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Self-care Isn't a Bad Thing

Monday, January 18, 2016

I read an article online last week that has been bothering me ever since, and since I can't sleep I decided to write out the thoughts spinning in my head.

The full article can be found here: thoughtcatalog.com/chels
, but essentially Chelsea Fagan is writing in concern with a number of memes floating around social media sites like Tumblr and Facebook in regards to dealing with psychological disorders that advocate self-care for people with these disorders. I'm sure you've seen the memes--things like "today I'm going to be a burrito" or "today I can't handle the world so I'm going to hide in my blanket fort coloring." (These aren't the exact wording on the memes I've seen, but close enough). She says that these memes tell people struggling with psych disorders that they are "You're a golden anxiety flower, and everyone else has to deal with you" (and that is an exact quote), and that this is damaging in the long term.

Now, this isn't something I am an expert in. I do not have a psychological disorder, and I'm a medical anthropologist, not a psychologist, so my experience when it comes to mental health issues is that of a reasonably well informed layman. In addition to a handful of psych classes I took in college (including TAing Psychological Anthropology, which was a fascinating class that started to deconstruct the way we think about mental health), I have a number of friends dealing with a variety of psychological disorders so I talked to them, listened, and even read up some on the issues they were facing. But that isn't the same thing as being an expert and certainly not the same as experiencing it myself. It really disturbed me that she basically says that people with psychological disorders need to suck it up and get on with life, that they aren't special, they don't get special treatment, and if they don't figure out how to deal they'll hurt themselves in the long run.

I get what she is saying, and she has some good points, to a point. Self-care isn't just about activities that de-stress us, and certainly not only about escapism. We need to take care of our bodies by eating well and exercising, and very few of us can afford to just abandon our responsibilities. We don't live in a social vacuum and there are consequences to every decision, including self-care. If we take advantage of others too often, eventually they are likely to pull away out of a need for their own self-preservation. If we call in sick to work because our social anxiety won't let us handle the world, we will probably lose money and, if it goes on long enough, likely our job as well. And if we are so wrapped up in our stress that we take that stress out on the people around us--and sadly we are most likely to take it out on the people we are closest to, especially spouses and family because they are the ones most likely to forgive us and love us anyway--well, that takes its toll on our marriages and other close relationships.

But we already live in a society where we are constantly being told, especially women, that it's greedy and self centered to invest in self-care. Even I struggle with this, and I don't have kids. My friends who are moms struggle even more with this because in our society not only do the kids come first, but more often than not this falls on the mom. What Fagan is missing is that these memes about burritos and blanket forts aren't just resonating with 20 somethings who don't have that many responsibilities. They are resonating with tired, stressed, in pain mothers who needed that affirmation that it really is okay to say "I can't cope today" sometimes and ask for help so that they can go take a shower or even have a half an hour to themselves so that they can read or color or watch a silly tv show uninterrupted.

And yes, if we do this too many times it will eventually backfire on us, either because the mountain of undone chores will resemble the poem Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out by Shel Silverstein or because people will get burned out on helping us. But we need to be able to do it sometimes. I know that I did. I had people get upset with me the last year of grad school because I took 3 hours off from working on my dissertation once or twice a week to go fencing. They essentially told me that fencing was both selfish and an indulgence I couldn't afford. I was writing 15 or more hours a day 7 days a week, but I was told that I shouldn't be fencing because I needed to focus on my dissertation. But fencing was my blanket fort; it kept me sane so that I keep up that grueling, painful, awful schedule.

This is "you need to suck it up and deal" message is particularly damaging socially because she is focusing on mental illnesses, which already have a rocky social position. If I had plans to go out to dinner with a friend and texted her that morning saying "I can't make it; I have a stomach bug and am best friends with the toilet right now," she isn't going to think "Wow, that Zannachan is such an unreliable jerk." Admittedly, you could argue that this is partially self-preservation since my friend won't want the stomach bug, but if that illness were something physical but not contagious--cancer, for example--I still doubt that I would get that label. She wouldn't have to understand cancer to know that it's serious. But if I texted her "I can't make it because my anxiety flared up," it is less likely in general for her to understand why I couldn't just deal unless for some reasons she understands what it is like to live with an anxiety disorder. Now, I have friends with "invisible" physical ailments that I know struggle with people not understanding why they aren't more reliably able to commit to social obligations, so I know this issue isn't strictly a mental one, but there is still generally a greater acceptance that physical ailments are more legitimate than mental ones, even as research has increasingly broken down the boundaries between physical and mental disorders.

