My parents always pushed me to achieve when I was growing up, and also just to get through life and to do things that matched up with our “family values”. This included getting a B or above in my classes, always being on some sort of sports team, always being involved in music, always keeping up with friends and family, and things like that. While this might sound like my parents were helicopter parents, or “soccer-mom” types, they really were not. Whether or not I participated in any activity was not up to me. I might have expressed interest in something, and they might let me do it, if they thought it was right for me; or I might say that I hated something (such as I hated soccer), but they forced me to do it anyways. Unlike the traditional soccer-mom family, I didn’t have a choice in what sports I participated in, and didn’t have the choice to say no to any of these extra-curricular activities or to even express my concern about them. And, my parents would make me participate in this stuff or even go to school when I was very sick.
A good example of this was my experience in soccer. In the 3rd grade, I contracted Scarlet Fever. I was very, very sick, and basically laid on a sofa and was in and out of consciousness for at least a week and a half. I was miserable, and I’m lucky to have lived through it. Afterward, I developed allergies and asthma. I also was extremely fatigued for six months or more. During the time, too, that I had Scarlet Fever I was sexually abused by at least one adult in my family and my Dad still yelled at me because I was so lazy, as if I should be able to get up and function despite having Scarlet Fever at the age of 7.
This obviously made it hard for me to rest, and was what commonly happened when I was sick. My parents would say that I needed to “get it together” and to “force myself to do things even if I didn’t feel like it”. And, they would force me to play sports before I was ready or when I was sick because it was part of our “family values”. After I had Scarlet Fever, for example, I had issues running because of asthma and fatigue. But, my parents forced me to play soccer anyways. This led me to really hate soccer when I might otherwise have enjoyed it. At that point, too, I had not yet been diagnosed with asthma because although I kept complaining about my breathing issues and my fatigue, they acted (and probably called me) like I was a baby and was just whining for attention. My Dad’s reaction was to tell me to “stop whining” instead of taking me to the doctor. The result of this was that I had a severe asthma attack in the middle of a soccer game and passed out right on the field. The girls on the other team were bullies, and kicked at me with their soccer cleats and actually ran over me. It was extremely traumatizing and painful, and the asthma attack was likely life-threatening. My parents finally had to concede that I wasn’t faking it and actually took me to the doctor, where I was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. And, they never made me play soccer again after that. But, it took all of this just for them to believe me and get the appropriate medical help.
Eventually all of my parents influence, though, about “pushing yourself” and “not showing weakness/”complaining” led me to never learn very good self care, even though I was sick much of the time and was diagnosed with depression and PTSD when I was 13 or 14. The phrase “You have to force yourself to do things that you don’t want to/don’t feel like” has always run through my head and even continues to today. Other phrases that run through my head are things like “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” and things like that, which has led me to have issues asking for help. These thoughts really controlled me more than I realized until I started working through trauma and became to understand where they come from and how much of an impact they had on my life.
Still, I had learned some self-care on my own as a child, and when I got to college and didn’t have my parents around to perpetuate these ideas as much, I would rest and stay home from classes if I was very sick. The issue was, though, that I still would do homework and stay in classes when I was having issues with my auto-immune diseases or fatigue, rather than what most people would do in my situation, which would likely be to take a quarter off. But in my mind that was not a possibility, meaning that my self-care was not as great as it could have been.
And this is the basic pattern of self-care that I had for most of my life. I would practice self-care, but I wouldn’t stay home or just rest and relax entirely. I might still be working, going to school, going to AA meetings, doing other AA activities, and/or working out on a regular basis even when I was really sick. I had a hard time just putting everything on hold and taking care of myself, no matter how sick I was. I might rest for a day or a half-day when I really needed to, but then would get up as soon as I even felt marginally better and resume my life, which I felt like I just had to do because of all of those messages that I learned from my parents. This was also perpetuated in AA when people would act like you have to go to meetings even if you are sick or struggling with health issues, mental, emotional, or physical, and that sobriety mattered more than anything else in life.
