I wanted to write a little about the other, perhaps more important side of self-care that is not being covered in glossy magazine articles about trendy coffee bars and fancy spa retreats, and the kind of self-care that is accessible to people like me in times when going to the kitchen, let alone Bob’s Cold Brew Coffee experience seems nigh-on impossible.
There is a place for the fluffy side of self-care. Korean face masks printed to look like cartoon cats, ylangylang scented candles and bath petals may make us feel cared for, happy, and calm, and confirm to us that we deserve to be treated well by ourselves, within our means. It can be positive, if extremely exploited by the markets that are set out to latch on to and amplify a trend. It is the next Hygge, the next Lykke. It is Sellf Carre.
But I’ve also had to employ the kind of self-care that has helped me overcome periods where I did not know if I really wanted to make it through to the end of the day. A good day was barely existing. A bad day was dangerously self-destructive.
When I arrived in a women’s refuge with just a change of clothes, I was too shell-shocked to care for myself in even a basic way for a few days. As I slowly got through the first 72 hours of what felt like my whole body resonating with white noise I slowly dawned upon the minimal things that I needed to survive with a sense of self. Though they have changed slightly with the years (a specific type of soap, now that I have the means to choose), my list remains basic. I’m going to pop a few links in for information only. I’m not affiliated and have no sponsorship of any of these products.
When I am depressed or anxious, something switches in me to make me feel claustrophobic and weighted down. Part of that settles in me the feeling of needing to feel clean. On the worst days I would fight with myself to get into a shower. I knew I should, but the knowing and the doing are two different things. Past experiences have given me a huge fear and anxiety about not being able to breathe, and I often feel very crowded and as if I am being borne down upon. I need extra space from other people and people breathing in my face can give me panic attacks. I often feel as if I am not getting enough oxygen, and a lot of my basic self-care is based on that.
I have always had fine, lank hair, and it’s the first thing to make me feel unclean. I like to have Vosene (original) a slightly medicinal herbal shampoo available in the UK and elsewhere, because it has an almost clinical smell of freshness, and it helps me feel like I can breathe. It also reminds me of my childhood, which may be a factor. I have short hair, and conditioning is reserved for good days for me.
I generally like sweet smells when I shower: marshmallow, vanilla, anything that smells like ye olde sweet shop, but when I am calling in the self-care shower of necessity I like anything that smells fresh and clean. Sanex, pine, something that smells of old-fashioned soap, or something with mint or eucalyptus. Again, this gives me the illusion of feeling like I can breathe fresh air.
I love baths, and often don’t feel like a bath when I am struggling through difficult times, but when my health results in a lot of pain my husband is quite good at running me a hot bath. In those times of feeling grotty, I adore Olbas bath. It is nice and relaxing on the muscles and, yes… I feel like I can breathe easily (there is a pattern to this). You only need a small capful. It’s not cheap in pharmacies (about £6-7) but Home Bargains and B&M in the UK stock it for £2.50, and a bottle lasts ages (I have four on standby right now). It’s also great for if you have a cold or flu. If you have youngsters with colds or might like something less intense, than Asda do a ‘Little Angels’ vapour baby bath at 87p for a litre, which is amazing. I likewise always have a couple on standby for my toddler.
Many people will tell you the importance of getting showered and dressed in beating depression, and I have personally found that it does make a difference. I feel like I have shed some clouds around me when I have a fresh head from a shower, and feeling dressed makes me feel like I can better face the world and it’s people, even if that is just the delivery person. But what’s more comfy than those warm pyjamas that you are trying to convince yourself to leave? Nothing. So I try to by a couple of pairs of jersey trousers in the summer that are day wear, but could be sleep wear if they needed to be. A cotton t-shirt, or cotton jumper in the winter to accompany. I LOVE wool, but find the fresh comfort of cotton better for adding layers when a flush of anxiety can make me feel suddenly overwhelmed, and I can then snuggle with my quilt for extra warmth when needed. Cotton underwear. Granny pants are the best pants on bad days. Pants to the belly button protect you from everything.
I cannot be bothered to eat when I am not feeling well. When I can I almost certainly can’t be bothered to eat well. I know I should, but I can’t. So, I like to keep in stock a few things that I can pour water on to make something hot and filling. Flavoured couscous feels better than noodle pots, but in a pinch both will do. Cereal for warmer days. Just anything that doesn’t even require me to spend time stirring and checking the temperature of food inside a repeatedly slamming microwave, let alone need me to even consider dealing with a stove or convection oven are best on those worst days.
