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Why Self-Care Can Be Hard For Me

Taking care of yourself comes in many forms, some easier than others and some more pleasant than others. Throughout my years of depression, self-care has meant several things to me. In times of severe symptoms, self-care focused on basic skills; eating, bathing, and taking my medications. When I’m doing better, self-care looked more like the conventional meaning of the term; taking time to relax, allowing myself tasty treats, watching a favorite show, etc. But no matter the state of my mood disorder, self-care has always included a mental component that can be particularly difficult: being nice to myself.

I know, that sounds so obvious it’s ridiculous, but you can absolutely do the actions of self-care without believing you deserve it. I run into this issue a lot; I spend an evening in sweatpants and a cozy sweater, absorbed in an episode of [insert ever-changing favorite show here]. Great self-care, right? Except I finish up the whole endeavor with terrible self-criticism for having let myself waste time and be lazy when I could have been getting work done. Somehow, it seems like that negates all the good that the action of self-care does for me.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure there are plenty of benefits of self-care even when you’re not feeling it. If you’re doing something essential to your survival, like eating food, of course that outweighs whether or not you think you should do it. Plus, there’s likely some neurological benefits of taking care of yourself- dopamine, less cortisol, heck, there’s probably benefit to just practicing those neural pathways and making them feel more natural. But it also seems logical that the benefit of self-care itself would be even better if you let yourself have it guilt-free.

Sometimes, the hardest part of self-care is believing that you deserve it. And that’s usually when I need it most urgently. It’s a work in progress, but I’m trying to be less critical of myself. Deliberately being nice to myself sometimes feels like a big lie, like I’m only humoring the part of me that thinks all my negative self-talk is pretty crappy. Living with depression makes it complicated because I know that I need to do things like exercise, take time to relax, and let myself say “no” to things. But the part of me that fights tooth and nail to appear “normal” resents the fact that if I’m not gentle with myself, I might end up debilitated by depression again. I don’t want to need anything, and certainly not anything pampering. I’m fine how I am.

“I’m fine,” she says stubbornly.

Sometimes you’re not fine, and that’s ok. And it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been not fine- you still deserve to take care of yourself. Sometimes I feel like having been depressed for a long time means that I’ve been indulgent in my sluggishness and I need to be hard on myself to get out of it. I would never tell someone else that. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend in the same situation.

Stress and anxiety abound right now, so take care, stay busy, and get some fresh air when you can.



Dyspraxia, SPD, and Change

If you’ve ever spent time around small children, you might be familiar with the sneaky tactic that is framing decisions with acceptable options. Asking a toddler if they want three pieces of broccoli or four somehow bypasses the part where they say they want cake, instead. For as long as I can remember, my mother has given me options from which to choose, but not because she was trying to shepherd me towards a healthy decision. It’s more because if she didn’t do that, we’d likely still be waiting for me to decide what to eat on my fifth birthday. I’m twenty-two. Dyspraxia as a symptom of SPD is and has been a roadblock for me for a long time.

What is Dyspraxia?

Dyspraxia falls under the Sensory-Based Motor Disorder subtype of Sensory Processing Disorder. People with SPD often have a combination of affected sensory systems that lead to symptoms in one or more SPD subtypes. The STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder sums it up this way:

“Individuals with Dyspraxia have trouble processing sensory information properly, resulting in problems planning and carrying out new motor actions. They may have difficulty in forming a goal or idea, planning a sequence of actions or performing new motor tasks.”

A Few Tips for Dealing with Dyspraxia

As an adult with symptoms of dyspraxia, I notice that decision-making, in particular, is often difficult. Even small decisions, like which brand of cornbread mix to buy can leave me scratching my head in the baking aisle for way too long. Bigger decisions, like where to go to college resulted in a stressful, last-minute choice after months of deliberation. Here are a few of the ways I tackle everyday and not-so-everyday decisions.

  1. Make a list of the options: (my OT calls this a “menu”)
  2. Decide what you can handle at that moment: (Am I only considering something because other people expect me to?)
  3. Ask for support
  4. Take a break and come back to it
  5. Put it in perspective: (Is it crucial that I make the “right” choice? E.g. the cornbread dilemma)
  6. Plan ahead!

When I started occupational therapy, one of the things we worked on was creating a weekly plan. Since spontaneity is not my strong suit, planning in activities ahead of time makes it more likely that I’ll follow through. Now that I have an established routine, I don’t make a plan every week, but it’s a good fall-back option for when I’m in a rut. It’s also great for when big changes are happening; a new job, moving, even the holidays are well-known for disrupting routines and causing stress. With symptoms of dyspraxia, life changes can be completely overwhelming, so tackling decisions ahead of time can make coping so much easier.

