When I was doing my last lot of therapy, my therapist spent quite a lot of time talking to me about taking a shower. I hate showering. The only thing I hate more than having a shower is having a bath; they both make me feel incredibly stressed and vulnerable. I have to build myself up to it, force myself into it and, when I am feeling particularly low, I just don’t do it until my hair gets to the point it’s so gross I can no longer hide it with dry shampoo and carefully placed hair scarves.
Obviously, though, when you haven’t washed for five days, you don’t feel great about yourself and your mental health suffers even more. So, showering. My therapist encouraged me to try to have a shower every evening. If I couldn’t bring myself take a shower, I should at least try to wash my face.
To a healthy person, this might not sound like much but, at this point, I was so depressed that it took everything I had to get myself to work and back. It was a Herculean effort to wash my face, or eat something that wasn’t an entire packet of chocolate biscuits, or pay bills, or clean my flat, or pick up the prescription for the tablets that were stopping me from contemplating suicide. I was a self-loathing wreck and I had to force myself to do the very basic tasks of taking care of myself. A huge part of recovery was starting to see these things – see myself – as important.
I think about this every time I see someone talking about self-care. Or, rather, every time I see brands and bloggers talking about self-care. And, oh, they’re talking about it. Self-care is a hot new trend and brands are only too happy to encourage you to participate in it – and, look, it just so happens they stock the perfect tools to help you along! Bath companies will sell you all the bubbles and face masks you need, clothing companies will sell you soft blankets and cosy pyjamas, and I, personally, snapped last week when I saw a “self-care and mental wellbeing” store selling a set of pencils to help you “focus on your character strengths” and a £215 necklace to act as a "reminder of the powerful energy, strength and fortitude within you”.
Slowly, self-care has moved from “doing the things you need to do to keep functioning” to “buying loads of luxurious stuff and pampering yourself”. In doing so, it’s stopped being helpful for the people who need it most – having a bubble bath is lovely, but if you feel crushed by your own sadness, it’s not going to make you feel OK again.
It’s cooking and eating something nutritious. It’s opening your post, paying your bills, getting out of bed, washing your sheets
There’s also the problem of motivation. Someone who is so depressed and/or anxious that they can barely get out of bed is not going to be able to participate in so many of the self-care rituals these brands are championing. Goop’s guide to “Self-Care for the Cubicle Bound” includes lipstick, anti-wrinkle cream, aromatherapy products and cuticle oil. Putting aside the fact that the 12 items cost $485 (or around £350), how is someone who needs to prioritise self-care so badly that they need help with it going to sit merrily at their desk, applying cuticle oil? I’ve been at work while depressed and at work while just generally sad and in need of looking after, and my cuticles were the last thing on my mind.
While lovely things like bubble baths, lighting nice candles and soft blankets are definitely an aspect of self-care – after all, looking after yourself means sometimes doing nice things just so you can enjoy them – the bulk of it is far less glamorous. It’s important we don’t ignore that. Self-care is the tiny actions promoted by the excellent @everdaycarebot. It’s cooking and eating something nutritious. It’s opening your post, paying your bills, getting out of bed, washing your sheets. It’s recognising when you’ve read too many articles about Trump or sexual abuse, and logging off for the day. It’s getting out of the house. It’s forcing your unwilling, unwashed body into the damn shower. It’s boring, but it’s vital.
In her brilliant series of essays, A Burst of Light, Audre Lorde compares her fight against her liver cancer to her fight against racism, homophobia and oppression. In the epilogue, she writes: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.” It took a long time for me to feel like I was worth preserving. It feels – even now – radical to devote time to ensuring that my mind and body are functioning well, that I’m giving them what they need. What they need isn’t expensive luxury peddled by the brands who are encouraging me to feel good about myself in one breath and making me feel bad about myself so I’ll buy their products in the next. Brands have already co-opted mindfulness to sell colouring books and yoga mats, so I’d quite like them to fuck off out of self-care before they ruin that, too. It’s an easy way for them to make money, sure, but for an awful lot of people, it’s a difficult but essential part of recovery.