A Beginner’s Guide to Daily Self-Care

Does anyone else feel like they’ve been hearing the term “self-care” thrown around a lot lately? Up until pretty recently, it was one of those things that I knew I should be doing, but I had no idea where to start. Kind of like “budgeting” or “saving for retirement” (it’s possible I’m not great with money). I think a lot of people (myself included), avoid self-care because it’s too expensive, or too time-consuming, or too selfish. After my experiences this last year, it became pretty clear that self-care needed to take a front seat to everything else while I tried to get my life back on track.

Self-Care Pinterest

Whether you struggle with mental illness or not, self-care is hugely important to living a happy, healthy life. It doesn’t have to be something big or extravagant or complicated. It’s just about getting to know your body and taking care of it on a daily basis. And if you’re worried about being selfish, remember: you can’t take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself first.

My first few attempts at establishing a daily self-care routine were unsuccessful, to say the least. I have this problem where I tend to go all or nothing. I would come up with about two dozen things I wanted to do in the three and a half hours between getting home and going to bed. Then I would get so overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I wanted to do that I wouldn’t know where to start and I would end up just sitting on the couch until it was time to go to bed. Not super helpful in the self-care department.

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert, and I certainly didn’t invent this approach. This is just the method that helped me figure out self-care, and I hope it can help you too.

  • Establish a baseline, a.k.a. stop putting poison in your body. If you smoke, quit. Stop drinking alcohol, at least for a little while. This one may hurt, but cut out caffeine. Unless it’s prescribed by a doctor, cut out all the addictive stuff. Even if you only cut out alcohol and caffeine for a couple of weeks, it will help you establish a baseline for what “normal” feels like. I used to drink two or three cups of coffee a day. After cutting it out for a month, I learned that if I have even one cup of caffeinated tea, my anxiety goes through the roof and I get a migraine. I learned that if I have more than two alcoholic drinks in a sitting, my anxiety and depression are completely overwhelming the next day. You might be surprised what you’ll learn about yourself.
  • Make a self-care list. Write down everything you do (or could do) on a daily basis to care for your physical, mental, and emotional health. Start with the really easy stuff, like brushing your teeth, and go from there. Here’s my list to get you started:IMG_1131

    I added giving myself a five-minute foot massage to my list after reading this post about foot massages, and I love it! If you’re having trouble coming up with things, go through your day from beginning to end. What makes you feel better, physically or mentally?

  • Figure out your priorities and make it manageable. This was the step that made a huge difference for me. Take your list and break it into three smaller lists: need, want, and bonus. The needs are things that are absolutely non-negotiable. The wants are things that you would really, really like to do, but you won’t be completely derailed if they don’t get done. The bonuses are things that you know will help you, but aren’t a priority. Here’s my breakdown:Self-Care Lists
  • Don’t be afraid of trial and error. It took me some time to figure out my three lists. Originally exercise was a need and eight hours of sleep was a want. Then I started to notice that on days when I sacrificed my sleep to get a workout in, I almost always had a bad mental health day. I flipped them, and it was a world of difference. I don’t feel as good when I don’t work out, but I don’t have the massive meltdowns I have when I miss my sleep. If you’re anything like me and you’ve spent years mistreating your body and mind, you might have no idea where to start, and that’s okay. Listen to your body, pay attention to what makes a difference, and make changes accordingly.
  • Make your needs non-negotiable. No more binging Downton Abbey until one in the morning because it’ll be okay just this once. No more slipping up and forgetting to take your meds. No more working through lunch and figuring that two meals will be fine. Make your needs, and your health, your first priority.
  • Use your energy wisely. If you finish all yours needs and you still have time and energy to start working on your wants, try to pick things in order of what will take the least effort and help you the most. I know my morning will be infinitely easier if I take the five minutes to pack my lunch, so that’s usually the first thing I do when I still have the energy. Mindfulness is pretty easy too. If you’re new to mindfulness, I highly recommend the app “Headspace.” A soothing voice walks you through ten minutes of mindfulness, and you won’t believe how quickly you’re able to relax into the practice. (I’m not sponsored by them or anything, I just really like the app.)
  • Be ambitious, but don’t overwhelm yourself. My bonus column is pretty short because honestly, it’s pretty rare that I get to it. If you find yourself getting through all three lists and you still have time and energy, add more things! Even if it’s just an extra half hour of TV or reading, add it to the list. That being said, if you find yourself barely getting through the needs, don’t beat yourself up. You’re on the road to self-care, and that’s the important thing.

