By Renee Salas
Love and Acceptance. Self-Care? Well… I’m Working On It
When we began planning this year’s flash blog I was happy to see that love and acceptance were topping the list, and rightly so. Then the idea of self-care was added and I almost didn’t contribute. How could I? I don’t know the first thing about self-care. I don’t think I even heard the term until I joined social media a little over two years ago. I didn’t understand how the concept of worrying about me would benefit advocacy. Self-care sounded like going to the spa for facials and massages, or maybe having your nails done; long vacations, breakfast in bed, and someone to clean my house. It sounded like selfish pampering to me, not that I knew the definition, as I’d never actually sought one.
Love and Acceptance, I could write on. Self-care?
Not so much. Not at all, really.
Four Decades Sans Self-Care
I have always ‘taken care’ of what needed to be done. I have always cared for others, something that has rarely been reciprocated, and to this end I have never practiced self-care. I would say I always came in last place but that would be inaccurate, as I don’t think I ever placed, a belief that has been supported in many of my relationships. Apart from my Mom, and as we got older, my sister, I’ve had very few people truly care for my well-being. No one to look after me emotionally, or to lean on when I felt I couldn’t take anymore, although me not being able to take anymore has never been an option. I have always been expected to handle my needs and everyone else’s. It’s exhausting. I’ve wanted to break so many times I’ve lost count, but breaking is also something I’ve never been allowed the luxury of because everyone’s expectations, mine included, were that I had to hold it together.
I thought self-care was something people selfishly indulged in by putting themselves before everyone else. How could they, I would think to myself. If I took 30 minutes for lunch I felt guilty because I knew someone somewhere in this great big world would be let down by my egocentric actions. I’m supposed to be advocating, fighting for disability rights and social justice. How on Earth was I supposed to push aside the needs of so many (my children included) for… Me?
The Love in Self-Care
And then some very good friends that I’m in an online advocacy group with began talking about self-care. And for the first time, I started listening and began learning what self-care really was. At different times I witnessed each one of these amazing human beings leave our group for self-care. I read as everyone in the group told them that was the best thing to do, and that they had to take care of themselves first before they could take care of others… and they meant it. And I agreed with them. You see I had grown to love these friends, and care very deeply for them. I began to worry they were not taking proper care of themselves and I wanted them to be well. I needed them to be well because if they weren’t, then they were added to my list of loved ones to worry over. And that, my friends, has become a very long list.
So why couldn’t I care for myself?
In short, I didn’t believe I’d done anything to earn it. They deserved the break. They worked tirelessly day in and day and I know this because I was there with them. Frankly, I was in awe of each and every one of them and aspired to be as great as they were. I felt that one day, when I worked as hard as they did, then I, too, would deserve respite. But until I did, I would have to keep working to prove to myself that I deserved the care.
Many of you may have noticed that my blog posts over the last year have dwindled down to one or two a month, and that my Twitter presence is down to almost nothing with Facebook being a close second. See, while I was so busy shunning my ludicrous idea of self-care, I was breaking down. Most of you don’t know that I was working with advocates in the U.S. and all over the world and sleeping about 3 hours a night, answering emails and private messages from folks who needed resources, or many times just being that person there to listen. And if you read Stubborn Love, you knew that I was wrestling with conflicting emotions brought on by my estranged father becoming ill and eventually dying. But what most of you didn’t know was that my non-speaking son was in yet another school where they would not focus on academics or AAC as I had stressed over and again, so I pulled him out and began homeschooling him during the day. Even fewer of you knew that my youngest daughter, who has several learning disabilities, had to be taken out of school because her anxiety was so high she was no longer retaining information, and I began homeschooling her as well. I also hadn’t shared that my oldest daughter had to be moved to a new school because her depression and anger over not having educational or social needs met had gotten so bad she was barely talking at school and was spending every waking moment in her room refusing contact with anyone but me. And none of you knew that I was battling stress, depression, and an eating disorder, which had become so bad that at 5’7”,122 pounds I was trying desperately to lose weight. Those are the things I can share with you now, but there are other things, too, and they will come in time.
None of this, in my mind, deserved self-care.
