Self-care isn’t easy, but it’s necessary
“No one is going to die.” He said it with enough confidence for me to listen and the head of grey made me believe him.
“Listen, no one’s going to die,” he continued. “This job is easy.”
It was just four weeks into my career as a social worker; a few months removed from getting my master’s degree and going through the painstaking process of figuring out what to do with the rest of my life. I thought that finishing college would solve that problem, but graduate school only made it worse. Wondering if I made the right choice was a constant theme, both in my mind and in conversations with my peers. I was twenty-five, green, and in need of advice, solicited or otherwise.
I looked up from my desk and nodded. “It’s that easy, huh?”
He leaned back and braced himself, the way that your elders do when preparing to tell you a joke — the kind that has just enough truth to make you get your shit together.
“This job? Yeah — you know, in my old job, that was the concern. Every day, we just wanted to make sure that everyone was alive. As a psychologist in a clinic or hospital, if everyone’s still alive at the end of the day, that’s a good day. Here, what’s the worst that could happen? You don’t answer an email on time?”
It’s been seven years and that bit of advice sticks with me. No one is going to die. I just wish that I believed it then, as much as I do now.
My heart was going to explode and the crowd of people surrounding me wasn’t making it any easier to breathe. I was Brooklyn-bound on the 4-train, bracing myself against the railing.
“The next and last stop is Crown Heights Utica Avenue.” The speaker was the only thing that kept me present. My eyes were closed and the sweat was beginning to seep through my dress shirt. I could feel my body sway, even though the train had yet to move.
“Are you okay? Do you want to sit down?”
I opened my eyes long enough to wave her off. Being the sick passenger on a New York City train was the last thing that I wanted to check off my bucket list. I’m good. I can make it.
The train jerked into gear and left the station. Before I knew it, my knees ceased to work and I found myself sitting on the floor. I wasn’t good. Without hesitation, she got up and motioned for me to sit down. I took her up on the offer.
That was my first panic attack. My heartbeat could have been used as a Kanye sample and the nausea rivaled any twenty-something-year-old’s drunkest of nights. I still can’t remember how I made it out of the train and up the steps. I still can’t remember how I made it home. However, I do remember checking my bank account just moments before and seeing a negative balance. My summer job ended weeks ago and I was getting by on my last paycheck. My school loan and subsequent refund check were delayed, but my bills weren’t. I could barely afford the train fare for the orientation at my new internship and I needed to support my family. The funds came through that weekend, but the damage was already done.
The crux of my job lies in developing and providing training on several topics related to mental health and poverty. When asked to facilitate a session on self-care for our interns, I laughed.
“Me? Self-care? Listen, in college, we had the two-thirds rule. You can have two out of three: good grades, a good social life, and or sleep. I was an ‘A student’ and popular as hell because I don’t do self-care. I’m not your guy.”
Yet, they decided and I was their guy.
My training partner and I were already friends, so we made the most of it. There were jokes, heartfelt stories, a skit that won over the crowd, and some concrete skills that they could take with them. Then came the question-the one that I knew someone would ask.
“What if I don’t have time for self-care?”
We were prepared.
“We’re glad you asked. Here’s a handout of things that you could do, even when you feel like you have no time. Maybe you only have five minutes or ten minutes to yourself. We’re not saying that you need an hour a day to work out, but what can you do in five minutes? How many pushups can you do in five minutes? What’s stopping you? If you have five minutes, you can do pushups anywhere.”
Surprisingly, it worked. We left the room feeling more energized than before and I couldn’t make it back to my desk without weaving through a few interns doing pushups in the middle of the office. I sat at my desk, smiling and listening to “The Blacker the Berry” by Kendrick Lamar:
I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015
Once I finish this, witnesses will convey just what I mean
Self-care? I’m not that guy.
For the past thirty-two years and counting, I’ve been the guy that shows up to work early and leaves late. I’m the friend that you call at 4 AM and the shoulder to cry on when the tissue box is empty. I’m the guy that still lives by the two-thirds rule. And, what do I have to show for it? High blood pressure, thinning hair, anxiety sharp enough to pierce the skin, and perpetual exhaustion serving as a reminder that I’m only human. No one is going to die, but I might.
Whenever I think back to that conversation, I laugh at how cavalier I was. It’s such a simple phrase and one that won’t apply to all situations. However, it’s a solid reminder and mantra that I’ve come to embrace. It helps me prioritize what’s important and focus on what I need to make it through the day.
I don’t pretend to have the answers. If I did, I wouldn’t have written this. I just want to do better and I want the same for others. Self-care is a choice that I need to make every day. So, if you see me doing pushups on the street, you know why.
Drop down and join me.