I was having a chat on the phone with a friend on Saturday afternoon. I met him at uni - we both were doing PhDs at the same time (his has been recently completed with the prize of Research student of the year, no less) and he’s one of those friends you never planned on meeting but are just so glad you did. He calls every couple of weeks just to check in. He doesn’t hold it against me that I am barely able to catch up in person and also doesn’t mind that I hijack his date night with his partner so I can go and see The Great Gatsby as well.
Like all of the wise people in my life, he doesn’t try and offer me solutions – there aren’t any. He just listens and at the end of every conversation he tells me that he’s proud of me and that I am doing a good job at life. The lift that I get when he tells me this gently reminds me that maybe my morale is running a little low. When he sends me flowers two days later with the note, 'You inspire me', and I burst into tears, I am clear that my morale is more than a 'little' low. Ahem.
On Saturday, after doing his usual assessment on all aspects of my wellbeing, he says cautiously, ‘You seem like you’re doing okay’. And I tell him that I am. No, I don’t really want to go out partying and certainly won’t look back on this period as the best time of my life; but given the circumstances, I am okay. I tell him the upside of a life full of tragedy is that I’ve become quite practised in getting through. I explain that I am conscious of self-care. I do what I’d recommend my clients do. I might not much feel like it, but I do it anyway. I know it works.
It was then that I realised that us welfare professionals always harp on about self-care, but the only example of self-care that is ever really given is to exercise. There’s more to it. So here’s what I do – maybe there’s something in here that’s of use to you.
Good physical health is, I think, one of the best things to defend against mental health complaints. It is also an armour of resilience when you are going through hard times. Feeling unwell or run down or lethargic only exacerbates any other stress. Also, stress is likely to put pressure on your physical health, so it's really important to look after yourself. Health is important for a bunch of reasons, but it's not until you lose it that you are aware of just how much it impacts your life. This is not a lesson you really want to have to learn by experience, especially not when you're trying to cope with other things. So take care of the body that's carrying your mind and your heart through the tough times.
Eat well. Eat fresh, colourful food that goes off if it’s not kept in a fridge. Fried carbohydrates will not give you the fuel you need to cope with whatever it is that you’re trying to deal with. (Note: chocolate is not a fried carbohydrate and therefore, I recommend you should consume a lot of it.)
Alcohol and other drugs
I stay away from it all in times of stress. Mostly because in emotionally heavy times decision making is difficult enough; vulnerability is high; sleep is difficult. Adding alcohol or other drugs impairs your decision-making and makes you feel more emotional. Vulnerable and emotional drunk people text their exes, write overly-emotional Facebook statuses, and feel sorry for themselves. Being this person will not improve your lot in life.
Also, alcohol really disrupts your ability to have a deep sleep. Yes, it helps you nod off, but you don’t have a good sleep. You need sleep – sleep is curative for so many things. At the least, being rested makes things slightly more bearable. So stay off the booze.
|Baby doesn't care if I |
Don’t mess with your sleep. I know it’s hard. I know it’s beyond your control, but do what you can. I avoid sleeping pills – I find they get me to sleep, but then I am awake at 4am and can’t go back to sleep. They also make me a bit vague. Sometimes, when I am desperate, I take them. But it’s rare. I took some for the first time in years a week or so ago. I hadn’t slept in days and was about to have a melt-down from sleep deprivation. That was the weigh off – pills aren’t a long term solution, but may be of some use. In general, I’d say reduce your caffeine, keep your room cool-ish in temperature (I think it's 19 degrees that's meant to be ideal), have a shower before bed and have fresh sheets. This sort of stuff, called ‘sleep hygiene’ can really help foster better sleep. Admittedly, sometimes you just won’t sleep, when this happens I just let my body work itself out. (And get annoyed at people who tell me I look exhausted – FYI, this doesn’t help people. I know I look like shit, I see the mirror).
I have written on a couple of occasions about how I find exercise useful (here and here). It’s useful for a bunch of reasons. I recommend it as self-care because of the physiological benefits – sunshine; endorphins; sweat; fitness etc.
But don’t over-do it and don’t commit to some sort of training regime. Now is not the time to be aiming for PBs. A friend of mine recently asked me to train for a marathon with her, “It’s not a big increase on the kms you’re already doing”. Likewise, one of my yoga teachers tried to sign me up for a 30-day challenge, “You already come every day”. And yes, both of these things were true: I was running a lot; I was doing BIkram every day. But because I chose to; not because I had to.
