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My Self-care Epiphany Was Prompted by a Concussion

I now have a whole new sense of adventure.

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Petunia growing through crack in the concrete
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I wanted to just lie there and cry after I fell down a flight of cement steps. But I had to get up and continue downstairs (although not at the fevered pace that caused my tumble) to meet my 99-year-old mother and the EMTs who were taking her to the hospital because she was having hallucinations, an indication she was suffering from a mystery infection.

The positive thing that came from this episode — aside from no broken bones or bleeding — was that it served as a wake-up call to start engaging in better self-care. By the end of the day, which included five hours in the emergency room for my mom, followed by seven for me, I was angry — at myself.

I’ve spent a lifetime at the back of the line voluntarily. As a kid, I did it to prove I wasn’t a spoiled only child; at jobs, to evince I was dedicated. I put my husband, Neil, first because I believed that was what wives did; and when Luke, 27, and Meg, 24, were born, my life became about them. And now I’m acting as a nurse to my mother.

Being frightened by what happened was a great motivator for me to put into practice my vow to look after myself as I do others. What also brought relief, other than the news that I was just banged up and a combo of Tylenol and Advil would have me back on the mend, was the bittersweet knowledge that I was not alone.

For the last three years of her mom’s life, Frances Buzzeo ignored focusing on her own needs. “I wasn’t married, had no children, and so I did for my mother.”

During the last years of her mother’s life, Ann Livingston stepped into the role of caregiver and eventually found that by the end of her evenings, she was overwhelmed. “I realized I had to pace myself to make things work because I still had a husband to tend to and I was also helping my daughter with my grandchildren’s school drop-off and pickup.”

The self-sacrifice and overscheduling, as well as always running, can bring on stress and anxiety, which can lead to physical maladies like ulcers, migraines and obesity. Indeed, stress is a known killer, as it can contribute to heart disease and strokes.

“The tsunami of chronic conditions we see in our country is the direct result of poor self-care,” says Sandra Darling, a doctor of osteopathic medicine. Darling practices wellness, lifestyle and preventive medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, and primarily sees patients between the ages of 40 and 75. “Changing your diet, getting more exercise, focusing on yourself — it’s hard work. It almost seems easier to take care of everybody else.” 

Darling pinpoints shame and guilt as the predominant causes for self-care procrastination, citing not going to bed at an earlier hour for much-needed sleep because breaking with a routine might disappoint a family member. This was often the case when my daughter, Meg, wanted me to stay up with her to watch one of “our” shows. And who wants to make a loved one feel rejected by not honoring a request, such as dropping Neil’s shirts at the dry cleaner, even if it lengthens the to-do list?

Darling points out that unlike my situation, for many women, the self-care epiphany is gradual. She notes that patients end up in her office after “they have been feeling like crap for years due to an accumulation of things that are part of an unhealthy lifestyle, which often get treated with multiple medications [for fatigue, stress, hypertension, etcetera. And they are just fed up.”

In an article she wrote for the Cleveland Clinic, Darling states that it’s time for a rebranding of self-care, to make sure we understand that it’s not about spa days and shopping trips. As she puts it: “If we as humans had manuals, self-care would be part of daily maintenance. It’s actually what is required to live a full healthy life.”

A successful example of someone carrying out this philosophy is Iris Mersky, who lost both her 64-year-old husband and 35-year-old son in the same year.

“I realized that if I was going to survive, I had to follow my heart, soul and instincts,” Mersky says. “Immediately, I stopped communication with those who wanted to give a never-ending stream of advice or sympathy. I moved to a new apartment and decorated as I pleased, started dating, despite criticism from friends, because I missed the male perspective and needed that to feel normal, then traveled cross-country, which gave me a sense of adventure. I was already retired from my job as a trauma therapist, so I took on part-time work of a totally different nature. I made friends with women who were widowed and recoupled, as I was.”

Mersky pauses, then adds: “No one’s life is without sorrow. Knowing that keeps me helping others. It’s the final piece of the balance that keeps me alive.”

Speaking of being alive, I am very glad to be so post-tumble and have taken “self-care” as my mantra. I whisper it to myself more times a day than I can count — each time someone wants, needs, demands something. I have stopped running as though every call were SOS-worthy and made the phrases “in a minute” and “not right now” part of my vernacular. It may not suit others, but it’s what’s best for me.

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