I wish my self-care was all candlelit bubble baths and manicures with the girls.
I wish my self-care kit only contained chocolate and pretty journals.
I’ve had depression and anxiety for more than 10 years. Balancing two long-term mental illnesses is no picnic. Taking care of my health — taking care of me, the “self” in “self-care” — is critical. And it’s not Insta-worthy.
My self-care routines aren’t appearing in anyone’s #hashtag self-care posts. That’s OK. They’re not that exciting, anyway. Actually, they’re boring, uninspiring and kind-of sad.
There are things I need to do every day to stay mentally healthy, to avoid yet more relapses. Those are the things I call self-care.
Here’s what self-care actually looks like for me.
1. A mountain of pills.
Antidepressants and daily contraceptive pills to keep my hormones under control.
Sleeping pills and caffeine pills for when my sleep routine fails me.
Antihistamines. Iron and B-vitamin supplements. Vitamin D pills in winter to fight seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Pain medications of all kinds to find relief from headaches and migraines.
I sometimes stare at all the pills in my room and desk and handbag and I am amazed. Is this what it takes to keep me going? Yes. Sometimes.
Hey, if things are going well, many of these aren’t necessary. And one day, maybe even antidepressants won’t be necessary. Maybe. But until then, I won’t be ashamed of taking what I need to stay healthy.
2. An emergency fund.
The most important item in my self-care kit is money. I’ve worked damn hard to scrape together my emergency bank account. It’s enough for rent and expenses for three months. It’s not much, in the scheme of things. But all of us with chronic, long-term mental illnesses know how rare steady employment is.
When I have a job, I save like crazy. I sacrifice holidays and meals out and fun activities. I need to know I’ll be OK if (when) that job ends. I need to know I have a way out; I need to know that, if I lose my job or if I need to leave it, I’ll be OK.
I have a job now; I enjoy it, it’s been wonderful for my mental health and it’s well-paying enough that I’ve been able to set aside even more savings. But it’s temporary; once my contract ends, I don’t know if it’ll be renewed.
Knowing I have this money set aside is invaluable for my mental health. It’s worth so much more than all the bubble baths in the world.
3. Two heavy blankets and so many pillows.
I can’t sleep unless I’m literally weighed down. A heavy blanket wrapped all around me like a cocoon is what my anxiety needs to shut off for the night.
(Yes, this makes summer difficult!)
Recently, I’ve learned that weighted blankets are a legitimate thing; that research has proven how they can calm anxious brains. I always thought it was just me — yet another quirk. The science of it doesn’t quite make sense to me, but that’s OK.
I’d love to try a proper, purpose-made weighted blanket one day. For now, I have two; combined, they’re just heavy enough to help me relax.
4. A minimal social calendar.
Working full-time, doing necessary chores and errands, and caring for my health pretty much take up all my energy. By “energy,” I mean emotional and social energy as much as physical energy, maybe even more.
There’s not much left over for maintaining friendships and making new ones; for most kinds of social activities, actually.
I have a few very good friends and a big family. I need them, and they’ve supported me. So, I honestly do the best I can to keep in touch with them and help them out when I’m needed. It’s actually nice to be needed. I just need to make sure it never gets too much, because wow, it takes so much out of me.
It always feels like I’m saying “no” to things. I don’t like it, but I know it’s important.
5. The same seven outfits every day.
A few dresses. A couple of pairs of leggings and shoes. Some scarves. Two jackets, one light and one heavy. Socks. Underwear.
It’s all good in theory; going shopping, choosing cute clothes. Laundry. Putting everything away and keeping it tidy. Figuring out how to not look like a disaster. That’s too much for some of us. I keep things simple; I have to, or I’d quickly become overwhelmed.
Sure, it means I wear pretty much the same thing every day. There’s little variation.
It’s so much easier. And that’s what I need.
6. Frozen veggies, canned tuna.
I don’t like to cook, even when I’m in a good mental condition. But nutrition matters. I’ve learned the hard way that if I let my diet slip, my mental health quickly suffers.
Tricks, shortcuts and cheating are the way to go. Cooking freezer-friendly meals in bulk. Learning all the ways to use frozen veggies. Figuring out how to prepare meat that’s still frozen.
My kitchen always has a few staple meals and ingredients on hand. Fast, simple and tasty enough that I won’t cave and get takeout.
…OK, I do cave and get take-out, more often than I should. Which is fine. But eating healthy as often as I can is critical for my mental health.
Self-Care When You Have a Mental Illness
Sometimes, I admit, I do roll my eyes when I see the glossy, shiny lists of “self-care” that circulate Pinterest and Instagram.
There’s nothing wrong with essential oils and fuzzy pajamas. It’s just that you need to go out and buy those essential oils and know how to use them, and those fuzzy pajamas need to be laundered and fresh. It’s too much for some of us.
Picking fresh flowers and having bubble baths is amazing. I highly recommend them. They just take too much energy for most days.
Those self-care lists are almost like a vision of a future I might have one day; ideas for post-recovery self-care. Self-care that healthy people get to indulge in.
My self-care is necessarily basic and minimalist; basement-level self-care. Self-care for beginners.
I’m OK with that.
We all have things we need to do to stay healthy, and you know what? It doesn’t matter if none of those things are #hashtag self-care worthy.
Do what you gotta do.
A version of this article was originally published on the author’s blog.