I was, then, practicing self care to the best of my ability considering what I had been through in my life. But, I really wasn’t doing it because I loved, cared about myself, or had compassion for myself. I did it to survive. And, as I said, I never even considered that I should truly slow down and say, not exercise for a week, when I had a couple days of fever, or that I might want to stay home from AA for a time. I just kept going and “forcing myself” to do things. The result is that I have been in a flare of my physical symptoms on and off for about four years. Even during this time, though, I have pushed myself to the point of pretty severe exhaustion, which has led to worsening physical and mental health symptoms. This is especially true when it came to my tendency to go to AA meetings, call people in the program, etc., when I should have been resting at home.
The other issue that drove a lot of my inability to rest and fully practice self-care is that I had undiagnosed and untreated ADHD and autism. This meant that on top of all of those messages that my parents and other people gave me about being tough and to keep going and things, I also really had a hard time fully practicing self care due to hyperactivity. I also didn’t always notice when I was sick, which likely was a result of ignoring the illness, suppressing the illness, and just the fact that I had troubles paying attention to myself and my symptoms due to ADHD. People actually would call me the “energizer bunny” because I would just keep going and seemed to have an excess of energy even when I was sick. These were conditions that my parents ignored or even tried to make out as “good traits’ that I had, even though teachers and health care workers had expressed concern about them to my parents throughout my childhood.
I finally got the diagnoses for these two conditions this past September, and started on Ritalin in January. I’m feeling like my thinking is becoming clearer and clearer now that I’m on these medications and have been working on the trauma that I experienced for some time. My thinking first started to clear up in about 2015, when the fog of denial first started to lift. But it took me awhile to finally equate this with practicing self-care.
Today I’ve also developed compassion for myself, self-love, caring, and other things that are necessary for what I feel is true self-care. I do not practice self care anymore just to survive or to “get things done”. I practice self-care today because I truly want to feel better and to live a good life, and I care about myself enough to really slow down when I need to. This attitude has made all the difference for me. Also, I am able to hear and then discard those thought that I know are really just repeats of my parent’s abuse in my head. I don’t stop the thoughts, though; I just don’t act on them and know that they are not something that I need to listen to. I do this because I have a history of thought-stopping, and right now it is important for me to just let any and every thought come in order to break this habit. Eventually I might practice some more traditional work of trying to work on and change my thoughts, and I do this sometimes, but for now I need to break my tendency to thought-stop.
Now that I’m on medication, too, I can slow down and feel how I really feel, and relax when I need to. I’m learning how not to suppress both my emotions and any physical symptoms that I may have. While it can be uncomfortable for me to learn not to suppress how I feel physically, and to pay attention to it and fully feel it, I’m learning how to do this. And, now that I am becoming less and less dissociated, I am really feeling my symptoms much more than I did. But, while this is uncomfortable for me, it is good, because it allows me to take better care of myself and to understand and address my symptoms.
The journey to self-care, then, for me, has been a process. In order to really practice good self care I have had to understand and work through my childhood abuse to the extent where I am not as controlled by the messages that I received, I have had to work on reducing my dissociative symptoms, I’ve learned mindfulness in order to deal with unpleasant and new thoughts that I had previously suppressed, I’ve had to learn to feel and experience my emotions, I’ve gotten the right diagnoses for physical, mental, and developmental issues and am on the right medications, I’ve had to look at my past and see where I can do better, I’ve had to leave abusive situations and people, I’m learning how to truly read my body for the first time (meaning that I’ve had to increase my intuition too), and I’ve had to learn how to truly love and have compassion for myself, and more. I’ve discovering that learning to truly practice self-care is a complicated process, one which does not happen overnight.
Hopefully my health will improve now that I am really practicing self-care. Sometimes, I worry that I did not learn self-care soon enough, though, because Chronic Active Epstein Barr can be fatal if a person does not practice self-care and disease management in time. Hopefully, I am learning how to do this with time to spare. Time will tell.
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