It has been a rough couple months. Horribly frigid and snowy weather, as well as a revolving door of various sicknesses in my home, have combined with my mental illness to create a perfect storm. I endured what felt like a never-ending rotation of maladies, downward spirals and utter numbness. There were many days I felt like I could barely function at all. I usually love the holidays but this past year, the festivities felt hectic, rushed, hollow and empty. As much as I beat myself up for not being more present, more in the mood, more cheerful and jovial in general, I just could not snap out of the funk I was in. And the guilt of it all was eating me alive.
After two and a half months of struggling to get from day to day, unable to even inspire myself to write, I am finally emerging like the groundhog in early February to start anew.
Periodically, this happens to me. When life gets hard, I pull in on myself, much like an armadillo rolling in on itself for protection or a cell phone going into power saver mode so it doesn’t shut down completely. This cycle has repeated itself from time to time throughout my life. Whenever everything would get hard, I would pull inward, isolating and conserving my energy in order to survive. On the other end of this pattern would always inevitably come unfathomable guilt and pressure to make my recent absence up to everyone.
I have struggled my entire life with depression, always feeling as if I was broken, as if I was always letting everyone down by not always being able to do, to be, everything others needed and expected of me. I consistently felt like a failure. Like I didn’t even deserve to be on any list of priorities. After every struggle I endured, I always felt like I was playing catch up, that I owed it to everyone else to use whatever energy I could muster to make it up to everyone else for letting them down yet again.
Christmastime this past year was especially hard. I usually do a marathon cookie bake as part of my holiday traditions. Three days of baking. Fifteen types of cookies, plus candies and fudge. Everyone in the house getting sick delayed the grocery shopping and my baking was put off until the last minute. What is usually three comfortable yet full days of baking was ultimately crammed into a panicked day and a half. Pushing myself that hard utterly burnt me out. I existed in a heavy fog of numbness for the remainder of the year.
Speaking afterwards to my doctor, she inquired, “If you only had half the time, why didn’t you just bake half the cookies?”
I started to explain that people were expecting the cookies. My kids love all the cookies every year and give away boxes to their friends. My fiance needed cookies to bring into work. We had friends and family that we gave boxes to every year.
She countered by asking why I exactly felt so obligated. Was anyone was paying for the cookies in any way or if I was just doing it out of the kindness of my heart?
I began defending myself again, insisting that I didn’t want to let anyone else down.
In a perfect check-mate moment, she asked, “What about letting yourself down? Is doing for others out of the kindness of your own heart really worth burning yourself out and running yourself down? At what point do you fit into the equation? If you only had half the time, why couldn’t you just bake half the cookies? You’re still being kind to others that way. But you’re also being kind to yourself.”
Our conversation bounced around in my head for hours. Days. Weeks. Again and again, I pondered where I fit into the equation of my life and why I didn’t seem to matter at all in most cases.
I ultimately determined that I needed to restructure my priorities in order to find a place for myself in the equation. I had to be willing to reserve what little energy I do have during rough periods on what should be most important in my life – my family and myself – without becoming guilt-ridden afterwards. The addition of “myself” towards the top of my list of priorities is honestly fairly new and admittedly still somewhat uncomfortable. For much of my life, I was on the bottom of the list, if I appeared at all.
That was a feeling that I desperately needed to address.
Whenever I struggle to apply my own self-love or self-care, I stop to consider what I might tell someone else in my situation. I would never discourage anyone else from pulling back in order to take care of themselves. I would never accuse anyone else of being a bad person for wanting to matter, too, or for feeling like they sometimes had to prioritize themselves in order to make it through to tomorrow.
Let’s be honest here.
Wanting to matter, too, is not being self-centered. Wanting to do self-care when you need it does not mean you don’t care about others, as well. Nobody is saying you can only choose one or the other, help others or help yourself. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Not writing for a couple months honestly ate at me very badly. I felt terribly guilty, like I was letting my readers down by not writing more content, not sharing my journey more frequently. But after that pivotal talk with my doctor, I am no longer guilt-ridden.
The truth is that I had a few months where I was struggling badly.
I had a few months that I desperately needed to devote any energy I could muster into self-care and self-preservation.
That doesn’t mean that everyone else doesn’t matter, as well. When I have enough time, enough energy, enough willpower to reach out and advocate for others, I still will. I cherish every time someone has reached out to me letting me know my words have impacted their life. This journey is too important to give up.
I will still help others whenever I can.
But I must help myself, too.
I cannot carry the world on my shoulders, struggling to keep others afloat if it means I go under and drown.
I will always prioritize my family because they are the cornerstone of my world, but from now on, I will be prioritizing myself, as well.
I cannot help others if I cannot help myself.
I will take care of myself whenever I need, however I need. If that means I do not write for a period of time, so be it. If that means I only bake half the amount of cookies because I only have the time and energy to do that much, then that is all I will do.
Over the last decade, I have grown my hair out repeatedly, only to cut and donate it when it gets long enough to do so. My hair was down to my mid-back, with perhaps nine months to a year to go until my next donation. However, the meningioma tumors on my brain have been causing pressure migraine headaches in increasing frequency of late. The added weight of all my hair does not help. As much as it would be nice to donate yet another ponytail to help others, realistically it would not be fair to myself to endure almost a year more of harsher migraines in order to make another donation. I can still help others, just not at a detriment to myself. In an act of self-care, I cut my hair shoulder-length. The intensity of the majority of my headaches has lessened noticeably since then.
I have entered a new period of my life, one where I learn to value myself as much as I have valued others in the past. I will learn to set my goals and expectations based on what I feel I can handle instead of what others have decided to expect.
I will set new limitations and boundaries so that assisting others no longer harms me.
I will no longer put myself out there beyond my own capabilities in any way that will ultimately hurt myself in the process.
I will prioritize my mental health guilt-free.
I won’t ever again apologize for having to take care of myself.
Sorry not sorry.
My mental well-being matters.