Self-Care: What Is It Good For? Absolutely Everything! (Or, What I Learned from Five Gay Men and a Dog)

 

This summer was my last summer break before I graduate from college (finally!). I took the opportunity to really vamp up my self-care. I did art, made beats, watched movies, read books, took care of errands, feng-shui-ed my house, went to therapy, marathon-ed Netflix, and trained my dog. The last two things turned out to be much more impact-ful that I ever would have anticipated.

I chose to watch the pilot of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy early in July. I really liked it. The more I watched of the series, the more it grew on me, and I wasn’t really sure why. I was a little cautious of why it gave me such excitement and comfort (I looked forward to watching episodes every day), because it has a lot of focus on the exterior of a person (a different straight guy in every episode). I try to bring my attention away from behavior that focuses on appearances the best I can, because focusing on the external things me away from the internal, where I cultivate recovery.

I realized why I had this peculiar love for it when grooming-guru Kyan Douglas said with a stern face to a straight guy, “You need to treat yourself with respect. Moisturize.”

In that one sentence, I realized why I was so delightfully enthralled with Queer Eye. The Fab Five was teaching complete self-care, and really walked the walk. Though their contribution to the straight guys seemed to be material and external, underneath was a much more important practice and commitment that is vital to a healthy psyche: radical self-care.

To the Fab Five, fashion is about loving what you’ve got (and wearing things that fit). Grooming (skin, hair, etc.) is an act of appreciation for the physical body. Interior design is creating an environment for one to live in that is deliberately harmonious and relaxing. The pop-culture expert reminded the straight guys of the importance of relationships and showing love to those you care about. And the chef (oh, the chef), promoted food as a means of connecting with others and strengthening relationships (which is very important, albeit very difficult to integrate into recovery, for we must continuously choose relationships over ED).

When I first began recovery, the term “self-care” did not mean anything, I didn’t understand it, and I was not into participating in it. It is very difficult to care for ourselves when we are doing everything we can (starving, binging, purging) to keep feelings of shame, guilt, anger, self-hatred at bay. Self-care felt wrong and stupid.

However, every time I saw my therapist, she would “make” me set a goal of doing one act of self-care some time during the next week. We began so small: take my medication, drink water, take three deep breaths. Slowly, it began easier to entertain the idea that I could do very small things of self-care. When I was comfortable doing that, I began to expand: draw, watch a movie, read…

At the time it seemed impossible that I would one day be able to engage in bigger acts of self-care that I saw “healthy people” do – like journal, talk to a friend, get my nails done, buy clothes that fit or, the most daunting and impossible of all, feel feelings and survive it and move on.

It all began with not changing my actions themselves, but re-framing a few things that I was already doing in the light of self-care. I usually got out of bed in the morning—instead of viewing this as something that just has to be done, I thought of it as an act of self-care. Washing my hands? Self-care. Breathing? Self-care. Every time I get in the shower, I still think to myself, “I’m doing self-care right now.”

My recovery has never been like a turkey timer: ding, you’re recovered! I cannot contribute my health to any one thing; there was no key to make it all fit together. It is because little by little, millimeter by millimeter, millisecond by millisecond, the times committed to self-care grew greater than the times lost in self-destruction. If a rock is hit ninety-nine times, and it breaks on the hundredth, we cannot contribute the break to the hundredth blow alone. It was the ninety-nine hits that did it. We cannot contribute our recovery to one act; it is about continuous, small steps that over time carry us to the day when we look back, and see progress.

In June, the majority of the responsibility for our dog transferred to me. Before, I had played a secondary role. Our dog is a Jack Russell terrier, and was completely unmanageable, hyper, aggressive, and really just a pain in the ass. Dogs are pack animals. They need leadership that is consistent and capable of taking care of the pack. Without one, they fear that they will die any minute and that they must be alert at all times! If you prove to them that you are consistent and capable of taking care of business, they will trust you with their lives. Our dog was obviously in an I’m-going-to-die-at-any-moment mentality.

I decided to get a trainer, because I just couldn’t handle her, and she was a big source of frustration and anxiety. She is very smart (a blessing and a curse), and she began to respond positively in the first session. As we worked together more and more (every day, twice a day, at least), I could see her becoming happier. I could see how my care was making her happier. It became more fulfilling each day to see her be able to relax. I didn’t realize at first how pivotal this experience was going to be.

By taking care of her, I was shown that, despite what Inner Critic says, I am capable of taking care of something living, and doing it well. It proved to be an extremely healthy purpose for my day. When I didn’t want to get out of bed, I would think, “Gracie needs her walk, and I do like to see her be happy outside…” Being able to respond to her signs of happiness, sadness, anxiety, or fear allowed me to see myself as someone who is capable of responding with care, in a healthy way, to these feelings. I realized that I could do that for something living, even if I could not do it for myself (yet).

I also showed myself what it looks like to act out of love for something that depends on me. I would never, ever, ever do or say things to Gracie that I do to myself (through ED). I would never starve her, stuff food down her throat, make her throw up her food, weigh her every day, or make her exercise when she was sick or injured. I would never measure her worth and value by how much she weighs, or her BMI. I praise her, allow her to eat when she is hungry, give her treats, exercise when she wants, and when she gets into a box of crackers, trust that her body will work it out—I do not make her restrict, vomit, or exercise it away. I do not tell her that she is worthless. I laugh it off, and move on.

 

Self-care is so important in our recovery, because it is the opposite of self-destruction and self-annihilation—it is the opposite of ED. I will never underestimate the importance of self-care, whatever the size or impact of the act is. Acts of self-care are little windows of recovery; little fractions in the blockade of ED; tiny chips at the prison wall. And when the day that we realize how far we’ve come arrives, when we realize that we feel good, when we realize that we haven’t weighed ourselves that day, or that we didn’t feel panic after a snack, or that we didn’t binge, purge, or starve ourselves that day, when we catch ourselves not obsessing about food and body, we may feel surprised, like it snuck up on us.

We must explore what self-care is. We must search for what loving care looks like, feels like, and sounds like. If we do not have (or never had) an example of healthy self-care (and some of us don’t), we must try in other ways to discover it—perhaps, at first, showing it to something or someone else. Then, as we do our work and begin to let go of our self-loathing and shame, it will become easier to begin to care for ourselves that way, one small step at a time.

Gracie

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