m good at it, and sometimes I’m bad at it. I am fortunate to have good people who want to help me with it when I need it. But ultimately, it’s a good job and one I’m proud to do because I am worth it. And so are you.