People are always throwing around statements like “If you don’t take care of yourself you won’t be good for anyone else…!”. and “You can’t change anyone else, you can only change yourself…!” While I find this sort of preachiness to be rather grating, tiresome and trite overall, I also believe this advice to be completely spot on, but these are the kinds of lessons that can only truly be learned through personal experience, not by the nagging of well-intentioned bystanders.
I have learned these particular lessons in spades. Divorced with three children and a demanding job in a primary care clinic tending to others, there is little room for me to neglect myself. Many years ago the message of the importance of self-care was driven home to me quite effectively through the experience of a complete physical and emotional meltdown at a time in my life where just about ALL I was doing was caring for others. When I had recovered enough from this, in the language of the 1970’s, “nervous breakdown” that I could think clearly, I vowed to myself I would never allow something like that happen again. Ever. As a result, I’ve spent a good deal of time in counseling appointments, Al-Anon meetings, yoga classes and other venues getting a handle on how to take care of myself.
In my mind, I divide my life into distinct sections. There is my happy, sheltered childhood in Corvallis, Oregon which takes me through my high school years. This section ended abruptly when I left the comfort and safety of my hometown for Seattle to attend the University of Washington at 17 and is followed by my more tortured, coming of age/adolescence. This section blurs into happiness with my marriage and subsequently the birth of my first child at 26. Life then goes along swimmingly in an upwardly mobile sort of way, making babies and taking care of everyone around me the best I could until approximately age 36 with “the meltdown”. For me, this marks the start of a different life, and a long chain of events which I will undoubtedly spend the rest of my life analyzing, but this meltdown of mine draws a clear line for me, just like leaving for college or becoming a mother did.
These days I am watchful for the symptoms that arise when my body is telling me to cease and desist: insomnia, heart palpitations, weird skin problems, and changes in appetite to name a few. I have learned that most medical specialists are generally of no use to me for these symptoms. In the middle of the meltdown, I visited a startlingly young cardiologist regarding my heart palpitations. He entered the sterile, little exam room at Group Health to deliver the benign results from an EKG and Holter monitor test, looked at me nervously and declared “there is nothing wrong with your heart” (debatable, but he was of course, only referring to my physical heart). He then asked me furtively if I had ever seen a mental health counselor, and began shaking my hand repeatedly while I sat on his table weeping and needing a hug and some psychotherapy. At the same time, I also paid a visit to a dermatologist. Overnight, all of the usual things that made contact with my skin were causing irritation. The Clinique lipstick that I had worn for years suddenly made my lips puff up and itch. When I dabbed on my perfume it made little red blotches on my neck. It was as if my body had reached its saturation of attack from the outside world and it was finally taking a stand for itself without my mind’s permission.
The culmination of the meltdown resulted in my inability to leave the house to do the things I normally enjoyed, nonstop crying, and a horrid sense of dread complete with a negative soundtrack running ceaselessly through my mind that sounded to me like the voice of doom. I remember going to my favorite vacation spot with my extended family and crawling immediately into bed and crying. I remember feeling sucked towards a swirling, black sinkhole of hopelessness and meaninglessness. I had experienced some ups and downs in life, particularly as a young college student, but nothing as crippling or immobilizing as this. I had always considered myself to be a person who is steady, reliable, even-tempered and so on. For crying out loud I’m a Capricorn! I’m very practical, and this was the antithesis of practicality.
Through the first and only “nervous breakdown” of my life, a new section of my life emerged. I learned how to take care of myself. I learned that I am not in charge of everything and everyone (yes, before this time I was deluded and arrogant enough to think I could tell other people what to do and they would actually do it! So simple because I knew what was best for everyone!), I learned to say no. I learned that if I don’t get to my yoga mat regularly everyone in my life will suffer, and they know it now too. I learned to pray, to meditate, and to lean on others. I learned that I am no different from anyone else, and that to be harshly judgemental of others will undoubtedly come back to haunt me. So these days, I don’t allow myself to stray far from these things that sustain me before reining myself back in. When people tell me I’m doing too much, or I need to take care of myself, I listen and I take it seriously, even if I find it totally annoying.