Pretty much every time I part from someone who knows that I have mental health problems, they will tell me to “take care” of myself. It is a lovely thing to say, and an instruction I very much wish I could follow, but for some reason I, much like many other people with mental health problems, find the act of self care incredibly difficult.
It isn’t a matter of being incompetent, if you asked me to take care of someone else I could do it very well, but being kind to myself is another story.
As you are all probably aware, I am currently in hospital trying to battle anorexia, but this week on top of all that going on in my head, I have the added joy of having developed shingles. To be honest when I was first informed of this I was rather excited, for it is not every day one is diagnosed with an illness that rhymes with jingles. As an impulse buy I ordered four large boxes of bells to be delivered to the ward because I really wanted to be referred to as “the patient with shingles who jingles”, but since they have arrived the novelty of shingles has very much worn off and I have lost the ability to go anywhere or do anything discreetly around the hospital anymore, because every time I move it sounds like the ward is being invaded by a troop of morris dancers or Santa’s reindeer.
Practically every hour staff are telling me to sit down, rest and take it easy, when I am anxious or upset and struggling they advise me to do something they know I used to and sometimes manage to enjoy like watch a film, read a book, play a video game or draw, but allowing myself to do these things feels selfish, indulgent and like a waste of time. It is like I always feel I have to be doing something productive, no matter how I feel, something of use to someone else or something to tick off of a to do list, for the act of “relaxing” serves no tangible purpose that I can use to justify it. This problem of self care is especially apparent here in hospital because I can see it in all of the other patients I am surrounded by, they all feel the need to do “something”, without realising that relaxing is “doing something”, it isn’t wasting time but is something vitally important that everyone should do a lot more often.
Whether you have mental health problems or not, everyone in this world has some level of stress and needs to allow themselves a bit of self care and a break for their overall wellbeing. Maybe one of the many reasons the number of people developing mental illnesses is on the rise, is because we are all so busy these days that we have forgotten the fundamental basics of taking care of ourselves. Doing things you enjoy (or if you have depression and find enjoyment difficult, doing things you used to enjoy/not giving yourself a hard time for lying on the sofa when thats all you feel able to do), taking time out, resting and, in short, being kind to yourself, is as important for your wellbeing as all the other crazy things people do in the name of healthy living, like getting enemas or taking cod liver oil tablets.
For this reason then, I have come up with an ingenious piece of advice to all people with mental health problems who struggle with self care, whether that be not allowing yourself to sit and rest because it feels lazy, not feeling worthy of taking a shower/getting dressed/putting on make up/ decorating your room to make it a little brighter, or even letting yourself take a nap. Actually even if you don’t have mental health problems and struggle with allowing yourself to slow down from the hectic stress of daily life in any sense, I would like to urge you in the name of both your physical and your mental health, to do one very important thing for me. That thing? To treat yourself like a puppy. I will even allow you free reign on the decision as to what breed of puppy you would like to treat yourself as (I would say the fluffier the better), and that is not a decision I would trust everyone with, so please, handle the responsibility wisely.
Now of course, by treat yourself like a puppy I am not advising you trot off to the vet to be neutered, microchipped, nor would I suggest entering yourself into Crufts. Trust me, it doesn’t work. (I tried to convince them I was a cocker spaniel to get into the agility round but they didn’t believe me. Told me that I was clearly a poodle and I was so offended I left). No, what I mean when I tell you to treat yourself like a puppy is to do for yourself and be kind/take care of yourself as you would do for a puppy. If you need to rest, allow yourself to nap, if you are hungry, allow yourself to eat, if you are dirty, allow yourself to wash, allow yourself to just sit, to be, to play, whether that be with a rubber ball, some sticks you found in the garden, or the human equivalent in recreational entertainment. Every time your head tells you not to do an act of self care like resting, washing, eating or playing because you don’t deserve it, take the former concept of you and remember that you are a puppy, and if you had a puppy, what would you do? Leave it to starve and force it to round up sheep without a break or rest or play? (For the duration of this post you also might want to imagine you are a shepherd with sheep to herd). Would you treat it so badly that the RSPCA were forced to come round, seize your canine companion and put you in prison for puppy cruelty of the first degree, never allowed to own a dog again in your life? No! You would let it rest and play and eat and wash without even thinking it was indulgent or selfish to do so and it is exactly the same as the right and need to take care of and be kind to yourself.
Obviously in an ideal world you would tackle your issue with self worth so that you felt able to be kind to yourself without having to pretend you were a cocker spaniel, but self worth can take a long time to develop, and it is important to have a way of managing a little self care whilst that self worth is germinating. No matter how low your opinion of yourself, you deserve to be kind and take care. Even the declaration of human rights states we have the right to be treated to a certain standard, and that includes the way in which we treat ourselves. It is illegal for someone to imprison someone without food or shelter, or to keep them from the things they love and hobbies that bring them happiness (that is my interpretation of “The right to your own things” anyway), so don’t let a voice in your head neglect you and treat you like some evil dictator.
One of the groups in the hospital I am in at the moment is all about learning to be kind to yourself and self care, so this isn’t even me telling you to try to experiment living in this crazy way of treating yourself nicely off the top of my head, taking care of and being kind to yourself is officially NHS approved and declared as important. Yes ok the group at the hospital isn’t telling me to pretend that I am a cocker spaniel, but for now that is how I am trying to manage self care until I have worked on the ability to be kind to myself as the mentally troubled, shingles ridden human that I am. So, for now, if you struggle with self care and find the concept of it too hard because of low self worth, please don’t be so hard on yourself. Join me, be a puppy, and treat yourself as such, with love, care, and maybe even with a little belly rub thrown in.