Maybe this hit home because this year has been especially rough for me, personally. While I don't struggle with mental health issues, I do struggle with chronic pain and I've missed so many social activities, failed to meet household obligations, and not met professional goals because of pain, particularly migraines. There have been so many times I had to have my husband contact someone and say I couldn't do something because my brain was so much on fire that I couldn't even handle writing my own text. There were days when I had to ask him to take care of what should be my chores, and days when I had to ask a friend to drive me to a doctor's visit because I couldn't get myself there. That doesn't mean I think that I'm a special snowflake, but it means I just couldn't do it on my own and needed help. Just as I needed, for my own well-being, to take that time fencing, there have been times I've had to ask for help I desperately needed.

This doesn't make me a jerk. It doesn't mean I feel entitled, or special, or anything. I just needed help.

There are some important factors Fagan doesn't touch on that help keep the scales balanced so that I don't become the jerk she describes.

1) I don't do it any more than necessary, and when I do ask for help I never take it for granted, even from my spouse.
2) And perhaps even more important, I do my best to return these kindnesses, to the best of my ability.

It's not a quid pro quo.... There's no grand ledger where people keep track of who has done what so that they can return just that amount of favor back in kind. I remember my mother-in-law talking about a friend who was uncomfortable accepting help when she was getting treated for cancer because she couldn't return the favors, and was told that's not how friendship works. When she was healthy, she had always done things to help other people; now other people wanted to be able to help her. Some of the help I received I have hopefully "earned" in past actions. Some things I will just have to pay forward. And sometimes we just can't return the favor and need to learn to accept help with grace and gratitude.

I agree with Fagan that the discussion of mental health issues (or physical health issues for that matter) needs to be constructive, giving us information that doesn't necessarily make us feel better about ourselves but puts real tools in our coping tool boxes. I just think that instead of criticizing the self-care narrative as being self-centered, it would be better to stress the importance of self-care and how to balance that with the other responsibilities and demands on our time.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Thank you for sharing your insightful and thoughtful response. Well said.
    1502 days ago

    Hmm.. U said a Lot there!!!.... Glad U expressed this!!!! emoticon

    Can relate to much of it, although in my own way... emoticon

    Thx 4 Sharing U'r Thoughts!!! emoticon emoticon

    xoxo ❤ C*
    ( emoticon SparkelStar, aka Constance in Berkeley, CA)

    1958 days ago
    1972 days ago
    1972 days ago
    Excellent points. I agree with you, that there needs to be a balance between taking care of oneself, but also recognizing that one has duties and responsibilities that need to be met. I work with a woman who just keeps going and going and going (she is a bit like the Energizer bunny), until she collapses, usually by getting sick because she doesn't get enough rest and take care of herself. We try to encourage her to take care of herself, but she has been that way for so long, it is ingrained in her that this is how she needs to be, and it's not healthy for her.

    Most importantly, people need to realize that mental health issues are as "real" and true as physical issues. Too many people don't get care for mental health issues, because the funding often isn't there, or they are embarrassed, or there is a risk that they could lose social standing or even their jobs if they admit they have a mental health issue, or are receiving treatment for such. We need to understand that our society often exacerbates the anxiety and stress that can naturally come with life, until that stress and anxiety takes over a person's life. Yes, a person can stretch "self-care" to an extreme, but lack of self-care can become an extreme in and of itself, until a person just falls apart and can't deal with anything.

    You made some excellent points and have gotten us to thinking. Thanks!

    I'm sorry to hear that you've been struggling with pain. I hope that is getting better, and you can have as pain-free a life as possible. You deserve it.
    1974 days ago
    Well said on so many levels! emoticon
    1974 days ago
    emoticon Yesterday I had a wonderful time with 3 women friends....we had tea; we are of different ages and in different stages of life AND we are all relatively mentally stable. Each one of us in our own way are struggling deeply with the challenges that life presents where we are at. We are trying to find the balance of what "I need" with what "we need" with what "you need". It was wonderful and sorrowful to share and support one another. We do need time to take care of ourselves when our choices are strongly influenced by our desire to stay in relationship with other significant people (like husbands and children).
    Here's to finding your balance.
    1974 days ago
    Yes, it is so much easier to understand and empathize with a diabetic with an open sore that will not heal even tho' it has been going on for months... than it is to have the same understanding and caring for someone with a mental illness that you cannot see nor probably even begin to understand.
    1974 days ago
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