Self-care is an important factor for any human – those who fight a mental illness will recognise that good self-care both indicates and mitigates the severity of an episode.
For me, I find that when I am running high my self-care will be mixed. I will take a lot more time over my appearance; I will file and paint my nails, wear make-up and style my hair. The flip side is that I begin to skip meals, drink too much coffee (at work) or alcohol (at home) and get through pretty much a pack of smokes every day. So outwardly I tend to look more ‘together’ but internally I am falling apart.
This pattern is flipped in a depressive state. I eat plenty (granted, it’s never healthy – I just graze more) and my getting-ready-routine is perfunctory at best. Showering feels like too much effort; after a shower I will need to dry my hair and that requires more energy than I have available. Usually showers get pushed into the evening, when I can allow my hair to dry naturally, and even then I’ll usually be seen with my hair pulled into a loose bun because it’s too greasy to leave hanging free.
Good self-care is the first bullet point on the crisis line operator’s script. Every time I’ve called the out-of-hours number the response has invariably been “Have you thought about taking a bath?” or “Maybe you could make yourself a cup of tea.” It’s known to my team that these things don’t work for me, but for an over-stretched NHS crisis service it is standard fare. Improve self-care; improve mood. And there’s a lot to be said for that approach; it’s just that when you’re in the depths of depression or on the summit of Mania Mountain you really couldn’t give a fig for looking after number one. Your energy is being spent on either avoiding a tearful meltdown or writing endless pages of nonsense. There’s nothing in the budget left for caring for oneself.
I think that if more people understood the subtle indications that good or bad self-care provide then there might be more awareness of how mental illness affects almost everything in day-to-day living. On the down days my roughly tied up hair and lack of foundation shows the world “I used all my energy up by getting out of bed.” And on hypo days you can read my rouged lips; “Hello world, bring it on!”
Self-care is a manifestation of loving oneself too. It means the difference between feeling worthless and worthwhile. If I can spend a little time on myself when I’m low, it can be a welcome diversion from the turmoil of loathing that characterises my mental state. One thing I have learned over the years is that self-care can be disguised in mindfulness. Instead of forcing myself to show myself some love, I will instead set myself a mindfulness exercise such as doing my nails, or making a cup of tea. This way I do not have to acknowledge consciously that I am worth more than I think I am. I simply come out the other side feeling an iota calmer – better – than I did when I began.