My mother had an excellent palliative care physician. A smart, rule-following, ethical, and mostly serious woman. She became a mainstay of our lives through countless home visits, numerous lengthy phone calls, and endless consultations.
Her knowledge of our family was intimate, but the rigid boundaries of her professional obligations were unambiguous: she would not be my therapist, my friend, my shoulder to cry on. She was only and ever my mother’s advocate.
Sure, the good doctor understood the complexities of being the child caregiver of an ill parent. Yes, she appreciated the emotional and practical challenges encompassing the situation. Obviously, she knew full well how hard it was.
Still, there was never any question, never any overlap, never a moment when it seemed like maybe – maybe – her role was also to help me. No. She was simply and explicitly my mother’s doctor.
One summer afternoon, we were on the phone discussing the plan for bringing my mom home from the hospital. Again. My mom had stopped using her oxygen and started chain-smoking. Again. She refused to take her pain medication. Again. The combination had landed her in the E.R.. Again.
That’s when it happened. That’s when – for a brief and pivotal moment – the doctor stepped outside of her singular responsibility to my mother and, speaking to me with earnest knowing, with legitimate concern, with urgency, said the craziest sane thing I’d ever heard.
You cannot go to the hospital and get your mother. You have to refuse her phone calls, refuse to pick her up, refuse to speak with the hospital doctors, refuse to speak to the social worker. If you go there – if you pick her up – it will go on and on like this until your mom dies, or until you lose everything, whichever comes first.
I was dumbstruck. Was she – was the doctor – suggesting I abandon my mother in the hospital?
You have children and a husband, you have your life. It’s unethical for me to priortize your mother’s care at the expense of your well-being. You have to stick up for yourself.
Um. Do what now?
Stick up for yourself. Take care of yourself.
There’s not a detail about that day I don’t remember with unadulterated clarity. The sky was clear blue, the sun was high and bright, the air was warm, my kids were playing nearby.
Their little faces zoomed into focus as she spoke. I knew that it was all true. It was all absolutely, painfully true. If I didn’t force the hospital to engage my mom in developing a new care strategy that didn’t involve me sacrificing my young family to tend to her needs, I would lose these years and never, ever get them back.
I didn’t want that. My mom didn’t want it either. Not in her heart, not in her love for me. She was sick and afraid, and her fear was bullying us both.
I had to choose: her needs or mine? It was terrible. It was hearts torn open and loyalties questioned. It was begging and tears and apologies and promises. It was, in a sense, life or death.
I’m not about to sell you on a program, or pretend to be any kind of expert. I’m not dismissing the realities of single parenthood, three jobs, five kids, divorce, grief, homelessness, food scarcity, trauma, or mental illness.
I’m saying this: no matter what, no matter when, caring for ourselves is a matter of urgent importance. It’s the difference between actually living and barely surviving.
So, what IS self care?
Self care is any intentional thing you do to care for your own physical, mental, and emotional health. It’s the decision to make yourself a priority. It’s the courage to say, “I matter, my well-being matters.”
What self care is NOT.
It’s not selfish. It’s not stupid. It’s not unnecessarily indulgent. It’s not a waste of your time.
Why is it so critically important?
Flight attendants adamantly insist that you put your own oxygen mask on first. You know why, right? Yeah. Because we can’t help someone else if we’re already straight dead.
It’s an overplayed analogy, I know. But it works. If you are going to do anything else in your life effectively, you have to prioritize self care.
Don’t take my word for it. The science is clear, chronic stress takes a toll on your mind and on your body. Stress causes inflammation and, “inflammation can promote the development and progression of disease.” Inflammation caused by chronic stress is also linked to enduring mental health issues such as Major Depressive Disorder.
Engaging in self care is preventative and rehabilitative medicine. It’s mental, emotional, and spiritual health care.
Ok, but can we get real for a sec?
We’re already scheduled 26 hours a day, 8 days a week – jobs, kids, pets, relationships, meetings, bills, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and sometimes lying on the floor crying. Making or finding more time feels kind of impossible.
And, honestly, negotiating “me-time” with a reluctant partner can be entirely discouraging. It’s not uncommon for relationships to succumb to the idea that if one person wants a thing – like time – that means there’s less of it for the other person. In fact, time is one of the biggest reasons couple argue.
Filled with resentment from competing for scarce resources, it seems easier to give up. It seems easier to un-prioritize ourselves than it is to learn – or teach our families – new habits and behaviors. We feel guilty about leaving them, we feel badly for having to defend our choices, we feel as though we don’t really deserve to take the time, or spend the money.
So, let’s kick it back to what the good doctor told me: You have to stick you for yourself.
Decide that you’re going to take care of yourself.
And yet again.
Set alarms, set reminders, put sticky-notes around the house, enlist a friend to send a text. Say it, write it, think it again and again: I will take care of myself. I will stick up for myself.
How often do you tell your kids that if they want to get better at something, they’ll have to practice? Piano, soccer, singing, football, violin. It doesn’t matter what it is, if they don’t practice, they won’t get better.
You have to practice too. Deciding to take care of yourself is a practice. Actually taking care of yourself is a practice. Some days, practice will suck. Some days, practice will feel like a revelation.
Just keep practicing.
Ugh, FINE. Gimme some ideas, already.
Ok! Check out: 43 Easy Ways to Start Taking Better Care of Yourself.
And if you have self care ideas, we’d love to hear them! Please share in the comments.