What "take care of yourself" means in a crisis
A friend, not the only one going through this, sent me the following question for the newsletter:
We’re going through a lot in my family, and people keep telling me to take care of myself. But no one ever had concrete suggestions of effective ways to take care of yourself when you have a job, a sick relative, the rest of your family, etc. So, could you look into actual things people in these situations can do to take care of themselves and actual things that well-wishers can do to help them take care of themselves? I suspect that I am not the only witch dealing with stuff who would really like to know the answer.
I ran this by some people I know who have definitely been told “Take care of yourself” in the recent past. Here is what they said, along with some thoughts from the subscriber-only thread on the topic. I hope some of these ideas can help guide you if you know someone who needs help but you don’t know how—or if you need help, you can send a link to this issue and hope your loved ones motivate themselves.
I think the really only answer of “How to take care of yourself” is to be brave enough to identify what you actually need and ask for help. But that also requires a self-awareness of herculean proportions. It’s impossible to handle pain and grief and still do your day-to-day responsibilities equally—some have to ebb and flow with priority. But taking care of yourself is identifying your needs and getting support (whether hired or volunteered) to do them.
I need help leaving the house. I need help making meals. I need help sending emails. I need help putting my clothes away. So these are the things that I need to reply when folks say “What can I do to help?” And whether or not anyone rises to the ask making it not just an empty automatic statement remains to be seen. I am afraid that “What can I do to help?” is the new “How are you? Fine.”
I truly believe that the best gifts for me during times of stress and trauma have been food. Casseroles, soups, stuff I can freeze. So your mind doesn’t have to be tasked with another thing to think about like grocery lists, shopping, prepping and cooking. Is there a way to get food dropped off, or is there a local restaurant or company that cooks and prepares food that you can order? The food serves as a medicine, a salve, a balm that can carry us through. I have found it hard to ask someone to cook for me yet when I did, they seemed happy and eager to help.
All of the love and attention from family and friends is directed towards the sick person (as it should be) but the caregiver is rarely offered a gift or help. You are told you are strong and they’re so lucky to have you and to take care of yourself but that just adds another “task” to your load. I found caregiver forums to be helpful. Sometimes you just have to be in a safe place to say, “This really sucks and is unfair to me too...and yes it’s probably not as bad as being the sick one, but my life has been turned upside down too and I want to scream and feel sorry for myself without seeming like a self-centered cry baby.”
What I’ve learned is if I ever find someone in a caregiver situation who is clearly overwhelmed, I will book a massage or manicure or mandate for them and then cover the caregiving/driving/cooking for them.
When I’m trying to offer support to someone, I suggest ideas for things I can do (eg, “can I come over and take your kid to the park so you can get some rest?),” and if it’s someone I’m close to, I offer to coordinate the help from others. (Eg, “Can I set up a Meal train, tell your friends about it and coordinate all of that?” “Can I help find you a cleaning service to use?”)
Side note: I have a Google doc I created of ways people can help when you have a new baby. I posted this on my fridge and got well-meaning - but not particularly, um, action-oriented - visitors to help.
I’ve found being direct and specific with asks or offers - whether you’re the one going through a challenging time or love someone who is - really helps. For example: “I’m running to the market, I’ll grab you a rotisserie chicken and bagged salad for dinner tonight. When can I drop it off?” Or, “Hey, if you do any meal prepping this weekend, do you mind making an extra dinner for my family to eat on Tuesday?” Even something more simple like: “I’m ordering bulk snack packs on Amazon, can I get a set for your kiddo’s lunch too?” This obviously won’t work with everyone in your life, but it really only takes one or two people who are willing and able to go a tad out of their way.
Once I got past the initial awkwardness of both asking for help and offering what I personally am actually able to do - even if it seems inconsequential to me - I realized how much people in my life are willing to help and how WHO those people actually are is not necessarily who I would have expected.
The main thing I’ve been working on in this area is remembering that “taking care of yourself“ can completely change depending on the situation. Sometimes it means making time to exercise - sometimes it means saying fuck no to exercise. Also it’s ok to numb out sometimes (TV and phone games for me). I’ve also been working on remembering that anxiety medication is actually good for... anxiety. And maybe take it sometimes instead of just trying to power through for no good reason?
