Being Honest: Why Self-Care is Important When Managing Mental Illness

Author: Elizabeth Roderick

Finding good self-care practices involves being honest with yourself.

I know this from experience. My name is Elizabeth Roderick. I’m an author, freelance editor, farmer and tiny-house person. I’m also autistic, bipolar, and have PTSD from abuse, so I rely on a good self-care regimen to keep myself healthy and functional.

I haven’t always been so honest with myself, and it’s been a long road to get there. Despite the fact that I’ve suffered psychotic breaks, suicidal idealization, and periods of mania since I hit puberty, I spent the entirety of my youth denying I needed help. Like so many of us, I didn’t think I deserved it or that it would help me, because my mom taught me psychiatric care and medication were for the weak. I was told that my outbursts and self-destructive behavior were my fault, and that I needed to change them. Myself. All alone.

Since all my messaging was about the fact that I was defective, faulty, annoying, wrong, crazy… I didn’t even know where to start with rebuilding myself. I was a lemon car, and when you had one of those, you just junked it and got a new one, right?

It wasn’t until I met the love of my life, a man named Phoenix—who, with his diagnosis of schizophrenia, was even more eccentric than I am—that I realized I’m a valid human being. Neuro-divergent people are amazing, and we have things to offer the world that no one else can. I’m worth rebuilding, worth putting some work into. We all are.

Self-care is for all of us.

I wasn’t able to even begin finding my coping skills and self-care practices until I got some help, though. For a lot of us, the first step in self-care is finding professional care.

I’d tried for decades to get myself under control on my own, with no luck. Each failure just brought more guilt and self-recrimination. I self-medicated with heroin and landed in prison. I lost friends, alienated family, and went from job to job to job, marriage to marriage, looking for something to fill the void in me.

When I found the right medications and therapy, however, the uncontrollable outbursts of emotion disappeared. The compulsive thoughts and depression got more manageable.

But even with medication and therapy, I still had a long way to go. I had to learn to love myself and find new coping skills that build me up instead of tear me down.

Medication and therapy can be a very important part of self-care for some of us, but they are only the first steps. Medication and therapy will never solve all of our problems: they just make us more capable of solving our own problems.

Self-care is the key to a much happier and productive life.

I’m going to share some of the things I learned while developing my self-care practices. Hopefully, they will help you, as well.

Some of the daily, ongoing self-care things I do are just about accepting myself as a neurodivergent person. I decided I would allow my true self to show without embarrassment. I bought a little squeezy stress toy on a keychain, which I attach to my fanny pack and fidget with whenever I want to, even in public. I also allow myself to turn down invitations more often. I need a lot of time alone, and that’s okay. My real friends understand that. Little things like this make a huge difference in my anxiety level.

But a more structured self-care plan is also important: more in-depth things that I treat myself to just to feel balanced and relaxed. The way I started to develop this plan was to make a list of things that bring me true joy. I didn’t self-censor or regulate at all. I put down anything that came to mind.

Then I did an inventory and discovered some things didn’t belong. Gauging our own happiness can be tricky, because if we’re in enough internal pain, any relief from that can seem like happiness. I had to take stock of whether certain things were truly healthy coping mechanisms and not just avoidance.

Others were activities I thought would be good for me, or things I felt I should like. In short, these self-care practices were just another way to beat myself up. They self-improvement or self-flagellation exercises disguised as self-care. For instance, healthy eating. I might think eating nothing but raw vegetables and beans and drinking a gallon of water a day is a good self-care exercise. But, in reality, stuff like that just leaves me feeling more exhausted and sadder than ever, because it doesn’t truly bring me joy. It can activate my eating disorder, as well. That voice in my head telling me you aren’t healthy enough. You need to lose weight and cut out the sugar…it isn’t the one that will bring true joy. By choosing this type of self-care exercise, I was perpetuating the toxic inner dialogue that helped make me feel bad to begin with.

True self- improvement (not driven by guilt or societal expectation) definitely has its place. But self-care is not about self-improvement. It’s about learning to love yourself just as you are. It’s about giving yourself a break from that little voice in your head that thinks it knows what’s good for you more than you know it yourself.

