You would think self-care would be easy right? Doesn’t it seem logical that that you would do things and spend your time in such a way that makes you happy and energizes you? And that you would avoid doing things that make you miserable and drain your energy? That you would organize your life in such a way that you wouldn’t need to regularly escape it through drugs, alcohol, sex, porn, binge-watching, or some other unhealthy coping mechanism? Yet, on the one hand while self-care seems like one of the most logical and easy things to do, on the other hand I have found it to be one of the most difficult things to do as I continue to work on recovering from my chronic-stress-induced-depression. And I think I have found it difficult primarily because it means that admitting things I have found enjoyable are actually harmful to me.
What do I mean by this? Well let me give you an example.
Sleep is an area in which I need to improve. Starting in 2016 and continuing up until about a month or so ago really I did not find sleep to be very beneficial. 2016 was really when all my stress issues started. At first I had problems sleeping more than 4 hours a night. I would bolt up wide awake after about 4 hours of sleep and then I would have to read for an hour or so in order to be able to go back to sleep and get maybe 2 more hours of sleep. It wasn’t enjoyable or refreshing. I did not wake up energetic and eager to start the day. I tried all sorts of tricks and supplements and nothing really worked. I was able eventually to get up to 7 hours, but it wasn’t a restful or restorative 7 hours. In fact it really didn’t feel much different from the 4 hours I got when my stress issues started. So having tried all manner of things to get good sleep, and not finding success with any of them, I gave up on good sleep habits since they didn’t seem to make much of a difference anyway.
But, as I hinted at in the beginning of the last paragraph, I now find sleep beneficial once again. The first step in restoring the benefits of sleep was to get on the correct medication and dosage for my burnout-depression (the initial dose was too low). Now that I have the correct medication and dosage I have found sleep to once again be refreshing and restorative. And since it has become beneficial once again I have had motivation to actually take advantage of it and maximize its potential. For me this means doing something I have not done in a long time: wind down in the evenings. In seminary, as in most grad schools probably, my routine was work all day until absolutely exhausted and then go to sleep. If there is something due the next day then work until it is finished, even if it means downing a pot of coffee at midnight and dealing with caffeine jitters. Now though I no longer have such a pressing workload and I am able to relax in the evenings and not worry about deadlines.
I have found that for me reading for fun is the best way to wind down in the evening. But in the process of making this discovery I have found other things that I enjoy to be harmful to recovering sleep. Primarily I have found things like televised sports and gaming, things where there are images moving quickly on screen that I am required to process the movements of to be too stimulating late at night (I use blue light filters on my computer monitors and phone, so my guess is that it is the rapidly moving images that are causing issues for me, not the blue light). Now, I enjoy all of these activities. I enjoy reading a good and/or interesting book. I enjoy watching a good football game. I enjoy watching hockey. I enjoy watching certain shows and movies on Netflix. I enjoying raiding with my guild in World of Warcraft. None of these activities are inherently bad either. But I’ve discovered that most of them are so stimulating and give me such an adrenaline rush in the evening that they end up harming my sleep, one critical area of my life that I have been trying to get on track for several years now.
This brings me to the reason why I have found self-care so difficult: I have to remove from my life things I enjoy that are harming me for things that I enjoy that will benefit me. Admitting that something that you enjoy is actually harming you is not an easy task in itself. Breaking your habit of engaging in whatever that activity happens to be is an even more difficult task. I suspect that depression makes this task yet even more difficult because depression is so devoid of joy and hope and happiness that you want to hang onto anything that gives you even momentary relief from it. Or at least that is what it feels like to me. I think many of the habits I currently have are the result of trying to deal with my burnout induced depression and get some sort of relief from it, not because I know they are beneficial to my overall well being.
In any case though, self-care for me feels a lot like eating vegetables. I do not like most vegetables. Not because they taste bad, but because they have no taste at all. Most of them for me taste like water, and the ones that do have a taste to me I usually find to be unpalatable (like green beans). However I force myself to eat things like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, carrots, spinach, and lettuce because I know they are good and beneficial for me. Over time I have learned to prepare and eat these things in ways that taste good and flavorful for me so that I not only get the nutritional benefits from them, but enjoy eating them as well.
In my experience so far breaking old habits and attempting to establish new, more beneficial ones has been a lot like eating vegetables. It feels distasteful, and even unpalatable at times, but it is good for me to get rid of old harmful habits for new beneficial ones. Eventually I might even learn to practice these new beneficial habits in ways that bring me even more enjoyment than my previous harmful habits. Perhaps one day I will look forward to eating vegetables, instead of just eating them out of sheer discipline.