Early every spring, I flip through the pages of my pretty little planner and realize that “end of school” is barreling my way faster than a kid bolts the pediatrician’s office in flu shot season. Determined not to sink into the fatigue laden emotional sack of potatoes I had become the spring before, I schedule self-care. Massages, dinners out of the house with grown-ups, Wegman’s iced cookies, a vacation day, even a pedicure. And I don’t get pedicures. Aren’t they just expensive decorations of your feet that you are then obliged to continue forever? I know most of you disagree, but they are still feet people! To each their own. Despite an eye popping amount of money spent on “self-care” I still teeter on the edge of sanity until the last week of August, spend most of September recovering, dive back into holiday insanity a few weeks later, pity my depleted-self in January, eat a lot of chocolate in February…..and the cycle continues. Either self care 1.0 was missing something or I was immune to the supposed benefits.
Then I had a string of several similar patients in a row serve me a wake-up call. They were all unique, but the unifying theme can be described here in my imaginary patient Clara. Clara was retiring, or close to it, above average intelligence, no unusual circumstances or dramatic good or bad stories to her life. She was in chronic low-level pain, she was not clinically depressed, but she wasn’t exactly singing the love song of life. Asking her to go for a daily walk was asking a lot, and she was slightly over-weight, but under-nourished. Worse yet, she didn’t have any one thing to blame- there was no car accident, no fall, no big traumatic event. It was just that after 65 years, she had never really taken the reigns, or examined her life enough to make it something else and now it wasn’t what she wanted or expected it would be. It was apparent that she had just followed the path of today’s cultural dictum of not thinking outside the box and the rut she dug unwittingly day in and day out for 45 years was so deep, she couldn’t see the way out. All of the Claras used a similar cautionary line, “I don’t know what happened, I used to be so….”
I didn’t have some EUREKA moment in my appointments with the Clara(s). I had a slow rising dawn of awareness that I was one more mindless habit (or lack of habit) away from a future that dimmed. That real self-care was actually about awareness and also, gulp, about discipline. There were things in my life that caused me the kind of stress I knew was keeping me from current peace or would one day, in the not so far off future, limit my freedom by decreasing my health. Such as, I act like I invented the miracles of exercise when I speak to patients, but I was getting exercise three times a week if I was lucky- typically twice. I was aware of my own inherited sensitivities to alcohol, but since the birth of my last child had gone from rarely drinking to drinking most nights as a way to turn down the day. And if I know anything about myself, I am a morning person, but I scheduled myself to work two late evenings because it is just what new owners of a physical therapy practice do! I could go on, but to summarize the list of habits that didn’t fit who I was or where I wanted to be in twenty years was like my 7 year old’s birthday wish list of a pony, two bunk beds, and meeting Nick Jonas; not matching reality.
There was no insta-pot or miracle of TV moment when I changed the habits that weren’t serving me. Some were easy; I like to exercise, so that one I just started doing every day, no excuses. I hear this all the time, “ I just can’t find the time.” The time it turns out isn’t really real anyway-reference Einstein and the quantum physics people for more info and stop saying that, please. When I felt the momentum from accomplishing daily exercise- I was able to tackle the alcohol. I asked for help and my husband joined me in dry July and the difference in going it alone versus having a partner to whine to was all I needed. Not working two evening nights was just asking myself, “Who made that rule (was it a man? sorry men), and is it actually true?” Some of the changes I need to make are works in progress. By the not-going-it-alone logic, my calculations state that all of the humans east of Colorado are going to have to join me in an iced cookie ban in order for me to kick sugar as a stress coping method.
Is the conclusion that I have become a peaceful healthy but completely un-fun person to spend time with? I am not sure I was super fun before to be honest and luckily I am not that good at will-power yet anyway. For now the conclusion for me is that the popular notion of self-care; massages, vacations, mani/pedis, is only as good as the body you apply it to. Also, all the stuff you read in self-help books is true; start small, start easy, get help, celebrate the little wins, be creative/ask questions. So before I cover myself in lemongrass scents and prop up my feet as defense against the crazy stuff life throws at me, I am going to try to do the hard work of steering this life in the direction that feels good to my soul. And then, trust me, I am getting a hot stone massage.