Self-care is radical. Self-care is acknowledging the importance of our needs in a world that tells us to say sorry far too often for taking up space. Self-care is a way of acknowledging: I am worth looking after. I am enough.
A few years ago I developed a neurological condition that affects my balance, causes unpredictable falls, and required intensive neuro-physiotherapy to help me overcome the worst of these issues (as well as movement-related symptoms from which I recovered quite quickly). I don’t suffer from collapses as often as I used to—at one point in a vicious cycle of viral infection—tiredness—collapse—tiredness—collapse, it was happening four times a day—but I still regularly have balance issues, which cause some ‘mini’ falls, make me lose my balance for a moment, spill coffee on myself, feel nervous around stairs. It’s thought to be caused by an unusual neurological reaction to a virus such a glandular fever, and in all honesty not only has it caused long-lasting neurological symptoms, but my immune system has not been the same since.
It was a stark insight into the reality of losing control and independence over your body. Although with the help of a fantastic neuro-physiotherapist I regained a lot of independence, control and strength, I still have to be wary and careful—something that is often hard to do. We all want to let our hair down and feel free despite the consequences sometimes. We want to feel invincible. We want to be able to do anything, at least as well as our peers.
In the haze of tests, suspension of studies, and fights with college, there was an inescapable uncertainty for the future: would I ever be able to work again? Would I be able to return to do my doctoral studies? Would I ever be able to live independently again? What would my health look like in a year’s time if it continued to deteriorate? I had to put on a metaphorical coat of armour (I say metaphorical, but my friends did suggest a literal helmet to avoid further concussions).
In the confusion this coat of armour provided a sense of distance from reality, for me to face all the unexpected as calmly as I could. We all need a little warpaint to confront the world occasionally. Self-care helped me find emotional calmness in a difficult time. I celebrated small achievements. I ate and shared not one but two birthday cakes in hospital. I proudly decorated the ward with my get-well-soon and birthday cards and the ridiculous number of get-well-soon toys. I delighted in my first solo shower with no collapse. I allowed myself to feel impatient and desperate to leave to belatedly celebrate my birthday, as well as acknowledging the necessary contradiction of feeling scared when I did leave hospital with no more nurses constantly checking if I was ok. Contradictions are fine. We need a pinch of everything to get through this.
It’s often easier to get through difficulties in life with a helmet on, weathering the storm until it is all over. But when the storm does calm, the wind settles, in the aftermath this is when we might most need self-care. We’ve got through it, whatever it is, but we still need to take care of ourselves and give ourselves time to process what’s happened.
We all have to believe we’re strong enough to face whatever life throws at us, but when we’re though it, what then? We have to remember to take care of ourselves. Put on our own oxygen masks first.