Last, But Not Least

drawing-of-girl-looking-at-surreal-landscape-with-bees-surrounding-herMy final tip (one that I’m still working on, myself) is to be as patient and nonjudgmental about dyspraxia as possible. I still get frustrated with myself for being slow to make decisions or reluctant to try new things, but it helps to remind myself of why those things are difficult for me. It also allows me to more easily support myself before and after unavoidable, sudden changes. After all, routines are great, but life can be pretty unpredictable. Knowing how to handle disruptions is always a good skill to have, even if it is a work in progress.


The Potato Scale of Depression

I’m prone to an almost crippling inability to verbalize my feelings. Some of that is because of Sensory Processing Disorder, and some is probably due to depression and other factors, like my need to feel capable and independent, which results in me pretending I have no feelings whatsoever and consequently getting no practice in identifying them, but the point is: metaphors. I love ’em.

For inexplicable reasons, I find it so much easier to say “everything is mashed potatoes” than to say “I’m lost in a miserable fog of  depression.” (Actually, come to think of it, that second one is also a metaphor, but you get the idea.) Hence: The Potato Scale of Depression.

It’s Not a Good Scale (but it kind of is)

Roughly ten months ago, I really did tell my friends “everything is mashed potatoes,” and thus, The Scale was born. Unlike other scales, there are no numbers, no frowny faces, and no defined increments between items. In other words, it’s a terrible scale. There’s no way to objectively determine how someone is feeling based on the potato scale of depression, but it worked for me during a time when talking about my feelings was both very difficult and very important. It became a kind of inside joke, and my friends would ask me “how are the taters?” and I’d respond with some arbitrary, starchy answer:

“Tots,” or “potato pancakes,” or “undercooked hash browns,” or “just the eyes.”

They’re all utterly meaningless answers, but they started a conversation. We’d debate the relative positive and negative qualities of each dish, and it served (pun intended) to connect us when all I wanted to do was withdraw.

Laughter = The Okayest Medicine

Eventually, I became more comfortable with talking about my emotions. A silly scale opened the door (metaphors are everywhere) to talking about how I really feel. Sometimes using humor to defuse stressful situations and topics gets a bad rap, but it’s incredibly common. Plus, research shows that the right kind of humor can have a protective effect against recurring depression. The adaptive forms of humor (self-enhancing and affiliative) are associated with emotion regulation and positive mental health. The maladaptive forms of humor are the aggressive and self-defeating types. I could probably dedicate an entire post to why I think suicide jokes aren’t funny or healthy, but this is a post about a nonsensical tuber scale. So- perhaps another time. Back to the adaptive humor:

In consequence, an individual can successfully distance himself/herself from a negative situation and appraise its meaning from a less distressing point of view.

When you mentally distance yourself from a negative situation, you’re creating what researchers call “metacognitive awareness,” where thoughts and behaviors are interpreted as “mental events, rather than as the self.” Mental illnesses can often be associated with feelings of guilt and inadequacy, which is why it’s important to take a step back and remember that your symptoms are not character flaws. This has become a regular mantra for me, and anytime I start thinking badly of myself for my symptoms, I turn it around with I’m not lazy, I’m just soggy hashbrowns right now. Y’know, the kind that maybe didn’t get cooked enough, so now they’re getting cold and seeping oil onto your toast. Depending on your humor preferences, this might border on maladaptive, but it reminds me to not get bogged down in a temporary feeling or judgment. And really, what potato dish isn’t still delicious, no matter how poorly cooked?

Depression Scales: PHQ9, Who?

The Potato Scale of Depression is obviously not a tool that will ever be used in any kind of professional setting, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be beneficial. Maybe potatoes aren’t your thing, and some other metaphor would be more helpful. Whatever it is, I know that for me, finding a less clinical way to communicate how I feel has made it way easier to do so.

May you all have curly fries and solid taters for the foreseeable future.

2021 Update: My therapist and I now have a wide repertoire of replacement metaphors, including “clams” in place of “goals” and “feathers” in place of “small barriers between inaction and action.” The Potato Scale of Depression has fallen to the wayside, likely because I have gotten better at saying words about how I feel. Therapy works!

How Do You Measure Hope?

I was sitting in my therapist’s office yesterday, quiet and subdued, while we discussed the challenge of recovering from repeated episodes of depression. I had explained that sometimes I take solace in the knowledge that the episodes eventually end, but other times, I despair that depression will inevitably return. In trying to ask me where I sat on the continuum that day, my therapist posed an interesting rhetorical question.

How do you measure hope?

Neither of us answered it, but I found myself pondering it as I left. We measure things because it helps us put them into the context of the world around us. But how do you measure a subjective thing like hope? Can you weigh it? Stand it up against your kitchen doorframe and mark its growth as the years go by? Or maybe you measure it by volume- how much space it takes up in your life; in your goals; in your routines. If you could measure hope in decibels, would yours be louder than your doubt?