The yoga teacher told me I have commitment issues (she wouldn’t be the first); but the reality is that when you’ve got a lot on your plate, committing to things will only put more on that plate. The fewer things in your life that you feel obligated to do, the freer you will feel. So exercise regularly – daily even – but don’t kill yourself if you skip it. Working out should make you feel better, not guilty.
Be warned that exercise can be a bit of a procrastination tool. I went a bit nuts a few months ago. Working out for three hours a day did manage my stress, but it did take away from PhD writing time. It also made me start to look a little, err, hungry. (As my friends did not hesitate to point out, “I don’t want to give you a hard time, Kat - but eat this cupcake now”).
Do things that make you feel useful
Some days I can’t think. Which means I cannot write guidelines for an early intervention model for youth AOD and it also means that I cannot write my PhD. But not doing anything makes me feel like I’ve wasted time that I don’t have. So I do other things that need doing. Like gardening. Or ironing. Or cleaning the oven.
Look, I realise this is quite specific, but I find cooking really therapeutic. The more stressed I am, the more that I bake (so the ex who got a cake or biscuits or three course dinners every day for a week probably should have seen the writing on the wall … ).
|The boys are currently 'dieting'. |
Here's the protein balls they requested.
Cooking is really good for your soul. I love cooking for people and I love it when they want me to cook for them. My friends send me messages of their requests. I berate them – “You will get whatever flavour muffins I feel like making, thank you very much”. In reality, I like it. I like that they like my food and I like that they’re so comfortable with me that they just ask me to make them things.
I think the pleasure of people enjoying your food is that you are meeting one of their primary needs. It’s primitive – people need to be fuelled. And people remember it. A guy from yoga who ate one of my meals more than six months ago still tells anyone that will listen how great my cooking is. A friend at work forced his boss to eat one of my cupcakes at 7am ,“I don’t feel like one”, “No you have to eat one of these”, “Aren’t you meant to be my personal trainer?”, “Yes, and I am telling you that you should never knock back one of Kat’s cakes”. My friend’s kids remember me as “The nice lady who made us x”. My friend’s new girlfriend, upon meeting me, “Oh, so you’re the one who makes the muffins!”
When you make people a meal they feel nurtured, cared for. Making people feel like that feels nice.
I should start with the disclaimer that I don’t like dating at the best of times. I know some people do, but it just seems a bit strange to me. I don’t care much for small talk and I don’t really like to talk about myself that much - not with strangers anyway. So, well, as you can imagine, I don’t really thrive in the date context. (Surely a planned outing with someone you don’t know that well, with a reasonably standard set of discussion questions and expected behaviours is, well, a bit too unnatural to establish whether or not you’ve got any chemistry?)
Anyway … even if you like dating, don’t do it when you need to look after yourself. Partly because you need to look after yourself, and partly because you are needy and will attract someone who wants to rescue you, and no one can rescue you but you. And a rescuer is not a partner – you need to be part of a team where both of you are equal. You don’t want to be a child; nor should you want to date someone who wants to mother you. (As an aside, this dynamic is a recipe for a sexless marriage.) I find that when I am vulnerable I tend to get asked out more. I have no idea what that’s about, but sometimes you kind of feel like people are trying to capitalise on your vulnerability and that’s the last thing you need. Just stay away from it all. If you want sex, have sex with someone who there’s no commitment to, or emotional ties with. (Read: Keep your life clean from any added complications.)
|Get your need for affection filled |
by cute babies.
Stay close to good people
To avoid people capitalising on your vulnerability, seek to surround yourself with people you know are good and people who know you well. Be around people you can depend on and people who want you to depend on them. Be around people who care about you; people who know they can’t fix it but who know that calling you on Saturday afternoon, or leaving chocolate on your doorstep, or sending you photos of their baby, will make life softer. My friends are wonderful. They accept that I am notoriously bad at replying to things. They don’t even get annoyed when I don’t reply to texts, they just are super appreciative when I do! (Mind you, text and email are forms of communication where reply is optional, surely?)
Remember how good the people in your life are and be inspired by humanity. It’s amazing who steps up when you need them. It’s beautiful. Yes, there may be some people trying to hug you because they actually want to have sex with you, but don’t focus on these people. Focus on the people who are hugging you to give you a bit of their strength and to take a way a bit of your sorrow. (Top tip: Only hug people you know – hugging strangers is weird.)
