If I think back four years I’d never even heard the words self-care before. But that was before my diagnosis with depression, pre-medication and, well, pre-me really, and before you get your hopes up and skip to the end I haven’t got any short cuts or perfect solutions when it comes to looking after yourself, but I do have experience and as my parents always told me, that counts for a lot.
It was late January 2014 and my husband and I had just returned from a wedding anniversary break in the Lake District. A gorgeous few days away indulging in cream teas, warm fires and each other but as they say all good things must come to an end and before we’d even reached the M6 to head southbound for our home in Cheshire the good times had definitely come to an abrupt conclusion. Panicking about my return to work I started to feel physically ill and by the time I rose the next morning I felt full of flu.
At that time, I worked for Macmillan Cancer Support, loved my job and everything it stood for, and my passion was resulting in a steady upwards trajectory in my career, with which came more work and responsibility for a bigger team. My daughter was enjoying school, I was happily married and although I can’t pretend it was idyllic, life was pretty good but, as has become quite the cliché now, something was missing.
I wasn’t one for taking time off work and so on that first day back I logged in from home, booked a Doctor’s appointment and cracked on. Sat in front of the Doctor later that same day I began to talk about how I had this constant cold, wasn’t sleeping too well and just felt under the weather. At that point my life could have gone in a completely different direction, say if the Doctor had prescribed some antibiotics, a good night’s sleep and a return to work, but she didn’t. This was the first of very many times that the universe stepped in (cleverly disguised as a brilliant GP).
Although acknowledging my symptoms, she began to probe a little deeper. Apart from the flu how was life generally? Did I get much help at home looking after my daughter? Did I regularly need to work outside of office hours, whatever they were. Before I knew it she had cracked me open and I sat sobbing right in front of her, not knowing for a second where it was all coming from. Hinting that she might already know what was wrong, she suggested a few tests just to rule anything else out, a week off work and a return to see her in a week’s time.
One week later and she’d barely completed a sentence before I broke down again and that is when she uttered the dreaded D word, depression. Cue complete denial, followed by realisation, medication, 6 months off work and weekly sessions with a counsellor. I was healed…except I wasn’t. All I actually did for 6 months was worry. Why was I depressed? How could I ever come back from this? What would people think of me? And the biggest question of all, with 6 months off to think, why could I not decide what to do next?
Although it took some time to make the final decision I knew I wasn’t going to go back to my job at Macmillan, I knew it wasn’t in me to make the changes I needed to make for that job to work. But I also had no better idea of what I could do and so I went freelance as a marketing consultant, my career before Macmillan and 18 months later, BANG, I was back in the same Doctors surgery, having the same breakdown.
I was put under counselling again, my medication was upped and I was told to change my ways. Try some meditation perhaps? Get outdoors and exercise, even if it’s just walking the dog. Eat well, or at least better and stop working so hard. It was November and despite everything I wasn’t getting any better. Most terrifying of all, suicide was beginning to be something that lingered in my thoughts. It wasn’t so much that I thought about doing it, but that I worried I may wander deeper into those thoughts without realising and who knew where that would lead. I was straying dangerously close to the edge, with no real clue of what to do but then, the universe got involved for a second time.
One of the Mum’s from my daughter’s school had just opened up a Reiki practise and my husband, who’d been plagued by a bad shoulder for months, decided to give it a go. For a short while a decade or so ago his mother had studied Reiki and although I wouldn’t go as far as saying he believed in it, he was more open to the idea than most. He went. His shoulder felt better almost instantly and so I got thinking. My thought process wasn’t quite ‘oh depression, let’s see if reiki might help’ but more of a, ‘I’m in such a bad place can it really hurt’, and so off I trotted.
From that first session my life started to change. Nothing sweeping, in fact at the time it was barely noticeable but now with the benefit of time I can see just how big it really was. In an incredibly subtle way it began to uncover the real me. The me who thrived off creativity but didn't realise. After each session I began to feel a little, well, different. I began to read books I’d never dreamed of picking up before, I started going to yoga and began a regular meditation practise and crucially, I began to take my photography a lot more seriously. Up until this point it was something I loved and had a knack for. Something other mums complimented me on but I'd never thought of doing anything more with it. But now I started to wonder and all the time I kept going back for my weekly reiki session.