Breaking it into these steps has made a huge difference for me, and I hope it can help you too. I’m still pretty new to the self-care game, and it’s not always easy. Some days I can get everything from every list done and still feel great. Some days it’s a struggle to get all of my “needs” done before collapsing into bed. I think (and hope) it’s one of those things that will get easier with time. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Comment and let me know how it’s going for you!

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Taking Back Your Body

Before we get started, I want to lay out an exhaustive, complete list of every single person who gets a say in what I do with my body:

  1. Me

End of list.

Cool, now that we have that out of the way, let’s move on.

Taking Back Your Body Pinterest

As a woman (or a man or non-gender conforming person), have you ever felt like everyone and their mother thinks they ought to have a say in what you do with your body? It’s become such an ingrained part of our culture that it can be difficult to even notice sometimes.

I did something crazy today: I wore red lipstick. I usually go with no lipstick or something neutral, so I got a lot of comments. Most of them were really positive, and I felt great about how I looked today. Then one of my coworkers, a man about twenty years older than me, walked over to my desk and commented on it. Here’s how the conversation went:

Him: “Who are you trying to impress with that lipstick?”
Me: “No one. I just like the color and I thought it would be fun.”
Him: *gives me a level look* “Come on now. You ladies don’t wear lipstick like that unless you’re trying to impress someone.”

Author’s note: it was a Herculean effort of will not to immediately start yelling and flipping tables.

Me: “Nope. I just like the color.”
Him: “Well, I’m just saying you don’t need all that. I think you look better without it.”
Me: “Thank you?”

Author’s note: I think this was supposed to be a compliment, but basically what he just said was “You look less good now than you usually do,” which really doesn’t seem like a compliment at all.

Him: “Next time I see you, I don’t wanna see any more lipstick okay?”
Me: *Stares blankly until he walks away, then immediately reapplies lipstick*

Can someone please explain to me why this is deemed acceptable? Ever? Unless the lipstick is MADE OF POISON and I am actually slowly killing myself by wearing it, no one gets a say in whether or not I wear it. And actually, even then, it’s my body and if I decide I want to slowly kill myself with poisoned lipstick, that’s my choice and everyone else can take a hike.

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Me in my potentially poisonous red lipstick this morning
Let’s get serious for a second. I, like 1 in 5 adult women, have been a victim of sexual assault. When you survive something like that, taking back control of your body seems impossible, but it’s vital to the recovery process. Did I overreact because a guy said he didn’t like my lipstick? Maybe. But what that said to me wasn’t really “I’m not a fan of red lipstick,” it was “I know what’s right for your body and your appearance better than you do.” And you know what? That makes me angry. It makes me furious.

I am so tired of being told that my body isn’t my own. I am tired of seeing insane dress codes that punish young women for having female bodies. I am tired of being told to smile by random guys on the street. I’m tired of being told to cover up or strip down, wear my glasses more often or never wear my glasses at all,  laugh more or laugh less. I’m tired of being told that my standards are too high because I don’t settle in any aspect of my life.

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it over and over again: if you want to live a happier, better life, you have to love yourself first. And part of loving yourself is taking ownership of yourself. It’s trusting yourself and the choices you make about your life and your body. It’s giving a big, giant middle finger to anyone, family, friend, or stranger, who tries to make you doubt those things. You are a rocking, kick-ass, awesome human being, and taking ownership of yourself is learning to trust that.

Pop-quiz! Let’s see if you’ve been paying attention. Please answer the following multiple choice question:

Which of these people gets a say in what you do with your body?

a) your neighbor with the annoying yappy dog who thinks your new bangs look weird
b) the scary homeless guy on the street who thinks your skirt is too short
c) your beautiful, confident, kick-ass self
d) your boyfriend who thinks you don’t shave your legs enough
e) all of the above

If you picked C, you’re well on your way to taking ownership of your body. Woohoo! Go you! If you picked D, you should probably dump your loser boyfriend. If you picked anything else…well, maybe go back to the beginning and read again.