The big drains of food, dishes, laundry can often be at least partially delegated without a ton of emotional labor. For me that’s the kind of support I would want. Offering to come by once a week to run a few loads of laundry and do the pile up of dishes could take a huge weight off. Or if you’ve got more money than time, gifting GrubHub gift cards or a pickup wash and fold laundry service.
A meal brought to the house or a an offer to take the 3rd grader to do something fun or to be an able bodied adult so they can take a walk or meditate or talk to a therapist or social worker can help a great deal. The friend who offered to babysit while spouse was inpatient saved my life with her offer.
Outsource every single thing you possible can, to either paid help, family, friends, apps, etc. Groceries and pet food delivered, with some items on repeat so it just arrives without you having to do anything. Give us anything non-essential; prioritize ease and comfort in the little things. Wear comfy soft clothes that feel good, stock snacks that make you happy, pick funny podcasts and audiobooks for your long drives. For me micro-moments of things I like actually go a long way when taking a real break or rest feels impossible.
Brene Brown’s research indicates that only two things can help with depletion — rest and play! That’s it. Stop doing any shit you can stop doing. All of this is easier said than done. Speak your truth and let people react how they will. I have started asking my midwestern mother to fly out regularly (something she hates doing) to help me in California. I send her dates and am specific about my needs (this is a work conference, I need two nights off from parenting). Because you are right, without managing the stress and load it will hurt or kill other people in the family system. Our systems suckkkkkk.
I fucking hate “self care.” At my company, they recently invited a speaker to come talk and she went on and on about how we need to “pack our backpack every day, and fill it with things like sleep, good food, exercise, self-care!” Self-care! And I was like b****, how am I going to do that when I’ve got a full-time job? And I’m a single parent of two really challenging kids? You want to come over at 3:00 a.m. when I’m crying in the tub?
It can be very difficult to accept help, even when you are drowning. I am much more likely to accept targeted offers of help. I have this friction with a neighbors who’s always guilting me that I don’t let her “help.“
Offer to stock freezer. Offer to clean out the fridge. Send the kids over to rake and bag leaves. Apply some SMART goals to that help!
My advice is for the well-wishers: often, the most tangible help you can provide is money. Door Dash gift card, Uber gift card, gas gift card, grocery store gift card, Amazon gift card, paying for a cleaning service, straight up Venmo of cash to be used for whatever. I went through cancer treatment almost five years ago and when people ask me what they can do for a newly diagnosed friend, I always share that treatment for a major illness is expensive in a million big and small ways that all add up very quickly.
Advising self-care is such bunk. If a person going through stressful shit would like a mani-pedi, she is not going to take herself there because she’ll probably be worried the whole time and it will not be enjoyable. Other-care is what’s needed. My offer to new mom acquaintances is always “I will come to your house, and fold laundry, do dishes, and clean your bathroom and not talk to you, and be another adult in the room if you need to use the toilet without bringing the baby in with you, and I don’t know you well enough for you to care what I think or have you feel like you need to entertain me.“ Or, “I will do all the five hours of driving today so you can play Bejeweled on your phone or be on hold with the insurance company or just stay home.“ “I have paid and scheduled someone to clean your gutters for you today while you’re out at appointments.“ “I am picking up all your laundry and taking it home with me and washing/drying/folding it for you, see you later when I come back with your clean clothing and some dinner.“
And the thing is, you have to just DO IT because people hate asking for help. Just show up and say “I’m here to do (specific thing) and if you don’t have any of that to do, I will do (next specific thing), and if you don’t want me to come in your house, I am leaving you with this CASH MONEY to buy/order/deal with whatever you need.“
I also would rather someone who knows I have cats/dog/mess come to help out than a service where I have to now lock up animals and feel embarrassed about strangers coming in to clean. When I was going through chemo, I lost my keys. It was $300 to replace the stupid car key. I think about that all the time. If someone had been like “I’m buying you a new car key, TODAY, here it is, don’t worry about it, stop beating yourself up“ or “Hey, can I give you a ride home from work so you don’t have to take the train?“ I would still be sending them thank-you notes 14 years later - but if someone had said “You need to go get a pedicure, here’s a $20 gift card for some place that you have to call and make an appointment for that you also have to drive to.” I would have been like GEE THANKS ELVIS, I’LL BE SURE TO MAKE TIME FOR THAT.
