It had been a long week. Two essays, a midterm, and three track workouts that left me in tears at the conclusion of each one. My anxiety was at an all-time high, and my depression made it difficult to pull myself out of bed each morning. And it all ended with a mental breakdown and a panic attack in a public bathroom on Friday afternoon. At the end of the day, I was done. I couldn’t keep going; I was mentally and physically depleted. I had gone straight home and laid in bed. I hadn’t showered in two days and had cried so much that day that I could barely keep my eyes open. I felt worn out and worthless.
To try and distract my mind from everything I was feeling, I scrolled through Instagram, hoping I’d see a picture of a cute dog or something else that could cheer me up. Instead, I scrolled past several photos of girls practicing #selfcare. One was journaling her Bible by the window of a coffee shop, complete with a foamy heart atop her coffee cup. Another was taking a mirror selfie with three of her closest friends, each of them wearing a face mask. In that moment, I knew I needed self care, but I was certain no acne-clearing mask or $7 latte would even come close to fixing how I felt.
The past several years, social media has flooded with photos of candlelit bubble baths, manicures, and skin care products galore, all under the description of “self care”. Social media influencers continually post proof of their photo-worthy pampering sessions. There’s nothing wrong with viewing self care that way, but when struggling with mental illness, self care deals much more closely with basic human needs. When surrounded with so many distorted conceptions of what self care must be, it’s hard to believe that your version of self care is sufficient. But self care always has value, even when it’s not perfectly “Instagrammable”.
About a month ago, I sat on a grey couch looking out the blinds of the upstairs window of my school’s Health and Counseling building, across from my therapist. Half-dried tears clung to my cheeks.
“I don’t know why.”
I was telling her about how I was constantly feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and discouraged. I wasn’t able to be fully present or engaged in my relationships because I was so worn out that I didn’t have anything left to give to others. I hadn’t felt like myself lately, and I didn’t know why, or what I could possibly do to fix it.
“I think you need to make time for self care,” she told me.
Initially, this didn’t seem achievable to me. As much as I adore the rejuvenation of a classic face mask and manicure night, I could barely manage to go to work or finish my assignments. If anything, it would exhaust me even more. But as she explained her ideas and we began to make a plan, I realized I needed to redefine my ideas of self care.
By her definition, “self care” didn’t necessarily mean going to a yoga class or investing your whole paycheck in new skincare products or candles to light during bubble baths. Self care simply meant paying attention to the needs of your body and executing simple tasks, even when everything in your brain tells you otherwise.
Social media has altered people’s conceptions of what it means to take care of yourself, especially in terms of mental illness. It’s hard enough to convince yourself that you deserve time to rest and recharge; being constantly exposed to the highlight reels of beautiful, rich social media influencers doesn’t help. Promotion of the supposed flawless lives of Instagram-famous women have led to the assumption that ideal self care is picture-perfect, and unattainable when affected by anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.
In reality, self care can mean paying closer attention to your sleep habits, diet, relationships, and hygiene. When everything seems out of your control, finding a set of small tasks helps increase feelings of control and can ground you more in the present.
For me, some days self care is dragging myself out of bed to take a shower, and then crawling right back into bed. Other days it’s forcing myself to follow through on a commitment to get coffee with a friend because I know it will make me smile — even though I’m wearing the same clothes I slept in and am in no mood to carry on a conversation. And yet other days, it’s staying home from class because I know I’ll have a panic attack if I go.
Self care is learning what you need to make it through the day, and what will help or hurt your mental health.
Chances are, self care for mental illness won’t be identical to the Instagram feed of a teenage girl with 46 thousand followers. It won’t even resemble the Snapchat stories of your friends as they take a night to pamper themselves.
Sometimes self care is messy. Sometimes it’s ugly. And it’s almost always unphotogenic. But some days, it helps to feel like you’ve accomplished something, despite the unchecked boxes on your ever-growing to-do list. Some days, it reminds you that you deserve to take care of yourself, and that you deserve happiness.
And some days, that’s enough.