Taking ownership of yourself can be scary and seem impossible, whether you’ve been through something traumatic or you’re just dealing with the daily reminders that our culture doesn’t think your body is your own. Trust me, I understand. But I’m here to tell you that taking back your body is worth it, because life on the other side is pretty damn great.

12 Things Every (Bipolar) College Student Should Know

My last post was pretty heavy, so we’re going to lighten things up a little with a list (who doesn’t love a good list?).

College is a time of growth and self-discovery. For some young adults, this means a few stupid mistakes and a lot of fun, but it can be harder to navigate when you’re struggling with mental illness. I wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar until I was 21, and that led to a whole lot of mistakes and missteps while I struggled to deal with something I didn’t really understand.

This list has helpful tips for everyone (not just the people struggling with mental illness), based on my (not always successful) experiences in college. Enjoy!

12 Things (New)

 

  1. Don’t sign up for a credit card. It feels like Monopoly money when you’re manic, and it will land you with a bunch of useless crap you don’t need and a mountain of debt with astronomical interest rates. Actually, better avoid shopping altogether when you’re feeling manic. You might very well end up with a pierced nose and a pet guinea pig. Hypothetically.

    Nose ring
    The only picture I have of the hypothetical nose ring. Turns out I’m allergic to the metal they used, so it didn’t last long.
  2. Ask for help. I know it might feel like you’re the only person who has ever experienced nearly failing out of college because of mental illness, but I promise you’re not. Talk to your parents. Talk to your friends. Talk to your significant other. And for the love of God, talk to your professors. Trust me, they want to help you.
  3. Save. If you only heed one piece of advice, please let it be SAVING your money. I know it really seems like you need matching expensive furniture for your first apartment, but you don’t. Get mismatched furniture from Goodwill and save that money to pay off your crippling student loan debt and someday buy a new couch when one of your idiot friends jumps on and breaks the one you have now.
  4. Don’t drink tequila. If you do decide to drink tequila, be prepared to regret your choices. Also, make sure no one is taking pictures, because I promise you won’t want to see them.

    Drink Pic Orig
    Don’t do it, 21-year-old me! Put down the tequila sunrise and back away slowly.
  5. Live on campus as long as you can. You might be eager to get your own place and be an “adult,” but I’m going to let you in on a little secret: being an adult blows. Seriously. You think you’re bad at feeding and taking care of yourself now? Wait until you don’t have a meal plan.

    First dinner
    First homemade dinner in my very first apartment at the tender age of 19
  6. Wear your pajamas to class. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not acceptable to look like a bum. There will come a time in your life when it’s no longer socially acceptable to wear your cozy pajamas with the cartoon sheep printed on them in public, and you will miss it. You have the rest of your life to shower and wear real pants.
  7. Go to class. I know you feel like you’ve been run over by a truck and you can barely lift your head some days, and it’s early and you’re tired and it’s cold outside and you didn’t do the reading, but go to class. You are paying a tremendous amount of money for the luxury of sitting and learning new things. Take advantage of that. Lord knows you’ll be paying it off long enough.
  8. Just because someone wants to sleep with you, it doesn’t mean they want to date you. Don’t try to make a boyfriend or girlfriend out of a person who only wants a one night stand. It will only end in tears. When you inevitably ignore this advice, you will be tempted to drink a stupid amount of tequila to dull the pain. Please refer to #4.
  9. Don’t change who you are to get people to like you. I know it’s tempting because you want to make friends and you want people to like you, but it’s not worth it. If you stick it out and continue to be your weird, wonderful self, you will find a bunch of other wonderful weirdos who will become your confidantes and partners in crime, and it will be great.

    Grad pic
    Seriously, look at this weirdo.
  10. Cut your loved ones some slack. The mental health stuff is just as new and scary for them as it is for you. Be nice to your parents, your friends, and your poor significant other. They’re doing everything they can to help you, and you can’t lose it on them every time they don’t immediately read your mind and act accordingly.
  11. Do stupid stuff. You’re only in college once. Be safe and healthy, but be okay with being crazy sometimes. Steal trays from the dining hall to go sledding. Play in the rain. Sing at the top of your lungs on the quad. Dye your hair hot pink. Drive all night to the nearest beach and watch the sunrise. Have experiences that will make for great stories when you’re eye deep in student loan debt and wondering why you didn’t just skip college altogether.
  12. Be kind to yourself. Eat well. Sleep enough. Take long baths and use some of that money you saved from buying crappy furniture to splurge on a massage. Speak to yourself kindly. You’re in for a rough road, but it will be infinitely easier if you treat yourself gently.