Be kind to yourself
Ever since I started my PhD people have remarked about how calm I am about it. Sometimes I feel like they assume I don’t take it seriously. Let me be clear – I couldn’t be more serious about it. I don’t take the task of giving voice to an oppressed group lightly; nor did I ever have any desire to spend four years of my life writing a thesis. This is not something working class kids aspire to do. But I kind of fell into an opportunity where there was something that needed to be told and I was in a position to tell it. I was passionate about it, and I thought it the right thing to do.
But it’s just a PhD.
But it’s just a PhD.
|Possibly not the most ergonomically|
ideal way to write a PhD
No one cares if I finish next month of at the end of the year. It doesn’t matter if I work in peaks and troughs and it’s much more important for me that it is done well than done quickly. I set goals and I use them as a guide. But I don’t beat myself up when I don’t achieve them. I spend a lot of time writing my thesis from my mother’s death bed. I am never going to regret spending some hours sitting there thinking about the meaning of life instead of typing out another thousand words. You need to let yourself think and feel. Once you let these things come through you’re in a clearer headspace.
You also need to know what works for you. My supervisor is really systematic – he writes about the same number of words every day. Yesterday I barely wrote a sentence, last weekend I wrote 10,000 words. Just make sure you’re doing things pretty consistently and accept that some days are better than others and you’ll be okay. Don’t give yourself false pressure– nothing matters in life more than your relationships. Prioritise them and take everything else less seriously.
Get out a bit
I am an introvert. I love alone time. When I socialise, I like it to be with people I know well and there to be deep conversation. My favourite holiday ever was a camping trip with my closest friends where we sat for hours at night just staring at the fire – we didn’t even talk to each other.
But sometimes it’s good to get out. I generally spend my Saturday nights reading or writing about very sad things and doing this is personally satisfying to me. But last Saturday night I went out for dinner with a friend. I had a shower, did my hair, put on make-up, wore nice clothes, put on heels: it all seemed like a bit of an effort. I then drove across town and had a good meal and great fun. I was in such a good mood afterwards. I reminded myself that I do actually like being social and should probably start accepting more invitations because, you know, it’s good to have a conversation once a week.
Stay on top of things
All of the boring things – taxes, bills, emails etc. They are all SO tedious to do, but you do really feel much more in control of your life when things are in order. And not doing them just gives you more shit to deal with later. (Says I who hasn’t even opened my group certificates yet).
Find ‘escapes’ that are readily accessible
For me, it’s shit magazines. I used to be ideologically opposed to women’s magazines. Well, I still am. But I used to act in a way that was consistent with my values and not buy them. But then I found they were an easy escape. I use them at various points.
When Mum was first diagnosed with cancer I’d take academic articles into the hospitals. I’d never read them. Sometimes my eyes would be looking at the words but the stranger on the other side of the room could have guessed better than I as to what the article was about. I simply couldn’t concentrate on things. There were magazines in the waiting rooms – some of them were older than me. I read them anyway. I needed something to look at that wasn’t a person who was dying. Soon enough, I started buying magazines.
Yes, these magazines told me I was fat and ugly and needed to buy more things and get a fake tan and they gave me step-by-step instructions on how to be more appealing to men. But you know what? These inane messages were a welcome escape from the intensity of my environment.
I found myself again buying magazines when I was doing the data collection of my thesis. So many days spent hearing horrific stories of abuse made the escape into pop culture before bed incredibly appealing. (Much to my own chagrin.)
Appreciate the small things
For me, it's the banter with the barista in my local cafe, the street art all around my office, having a nice tea cup when I write, a nice smelling house, listening to a good playlist, nice underwear, the sun I sit in when I am on my lunch break, clean sheets, the cute faces kids make, good looking people, kind people, tender people. All of it. Soak up the beauty of the world. Put your freaking iPhone away, look up and appreciate what's going on around you.
Remember that you’ll be okay
Stuff might get worse. You might have a very ordinary path ahead of you, but you’ll probably be okay. Accept that things are ever-changing. A colleague of mine said to me yesterday that when my Mum dies my world’s going to change forever. I know that he’s right. It’s one of those before and after things. But as much as I know it I still have to go through it. I’ll still be devastated. I am going to get sadder before I get happier. But I’ll be okay. My friends will give me chocolate and make me eat pasta when I look too thin. They’ll keep calling me even though I don’t reply to their texts. They’ll bring their kids over because cuddling them makes me feel infinitely better. The world will be greyer and colder and sharper. And then it will lighten. In time, there will be colour again and the edges softer. I might get mail for my mum and burst into tears but then they will flow out of me and one day there’ll be tears of joy again. That’s how it works.
You can’t really control much of anything; just look after yourself while it’s all happening.