A couple of years ago I was in the darkest, scariest place I’ve ever been. I was diagnosed and treated for Generalized Anxiety Disorder before my kids were born. I got better.
Then we went through a bunch of life and just as things started to point up and get happy and exciting, bam! I had an intense and long-lasting mental breakdown. Looking back I think it probably came then because my mind knew it was the safest time to not be able to hold on.
There came a day when I knew I was in a dangerous place. I was sitting on our porch waiting for my kids to wake up, in a state of something near prolonged paranoia. My mind had crafted the most horrible non-reality and I was living in it.
Hopeless. Terrified. Thinking that at 42 my life was ending- not by suicide but by the number of years I’d lived. It was not depression. I still found moments of joy with my children, but those moments were quickly sent to the depths of a dark and all-consuming abyss.
When I look back at that woman I feel so much compassion for her. I want to comfort her. I want to sit with her, hold her hand when she wants it, make her delicious food, buy her the most comfortable clothes, and find her the resources and tools she needs to move out of that space.
In retrospect, I did do that for myself. It’s exactly what I did. Sitting on my porch that day I knew that if I could not find a way to turn things around starting right then- there might be no turning around.
I got on medication. I started taking a particular B-12 and Magnesium. I reached out to a friend who had made herself visible about a similar struggle. I asked her for resources. She gave them to me and I used every one. I did a lot of work. Hard work. Work I really did not want to do but I also knew where I’d end up if I did not.
To be crystal clear: some people with mental illness cannot change their outcome no matter how much work they do or what kind of medication they take. Literally every day of my life now I pause and offer love to those people. It’s a tragedy and I have so much compassion for people who have to live in that space all of their lives.
As I sat there trying to think of a simple, basic, actionable step that I could actually take, I evaluated what, if anything, made me feel better and what made me feel worse. Again, I was very lucky to be able to do this even though I was in such a horrid place.
Food and Clothing- Interesting, Huh?
The first couple of things that came up for me were food and clothing. I had been on a near lifetime of enmeshment in diet culture- constantly berating myself for what I did or did not eat, obsessing about food (either what I’d eaten, wanted to eat, or what I “could not” eat). It was, literally, all-consuming, and decreased my self-confidence, self-love, and self-worth.
Though I was a full-fledged member, I did not yet know about diet culture. All I knew at that time was that I did not have the mental space, energy, or resources to think about food for one more second of my life. So I stopped. I was in crisis and what I weighed, or if my cholesterol got high (I had not learned about diet culture yet remember) it did not matter. If I didn’t take my obsession with the restriction of food off the table to move toward feeling better, I wouldn’t have survived long enough to have my cholesterol matter.
The truth is, poor mental health is fatal for many. Just like Cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. I needed to do whatever necessary to increase my chances of survival. So I stopped thinking about food and ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I had no idea at the time that this would become one of my core self-care tenets. You can read about it by clicking here.
The next easy actionable step I could take was to wear clothes that made me comfortable. I had long given up shapewear and heels, but I was still wearing clothes for the main purpose of trying to cover up my fat. I spent hours and hours in dressing rooms looking for the best option. Comfort did not matter. The style did not matter. All that mattered is if it helped cover up the worst parts of me (oof. It’s so hard to know those words were true for me for so long).
I started wearing leggings from LulaRoe (I’m not going down the rabbit hole with you. I don’t sell them. I wear them. I love them.). I wore clothing from J. Jill because it had an elastic waist, a great cut, and incredibly comfortable materials. I found t-shirts that were comfortable and fit well and wore them with shorts.
As it turns out, wearing comfortable clothes was another core tenet of self-care for me. Each night when I picked out my outfit for the next day it was a gift. It was a way of saying to myself: “tomorrow you will be comfortable all day. When things are bad and you do not know what to do, the comfort of your clothes and body will not make you feel worse. They will not be a distraction from getting better.”
Gratitude, self-talk, listening to music, self-compassion, changing the voices that I allowed in my head, sleep, play… all of these were other practices I would adopt in the name of survival. What I did not know then was that all of it was helping to raise my self-worth. Low self-worth had led to low self-love for me. Couple that with poor mental health and it is no wonder now that I was near death.
If you met me now and I did not tell you, you would have no idea of where I’ve been. I’m stable. I’m productive. I’m happy. I’m optimistic. I’m authentic. I’m engaged (in life. I’ve been (mostly) happily married for 16 years). I’m friendly. I’m conversational. I’m excited. My passion is back. Though I am not at all new-agey, I really am stepping into my power and it is awesome.
But I was there. And now I am here.
Learning what real self-care is combined with medication is what saved my life. If I had been practicing these sooner, I never would have lived in the depths of despair.
You don’t have to have poor mental health or be at rock bottom to start using real self-care practices. Whether you are a stay-at-home mom who loves her life or a corporate executive who travels 50 percent of the year doing work she adores, we are all being fed a list of “must-dos” when it comes to taking care of ourselves. Too often, I believe, these come from people who have not practiced it themselves and their self-care directives are superficial.
I think it’s so important that we all start to learn what taking care of ourselves really looks like. Personally, I don’t know of a better or more beautiful way than sharing our stories.
Pondering Jen is a place where I will share my story in hopes that it will help other women. I look forward to learning more about your story, too, if and when you are comfortable sharing.
Welcome. I am so glad you are here.