Why I’m Thrilled to be a Year Older

**TRIGGER WARNING: honest discussion of depression and suicide**

Birthday Pinterest

My 27th birthday is today, Saturday, January 9th, and I’m thrilled.

Birthday cake
My delicious birthday cheesecake. Keep in mind how delicious and happy this looks as you delve further into this post…

Ever since my 21st birthday, every subsequent birthday seems to bring with it a wave of depression and disappointment. Every birthday signals that I’m a year closer to thirty, or forty, or death, and it seems like I have nothing to show for it. Last year, on the eve of my 26th birthday, I wrote a journal entry:

As of tomorrow, I’ve spent 26 years on this earth and I’ve somehow managed to accomplish nothing. Everyone else is having successful careers, getting married, having babies…If I died tomorrow, the only major accomplishment of my life would be dying on my birthday, which is kind of a cool coincidence.

Pretty bleak, right?

About three weeks after this entry, my life completely changed. I’ve struggled with bipolar disorder for all of my adult life (if you want to read more about my diagnosis, read my about me page). Depressive episodes peppered with mania weren’t new to me, and when I started to fall into a deep depression right around my 26th birthday, it seemed like par for the course. I had trouble getting out of bed to go to work, I had trouble showering, feeding myself, doing anything other than lying in bed all day. I took day after day off work, and since I was in a job where I was paid hourly, this meant that I was rapidly going broke. There were also a lot of changes happening in my personal life that I wasn’t equipped to handle, and the resulting depression was the worst episode I’ve ever had.

Like most people who’ve suffered from depression, I had thought about suicide in the past. When my depression had gotten really bad, I would think about how nice it would be to just stop existing. During my depressive episode last winter, something changed. Suicide went from a passing thought to a wish, from a wish to an obsession, and from an obsession to a plan.

One night when my roommate was out, the pain I was feeling became unbearable. I pulled out every prescription medication I had. My propensity for getting sick and injured means I have a pretty large collection of prescription pain medications. I sat cross-legged on my bed and laid the bottles out in front of me, seven in total. I have no idea how long I sat there staring at those bottles, wondering if this would be the time I finally took them all. When I heard my roommate’s key in the lock, I hurriedly hid the bottles, relief warring with disappointment that tonight wouldn’t be the night after all. Instead of telling her what was going on and asking for help, I started a fight because she had come home an hour later than she said she would.

After a long fight and a lot of tears, I finally admitted that I was angry with her because if I had taken the pills right away, she wouldn’t have made it home in time to save me. Needless to say, this got her attention. After more fighting and more tears, she finally convinced me to call my mom, who drove the three hours to come see me.

In true Chicago fashion, a nasty snowstorm dropped almost two feet of snow on us the day after my mom got there. I had a particularly bad night that night. I couldn’t sleep, and I cried for hours. I have very little memory of this, but I do remember sobbing “I want to die,” over and over and over again.

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Here’s an artsy b&w pic of Mostaccioli being adorable to give you a break from the heavy stuff. (I told you there would be cat pics.)

The next morning, based on the four hours of phones calls I made, I’m pretty sure every psychiatrist’s office in the city of Chicago was closed due to the snowstorm. Finally, I found a place that was open. It was a hospital, and they had free, 24-hour emergency assessments. We took a cab there, and after a grueling seven hours in a bare exam room, I was admitted.

I have struggled with depression for as long as I can remember, but it’s always been manageable. Sometimes it sucks and everything hurts and it seems impossible to even lift my head, but I’ve always been able to pull it together enough to do the things that needed done. I have always viewed myself as minor-league crazy. Medicated, in therapy, but mostly okay. All of a sudden, I was looking at major-league crazy. I was being hospitalized for wanting to kill myself. That was so far outside the realm of what I had previously considered possible, and it was terrifying.

I’ll save the details and the aftermath of my hospitalization for another post, but the next six months were by far the hardest of my life. I was fighting for my life every day, and I was only barely winning.

I changed medications, and I started seeing a wonderful therapist. I slowly started to do the things I was passionate about again, and little by little, things started to get a little easier.

