For as long as I can remember, I’ve practiced caring for others. My own self-care, as we call it today, amounted to brushing my teeth and bathing. As a child, I ate the things I liked that were put before me, typical meals of pot roast, spaghetti, or fried chicken, with white rice, buttered noodles and corn. The boiled to death cabbage, lima beans and peas I would put in my napkin, excuse myself from the table and head to the powder room to flush them down the toilet, or try to go unnoticed and feed it to the dog under the table. We had loads of other stuff in the house too, none of it checking the self-care box: Fruit Loops, Ritz crackers, fun size Milky Ways, 2-liter bottles of Sprite and root beer, and Hostess King Dons. If you were feeling particularly adventurous, there was maraschino cherry juice to wash it all down with, from the jar in the fridge door. My exercise in high school amounted to playing on the tennis team, swimming in summer, occasionally jogging and generally running around, thinking and talking quickly, tightly strung like the tennis rackets I owned through the years, the Wilson junior valiant, Miss Chris and Chris Evert Autograph.
But enough about me. Back to the others. Hold the door, write your thank you notes, pass the (insert whatever is on the table) and then you can have one. Certainly, good manners are important to observe, but I think with the overt nudges from my mother, this practice went deeper. The idea that you always bat last was seeped into my soul at a very early date. It’s a wonder I was born before my twin, instead of letting him go first. Maybe he was a gentleman from the get go, and instead held the door open for me, insisting that his sister go in front.
It seems all the shoulds were always swirling in my conscience, with my mom running down her list before or even in lieu of ever asking me about me. Did you do your homework? Set the table? Make your bed? Clean the ring in the tub? At the end of every bath we’d sit in the tub, still full of water, bubbles now burst, and shake Ajax on a small sponge and as instructed, scrub the grimy tub ring surrounding us. Ingenious on our mother’s part, because who likes cleaning tubs? I look back and wonder if she ever took stock of the day for herself or her family, past the to dos. Was the day good? Or did you struggle? Are you making friends in your classes? Did you do anything interesting today? Would you like to talk about it, or can I do anything to help?
As a little girl I had a sudden, isolating bout of insomnia. Most nights I could hear my family one by one drift off to sleep, all of us upstairs in our house, and I was left wide eyed, lying there awake, which of course branded me the first one a burglar would get. It didn’t matter that we were never burgled, or that we had a 110 lb. German Shepherd who would protect us; it was forefront in my mind. I begged my sister to teach me how to fall asleep and, like the rest of the family, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “You just lie there and it happens.” Like swallowing or sneezing, the practice was automatic, and it worked every time for everyone, pets included. Everyone, except me.
My dad decided that a few nights each week the two of us would go on walks before dinner, several miles to the end of our street and back. Early on in our regimen, all the walking caused whatever was running in my head to stop and join me and also drift to sleep. I loved these walks, just the two of us, where I felt special and cared for with no siblings along, and loved him doing something just for me.
Later, there were the couple of years when I was the last child in the house, the other two now off to college, one graduated. My parents were divorcing and had been sleeping in separate rooms. I used my mom’s bathroom in the mornings to get ready since it had a grownup vibe and a drawer full of makeup: a bottle of Revlon tawny beige foundation, but no blush, blue eye shadow and the skinniest silver tube of mascara. My Bonne Bell lip smackers tinted gloss completed the look, and the mini Susan Woody went out into the world.
Occasionally in the bathroom I’d see notes taped to the mirror and one time found a message scrawled directly on the glass in lipstick in my mom’s handwriting, which read, I will not be your scapegoat. I had no clue what this meant, but knew it wasn’t a sexy love note between my parents. This marital anti-bliss vibe ate at me, and as a result, I ate too. I’d cook a Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese after eating a full meal and eat the whole thing, or I’d grab an entire stack of Chips Ahoy cookies from the cookie jar, and then tear the plastic off a package of lady fingers and dive in, or nosh on fun size candy bars chewing the nougat and caramel, feeling it coat my teeth. All the tennis playing and wired-ness I possessed couldn’t offset this eating, and I began to want to purge myself of these binges.
