Radical Self Care: Take Care of YOU

Radical Self Care - Take Care of YOU

Radical self-care is the notion that you must take care of yourself before taking care of others.

What Self Avoidance Looks Like

Many years ago, I was engaged to a man who had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Over the long period during which he was sick, my singular focus was to help him get him well. I practiced radical (borderline obsessive) caregiving vs. anything approaching radical self care. The very idea that he could die consumed my days and nights. I made it my life’s mission to make sure he stayed alive.

Every morning, I woke at six. Every night, I hit the pillow around eleven, often falling asleep at midnight or one. I drove my fiancé to doctor’s appointments, managed charts tracking medications and treatments, cooked meals, paid bills, and cleaned our house, all while holding down a full-time job. I administered medications in a port in his chest, kept family and friends updated on his health, and helped him sit, walk, get dressed, and use the bathroom. During his many hospitalizations, I carted my weighty work laptop to his bedside for as many hours as I was permitted — sometimes ten or twelve hours a day.

We do these things for those we love. My fiancé was a calm, gentle person who made few, if any demands on me or my time. Out of compassion and hope and love, we do these things even when our loved ones don’t expect us to give up our lives to care for them.

What many of us, myself included, often do poorly is take care of ourselves. We stand watch over others. Are they eating well, sleeping well, and taking their medicine? Are they anxious or depressed? Are they happy, taking time to do things they enjoy, and staying fit? All the while, our own bodies and minds are screaming for attention. Make no mistake, the screaming is loud. We hear it, but with time and constant practice we learn to tune it out.

Radical self care wasn’t on my agenda back then. As one month slipped into the next, I began to experience a pain in my chest that grew more pronounced by the day. I also often had trouble breathing. I did what I thought I had to do. I ignored it. When my fiancé had a bone marrow transplant and spent weeks at the hospital, I often slept in a chair in the waiting room. I drank coffee and ate corn chips from vending machines. Five to six hours of nightly sleep shrank to four. The chest pain became so bad that I feared that I, too, could die. Overwhelmed and exhausted, I pretended that the pain wasn’t there. I powered through.

What Radical Self Care Looks Like

Poor sleep, poor diet, physical pain, and debilitating fear play with your mind. Your thinking clouds. Nothing is clear, all logic, self-awareness, and self-compassion lost.

While my fiancé was sick, two of my dearest friends gifted me with a prepaid massage therapy session. All I had to do was pick the day and time. I never went. I simply couldn’t — or, as I know now, wouldn’t — make the time.

I practiced the antithesis of radical self care. In fact, I practiced hardly any self care at all. I myself was so far down my own to do list that food, sleep, physical health, mental health, and even free massage therapy didn’t make the cut. I lived in a state of constant stress. I ran on near-empty, just a splash of gas in the tank.

What I learned is this: You must fill your cup first and only then give to others from the overflow. If we give away all our health and strength and energy and wellbeing to others, we deplete our own reserves. Over time, we lose the capacity to help both ourselves and those we love.

These days, we’re all so busy that we sometimes forget to make time for ourselves. Burnout often manifests as physical and mental health issues. Long after my fiancé died, I continued to cope with fear- and stress-related chest pain, for example, until I finally got the “all-clear” from a doctor and then began meeting regularly with a therapist. More than anything else, she encouraged me to sit still, in silence, and breathe.

Take the Self-Care Challenge

Your body and your mind won’t take a backseat forever. Instead, they will continually cry out for help and get louder and louder until they break through your physical and mental sound barrier. One way or the other, they will make themselves heard. And by then, a lot of damage may already have been done.

To be clear, if you don’t make yourself a priority today, you will be forced to make yourself a priority tomorrow. Practice radical self care now, or you’ll spend more time, money, and energy than you can possibly imagine taking care of yourself in the long run — whether you want to or not. I know that much for sure.

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