OOTD2
Anna and I before the AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Walk 2015

I did the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Walk and raised $250 for the cause. I listened to Brené Brown talk about vulnerability and I started (very, very reluctantly) practicing mindfulness. I went from feeling awful all the time to feeling awful most of the time. This doesn’t seem like a major accomplishment, but those days where I felt okay were like the most magical thing I had ever experienced. Having a few minutes or even hours where I didn’t want to kill myself felt like finally getting a full breath of fresh air when I had been drowning for months. Slowly, I started to feel awful only some of the time, and instead of feeling okay when I wasn’t feeling awful, I started to feel good. Every now and then, I even felt great.

OOTD1
Pausing during the walk for a gorgeous Lake Michigan selfie

I’m turning 27 today, and I’m over the moon. I have never been so grateful for a birthday, because I almost didn’t get one. 26 was the hardest year of my life, but I survived. I learned how to love and care for myself. I learned that the only person worth comparing myself to is past me. I learned that life can be messy and hard and terrifying, but every day that you still have one is a day worth celebrating.

Why You Should Boycott “New Year, New You”

Happy 2016! I love the beginning of the new year, partly because it means my birthday is coming up (January 9th, for anyone keeping track), and partly because it gives me the chance to reflect on all the blessings that have been heaped on me in the last year.

Do you know what I hate about the new year with a burning, fiery passion? “New year, new you.” Ugh.

New Year New You Updated

It seems like everywhere I turn, someone is proclaiming that their product or service will magically transform you into a new, better person. Whether it’s a weight loss plan, a new organizational system, or a new hairstyle, the message is clear: you aren’t enough the way you are. You’re not pretty enough, skinny enough, organized enough, smart enough, good enough. Use the new year to change that.

It seems like every year I’ve made some grand resolution that was supposed to change everything and make me happy. This year, I’m going to stop eating fast food. This year, I’m going to count calories and finally lose the weight. This year, I’m finally going to start exercising every day. Sometimes I stuck to my resolutions, and sometimes I didn’t, but you know what? They never made me happy, because every resolution I have ever made centers around one basic idea: I am not enough the way I am. I’m going to use this new year to change that. (Are you sensing a theme yet?)

Well, you know what? This year, I’m not going to accept that. 2015 was one of the most difficult years of my life, but I learned a lot about how to take care of and love myself. One lesson that I keep coming back to over and over is that if you want to make changes in your life and really have them stick, they have to come from a place of self-love, not self-loathing. If you want to eat right and exercise, do it because you love your body, not because you hate it. If you want to choose to indulge in delicious, high-quality food rather than counting every calorie, do it because you know it will make you happier, not because you starved yourself all day and feel you “deserve it.” If you decide to implement a new organizational system, do it because you love color coding things and you’re excited to be more productive, not because you think of yourself as a lazy, unorganized slob.

You get the idea.

I’m all for self-improvement, but I promise that if you do it from a place of self-loathing, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Setting resolutions because you hate yourself just leads to more self-loathing when you inevitably slip up (because you will, you’re only human). For example, let’s say you decided you’re going to stick to 1,200 calories a day* this year to really lose that weight. You do really well for the first couple days, nibbling your carrot sticks and eating your salad for lunch. Then, inevitably, someone brings cookies to the office. You think, “I’ve been so good, surely I deserve one.” Then you eat one, and all hell breaks loose. You started this resolution because you hate your body. You hate how you feel, you hate how you look, you hate that you can never seem to stick to a diet. You eat the cookie, and then you think to yourself “God, I couldn’t even stick to my resolution for three days. What the hell is wrong with me?” So either you redouble your efforts and the cycle continues to repeat, or you decide “to hell with all of it” and go eat an entire cake.

Sound familiar?

So this year, I encourage you to focus on what you love about yourself instead of what you hate. Treat your body and mind with love, compassion, and kindness. Eat the cookie or don’t, whichever makes you happy, but be grateful that you live a life where you have the luxury of turning down food. Throw “new year, new you” out a fifty-second story window because you don’t need to be a new you. You are wonderful the way you are. You are pretty enough, skinny enough, organized enough, smart enough, good enough. You, my beautiful reader, are enough.

*I AM NOT RECOMMENDING THIS! I can’t say that enough. I’m not a nutritionist, but seriously, don’t do it.