Sunday, August 21, 2016

The importance of self-care

As busy as life is working full time and fitting in all the other important things into the day (add to that school for most of the year for me), it is easy for me to assume that retirement will give me more time to do those things that just got "fit in" before. However, watching my hubby the last 7 years has taught me that retirement doesn't do that at ALL!! In fact, retirees have LESS time to fit everything in because everyone thinks they have time on their hands to do extra things, and their days easily fill up with errands, projects, visits, and appointments. Self-care is just as important (perhaps even more so) for the retired person as for the career-minded person. 

For those people who are mentally and emotionally drained by spending time in social situations with others - even if enjoying that time (like me!) - sometimes that means letting opportunities pass by for activities that they might really enjoy but they have just no energy to spend on those things because they need to spend that energy on getting through the rest of the day. I find the explanation known as "spoon theory" quite fitting to describe this phenomenon.

Photo "Mix Spoon It Multicolored On White
Isolate Background"
courtesy of jk1991

Spoon theory was invented by a lady who has lupus (Christine Miserandino) to describe to her best friend what it was like to live with a debilitating sickness.  It has since been used to describe what it is like to live with any chronic illness (including mental illness).  And, while I've never been officially diagnosed with a mental illness, I'm sure that I would be diagnosed with several if I were to seek a referral to a psychologist: the ones that come to mind are social anxiety disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, seasonal affective disorder, and maybe one or two others.  

Spoon theory says that every day, someone who has a chronic illness starts the day with a certain limited number of "spoons" - units of energy - that they get to spend on activities that require mental, emotional, and/or physical energy to do.  Getting out of bed isn't just getting out of bed, it's opening the eyes, screwing up the courage to roll over, to sit up, to put one's feet on the floor, to stand up.  Depending on the degree of effort, that might cost three spoons instead of just one. And so it goes.  Cooking breakfast costs a spoon.  Driving to work in tourist traffic at rush hour is at least one if not two spoons.  By the time one gets to work, half the spoons for the day are probably already gone.... and there's the rest of the day to re-plan.  If one runs out of spoons for the day, one can borrow from the next day's supply - but then that next day will be that much more difficult with fewer spoons to start with.  

Other people don't have to think about how many spoons they have. They just do things willy-nilly, and seem to get by with spoons to spare at the end of the day. Those with a chronic illness, though, have to plan every move, and often have to change plans ... sometimes without notice.  This can lead to them being judged by their non-sick friends, especially if the illness is "invisible." That is, the common perception is that if someone doesn't LOOK sick, they aren't. Whether these friends mean to do it or not, they can be quite judgmental, even if they try to be nice about it.  They spread shame and guilt as if running out of energy was a deliberate choice designed to make them feel bad.  "I'm so disappointed that you couldn't find the time to spend with me," I've heard people say.   

Wow.  Just ... wow.  

It is just as much self-care to refrain from spending spoons as it is to actively go about replenishing them - and there are things that replenish spoon supply - in whatever way works for the one who is running low.  For me, that looks like sunning myself (in the summer) with my music playing, or laying down in a quiet room with a white-noise machine going to drown out the constant ringing in my ear, or watching a feel-good movie, among other things.  But it also looks like staying away from outings that I know will drain me - anything with anyone outside immediate family: the more people, the more draining it will be - and from topics of conversation that require a confrontational stance: politics and religion come to mind.  (That one is HARD to manage because everyone seems to have a different opinion and I'm no exception! The last time it happened, though, it took me three days to recover to where I felt ready to face a full day again ...)  If someone is constantly bringing up topics that drain me, I am learning to stay away from that person.  The mere knowledge that I won't have to be exposed to those things tends to give me a bit more energy - strange, I know, but it is true - and at the end of the day, I might find a spoon in my pocket that I didn't know I had. That is a rare and special find - because while I can save a spoon or two for the next day, I can't save up a whole lot to use later.  I made the mistake of thinking that earlier this year ... and the results were disastrous.

The bottom line is that self-care is so very important, and at the same time, so very under-rated.  There are lessons I've learned about it that have been hard to learn; I am still learning others.  One of the most crucial lessons for me was that self-care, contrary to popular religious and cultural belief, is FAR from selfish.  It is often the kindest thing one can do for one's family and friends, because someone who doesn't practice self-care will NOT have any reserves left and could end up damaging people who are near and dear, sometimes irreparably.  And another learning is that it is okay to (1) say no, and (2) ask for help.  It doesn't mean that I'm less of a person; it means I am becoming aware of my limits and I am trying to stay within them. 

So if I use a spoon to spend time with you, know that (1) it is a good day for me and (2) if someday I can't, it's not your fault ... and it's not mine either.

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