I used to beat myself up for bad self-care. After all, it’s the common and actually excellent wisdom of the day that most of us need to practice better and more consistent ways of taking care of our precious selves, particularly in a world lit up with hand-held and hands-on screens, bringing us new things to do 24/7. But there’s far more to what ails us than just our inability at times to eat, sleep, work, exercise, socialize, and meditate right, and sometimes the popular push for self-care, all good-intentioned, can leave those of us who have chronic issues feeling like we failed once again.
Case in point: I’m sick now, nothing very serious, and after struggling against a virus or something like it for six weeks. I had to leave a yoga class yesterday, a restorative yoga class at that, because I realized in no uncertain terms it was time to get treatment and get horizontal. Like none of us, I can’t say my life is always (or often) stress-free, I do sleep 8-9 hours each night, eat healthy and often organic food, get together for loving lunches with friends, enjoy a replenishing and humorous marriage, work in the sunshined garden regularly, entertain myself with meaningful work, do yoga and take long walks, and watch my share of stupid-funny movies. We even have a new air-purifier and ionizer in our home. I’m also working with a great integrative physician on improving my health, and at times, making strides. (Note: please, no further advice at this point.)
But there’s far more to being healthy than is in our control. There’s hereditary, environmental, karmic, and everyday tendencies and exposures beyond our control. I think of the husbands of two of my closest friends: one of them is undergoing chemotherapy in preparation for a bone marrow transplant to treat late-stage lymphona. The other just had an emergency heart aneurysm surgery to repair what would have ended his life. They’re both guys who take care of themselves and practice, in many ways, what many of us would define as good self-care. I think the Turning Point writing workshops I facilitate for people living with serious illness: altogether, participants are a delightful and vivid crew who face late-stage cancer, M.S., Parkinson’s, heart disease, diabetes, or other illness. One of them worked as a personal trainer for years until cancer changed her life. Another leads a model lifestyle for health and well-being, but being exposed to Agent Orange while serving as a nurse in Vietnam gave her Parkinson’s disease. Some, despite the eternal presence of M & Ms in our sessions, eat whole grains and 5-7 servings of vegetables each day. Yet here they are.
I believe so much in finding our own best self-care, and constantly dialoguing with these vibrant and aching bodies of ours to discover what, in this moment, is the best way to go forth: weed a garden or watch a movie, take a nap or whip up a giant salad, call a friend or read a novel. I’m glad that among my friends and in many of the articles I read, the term “self-care” frequently makes an appearance as we grapple with how to incorporate this more deeply into the core of our lives.
What I’m trying to release, however, is the damaging message sometimes buried in how we talk about self-care that getting sick or diagnosed with something serious indicates our lack of effort or discipline. Sure, I have lots of empirical evidence that eating too many desserts is detrimental to my health, but I’ve seen plenty of people with pristine diets go through chemotherapy or radiation because cancer showed up anyway.
It’s not just the messages we might give ourselves (Caryn to self: I’m sick again; self to Caryn: What did you do wrong now?). It’s occasionally the subtle or not-so-subtle messages we convey to each other. Yes, there are very effective supplements to bolster our immune systems, anti-inflammatory ways of eating, and exercise protocols to strengthen our muscles and our spirits, but they’re not always enough. Let alone the cliche and truth that life is a terminal illness, we each have our own Achilles heels, and mysterious lesson plans to be revealed as we live them.
So when the chips are down, the body too, there’s a whole other aspect of self-care to embrace: compassion toward ourselves, and tenderness toward this life that stops us in our tracks at moments, reminding us that while there’s a lot we can do for ourselves and others, we’re not in ultimate control.