The Courage to Care for Myself

I had to learn an essential – and frightening – lesson in order to get well.  It came about eighteen months into the journey, when my new doctor, Barbara, was explaining to me the steps I would need to take.  Excited to have any sort of plan, I said, “Just tell me what I need to do and I can make it happen.  I can push through anything.”  She quickly replied, “That’s exactly what made you so sick.  What made you sick, will not make you well.”

Doh!  Yet, what did that mean for me?  I could look at almost every achievement in my life and point to the hard work, persistence and raw determination as my success factors.  If I couldn’t use those strengths, what did I have?  Who was I without those strengths?  They were a part of me.

Sadly, I wasn’t ready to – or maybe couldn’t? – let go of those strengths.  Another six months passed and another major relapse occurred.  Without any judgment, Dr. Barbara said to me, “Bobbi, you have a very clear choice to make: do you want to get well?  If you do, you simply have to try a new approach.  As it is, from this moment on, if you become really serious about taking care of yourself, you are probably facing two more years of recovery.”

It was a numbing moment.  I had always believed that no matter what challenge was in front of me, I could force my way through it and overcome it.  I was proud of that.  Now, it was, quite literally, making me sicker.  And, let’s be honest: did that mean I would simply sit around and wait for something to happen?  Definitely NOT a strength of mine.

What I learned over the next two years is that taking care of yourself is hard work.  For me, it was having the discipline to eat in such a way that I was intentionally nurturing my body.  It was having the courage to listen to my body when it was begging me for sleep and rest.  I say courage because there were plenty of people who were surprisingly judgmental when I said I needed to rest.  I had to stay focused on what I knew I needed to do, instead of being distracted by trying to earn the approval of someone who really didn’t understand all that my body had been through.  Winning the approval of others used to be important to me.  It hurt when someone that I barely knew felt compelled to criticize me for resting.  I didn’t know it at the time, but essentially what I was learning to do was to give myself permission to care for myself, even when that meant that I had to put myself first.  Putting myself first is not something that I was taught to do or something that felt comfortable.  If I was going to survive, however, it was essential.  It is also at the heart of personal change.  We often put ourselves last, which undermines our goals and efforts to change.  I also learned that caring for ourselves is not selfish; caring for ourselves is absolutely necessary if we want to have the capacity to care for and help others.

As I got deeper into my recovery, I also learned how to gently challenge myself.  I was afraid at first.   How would I know when I was ready to try running again or biking?  What if I tried it and I suffered a relapse?  Fear.  What a paralyzing emotion.  Eventually, however, it became more painful not to try than the fear about a relapse. I found the quote by Anais Nin and let it inspire me:

“There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful
than the risk it took to blossom.”