Our house was robbed last week.
I arrived home with my 4-year-old daughter after picking her up at preschool, to find our back door kicked in and our 70-inch flat screen TV sitting outside the open door. Our entire home was ransacked; someone went through every cabinet and drawer, pulled bath towels from under bathroom sinks, and dumped boxes of files and paperwork out onto the floor.
As I stood staring at our wedding photos, which were scattered across my office, I felt rage, yes, but my most prominent feeling was fear. I am afraid to sleep, afraid to be at home alone, and afraid to come home after picking up the kids. Days after the incident, I noticed that I could not take a full breath, and I knew that meant that my crippling anxiety was back.
At my mother’s behest, I emailed my therapist. “Our house was broken into,” I told her. “I’m terrified.”
My past—and my primary reason for therapy—involves trauma from being attacked in my residence my freshman year of college. There’s so much more to that story that I’m not ready to tell, but the important part is that I suffered from PTSD and tried to self-medicate it away, landing me many years later in a 12-step program to recover from alcohol and drug addiction. I’ve made great progress, but this home invasion is a big setback in my healing process, which is why my mother was so pushy about me talking to my therapist ASAP.
“Self-compassion, self-compassion, self-compassion!” therapist Robyn wrote back. “Double down on your self-care.”
But what does self-care really mean? I have a husband, deadlines, children, animals, and a house to keep clean. Oh! And a budget to stick to, which I sometimes forget about. When someone tells me to indulge in self-care, I automatically think of fancy indulgences like Cool Sculpting, facials, or liposuction, but that’s not really accurate. I’m pretty sure Therapist Robyn was not telling me to get a breast lift when she instructed me to double down on self-care.
Sometimes, the most effective self-care comes in the form of truly caring for yourself like you would care for a friend. Once, when I was in a dark place, my friend Kate flew in from out of town. She washed dishes, cooked food, folded laundry, and instructed me to take a nap. When I woke up, she brought me coffee. It was like having a younger version of a mom to mother me so that I, in turn, could mother my own children. My mother still likes to make me a grilled cheese with tomato soup when I’m not feeling well, or she’ll offer me tea.
We all know what it means to care for other people. That’s the easy part.
Self-care sometimes involves shutting myself in the bathroom with a book or lounging in a bubble bath, but more often, it means sitting down and going through the bills—even though I’d really prefer to continue ignoring them—because self-care boils down to minimizing stress, right? Will some stress be lifted after I make the phone call I’ve been dreading? Yes. Will I feel better after I file our taxes, even though I would really rather crawl into bed and pretend taxes aren’t a thing? Also yes.
Before I got sober, I thought drinking a bottle of wine in the evening was self-care. It’s not.
Self-care is taking the time to paint my toenails. It’s organizing that drawer that drives me crazy every time I open it because I can never find what I’m looking for. It’s making an appointment for a mammogram, or blood work, or a checkup, even though EW, I DON’T REALLY WANT TO DO THAT, but routine checkups are part of caring for myself as a human being. Self-care is church, or, in my case, 12-step meetings.
It is not always doing what makes me happy. It’s doing what will make me well. Today, that means applying sunscreen, exercising, and meeting my deadlines. Tomorrow, I might have cake. Or I might finally call the water company and straighten out that billing issue.
I think I’ll take a nap instead.