Caregivers are often told to take care of themselves, and sometimes this advice is a little annoying.
Exactly how am I supposed to take care of me? Not give my mom her pills in the morning? Go to the gym instead? Not take her to physical therapy? Not help my kids with their homework or fix dinner? Just soak in the bathtub all day? Right…
Yes, the stress builds and you can’t sleep, you’ve gained 40 pounds and you’re pretty sure you’re depressed but you don’t care to go to the trouble it would take to find out. Self care sounds like a fairy tale most days, but don’t think that the self-help movement is some new-age 70s feel good way of thinking. It’s not. In fact, it’s as old as Socrates…
One of my favorite books is Eye Witness to History, edited by John Carey. It’s first hand accounts recorded throughout history, and as a memoirist and writer, I love having a front row seat to the most stunning and scary historical moments man has ever witnessed.
The first account is written by Plato and recounts the death of Socrates. The year was 399 B.C., and for those of you (us) who might be a bit fuzzy about Greek history, Socrates was a philosopher and teacher, (and he’s still widely debated today–both as an individual and for his teachings). He got in a bit of trouble with the Atenian government and was considered a “gadfly” (a fly who stings the horse into action). He wound up in prison and was proved guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens (political minds, that is) and was ordered to drink a deadly mix of hemlock poison, which killed him.
On the last day of Socrates life, his friends, including Plato came to visit him and asked, “Do you wish to leave any directions with us about your children, or anything else. What can we do to serve you?”
Socrates replied: “Nothing new. If you take care of yourselves , you will serve me and mine and yourselves.”
So this idea of caring for yourself first is the best way to care for another isn’t new. It just makes sense and that’s why it’s been around for so long. When we “sacrifice” ourselves for too long, we lose ourselves, we deplete who we are. Sometimes it’s needed–giving all you have–but it isn’t a sustainable long-term model.
During the last couple of years of my mom’s life (she had Parkinson’s, heart disease and Alzheimer’s), I can tell you, there wasn’t a whole lot of self-care going on. I had to pull it out–long hours, lifting my mom, hospital stay after hospital stay. I rested when I could–napped in the middle of the day–or any other time for that matter, took long showers. when my family members could take over “mom duty.”
I simplified my life–letting go of work, friends, saying goodbye to many activities–but I held onto a few lifelines. I journaled every day. Not a lot, but when the tears or screams built inside, I’d anchor them onto a page. I slipped outside to pray and think, allowing nature to nurture me. I returned to take a college class one night a week–up until the last six months of my mom’s life. I got a new puppy to bring us all joy and laughter and remind us that life does indeed go on. Other aspects of my life were put on hold. That’s just part of it–for a season.
Self-care isn’t always a bubble bath and candles. It isn’t impractical nor is it selfish. The only way for a caregiver to do it is to incorporate small amounts of self-care throughout the day. Read a line or two of a poem. Buy your favorite coffee and refuse to get up off that couch and take care of anyone until you drink that first cup. Put a lock on your bedroom door and use it. Take short five-minute walks in your yard. That may be all the self-care you get to, but those few snatched moments here and there add up. You’ll find a sense of calm comes over you when you’ve honored your own soul.
Take care of you and yours and you will serve me well. Good advice. No wonder Socrates is still remembered today.