Every brochure and website drove me crazy with the same language about putting my own oxygen mask on first and doing “self-care.“ Like I had to add another task to my list - and face another front I was failing on. (“Oops! No self-care today! Didn’t even do 1000 steps! Again!”)
I certainly got loud on FB one or two times and friends leapt into the breach. That looked like:
- Dropping off food / casseroles / bread or soup just leaving it at the door with a note. I didn’t have to coordinate anyone’s arrival or be in decent clothes to greet them. I didn’t have to perform like a human in moments when I really wasn’t one. Don’t make me have to answer any texts about schedules or timing. Don’t make me be overly grateful in a way that puts the burden on me. Do something nice and practical that I don’t have to manage. One time I just needed - CAT LITTER. I can’t remember why I couldn’t go buy it but someone dropped it off.
- Another friend asked IF it would help to bring a gal posse to my parents’ house and deal with some of the house to-do list crap that had overwhelmed me. Yes to her question - I sent a quick and LONG list of things I had a problem with - yielded a great Saturday cleaning frenzy w/those friends. Who fixed and dealt with all these things I didn’t know how to fix (a leaning fence. Mold on a bathroom ceiling - I’d never heard of Killz paint. The gas grill I thought was leaking or broken. The leaves that hadn’t been raked out of a soggy crawl area in several years and were becoming home to bugs.) I just made a list and four women who are actually SuperHeroines fixed my broken life.
- Ask a friend for the night off - buy yourself a night of no worrying. A movie or something distracting but have your friend make the arrangements.
- Offload the responsibility for a holiday / celebration to someone else: Right after my mom died my parents’ neighbors organized a little 80th bday for my dad - at our house - just with cake and some fun party hats or something colorful - they just wanted to make sure he was celebrated while we were all too exhausted to plan. It made a huge difference to know someone else was taking on a (female-coded) responsibility for “marking an occasion” and making sure someone wasn’t forgotten. I always felt so exhausted by running around making sure birthdays were special, including for our caregiver.
I did something similar with Thanksgiving - I ordered the entire dinner delivered from a restaurant. They needed work during the pandemic and all I had to do was put out a few platters so it looked festive - it was THE BEST THANKSGIVING EVER.
- Ask for help. Make a list of shit you can’t deal with and then ask a really good friend to see if she can assign tasks to your wider circle. Like - don’t be in charge of getting stuff done - just make the list and ask someone else to manage it.
- Lots of bad TV.
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The archives live here. A few older issues, if you want to peruse, cover rage, buying and selling used clothes online, the menstrual mysteries of being middle aged, and sitting in the dark waiting for your kids to go to sleep.
Due to a four-day-week, playoff baseball, houseguest and new work projects situation I’m going to send out a paid subscriber-only thread or email next week; the free version will return the week of the 17th.
I was running out of space but a retired therapist friend (who had to take care of an ailing spouse who later died when she was a young mother) sent along these self-care tips she would share with her patients, which has some other good ideas for basic "taking care of yourself" (like staying off the news.) http://www.karenrowinsky.com/self-care-tips.html
I tried and failed to write a cogent comment in the subscriber thread and after thinking about it for a while, I think it’s because self-care or whatever you call it is so much easier for me in a crisis. When I was balancing cancer mom with toddler and husband with a leg broken in four places, I was militant about my excercise, and meal planning and my decompression and talking to my therapist and my need for sleep etc. Because I felt I could justifiably say “no” to work and women centric mental load stuff like “weekend enrichment activities.”
But now? Without the crisis? All of the ridiculous work that is structurally built into my life makes it SO HARD to add things that are time consuming for me (like yoga classes) to my day, even if they’re a net psychic gain.