(photo courtesy of National Association of Baby Boomer Women)
Something struck me lately about some of the people I’m closest to who are also in recovery. For some reason, some of us are reluctant to take care of ourselves properly. We are all aware of our not so good physical state when we come into recovery first. Withdrawals are tough and for a long time, probably for the first year, after putting our substance of abuse down, the reality of the damage we did to ourselves becomes all too visible.
I found a picture of myself recently. It was taken shortly after I stopped drinking and using. I looked like I was about 10 years older than I actually was. I was bloated, my skin was bad and there was no life in my eyes. There was very little life in me at all come to think of it. I remember at that time how much of a struggle it was just to get through a day. The tiredness was hellish. My type 1 diabetes was totally out of control. I seemed to be constantly sick with kidney infections and the thought of doing any physical exercise was more than I could bear. My coffee intake was totally ridiculous as was my intake of high sugar foods. Trying to cope with life while not being self medicated was about all I was capable of dealing with. Self care was totally alien to me. I felt like I was drowning and grabbing anything to keep my head above water. I guess the caffeine and sugar gave me the energy to function to some degree but clearly not helping in the long run. In fact, the sugar was only increasing my cravings for alcohol; something few of us are aware of.
And obviously I’m not the only one who has struggled through all that stuff and more. But now, four years down the line, I realize that I’m still not caring for myself adequately and I see other people too doing the same thing. I do try though. Generally I cook good food and exercise and all the other stuff that’s required for a healthy body. But then I also go through periods of doing the exact opposite. Obviously I feel a million times better when I’m doing all the right things, and when I neglect myself I know I’m going to feel crap. So what the hell is the reluctance to care for ourselves all about?
Well it appears that for me it’s about guilt. I’m so busy trying to make up for all my absence and lack of care for others during my years of addiction that I feel selfish for taking care of my needs. I’m uncomfortable when I’m feeling too good. There is still part of me that feels that everyone else is far more important than I am and that I should be still beating the crap out of myself for my past behavior. Perhaps there is part of me that still refuses to believe that my addiction is a chronic illness and that really Nicky is a bad person who needs to constantly hurt herself because she is just not good enough.
I’m really good at telling myself that there is just too much mess to clean up and so many things I need to do for my children that I don’t really have time for self care. I drag myself around a lot of the time because I’m so exhausted, trying to convince myself that I’m ok. I go through periods where I find it hard to sleep and I don’t eat properly, sometimes not eating at all during the day. My level of neglect can be so bad, that sometimes when I’m sick, I actually avoid going to the doctor! Yet I don’t make a conscious decision to do that. But isn’t that what a good mother and provider does? Isn’t she supposed to dedicate her entire being to her offspring making every possible sacrifice for them? And then there is the whole constant thought of others thing we hear all the time in the rooms. So does that mean that thinking about myself is going to get me drunk again?
And then I talked to a rational person about these thought processes and how I seem to slip in and out of self care to self neglect. Yes indeed there is underlying guilt there, and all the “I’m not worthy” stuff going on too. Then of course, there are those in our lives who will reinforce our negative beliefs about ourselves. And for some there is a complete lack of understanding about what self care actually means. I used to think that caring for myself was going out, getting drunk and high and having as much fun as possible….alas that’s just more self harm; my life has always been about harming myself.
So how the hell do I untangle this ball of self doubt and confusion? Well, what I have learned very recently is that first and foremost I am a woman. That comes before being a mother, a daughter, a sister, an alcoholic, a diabetic or any other label that’s attached to me. I deserve love, respect, understanding, intimacy and to be cherished; and not just by other people but by MYSELF too.
Treating myself in this manner actually makes me more available for others because I’m not seeking it from anyone else. To love myself unconditionally means that I do not judge myself nor feel the need to constantly punish and neglect myself for “bad” behavior. It’s not necessary to indulge in everyone else’s opinion that the only way to live life is through martyrdom or obsession. In fact it is a divinely healthy and positive practice to love ourselves. If I have love for myself, I can have abundant love for others too. Me caring for myself is in fact, thinking of others also because I’m making the best of me available to those around me. I’m less likely to hurt, abuse, demand or expect anything from other people when I love myself. Indeed I’m teaching my daughter how to love herself and teaching my son how to love a woman.
What an awesome concept. How freeing. Of course, learning to care for ourselves is a process and takes time. Often it can be one of the biggest obstacles for those of us in recovery and can hold us back from progressing. However, it is possible. For me it starts with willingness to change, prayer, meditation and at all costs staying clean and sober. That was the start of my healing journey and gaining the life that I am promised in my program. Each day I learn something new and each day I’m learning to love myself just a little bit more.