Language is important. Sticks and stones breaking bones whilst words would never hurt is not something that has ever rung true to me. “Well, you would say that,” scoffs my imagined interlocutor. “You’re a writer with an alternating grandiose and inferior sense of self, of course everything hinges on what you do.” Why yes, imaginary and somewhat hostile imaginary interlocutor, and more than that. It is not only a matter of what we say to each other but also what we say to ourselves.
So much of tackling your own mental health comes from seeking out the root of a dislocated perspective and trying to dislodge it. Talk therapy or taking your own thoughts head on, in every sense, often reaches the point of feeling exhaustively semantic. But it’s precisely that point of exhaustion that means something is giving way. I don’t know about you but as someone who thinks in words and whose thoughts are more often than not prone to going skewiff, the labels we give things and behaviours in an attempt to connect with, understand and heal each other are vital.
My bugbear is the term “self-care”. Just how it sounds, for a start. Self-care. My skin crawls. It clogs in my throat like swallowing too-sweet cookie dough. Not the behaviours and attitudes that the term labels but the term itself. As terms go, self-care is nowhere near as useful as it could be, which risks the principles of practicing self-care in the first place. So, what’s the point of self-care? I am taking it to mean a set of behaviours and attitudes directed towards oneself, for oneself’s wellbeing. Hard to argue with that, in theory. But the critical element of self-care is about practice, actually doing it. If the words in your theory fall flat when it comes to real-world application, you’re not going to get much further than that.
Self-care is too often synonymous with “treating yourself”, the murky realms of certain performances of femininity that is ultimately a gateway to consumerism. Like all good middle class white girls, I have a soft spot for Cherry Healey’s documentaries. When she looked into the tactics of how shops get us to splurge, she hooked herself up to equipment that monitored her heartbeat and other physical symptoms of excitement and stress. Any time she spotted something she liked in the sales, her results were through the roof. Her body responded on a level akin to any other kind of addiction. There’s a rush, there’s a fallow, there’s a crash. Then follows the craving, the searching, and the cycle repeats itself. How is overloading an already frazzled nervous system with “retail therapy” going to do anything other than rendering your spirit and wallet completely bankrupt?
As someone who has just bought a new footstool for her living room and is eyeing up rugs and waiting on a Monki delivery, please be assured that I am not against, nor immune, to the odd treat. A genuine, once in a while treat. But an indulgence repeated over and over again is no longer an indulgence, it’s a dependency. This is not a helpful model for trying to manage ongoing mental health issues, the boom and bust pattern more often than not eventually exacerbating symptoms through this perpetual stress. That’s even if you can afford it in the first place. Thing is, self-care is such a neat term to commodify. It’s ripe for plucking and if it’s good for you, well, then. Even better - and even harder to resist.
But enough of lofty economic criticism that I am not strictly qualified to comment on, beyond being a buyer myself. What I can tell you with certainty is that my most recent bout of depression this year brought my issues with the words themselves to the surface. When I tentatively told those around me that yes, unfortunately, I am ill again, with the potent mix of shame and disappointment that came with it as I did, they could not have been more supportive. How language encourages us to comfort those we know with calls to action - look after yourself, take care of yourself. But I still didn’t know what that meant. Most of why I was unwell was precisely because I didn’t understand what that meant. Besides, I was so tired of everything, I wasn’t sure I could even rally myself to start. I just wasn’t worth the fuss.
Everything people were suggesting that I do sounded so nice. Icky touchy-feely things. In the pit of self-loathing, self-care only shares a prefix. Depression is ruthlessly straightforward in its banality. Practicing self-care was as alien to me as living in the jungle. I knew that people did it, I had no issue with them doing so but it wasn’t even an option for me. There is no choice to make. The mental picture of self-care I had seemed stuck around the ‘90s adverts for Cadbury Flakes. I have had great times in bubble baths eating cheap chocolate - indeed, near-orgasmic as the adverts promised - but never when I was depressed. There’s a sinew between where I am at when I’m depressed and the prospect of getting better that’s severed due to the Big Ol’ D. It is not sewn back together by a hot yoga class that cost £12 as the instructor tells me to, “Clear my mind of all negative thoughts.” You think I haven’t tried that? That’s like telling someone to stop the car when they don’t know which terrifying looking stick is the handbrake. Desperately reaching for any source of stability as I crumbled from the inside, attempting to practice self-care ended up making me feel even more lost and despondent.
