“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation.” Audre Lorde
I don’t know what it is in our culture that makes people put so little emphasis on taking care of themselves. More than that. It’s almost celebrated. People who work crazy long hours and people who are constantly on the go are almost revered.
But there’s nothing enviable or exciting about it. In fact, I am 100% certain that a lack of self-care contributed considerably to my depression. Even once I knew I had depression it took me nearly another year to seek help. During that time I tried to continue at the same breakneck speed which only served to further exacerbate my depression.
I should probably go into a bit of background here.
When I first developed depression I was living and working in New Zealand. Outside of work I was either blogging or travelling or frequenting the many bars of Auckland. Constantly on the go. It was obvious to me that I was struggling with depression and anxiety. I was having regular panic attacks and would sometimes need to go immediately to bed upon getting home from work just to recover from the stress of trying to appear normal all day.
After leaving New Zealand, me and Dom moved to Thailand for 6 months where we started working for ourselves, designing websites for other bloggers and small business owners. But that wasn’t as easy as it sounds. In addition to all the web design work, we had to get to grips with the whole marketing and business admin side of things. My response was to work constantly. Quite literally every waking hour. On the one day off I allowed myself a week I would spend it on the go again. Travelling or winding down with a Chang or three. I wasn’t sleeping properly, eating well or exercising regularly.
Not only did I have little regard for my own self-care; I had little concept of what self-care actually meant. I certainly didn’t see it as important, instead thinking that I could continue at that same pace without any consequence.
Let me tell you what actually happened. My depression (which was relatively manageable at first) developed into a full on depressive episode. I spent about three months in bed, still trying to continue with all the work regardless of the fact that I could barely bring myself to take a shower. Eventually my business suffered as my focus and concentration diminished.
But I STILL did nothing about it. We moved to New York for two months where I continued to work on web design in between exploring the city. We left New York, spent a whirlwind three days at home being a bridesmaid for one of my best friends and then moved on to China where we taught English during the day and designed websites at night. Unsurprisingly my mental health continued to deteriorate.
I eventually came to the realisation that the stress of continuing to work on the web design business was causing irreparable damage to my mental health. That my nomadic lifestyle of constant travel was making it impossible to resolve my mental health issues. And so we gave it all up and moved back. Quite the price to pay for refusing to take care of myself.
They say that you only learn something by having actually experienced it yourself and this was certainly quite the lesson.
It’s been nearly 18 months since I returned from China and since I started working on my mental health in earnest. I now understand just how important it is to take care of yourself. Self care isn’t weak. It isn’t selfish. It’s about survival.
When depressed, it is easy to push self-care to one side. To consider yourself unworthy of self-care or see it as completely pointless or even unrealistic. I get it. It can be difficult to leave work on time when everyone around you is expecting you to put in longer hours. To say no to nights out with friends when your depression is telling you that you will end up lonely and friendless if you decide not to go out to that dinner you’ve been invited to.
And when you’re at the bottom of a very dark hole it’s difficult to see how those small acts of self-care are even going to help. But it’s the things we do to care for ourselves that can help us both manage and recover from depression.
When I talk about self-care I’m not necessarily referring to the popular image of taking long bubble baths and getting massages (although those things can certainly contribute to wellbeing). I’m referring to the very fundamentals of what we do to take care of our mental, physical and emotional health. This can be as simple as making sure you drink enough water throughout the day, developing a good nighttime routine to ensure you are getting enough sleep or eating regular meals. Things that can often slip when your mental health is not good.
Self-care is different for every person. What works for me might not work for you and vice versa. It’s all about figuring out what you need to do to care for yourself mentally and physically and then making sure that you actually make the time for those things.
For me, as a very minimum I have to make sure that I am getting enough sleep, doing some kind of regular physical activity and taking time each day to do something that I enjoy. If I am not doing those things then my mental health very quickly starts to deteriorate.
Those things keep me functioning. But that is not all that I do to help my mental health. I like to travel often, read books, cook new recipes, do a few minutes meditation here and there, spend time with friends, go on dates with my boyfriend, watch movies and get regular Thai massages. I can continue to function without these things but they serve to improve my mood and help my depression more manageable.
If you’re suffering from depression, or even if you’re not, make a point out of figuring out what you need to do to take care of yourself and then make sure you set aside the time to do those things.