Sometimes, when people are trying to lose weight, they stick a picture of themselves at their most overweight on the fridge, as a reminder to slim down. While it’s not exactly the same, I have a similar picture I keep readily at hand to remind me of how important it is that I look after myself. Really look after myself.
In this picture, I’m holding my newborn niece. She’s beautiful, tiny like a peanut. But I look like a stranger. It’s not just that I’m gaunt – it’s that my eyes are terrifyingly sad and hollow, because my sense of self is absent.
The reason I keep this picture is a reminder of how strongly we lie to ourselves – I remember telling myself I “didn’t feel that bad” during that period of time, but that picture says otherwise. It is the portrait of a person who has stopped looking after herself.
At the time – three years ago – I was going through a fairly intense period with my late husband, Rob. He had depression, which we dealt with together for most of our relationship, and when my niece was born I was also helping him with his recovery from substance abuse. Although Rob hated the idea of being “looked after”, the reality was that I bore a lot of the responsibilities in our relationship on days when he wasn’t well, from doing the supermarket shop to paying our bills.
Aside from the practical necessities, there was also a huge emotional mess to sift through as well – I loved him, but I felt like my entire life was being eaten up by his. People who care or look after ill family or friends certainly can relate to this – I spent most of my time hanging out with him, and when I wasn’t with him I spent most of my time worrying about whether he was OK.
This didn’t leave much room for self-care, and the dun-dun-dun moment of revelation was when someone asked me to list what my hobbies were. “I like reading, writing, running, spending time with my friends, going on holiday,” I began, with the creeping realisation that I had not done any of those things for a long time.
When I tried to push myself too hard or continue as I had done before Rob died, my body literally shut down
Although I half-heartedly tried reconnecting with the things I liked doing, I don’t think I properly understood what self-care was about. Then, after Rob passed away two years ago, self-care wasn’t optional – I literally needed it to survive.
A lot of people assume self-care is making sure you do the things you love and that you take time out to eat lunch, go for a walk and do the things that reconnect you to your happy place. In fact, a new app, called Aloe, is being created to remind people to take time to look after themselves because, sometimes, if you have a lot on your plate, it can be easy to overlook.
But I always view self-care as a bit deeper than that. What we’re talking about is the maintenance and nurturing of the most important relationship in our lives – the one we have with ourselves. It’s not being selfish or silly; we’re no use to other people – and I certainly felt this with Rob – if we aren’t stable and strong within ourselves.
Self-care can be a tough one because, sometimes, you have to make decisions that go against your nature and because they prompt you to have a think about your real feelings about certain things. For instance, I still haven’t made peace with the fact that I may not have kids, so a toddler’s birthday party is my idea of a nightmare. I don’t expect others to get it, but then again I don’t need their understanding – I simply need to be OK with it within myself. Because until you know what you’re unhappy with, how can you know what needs to change?
It shouldn’t have to take something like a death to prompt such introspection, but it was a quick baptism of fire because, when I tried to push myself too hard or continue as I had done before he died, my body literally shut down. I couldn’t leave the house and I needed to remove myself from being around people.
What I realised was that self-care was a combination of being aware of my limits and enforcing them (eg not going out three nights in a row) as well as coming to see it as prevention. So, rather than getting to a point where I couldn’t leave the house, I was stabilising myself in other ways – sleeping well, giving myself enough time alone, not taking on too much work.
And, above all, it’s about honesty with yourself. Most of us have great resilience and an ability to keep calm and carry on, but the downside to that is a certain blindness to our own needs. I’ve learnt to listen to what my body and mind are trying to tell me, and whenever I forget, I pull out that picture and remind myself of the high price I paid when I stopped doing so.