And lots to keep hydrated. Portable water, in a big tumbler or bottle. It keeps you feeling just that bit more refreshed and focussed, especially after a good minty toothbrush. Also, some actual little Altoid-type mints or (my favourite) Fisherman’s Friends, which just make me feel like I am breathing in fresh air that bit more easily.
I like to keep my windows open even on cold days and nights as a matter of course. In the deepest winter I may just have them open a crack, but I find that it does help to keep away from overbearing warmth in the air.
Having a toddler means that there is STUFF and CLUTTER everywhere. I’m happy with this and that my living room looks like the riot of colour that is a preschooler’s life, but at night when I occasionally just need a bit of simplicity and there is nowhere else of it to all go, I turn the lights low and clear the space directly in front of my sofa, so that my direct eye line is not interrupted by Colin The Rocking Caterpillar, or Pop-Up Pirate. The periphery is dimmed and I can knit if I feel up to it, or just simply put the TV on if I’m feeling like it.
And that’s about it. In the past, if I had achieved even this much on my worst days at the refuge, it was a massive amount. Make no mistake: for a severely depressed person some of these things can be massive challenges. But if you have all your essentials (and everyone’s essentials will be different) to hand, those most basic basics, then it makes the challenges less daunting.
Now I have room in my life for a few of those more pretty and indulgent areas that the media is labelling ‘self care’, but I still always, always, have these basics, and find that they are really the few things that make a consistent difference.
Update – After A Further Day’s Thought
29th October, 2018
Though a draft of the above post sat for well over a month in rough form on my computer, it was only after I published the post yesterday that I brought into focus in my own mind where I think there may be a problem.
I feel the labelling and promotion of self care as a lifestyle choice rather than the absolute bare bones necessity of living has the potential to be damaging. When I typed ‘self care’ into a search engine, one of the top two results for me was an article promoting self care, and among its recommendations on apps and exercise equipment were recommendations for products that, though very probably lovely, are beyond the means of so many people that anyone seeking help and the need to care for themselves in a basic way may be getting the information that the right to the basics of cleanliness, food and the ability to find calm from destructive impulses are beyond their means.
Self care needs to be accessible to all, not marketed as part of an aspirational lifestyle.
But even the basics of self care: cleanliness, food, warmth, safety, are out of the reach of so many people. As I said at the beginning of this post, during my first days at the women’s refuge I have been without food and basic hygiene products, and right now there are many homeless people, many women and children in refuges, and people in food hygiene poverty that don’t have access to the things they need to be clean and well.
Yesterday, a post on my Twitter timeline reminded me of the existence of Beauty Banks, a name I find slightly misleading, but the premise of which seems sound. Currently, it seems like drop off access to such collections are far and few between and people are asked to mail off any unopened and unused items you may be able to buy or donate.
However, the Trussell Trust does make a point of saying how very needed hygiene and sanitary items are, and that they can be donated to most food banks. Local food banks may have a list of non-food items that they are in particular need of, but things that you may take for granted can seem so out of reach for some people, and it can be life changing when you find yourself without them. Sanitary items, soap and shampoo, nappies. Imagine finding yourself unable to purchase nappies for your baby, so cutting up your bath towels in desperation, knowing that you also can’t afford washing powder to clean them to use again afterwards. You now have no nappies, your bits of towel are all soiled and you now have no towels. That was my own mother.
A lot of people in these dire circumstances struggle with depression and anxiety. It is a condition that can grab people at all levels of society. Self care perhaps can, but does not need to be glamorous and glittered, and it needs to be accessible to all.
What Can We Do?
Encourage self-care within our means, and reject the notion that it should be aspirational. Remind ourselves and each other of the basics of cleanliness, warmth, nourishment, movement where possible, and rest. Encourage community where possible.
Practically, we can donate food and non-food goods to food banks, or direct to the sources that may need them most. Contact your local homeless shelter or refuge and ask if you or your organisation can gather some basics to donate. A friend of mine is thinking of putting together a reverse advent calendar as an antidote to the luxurious ‘everything as an advent calendar’ extravaganzas that have been in shops in recent years, whereby she or her workplace put a different basic item (non-perishable food, shampoo, nappies, a comb…) in a box each day over December and donate it to a cause that can use it.
And let’s take care of ourselves and each other.