The time after the holidays, at least for me, is always hard. The days are shorter and much, much colder than I prefer. The urge to hibernate is strong, and if I don’t have somewhere that I have to be, I often hunker down on the couch with a pillow and blanket and ride out the day. This usually involves some combination of TV, internet time, and reading, sometimes with something like coloring or sudoku puzzles thrown in. As you might imagine, these are not days that I am taking care of my mental health very well. Instead, everything that has been exhausting me or discouraging me or frustrating me since my last couch day settles itself heavily on my shoulders, where it keeps me down and out for as long as I can manage it. Most often, a Responsibility (school, work, doctor’s appointment, therapy) is what gets me off the couch, often at the last minute, and I find myself rushing around to make myself “presentable” so that I don’t have to let everyone outside know how I am feeling inside.
When I am feeling this way, some of the most important parts of self-care fly out the window. The first thing that often happens when I am having a depressive episode is that I stop taking my antidepressants…or at least stop taking them as often as I am supposed to. Sometimes, walking across the kitchen and opening the pill bottles feels like too much, and they aren’t working anyway, are they? I stop hydrating myself and feeding myself well. I drink a lot of diet soda and eat a lot of simple carbs. I don’t bother with much protein…it’s too hard to prepare it. I buy fruits and vegetables, but I don’t necessarily eat the fruits and vegetables. My meals consist of quick-grabs, like peanut butter crackers or cereal or yogurt with some granola in it. I fall back on my “uniform” of jeans, a black t-shirt (with a black tank top underneath), and a cardigan. Sometimes, I wear the same jeans and the same black tank top and t-shirt a couple of days in a row, figuring no one will notice, as long as I change my cardigan.
My sleep patterns become erratic. I fall asleep on the couch at 7PM but am awake a few hours later. I drag my pillow and blanket into my bedroom, crawl into bed, and…lie there staring at the ceiling for as long as it takes me to fall back to sleep. This could be a half hour, or it could be two hours. Often, I sleep in little spurts and am up for the day by 3:30AM. I try to stay in bed so I don’t wake anyone up (mostly because I don’t want my dogs to think that this is breakfast time).
Once my little break is over and I have to rejoin the real world, I have varying degrees of success with starting out my day. Sometimes, I get up and shower and dry my hair and put on make up and go to work with my best face forward. Sometimes, I hit snooze a bunch of times, pull my hair back in a messy bun, wipe yesterday’s mascara out from under my eyes, and head out the door. Work always pulls me out of myself. For the hours that I am working as a nurse, I am often my best self. My patients matter to me. Their families matter to me. My coworkers matter to me. The hours I spend with the NICU team, all of us working toward a common goal, are often some of the most “me” hours of my week.
I think it’s really hard, when you are someone who is a caretaker, to take care of yourself. I know I struggle with it mightily. I want to give my time and energy toward service to others, whatever that may look like. But I have a really hard time remembering (or even thinking of) taking care of myself so that I can do that. And I don’t even mean exotic self-care like going to the spa or taking a vacation or lighting a bunch of candles and lying in a warm bath. I am talking about BASIC self-care. Keeping up with laundry and dirty dishes, washing my face every day, eating real meals that have some kind of balance. Staying up until a “normal” hour so I can sleep through until morning. Taking my meds. Being honest with my therapist about how I am doing.
And maybe faking it until I make it. That one is hard for me…REALLY hard. Changing thought patterns can create new pathways in the brain so that, if you think something often enough, you begin to believe it. That is what therapy can be about. Take the words that are keeping you down and challenge them. Tell yourself something new. And don’t let depression win because depression lies.