By January the following year, some 6 weeks after that first session, I was feeling very different and so motivated that I quit alcohol, sugar and gluten all in one go. I coupled this with a daily yoga practise and by the end of the month I felt, and looked, amazing. Another feature of my new routine was a hot bath at least 3 times a week. I’d fill the bath as high as possible, throw in more than a shovel full of Epsom salts and sit there, often weeping quietly, other times feeling more relaxed than I had perhaps ever felt. I began imaginary conversations with people I’d hurt in my life, talked to grandparents I’d lost and started to believe in things I never thought I would like angels and spirit guides. Once the sobbing had stopped (!) I also began listening to audio books, and in particular a lengthy 11 hours book called View From The Cheap Seats, a recounting of Neil Gaiman's experiences, passions and lessons as an author. Not only did this get my creative buds, well budding, it also got me thinking about how I used to write as a child and how I'd always been complemented as having a 'way with words'.
There was no definite plan to any of this, it just kind of came together but without realising it I’d created a pretty special, and let’s face it darn powerful, self-care practise that happened to involve a large dose of creativity. Spending time with myself, quietening my mind and opening myself up to understand experiences from my past had given me an insight into my own wellbeing I’d never even considered before, and rather a lot to consider about my future, particularly the role photography might now play.
Since then I’ve devoured more audio books on creativity, self-care and spirituality than you can shake a sage stick at and I’m closer than ever to really doing what makes me happy. I’ve completely changed my career and now work as a freelance photographer and writer. I haven’t nailed self-care yet, my yoga practise can be a bit hit and miss sometimes and I’ve returned to bread with a vengeance but I am now more aware of myself than I have ever been. I see the self-destructive habits sneaking back in and stop them before they can get a hold and if all else fails I run a bath, stick on my Spotify playlist and drift.
It worries me that self-care is the buzz word of the moment because it makes it feel superficial. Just take ten minutes to stick on a face mask and you’re healed. It doesn’t work like that. It’s a daily and lifelong commitment to living well, to valuing yourself and appreciating that you simply cannot look after anyone else if you are not looking after you. What’s that saying, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup?’ It’s true. One of the biggest reasons for my depression and ultimate breakdown was my failure to ever, ever put myself first. Sure I found it easy enough to book a weekend away, get my hair done or have a back massage but that wasn’t and would never be enough. Self-care for me is about understanding yourself, knowing what you need rather than what the world says you need and ultimately, it’s the biggie, learning to love yourself.
For me it’s far more than a passing phase. It’s a vital part of my every day existence, just as creativity now is. It's something I want my daughter to grow up doing and to consider as normal a ritual as Yorkshire puddings with Sunday lunch, but most of all it’s the reason I survived and am here to tell the tale.
So, what’s my advice? Hmm I’d love to say yoga, a colouring in book and a weekly bath is the recipe for life-long happiness but despite the myriad of books & magazine articles telling you it is, it really isn’t that easy. Having said that, a good place to start is with your inner dialogue. Are you kind to yourself? Do you even feature in your conversations or is it one long diatribe of what’s next on the agenda? How can creativity become a part of your life, and how big a part? I do believe reiki is what kick-started my healing but also appreciate it’s not for everyone. I do think yoga and meditation are well worth considering. Both will help quieten your mind, and maybe then the real you will get a word in edgeways. Equally never underestimate the benefits of getting outdoors in nature, journaling and if you feel inclined give the universe a shout. You never know who’s listening.
But my biggest recommendation? Stop trying and start playing. Try to remember what you were doing as a child when you felt happiest. Can't think of anything? Then just experiment... take a dance class, try creating a terrarium, write a blog, sew a dress, sing a song... and keep trying until you find something that floats your boat. Something that makes time pass so quickly it's like hitching a ride with Dr Who because you really owe it to yourself to find out. I'm not suggesting you turn whatever it is into a full-time career, or even a side hustle. Maybe it'll just end up being your weekly hour of escape but trust me, that hour will start to make a big difference.