The goal with self-care is to find peace and happiness right now, in this moment. Not down the road when you’ve lost twenty pounds, found a partner, and make more money. Not when you have better skin, an organized sock drawer, and have written three brilliant novels.

You are perfect right now. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have goals. It’s normal and healthy to want to achieve things. But if you don’t have good self-care practices and don’t love yourself now, it’s possible you’ll choose goals that aren’t in line with your true self. You’ll achieve things for the wrong reasons. You’ll be trying to make yourself into someone you aren’t, because you don’t love who you are. Even if you do manage to force yourself to achieve one of these goals, you’ll find you’re even less happy than when you started. And, if you can’t fit your square-peg self into this round hole by achieving the goal that wasn’t right for you to begin with, you’ll likely regale yourself with a whole opera of negative self-talk about it, thus perpetuating the cycle of guilt and insecurity that caused you to set the wrong goal to begin with.

I know all of this from long, hard experience.

Other things, I thought I needed to take off the list because they weren’t healthy. Like eating a gooey hot fudge sundae, having a glass of wine or some kratom tea, or buying myself something (since I’m very poor). Self-medication can be a sticky subject, as can diet and spending money. But if these things truly give us a spark of joy—and I mean a real spark of joy, not just a transitory sense of filling a hollow spot in us–then they may have a place in our self-care regimen.

The test is whether it gives us a true net benefit. As long as it makes us relaxed and happier and doesn’t result in us losing a job, not paying a bill, destroying a relationship, or becoming unable to do what we need to do, that’s a net benefit.

Having a glass of wine or smoking some weed after work can be an important form of relaxation and self-care for some people. Getting pass-out drunk every day or blotto high, on the other hand, probably doesn’t help increase our functioning capacity.

Some people have complex relationships with food, as well, and will pause before allowing themselves to enjoy a guilty-pleasure food as self-care because they think it’s unhealthy. Society wants us to be very thin, but being skinny and being healthy are two entirely different things. Science supports that statement, though the diet industry (and unfortunately, too many doctors and too many of our partners) will still try to tell us differently.

We all deserve to eat food we truly enjoy. Being able to take pleasure in what I eat is a vital part of self-care for me. I just have to make sure I’m not eating to “kill my feelings” as they say, because self-destructive eating can indeed be a thing. And I have to make sure I don’t make myself feel so guilty for eating something that it overwhelms the joy I get from eating it.

This is where that brutal honesty comes in. I look at my behavior in the past and the consequences of it for each one of the things on my self-care list, even the ones I think are healthy. Sometimes, even things that seem outwardly to be healthy coping skills can be destructive if I take them too far. For instance, I have hurt my body as well as my social life by exercising too much. Daily exercise is still part of my self-care regimen, but I have to put strict limits on it, especially at times when I’m manic, to keep it from going from healthy to destructive.

So never cut something off your list just because it’s “bad” for you or you don’t feel you deserve it. Be honest with yourself, not just about your bad habits but about the fact that you deserve joy in your life, free from judgment.  No one has a right to judge you for the things that make you truly happy. Not even yourself.

You should also never force something to be on the list just because it outwardly looks like a healthy coping skill, if you don’t truly enjoy it.

There are other considerations, such as what sort of activities you can reasonably afford. Budgets can be complex and emotional. All I can say is that you do deserve to spend money on yourself, even if you don’t earn much (or any) of it. All of us are valuable, even if we don’t do paid work. So, keep that in mind.

Once you have a list of things that truly give you joy, the next thing you should do is set time aside where you HAVE TO do them. Don’t just give yourself “permission” to do them. Make it MANDATORY, so you can’t weasel out of your self-care by telling yourself you have more important things to do. Put it on your calendar and give yourself more time than you think you need, deserve or can afford.

A lot of us don’t feel we have spare time or money to “waste” on ourselves, but you can’t be productive if you don’t take care of yourself, so this is time and money well-spent. Others feel we never actually accomplish anything, so we don’t deserve to treat ourselves to self-care. This is equally erroneous. You’ll never reach your potential if you don’t realize that you’re worthy and capable of success. Self-care is a way of showing yourself love, of revitalizing yourself so that you can achieve the things you need and want to. It’s an investment in yourself and your success.

So make that list, and schedule that time! Set money aside for it if necessary. You deserve it and need it.

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