Self Care: Self Indulgence & Survival
By Elise Nagy
Sometimes self care looks like the unremarkable motions of life. Sometimes self care looks like a small and inexplicable deviation from those motions, an impulsive change in direction: a brisk walk to the largest stall of the restroom following an author’s talk because you just need to stand somewhere to breathe where you can lean your forehead against a cool wall and can’t see any other people. Where you can slow and then silence that voice saying you’re wearing too much perfume, the woman in the row in front of you in the theatre is probably asthmatic and found it tiresome, the people who you had to step over twice on your way down a row that turned out not to be yours—despite the usher’s instruction— must think you’re rude and disruptive. Your eyes probably look tired and smudged, you’ll never write as well as the woman speaking on stage, you’ll never do anything worth doing, you’ll turn away and turn away and turn away until you’ve found the least important possibility and doggedly pursued it, because failing wouldn’t matter if succeeding didn’t matter. The shiver of anxiety that’s been building at the base of your throat since you walked into the dimmed theatre will threaten a coup.
You’ll breathe, and these anti-mantras will stop dancing a tarantella in your mind. Eventually they’ll break apart into manageable pieces and you’ll let them dissolve. There is no one here to argue on your behalf, there is no one here to soothe you. This beautiful bathroom stall in this beautiful opera house is totally devoid of mental health professionals. You have to soothe yourself; you have to be your own best advocate against the anxiety and depression that manifests in this poisonous defeatism. This is self care. Self care is multiform.
At its most technical, self care is the umbrella that covers everything you do on your own to maintain and promote personal health. This is still pretty general and vague—it’s mutable enough that many people and professions and circles use “self care” to mean an infinite variety of things. Some believe that self care should only refer to stress management, some believe that self care should be the sole purview of people who have serious medical issues that require home treatment. Self care straddles the muddled line between the medical world and the mental health world.
Sometimes self care is driving uphill past the turn that will take you home. You were on your way there, but then Hour Follows Hour came on shuffle through the speakers and suddenly you’re having feelings that aren’t suited to sitting and conversation, feelings that aren’t quite manageable at less than 70 miles per hour. For years listening to music while driving has been one of your best mechanisms for self care because it creates a palpable and measurable relief: you can’t hear the susurrus of your own breathing, you can’t hear the silver bangles on your wrist (and you know that every time I move I make a woman’s movement), you can’t hear the transmission well enough to worry about whether the last repair to the clutch was wholly successful. When your personal existence is stressing you out it sometimes helps to have it muted, to turn the rest of the world up. The moon is full or nearly full and the sunroof is rolled open and the windows are down and the air is cold but hasn’t quite found the bite of October yet, which will be here in three days.
Sometimes feeding yourself is self care. You’ll accelerate up this hill and coast down the next one, you’ll turn left into the grocery store; you’ll use your blinker even though the road is deserted. You’ll leave your sunroof open so that the constellations can get in. You’ll walk instinctually down the first aisle you come to and grab crackers flaked with black pepper, you’ll go towards the deli kiosk with whitefish dip in mind—you’ll be on autopilot, you’ll be letting the part of yourself without words take care of the part of yourself that can’t quite find words that aren’t cutting and over-critical. You won’t be verbalizing this, even to yourself, but your intention will be gentleness. Treating. Making life into something rare and savory that you want to stick around for.
You’ll find a small log of goat cheese. You’ll go to the fruit with a honeycrisp in mind, but you’ll find a red pear instead. Your fingernail will leave a bruised crescent in the pear’s dark skin: it’s ripe enough. You’ll take note of all of this, this presentness. You won’t be tumbling over old things you can’t change; you won’t be chomping at upcoming plans, stresses, demands. You’ll have a red pear and some chevre and some crackers with black pepper and that will be enough. This is self care. You haven’t been to a therapist properly since May, since you moved away and your therapist moved away. Repelling as the like poles of magnets. (We make our own gravity to give weight to things.) You promised yourself you’d find another one, but weeks of searching and hoping and visiting and dismissing candidates has tired you out. This is a time for self care.
One of the biggest roadblocks to self care is thinking of yourself as undeserving. It’s difficult to practice self care without slipping into a self-interrogation about complacency, about whether you deserve this care or are just coddling yourself, about whether giving yourself credit for something so basic—taking care of yourself—really makes you a more broken and less competent human being. (People make it through author’s talks in crowded theatres every day without needing to take a time out, people go grocery shopping every day without making it into some huge meaningful deal, people go through much worse, people would love to have the problems you have, the voice says.)
These unremarkable motions of life seem like they should be taken for granted; it seems like there should be some strength in assuming that you’ll be fine, you don’t need to be gentle with yourself, you don’t need to check in with yourself. It seems like coasting should be a sign of strength and resiliency, like effortlessness is a sign of competence. Once you give it a chance, you might find the opposite is true. We’re strong because we bolster ourselves up, because we know our weaknesses and where our personal patches of quicksand lie (crowded theatres, still houses) and we work through and around them. Self care isn’t about hiding from your problems or giving yourself an out or acting fragile, though it might look that way to an unpracticed eye.
Self care is about knowing that what looks like self indulgence can really be survival.
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Elise Nagy is the Founding Editor of the Ellipses Project. She recently graduated with a B.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies, with a concentration in Gender, Arts & Culture. She is fascinated by women’s mental illness narratives and ferociously advocates body positivity. She splits her time between Chicago and Northern Michigan.