So, I went to this yoga class a couple months ago at my local YMCA. The quality of the classes there is not consistent, but this particular one was pretty great. The teacher gave a very insightful talk about self-care. Why, she asked, don’t we take better care of ourselves? Even when we have the tools?
It’s a good question. A new study about baby boomers and their health reveals that even though folks in their sixties have a lot of the tools they need to stay healthy, they’re taking scads of medications. Only 13 percent say they are in excellent health, a sharp decline from just a generation ago.
Why is this? One explanation might be that they have high expectations of health, and this shapes their perceptions.
How we define health is so crucial. Is it the lack of pain? The lack of illness? Is it the seemingly unattainable way the World Health Organization defines it? If you feel healthy, are you healthy?
I’m not feeling that healthy.
I have no chronic health problems, I’m not on any medication, and I know how to cook healthy food. I don’t have health insurance. If I had health insurance, would I feel healthier? Maybe.
But really, my main health problem is that I’m almost 40 years old and I still don’t know how to take care of myself. I mean, sure, I know how keep myself alive, but making my health a priority is a major struggle.
When I was experiencing post-partum depression, I had to practically be dragged to the doctor’s office. Doing yoga is perpetually on my to-do list, but I only actually practice once or twice a month. I know meditation and breathing exercises are important, but I don’t make the time.
And my eating habits are terrible.
I am a lapsed vegetarian who used to be very health conscious about food. But over the past couple of years, I’ve hit new lows. Greedily wolfing down the occasional cheeseburger. Settling for turkey hotdogs and mac and cheese for lunch. Pepperoni pizza at a friend’s house, because hey, it’s a birthday party! I’ve even flirted with a Diet Coke addiction. And yes, I’ve indulged in way too much cake.
Let’s just say I’m not experiencing quantum wellness.
Last month I did my own version of an elimination diet to establish why the skin on my hands was acting crazy. Actually, I already knew why. It’s because I love butter. I have a love/hate relationship with butter, ice cream and cheese. I love it, my skin hates it.
But on the off-chance that it was gluten or sugar or eggs or turkey hotdogs, I cut out all animal products, gluten and sugar for an entire week. What happened next was not pretty. As much as I wanted to be peaceful and calm while I sipped my vegan smoothie and did breathing exercises, the perceived deprivation drove me batty. I paced the kitchen like a caged animal most afternoons, stuffing my face with almonds and dates even though I wasn’t at all hungry.
At the end of the week I realized two things:
- I am totally addicted to sugar. I should probably quit eating it–I could even buy a new cookbook (I love cookbooks)– but I’m afraid I wouldn’t want to live if I couldn’t eat sugar.
- I am definitely allergic to dairy products. After one week, the eczema on my hands went away. I started eating bread, eggs and meat and my hands were just fine. So I had some butter, and just an hour later, the eczema was back.
So, having figured this out, you’d think I’d just cut out dairy. And I did, for about one more day. But then I fell off the wagon. I realized that I have no commitment to the dairy-free goal. Yesterday I ate cookies made with butter, cream cheese on crackers, and even pancakes made with whole milk. And now my skin is suffering again.
Yes, butter is good, but it’s not that damn good.
The whole experience catapulted me into the painful admission that I’m bad at taking care of my own health. It’s a complicated thing, with psychological as well as physical elements. I can find a million ways to justify abdicating responsibility for my health: Self-care is just a first-world indulgence. Becoming vegan is just way too bougie. I don’t have time. It’s no big deal. I have other priorities. I like to have the freedom to cook whatever I want. My family doesn’t want to give up dairy.
But in the end, all this rationalizing is really about avoiding self-care. I’m cringing as I type. I hate self-care. It seems so corny. But hey:
Self-care is not self-pampering .
Self-care is not self-indulgence.
Self-care means choosing behaviors that balance the effects of emotional and physical stressors: exercising, eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, practicing yoga or meditation or relaxation techniques, abstaining from substance abuse, pursuing creative outlets, engaging in psychotherapy.
Um, yeah. Choosing healthy behaviors is not exactly my strong point. Put like this, it makes me wonder, why am I so resistant to choosing healthy behaviors?
Apparently I think I need butter (and sugar) to survive. I really am afraid to give it up, because what the hell will that mean? That I’m a person who practices self-care? Will I even recognize myself in the morning?
I’m not ready to define health as a complete state of social, mental and physical well being, since I doubt I (or anyone else, for that matter) will ever achieve that goal. But maybe it means choosing behaviors that are good for you more often than choosing behaviors that are bad for you. I’m starting to realize that actually, it’s impossible to be healthy without some good old self-care.
What do you think? How do you define health? Are you good at taking care of yourself?