These things are a part of life I would tell myself. Everyone has issues they have to deal with, it’s called being a grown up. If I couldn’t handle these things, then I was failing. And it wasn’t me I was failing, it was everyone else: my kids, my family, the people I advocate with. And then, for the first time in my life, I admitted defeat.
I finally broke.
I couldn’t do it all and that for me was a bitter pill to swallow. I let everyone down. I could feel it anytime someone Tweeted me or tagged me on Facebook. I read an undertone of disappointment in even the kindest messages. The disappointment of course was me projecting my feelings about myself onto everyone else. My anxiety was so bad I could no longer read or respond to Tweets, which I’m sure you’ve all noticed by my prolonged “Twitter Silence.” Facebook followed right behind because of the immense overwhelm I felt merely logging on. I deleted apps on my phone so I wouldn’t see little tags alerting me to new messages, I wouldn’t go on my laptop for days on end because I was afraid of what I might find and when I say “afraid,” I’m not exaggerating. I would get so nervous I was actually sick to my stomach most days. I was turning to music whenever I could just to calm myself. I need predictability and my entire world was becoming unpredictable. In advocacy situations can change in an instant, and when you are well you are able to handle those changes. It may not be easy and it may take time to switch gears but things are still manageable.
When you’re not feeling well, like I wasn’t, things begin to cave in. Like you’ve fallen into a deep fissure and you’re watching everything in your life, personally and professionally, crumble and fall all around you. On top of you.
Uhm… I Thought This Was Supposed To Be A Positivity Piece?
One of the hardest things I ever had to do was to admit that I was worth self-care. It took a lot of love from my new friends over these last two years to help me discover my own self-worth. I still wrestle with the idea. And the concept of self-care still boggles my mind. It is something I have to work very hard to achieve and many times I still fall short. But I am trying. I see the value in self-care and I’ve come to the realization that the concept is not a selfish one, it’s an unselfish act of love. Choosing to care for yourself so you can be strong for others is not self-centered.
As strange as it may seem (to me anyway), self-care in an indirect way
is actually a selfless act.
I get it now. That doesn’t mean I practice it daily or even weekly, but at least I get it, which means I’m halfway home. I understand what it means to the people I love to take care of myself. I get that they need to see me well because when I’m not it affects them, too, and that’s what really turned the tides for me. A good friend who has worked tirelessly to help me see myself in a different light and support me in finding my own self-worth suggested that by not taking care of myself I was indirectly affecting my kids in a negative way. That one really hit home. I remembered being a kid and watching my Mom “acting” as though everything was all right: A single Mom working two jobs and taking care of my brother and me by herself with support from my older sister. I remember how I worried about her and how it hurt me to know that she was sad/tired/depressed. My Mom is one of the strongest women I have ever known, and she has one of the best game faces in the business, but I still knew. And with that knowledge came the realization that I can no more fool my kids (or anyone else who really loves me), than my Mom could me. And I don’t want to fool my kids – honesty in all things, I preach! I don’t want to feel like I have to pretend for them like my Mom felt she had to for us. I want to be well.
I. Want. To. Be. Well.
And I will. But to get there I must take care of myself. I must take all of the love I have for others and give it to myself, too, so I can be good for everyone else, and also because I deserve it. My journey to understanding what self-care actually is has been long and hard, but I made it. I will continue to work at it until I can do it with ease. For now, I’m going about it from many different angles. I’ve been working for some time on accepting my body as it is naturally, trying to eat healthier, which for me means eating every meal every day. I’ve allowed myself to grieve for my father, for the relationship we could have had, and in the end finding comfort in accepting it for what it was. And I have made peace, finally, with the fact that I’ve had to drastically reduce my advocacy efforts to about a tenth of what they were.
I will be back full time when I have mastered the art of self-care because I know now from experience that without it I won’t last.
I will continue to support my children in celebrating their own self worth and teach them the importance and necessity of self-care. I will do my best to make it a part of my advocacy because each and every one of us has value and we are important. We need to realize our self-worth and reward ourselves with self-care.
In advocacy, self-care is not a selfish act of the egocentric, it is an unselfish act of the selfless.