This summer, I have felt more insane than ever before. Out of control. Unpredictable. Lost.
More emotionally turbulent than when I reported my father for sexual abuse when I was 17. More insane than when I had postpartum depression the first time. Or the second time. More lost than when my father-in-law died more than 10 years ago and I formally started my recovery process.
More than once, I have considered whether self-care is a stupid waste of time. Because it does not seem to bring me the relief I expect from all of this work.
My Self-Care Formula
I’ve always been a sucker for a formula. It doesn’t matter which one or even if it’s true; I find the order comforting. A plus B equals C. Accept Jesus and go to heaven instead of hell. Do the right things and everything will work out.
Except when it doesn’t work out, because life doesn’t care about my formulas, even when it comes to how well I take care of myself.
The idea of taking care of yourself is fairly popular now in the mainstream, but it has been a cornerstone in the mental health community for years. Living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and anxiety, I can tell you that every day is a crapshoot. How will I feel on any particular day? Who knows? Self-care habits bring a sense of control and predictability to an otherwise dicey future.
These habits are fairly basic but can be difficult to complete when you are so depressed that you can’t remember your ATM PIN number, and you’ve used this number for no less than five years. Self-care is fairly important stuff, like eat. Take your meds. Sleep. Exercise, even if that means lumbering around the grocery store because you just can’t even right now and you’re out of produce. Repeat, every day.
And sometimes I just don’t feel better.
Self-Care isn’t a Magic Bullet
I have been in therapy for eleven years now. I started my first appointment in full-on survival mode, twitchy and easily overwhelmed by emotions and thoughts that I couldn’t identify, much less manage. Over time, I have gotten more stable and have shifted into being intentional about my self-care.
And with this intentional practice, I wanted to see results. I wanted to feel better. Every single day. I wanted this formula to work, and it didn’t.
So is self-care a stupid waste of time or what? Because it doesn’t seem to bring me the relief I expect from all of this day-in-and-day-out drudgery.
The key word in that sentence is “expect.” My expectations and reality can be vastly different. The contrast between what I expected and reality was brought into stark relief this summer as I felt increasingly out of control.
I Wanted to Be a Hobo
Badly triggered at the beginning of the summer, I was afraid as time went on. For the first time in recent memory, I felt crazy. Out of control. Like I actually might do something risky or out of character. Or I would sink so deep into a depression, unable to function, that I would finally drown.
I couldn’t sort through my emotions. I had lost the ability to manage my thoughts and feelings. I felt like a zombie for the first month of the season, shuffling through each day, working to take care of myself and exhausted from the effort.
I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, why I felt so miserable, why I couldn’t shake this PTSD event. Not knowing when it would end, I considered different ways to escape, like drinking or drugs or having an affair or just going to the movies. But it was all too hard (that’s what she said).
Really, I just wanted to be a hobo. I wanted to leave, with only the clothes on my back and maybe a little overnight bag. I wanted to jump on a train and ride the rails, no commitments or obligations. What about my husband and children? Part of me cared not at all.
I wanted to be a hobo, and I felt completely insane.
Self-Care Shores Us Up
It all came to a head in early August. I came home from the grocery store, walked into my house, and sat down on the couch near my husband. “I can’t bring the groceries in,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “I can do it, no worries.”
“No, you don’t get it. I couldn’t even finish shopping,” I said. The tears started to flow, my breath hitching. “I was in the middle of an aisle and then I simply couldn’t shop anymore. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t move. So I left. I don’t even know what I bought.”
I broke down. All of the built-up emotion flooded out. I sobbed, hands over my eyes, nose leaking.
My husband moved closer to me, putting a hand on my back, an anchor in my emotional storm.
“When will I learn?” I cried. “Everything challenge I encounter, I think, ‘This is the hardest thing.’ Again and again, as the years go on and these really hard things keep happening, one after another, I think, ‘Finally, this is the hardest thing, and after this, I’ll be done with all of the hard stuff.’ Also, that’s what she said.”
I sobbed for several moments. “Does any of it even matter? All of this work I’m doing? I mean, for an entire month I’ve wanted to be a hobo and leave all of you! Does any of this self-care crap even work?”
My husband looked at me for a moment. “I think that if you didn’t practice so much self-care, you would go through with some of those things,” he said. “The drinking or drugs or affairs, or even becoming a hobo.”
“That would be the destruction,” he said, “of yourself, your relationships, your life. So yeah, “the formula” for your self-care doesn’t work out the way you want it to, but maybe it still works.”
Just maybe, in spite of my stubborn expectations, this self-care stuff is really working. Which is good. In retrospect, being a hobo is probably far more difficult than I imagine.