Practicing self-care is difficult for most people struggling with mental illness. On the one hand, the illness itself can be all-consuming. On the other, treatment often doesn’t rank the nurturing of a patient’s appearance as a very high priority. As a result, the important role that self-care can play in recovery can easily be overlooked.
My personal experience highlights this oversight. I neglected myself for 15 angry and depressed years. I was so scared of losing control and letting go that I restricted my eating, withdrew socially, and stopped caring about how I put myself together. My laser-focus on being thin didn’t allow me to have pleasure. I dismissed self-care as something for spoiled people. Self-care didn’t become possible until after I addressed some very deep issues, mainly the psychosis that was feeding my anorexia.
The door opened when I succeeded in acknowledging and managing my illness for the first time. My earlier experiences with forced feeding to put on weight had been a disaster. That approach made my weight the exclusive indicator of my well-being – without factoring in my state of mind or my physical sense of self.
I loosened the grip of my illness with the support of medicine, therapy, and peers. Living independently since the beginning of 2019, my recovery has transformed my lifestyle. Far-reaching changes have taken place in my eating, hygiene, clothing, and exercise.
I used to be extremely strict with regard to what and how much I ate. I didn’t want to be seen eating, couldn’t sit with food inside of me, and had to burn it off. This compulsion which took hold in adolescence wouldn’t let go. I subsisted on bland foods like boxed cereal and rejected food groups all together as unhealthy. I ate the same thing every single day and didn’t eat enough. I participated in extreme diets like only eating raw, vegan foods. I ate not to feed me, but was forced as a way of needing to prove myself to my family, doctor, and therapist.
Once I was able to address the issues of anxiety and isolation, I became more flexible on food. Today, honoring my hunger signals is critical to my self-care and shows I’m self-sufficient. I’ve stopped viewing food as a control mechanism. I find that if I eat as soon as I’m hungry, I don’t restrict or binge because I trust my body. I keep plenty of my favorite animal and plant foods in the apartment, and I also enjoy going out to eat. I challenge myself to eat foods that I’d always put off limits like bread, red meat, and full-fat dairy, without feeling like I’m sacrificing my values.
In the past, I didn’t take good care of my hygiene. Sometimes, I couldn’t brush my teeth or shower. At other times, I became obsessed with taking baths and unconventional methods of cleansing. I did these tricks to lose weight; it wasn’t a soothing or nourishing experience.
In 2019, I began using towelettes and doing face masks, gua sha and jade roller. One of my goals for 2020 is to continue on this trajectory of beauty routines. I keep local soaps and natural body wash for daily use while exfoliating regularly. I’ve been going for waxing on a monthly basis for a long time and on special occasions get my nails painted. I wash my hair every other day and do hair masks regularly.
When I was sick, I wore baggy sweats every day with my hair tied tightly back. I used clothing to camouflage things as opposed to compliment my looks. I let my earring holes close. Although I wanted to stand out as an athlete and student, I didn’t want to be seen or noticed by my peers.
Today, I find that going shopping with a family member or friend makes the process more fun. I enjoy wearing clothes from my fashionable sister. I wear make-up that compliments my clothes. I don’t hide behind trying to appear a certain way; how I choose to look brings out more of who I am.
Exercise used to bring me a lot of anxiety because I was concerned about performing—from triathlon to hot vinyasa yoga. Pushing beyond what’s comfortable didn’t feel good. It also frightened my family because they saw I was pressing myself so hard physically when I wasn’t nourishing my body.
In 2019, my attitude towards exercise improved as I shifted the focus away from weight-loss. Walking on an almost daily basis helped me release stress and sleep soundly. Stretch therapy gave me a fresh understanding of my body’s strengths and limitations. I realized the strenuous exercise I used to do disconnects my mind and body.
Self-care has played a pivotal role in my recovery, making me feel better about myself and increasing my confidence to interact with other people. The strategies I use aren’t a magic bullet, but they’re undervalued and deserve more attention from health care providers.
About Laura Susanne Yochelson: Laura is a summa cum laude graduate of American University and received a Master of Science in health promotion management. She has written about her recovery experience in the blogs of Project HEAL, NAMI, and Active Minds. She is an ambassador for the BEE Daring Foundation.