At my core, I am a woman of action. I make lists, I have to be on the go. I’m sure it is a sort of defense mechanism, and it has definitely been a way for me to avoid thinking and having to deal with those thoughts and feelings. Through the years of ups and downs with my mental illness, I have learned to use habits to support my own my self-care. When I am at my worst, I get there by ignoring my need for positive routines. When I’m well, I know that it is in great part to the habits that keep me grounded and balanced. I realize that everyone has their own ways of managing, but here are just a few ways that I have found useful in my self-care regime:
1. Medical Compliance: For a long time I denied that I had an ongoing mental illness. I stopped taking medication when I felt better because I didn’t want to be “that person”. I was ashamed not because of what others thought, but because of my own self-stigma. This didn’t change until I confronted my belief that being mentally ill was a personal weakness. If I was diabetic, I wouldn’t be ashamed to take insulin; my chemical imbalance just happens to be in my brain. When I finally accepted that for me medication was necessary, I start on the road to a more sustainable recovery.
2. Asking for Help and Giving Myself a Break: I hate this one. My belief system has always held that I provide support for others; I don’t ask for help, I give it. I would stuff down my upsets, stressors, heartbreaks until they would literally make me sick. In one of my aftercare meetings, someone said “why are you robbing others of the gift of helping you?” Now, when I am starting to slide, I reach out. I still am uncomfortable, but I make a point to talk to someone I trust, and who cares about my well-being. The act of reaching out has the added benefit of strengthening my relationships since now it is mutual support. I also give myself permission to sometimes hang up the superwoman cape. When I’m tired, I don’t just push through, I rest. I say ‘no’ when I already have a lot on my plate. I focus my energies on the things that are important to me rather than try to be all things to all people.
3. Positive Self-Talk and Affirmations: I have done a lot of reading on the research behind happiness lately and the role of positive self-talk. I’m the first one to admit that when I first read about it, I thought this was stupid, new age nonsense. If I could have become happy with words, wouldn’t I have overcome my depression years ago? But I was willing to try and I started writing positive things about myself in my morning journal entry. It felt boastful and untrue at first, but over time, it has made a difference in how I see the world. I often focus on something I am struggling with in the affirmation – I am a good mother; I am worthy of love for who I am and not what I do – and I consciously hold it in my thoughts for the day. My Mom used to tell me “if you say it three times, it makes it true.” Turns out, she was a very wise woman.
4. Exercise and Nutrition: This isn’t a new idea, but it is still worth noting since I have found it is one of the first things that goes when I begin to get stressed. When the most exercise I am getting is raising the spoon of chocolate ice cream (eaten directly from the two litre tub) to my mouth, I know I am in serious trouble. Even though I know it is important, without a routine that includes both healthy meals and regular exercise, I am lost. My exercise of choice is walking, especially if I can be outside. I listen to music while I walk which helps to slow down my thoughts and take me away from the craziness of the day. Sometimes it is only 10 minutes in the middle of my workday – a reset. I am a little less successful with my eating habits; but my sons and I are now using Sundays to work out our meals for the week to try to stay the healthy course. I know these basics are a significant part of my self-care routine.
5. Attitude of Gratitude and Celebrating Small Successes: Another practice that I initially was skeptical of was keeping a gratitude journal. Anyone who has experienced depression has likely heard “you are so lucky, what do you have to be depressed about?” I only wish it were that simple. But I was willing to give this a try. Every morning and every evening I write down five things I am grateful for that day. They are as large as “I am grateful for my health and sobriety” and as small as “thank you for my warm socks on this cold day.” At night I also record three daily wins (I give Robin Sharma credit for introducing me to this practice). The wins are personal to me and my core values – I write about spending time with my sons, eating healthy, buying a coffee for a stranger. These successes may not change the world, but they remind me that my time on earth is special and to be celebrated.
Self-care is not selfish, it’s important even if you don’t live with a mental illness; but it can be life-saving if you do. I can attest to the positive difference they have meant in my life and I invite readers to add to this list with your ideas and practices. Remember, mutual support is a gift you not only give to others, but just as importantly to yourself.
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.