For now, I choose to measure hope in binary terms. Hope is hope, no matter how small or dim. If your hope is small, feed it with the belief that the better times are worth it.


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How Do You Feel? SPD and Sensory Discrimination

Several years ago, I awoke with a slight but sharp pain in my chest. I went about my day, doing my best to ignore it. I thought it was one of those random, passing pains that bodies get sometimes. But the next day, it was much worse. Every time I inhaled, stabbing pain shot through my chest. I also was developing severe pain down my left shoulder blade and around my ribs. I debated going to the doctor for three days; meanwhile, I couldn’t sleep unless I was sitting up, and moving at a pace slightly faster than your local library’s Wi-Fi left me in breathless tears. It turned out that I had pneumonia, which was strange because I hadn’t been sick beforehand, nor was I obviously sick in any way other than having debilitating chest pain.

When I reflect on that experience, my first thought is “why did I not go to the doctor right away?” I’m certainly not a fan of going to the doctor, and I don’t like to draw attention to myself, even from concerned family and friends. But neither of those reasons fully explain why I waited.

I didn’t go right away because I didn’t know if the pain I was experiencing warranted a trip to the doctor. I distinctly remember thinking “am I imagining this?” Let’s let that sink in. I couldn’t get out of bed without first psyching myself up for several failed attempts and some tears, and I wasn’t sure if I was just~~imagining~~it.

My brain is always a little confused about the information it’s receiving because I have trouble with sensory discrimination. When someone asks me “how do you feel”, nine times out of ten I’ll go “I dunno”–because I really don’t. Especially when it’s something new, I don’t know what the heck I’m feeling from outside or inside my body. So, when I mysteriously developed pneumonia, my thought process went a little like this:

Hmm. This hurts. I think my chest definitely hurts. Should I go to the doctor? They’re gonna ask me what it feels like. Is it burning, or stabbing? What’s the difference? Maybe it’s not that bad. How bad is bad? Wait, which came first- the chest pain or the shoulder pain? Are they even the same kind of pain? Maybe I’m imagining it- if I ignore it, it might go away. Good gravy, putting on socks is really hard. I’m probably fine, though.

Because I know that sensory processing disorder (SPD) makes me sensitive to a lot of stimuli, this often leads me to understate how I feel, be it good or bad. I aim to be neutral in all aspects- I’m feeling sensations more intensely or in a mixed-up way, so it must be wrong, right? When you spend many years confused about how you feel, you get pretty good at hiding it. So, on the outside, I can appear relaxed and calm, but on the inside, I feel like that screaming bird meme. You know the one.

My nervous system 85% of the time

Anyway, do as I say, not as I do (did). The problem with approaching sensory discrimination this way is not just that you might neglect yourself when you have pneumonia, although that’s certainly not optimal. On an everyday level, taking this approach perpetuates the confusion and only makes things worse. It takes practice to start listening to your body, and it might take some serious courage to start advocating for yourself. I try to remember that the way I perceive things might be different from what other people feel, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Why I Sometimes Call Self-Care “Corporeal Maintenance”

Sometimes I wish someone would just roll me into the literal body shop and get me a self-care tune-up. Alas, it doesn’t work that way.

I’ve stopped using the term “self-care” to describe a lot of the things I do for myself. Hear me out, though. It’s not because there’s anything wrong with calling it self-care; it’s just that a lot of self-care tasks are not as flowery and gentle as the term implies. Sometimes you have to buckle up and make that phone call you’ve been avoiding so that your dentist doesn’t think you dropped off the face of the planet. (And so that you can get your teeth cleaned, I guess.)

I’ve found that reframing some self-care tasks as “corporeal maintenance” helps me tackle them with less procrastination. Something about approaching these tasks as simply maintenance and upkeep feels less daunting.
Here are some examples:

“Oh, my ‘check hydration tank’ light is on. Better go drink some water.”
“Didn’t I just go grocery shopping, like…oh, yeah, I guess it’s been a while. I should probably get some fuel for this week.”

If I call it “self-care,” I’m likely to not do it – either because I don’t care, or because I don’t feel worthy of being cared for. But, if you want to keep driving to the things you do care about, you have to get the oil changed every once in a while.

There’s a lot of talk about self-care these days; some criticize it and some embrace it whole-heartedly. There tends to be an atmosphere of self-indulgence when we discuss it; as if every act of caring for ourselves is rooted in all-encompassing positivity. And yes, self-care can be self-indulgent and rooted in self-love. Those things are necessary. But self-care is also doing the things that aren’t very fun but are kind of non-negotiable when it comes to being healthy.

It may very well be the case that you do complete these tasks out of self-love, and I think that’s great. In fact, that seems like a wonderful goal to work towards. But if you’re not there yet, and calling those unpleasant/boring tasks “self-care” feels insincere, go ahead and call them something else. Whatever floats your goat.


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