This summer, I experienced severe, physical health problems for the first time. As unprepared as I was for how to cope with my new physical challenges, I was even more unprepared for how profoundly my physical health would impact my understanding of my own emotional wellbeing.
I’d broken some bones as a kid, struggled with persistent (but manageable) joint pain starting in junior high, and I once had an awful bout of shingles in grad school, but, on the whole, I’d never experienced what I considered to be any significant challenges to my physical health.
My mental health history is a touch more complicated, but it was my experiences with my own emotional challenges that drove me to become a psychotherapist. I love my work. I love being able to normalize and validate what my clients are going through. I love that my own twisty path to mental wellness makes it possible for me to empathize and connect with others, without judgment or hesitation. I love where my past has taken me in life, but when my health was compromised a few months ago, I really struggled to remember how I got here.
I don’t mean that I literally forgot the hard work I had put into experiencing myself and my life the way I do now, but that, when I was feeling a new type of loss, I had a hard time remembering how to find the piece of myself that had done this before. Countless times in the past, I had (like many of you, I’m sure), found something in myself that made it possible for me to put one foot in front of the other, to build up optimism, to believe in my own ability to persevere. I knew that part of me existed, I had concrete evidence that it did, but I just didn’t know how I was supposed to find it again.
The Interplay Between Mental Wellness and Physical Health
It wasn’t until the second week after my second round of health crises this summer that I really started to recognize how intimately my physical and mental wellbeing were intertwined.
Normally, I’m a self-care master; I know which little ritual to indulge in when I need a boost, which routines to follow every day to maintain my health, and which activities (or naps, if we’re honest) to treat myself to, just because. I don’t mind spending two hours making dinner, because the practice of chopping and stirring is so soothing, I feel calm and joyful before I even take a bite. I love Pilates and yoga, not because I’m good at them, but because they force me out of my head and into my body; I can breathe deeply, focus on movement, and feel more capable than in any other part of my day — probably because I’m so clumsy that most days are punctuated with at least three runs into walls or a few stubbed toes. I have a carefully crafted space in my bedroom for when I feel stressed or worried or tired, so that I can twist over to light a candle, pick up a book, and enjoy a nice cup of tea. The real kicker to what I went through this summer was that all of my typical self-care practices had become fully out of my reach.
For some time, I wasn’t allowed to carry heavy items or to exercise, let alone twist or bend my torso. I couldn’t walk more than the length of my apartment without feeling winded. I couldn’t stand for more than twenty minutes at a time — and on some days, even that was a stretch. Sitting upright for prolonged periods was painful and tiring, and for a good chunk of the last four months, I’ve needed a hand with everything from making my bed to putting my shoes on. In a flash, my carefully crafted world of self-compassion and mental wellness had been compromised.
I found myself wondering how I was supposed to get better, physically, if I couldn’t stay well, mentally. If the two were so linked for me, could I maintain my mental wellness when so many of my mental health routines relied on physical action?
I started to doubt myself. Even though I’d been coping and functioning, emotionally, I started to wonder if there was some proverbial other shoe that was going to drop. I’d done what I needed to take time off of work, to rest, to heal, but certainly there had to be more I could be doing, right?
Self-Compassion is Self Care
Because I know well how little acts of self-care make it easier to cope with our everyday challenges, and make us more resilient in the face of unexpected, larger periods of emotional stress, I make it a point to focus on these practices with my clients. It’s one of my favorite topics of conversation, even outside of therapy. What I realized getting back to work at the end of the summer, and what I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realized before, was how much more genuine praise and acceptance I gave to my clients for every single act of self-compassion, attempt at self-care, and moment of humanity, than I gave to myself.
I started to notice that I was still practicing self-care, it just looked different than it had before. Just because I couldn’t hop into a Pilates class, then come home and cook myself an intricate meal, didn’t mean I wasn’t doing the best I could at taking care of myself.
I began to intentionally recognize how kind I was being to myself when I took a break during a walk to catch my breath, or how great it was that I listened to my body and stayed in bed to watch Netflix when I needed to. I remembered that even speaking up when I needed accommodations at work was an act of self-care and compassion. I was still a self-care master, but now I was practicing on a much more basic, fundamental level.
These Lessons are Lasting Ones
Though I got back to my “normal” level of physical functioning about four weeks ago, I’ve made it a point to try to not push myself when it comes to what I think I should be doing to stay well. Spoiler alert: I’m trying, not always succeeding. I’ve gotten the all-clear for exercise, but I’m taking my sweet time with that one. I’m cooking again and enjoying being able to do the little things I was able to do for myself before, but I’m not pushing it.
I love my work. I love that even when we objectively think that therapists are supposed to have all of the answers, I can still walk out from a day of sessions having learned something from the people I share space with. I love that, without even meaning to, my twisty path to mental wellness led me to a field where I am reminded that we all have a piece inside of us that makes it possible to persevere – even me.