What if we were to replace the term self-care with something more appealing and downright functional than the icky touchy-feely vibes conjured by its mere utterance? A solid term that could do the work of the labelling but not be hijacked by commerce and twisted by our minds?
Try this on for size: essential maintenance. Hear me out. I know it’s not fancy and fluffy but it’s practical, has helped me and, dear reader, we’ve come this far, so it’s my heartfelt intention that it helps you too. As a label, its intention is to bring focus to the fuzz. There’s action imbued with ‘maintenance’, but an ongoing action, a little and often sensibility. ‘Essential’ is down to you. What are the essences of your life? Of you? I know, this could be just as viable a term for the criticism I’m levying at self-care but I don’t mean it in the New Age-y way. This is meant to further focus your lens on yourself to prioritise. It’s not one-size-fits-all precisely because everyone’s essences are different. There is plenty of overlap in terms of our umbrella term principles - vocation, service, health - but how we each express those are key to our identity and, therefore, our recovery.
There’s the essence that covers things that you need to nourish and support your physical being, whether it’s consecutive nights of uninterrupted sleep, eating a green vegetable or twisting your wrists to shake out that tension. Essence is not restricted to simply those kinds of behaviours, though. Humans are not machines. We are more like instruments, physical beings capable of creating and emanating great beauty. You need to discover and explore what you can do to keep yourself in tune. We can all point to a Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs but when you can identify the things that keep your heart pumping as well as make it swell with the shininess of being alive, then you’re onto something.
For me, that often means feeling the fear and doing it anyway with a lot of life admin. I have been terrible with bank statements and council letters and paper waste of that ilk for a long time but taking a deep breath, doodling to steady my shaking hand as I’m on the phone to HMRC and thinking of how good that cup of tea is going to taste afterwards means that I can clear that debris from my path of aforementioned swelling shininess. How often do we shirk from necessary adulting, saying it’s boring because that’s less scary than admitting we’re terrified? Back in the days when I attempted self-care, that time would have been spent watching show after show on Netflix because I adore telly and work it in too, so double bonus, two birds, one stone, research and relaxation, lovely stuff. But really, I was just staring at a screen, the anxiety muffled but still very much there. Numbing myself, sinking into the paralysis of self-doubt. Anaesthesia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
That doesn’t mean that essential maintenance is no fun. Quite the contrary. I still watch hours of Netflix but I have a firm but gentle talk with myself beforehand to see if it’s will best meet my essential maintenance requirements of that moment. Implying that desire or joy aren’t integral parts of being a healthy human on the prickly path of balance is to lose the best tool in your arsenal against burn out. Looking at my friends with kids, I’m in awe of how parents can get so much done by integrating elements of play into the most humdrum of everyday tasks. We learn from the off by exploration, with no sense of competition, just a vague sense of our own progress that gets stronger the more we let ourselves follow it. It’s a great shame that that’s under threat once we begin to navigate adulthood.
The more years I add to my working life, the more I appreciate what a taking a break means, the value of refreshing my head by plunging into a book or having a staring competition with a potted plant. Not only do I do better work when I’ve turned away from it by even just putting some hand cream on and breathing in the woody scent of it that I love so much, I am most definitely a better person to be around. Helping yourself most certainly helps others better than the martyrdom and suffering work ethic that is only getting worse within our working culture, which served as the logic bypass to help me sew that sinew back together this time around. Taking whatever measures that ensure you take yourself sincerely rather than seriously, to blunt the sharp edge of egotistical survival that the world so often demands of us, is to not only survive but thrive.
But please know, the core of each of our essences, the one overlap we all share, is that we do what we can get our self-s through another day, with our self-s as intact as possible. I hope I have brought you round to considering rephrasing self-care as essential maintenance, or at least to realise that your essences are your impetus. You are responsible for them but it is also your absolute right to pay attention to them. Keep your instrument in tune. I can’t wait to hear your song.