Self-care is the modern mom’s mantra. It’s the buzz word in parenting groups. We slap a hashtag on it and use it as a marketing tool on Instagram to sell skin care, leggings, coffee, shakes, powders, and bath bombs. We’ve made it into a meme, a platitude married to a motivational quote with a picture of a sunset or some mountains. We, effectively, have reduced “self-care” to stolen moments in the day or quiet moments in the night when everyone is finally in bed.
We often think of it as the little things we get to do for ourselves: a trip to the store alone, a new makeup palette, our time at the gym or a lunch date with a friend. And, if those forms of self-care serve you, I think that’s wonderful. If a bubble bath and a glass of wine at the end of the day fills your proverbial cup and refreshes you so you can wake up the next day and kick butt, I think that’s fantastic and you keep doing you.
But because I have depression, my self-care needs to look a little different. You see, I’ve got a darkness in my heart and some ugly in my bones and if I don’t manage that, if I don’t protect my mind like a junkyard guard dog, then that quiet, inky passenger, mental illness, can sneak in like a thief in the night and steal my happiness, my sanity and my motivation.
A year ago, my self-care looked like me sobbing on the phone, telling my husband to take me to the doctor immediately. That day my self-care looked like shaking and ugly crying in a doctor’s office admitting that I don’t know what’s wrong with me and nothing I do is helping. Self-care looked like admitting I had a problem with anger, and sadness, and anxiety. Self-care looked like admitting that my family was suffering because no amount of walking outdoors, working out, bubble baths or motivational photos on Instagram were filling my cup. I was serving my family from a glum, empty vessel and I needed something more to help me.
I left the office that day with a rattling bottle of pills and some teary-eyed hope that I had just experienced my last mental breakdown. It wasn’t, but that’s OK because I’ve learned to adjust my self-care because of it.
I’ve been taking my prescription for about a year and in that time, it’s helped tremendously—but, in my usual fashion, I got cocky. I got lazy. I got busy. I know the medication I take brings me back to myself, I suffer no side-effects, and my quality of life improves. But still, at some point a few weeks ago I stopped taking it. I don’t suffer immediate effects from suddenly stopping it and I’ve been advised I can take it daily or just when I need it. I, obviously, need it daily. I don’t remember when I stopped taking it, but I can see now how the depression crept back in. I can see the signs I ignored.
I stopped prioritizing the gym. I stopped taking care of my body and started eating crappy foods. I started watching more TV. I started sleeping more. Then I started being tired during the day. Then I got irritable. Then I was suppressing undue anger toward my children for doing things that kids just do. Then I started running the old, awful narrative—you know, the things you tell yourself when you’re up late. The little thought bubbles that pop up and keep you awake—you’re being a terrible mom, and a crappy wife, and a lazy person, and the house should be cleaner, your family deserves better. And then, those thought bubbles stayed with me during the day. And the narrative played on repeat in my mind.
Then suddenly, I was back where I was a year ago. A sad, mess of a person unable to make decisions or finish a thought, trying to hide in bed all day. Exhausted because the thought of taking my children to the park is just too much. Turning my phone off because talking to people is hard when they say, “Are you OK? You seem tired.” And it’s hard because you know you’re not keeping up the illusion. Yes, I am tired. No, I am not OK.
And then, I had a little breakdown. Nothing huge, just some sobbing in the bathtub and wondering why my brain is broken. I stayed awhile, hugging my knees, listening to my children play happily outside on the trampoline while my husband watched them from his office. Thankful that they don’t know Mommy is a mess and Daddy is working harder than I want him to just to pick up my slack.
When I was done, I grabbed my clothes from the counter and knocked over my little bottle of pills. I stared at them, dumbfounded. “Well, there’s the problem and the solution, dummy.” It was then that I realized I hadn’t been taking them and that is why I was struggling so much. I skipped a major part of my self-care.
The fact that I’ve written about this, freshly showered and dressed, means I’m obviously back on my meds and doing fine and will remember to take them. Going forward, self-care will include taking my medication and fiercely monitoring my mental health because when it declines, everyone suffers. It’s important to recognize the signs that depression is worming its way back into my life and that’s where I messed up last time. I ignored those signs and fell farther than I should have.
Sometimes self-care is ugly. Sometimes it means examining yourself objectively and recognizing that behind that pretty face and social media hype, you have some kinks in your consciousness that need attention beyond what you’re able to give it. I maintain, and you’re open to disagree with me if that’s your jam, that self-improvement is the highest form of self-care. Now I don’t want to seem like a pill pusher, but my self-improvement and self-care starts every day with a little pill, because I know that’s what I need.
You might need something different than I do, but if nothing seems to be helping then let me say: you have permission to see a doctor. You have permission to seek help. You have permission to put your health ahead of everything else, mama, because the world will keep turning and you deserve to be here to enjoy it. There’s no shame in the mental health game and it’s OK to seek help.