One night while my dad sat in our den in his wing chair drinking Budweiser from a can and reading The Atlanta-Journal, as he did most nights, I asked him what you give kids who have swallowed poison, that thing you take to throw up. He asked me again what I was talking about, eyes still fixed on his paper, and when I repeated my question, he replied, “Ipecac.” “Can you spell that?” I asked. He did and I wrote it down.
Thus began a new chapter of self-care, one of eating and purging. I had chalked it up to my desire to stay thin, but it dawned on me just a few years ago that this bulimic season in my late teens occurred at precisely the same time as my parents’ separation. I don’t remember all the details, but I do know it was unsettling to see my sister’s bed unmade each day, knowing she hadn’t surprised us by coming home from college, but rather my dad slept in there. Or to come home from school late after tennis practice to find the house quiet, my plate of dinner warming in the oven, my mom in bed for the night. It was eerily soundless yet the house was perfectly neat, the fridge full and pets cared for, as if invisible elves were tending to all these things, while my mom stayed largely out of sight.
I’m not sure if it was the silence screaming loudly in our big house or the tawdry lipstick note, but this tense undercurrent didn’t sit well inside me. The self-care I chose was the only way I could control something, a way to give me the best of both worlds: eat comforting foods but not let them show. A little swig of Ipecac, my private salve, and no one would ever know. Thankfully it only happened a handful of times and then I stopped.
My self-care practice has gotten much better, and if I am going to continue to improve, there are three things I must remember:
1) What you eat stays with you, assuming you’ve dropped the propensity for purging, and you should choose good things, not the comfort foods from tv or grabbing your attention in the grocery aisles. The truly good for you comforting ones are those you’ve known all along, the things you adore, like home grown tomatoes, sweet potatoes, roasted chicken and grilled fish, or a really good meatloaf. Salads you can tell were made with care with soft washed lettuces, avocado, grated carrot, thin cucumber slices, sunflower seeds, too. Homemade bread and eggs scrambled with cream cheese and snipped chives, pasta carbonara with whisked egg yolk, sugar cured bacon and plenty of parmigiano reggiano cheese, or steamed haricot vert with a little butter and salt and cracked pepper. Strawberries dusted with powdered sugar and a splash of balsamic vinegar, a fistful of bing cherries or a plump satsuma orange at Christmastime, its cheery leaves in clusters at its stem.
2) Exercise flattens anxiety, your stomach too, and builds bone. There are the walks too, no longer with my dad, but with my dog in my neighborhood, or the long ones you take at the beach, wet sand underfoot, pelicans overhead diving for dinner, soaring over the sea. There is jogging and 10K races that leave you feeling strong with a smile on your face that lasts days. There are your bones, exactly 206 of them, which carried you into adulthood and will still carry you if you work them, move them with the earth under you, walk, run and lift, each time pushing yourself to do more.
3) Sleep is delicious brain food and like exercise, cuts the edge off a bad mood. My insomnia has all but gone and I am a good sleeper, rarely waking even during two pregnancies. Our bodies know what we need and if you’re like me and falling asleep in front of the tv and can’t get through a show, or at the kitchen table with dishes still to do, or worse, on the stair landing where you stopped to sit for just a minute, you ought to get yourself to bed. All these things that you do, that you work at, that you keep up, all of them will wait for you when you are ready. And you’re ready only after you’ve cared for you.
It’s easy to defer to your factory default setting and focus on everyone else, but in adopting this holy trifecta of eating, sleeping and moving, you can reset and shift back to you, where you’ve always been all along. As Anne Lamott so brilliantly put it, Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.
I’m not sure why these obvious, common sense things — which all of us learned out of the gate — have taken decades to sink in, but I’m encouraged to finally realize that self-care begins with self.