Self-Care is Not What You Think
When I quit drinking alcohol, the most consistent advice I received was to practice self-care. The Sober Sensei said, “Start a morning routine.” But I’d been bio-hacking the effects of heavy drinking with morning routines for years. Working out, intermittent fasting and yoga were already daily habits. My muscles were toned, hair and make-up were fresh, and I never slept past 7 am. But as the wise ones also said, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” So I traded my quick-cup-of-coffee for a slower tea “ritual” and started a gratitude list. Morning routine: check.
Self-care seems self-explanatory. Shower on a regular basis; eat some vegetables; don’t borrow money unless you need a kidney. It’s the opposite of self-destruction. Self-care is self-love in action. People who feel affection for themselves don’t tolerate abuse. They don’t fat-shame, kink-shame or slut-shame; they’re aging gracefully. Boundaries are expected and respected. We like to be around people who like themselves–they exude stability.
Alcohol Use Disorder is an Emotional Rollercoaster
In early sobriety, sober newbies are also warned, “To heal, you must feel.” As a highly sensitive person, that advice left me confused and frustrated—legit emotions that served as proof this advice wouldn’t be very helpful to me either. I felt feelings all day every day—good ones, bad ones—the entire rainbow of sentiment. I wasn’t one of those drinkers who drank to numb the pain or escape my life. I drank to celebrate. And relax. Totally different. If anything, drinking alcohol made me too sensitive. I could do a bipolar back-tuck from sappy happiness to homicidal rage without breaking a sweat.
Diligent self-care kept me off the “problem drinker” radar. I paired quality wines with nutritious food and top-shelf cocktails with healthy activities like a professional sommelier. I was busy doing it right. Unfortunately, my commitment to what I thought of as self-care was just the loophole in addiction. I earned every drink and worked off any excess with mental math. If I drank too much, I forgave myself and ran a few extra miles. When I said or did something stupid, I apologized to whomever needed to hear it and drank extra water to flush out my shame. I loved myself enough to admit I wasn’t perfect. My self-care routine was brilliantly designed to neutralize the negative side effects of alcohol.
That’s not self-care. It’s the spin cycle of detox and retox. Rinse and repeat.
DENIAL: Don’t Even Know I Am Lying
In hindsight, my decisions as a high-functioning drinker weren’t based on self-care. Sure, my well-being was important. I worked hard to be happy and healthy—emotionally and physically. But I equated being happy and healthy with being able to drink. Clearance for happy hour was easiest to attain if I followed the simplified problem-solving methods of breezy television sitcoms. Daily issues were neatly resolved by early evening or saved for tomorrow’s episode. Life’s too short to not smell the rosè.
It’s taken nearly two years of recovery for me to realize that self-care is not self-indulgent. It is not making myself pretty and presentable whilst balancing bad habits with health hacks. Self-love does not include self-denial and self-sabotage. It’s not saying one thing, doing another and then arguing that it doesn’t matter. I was gaslighting myself with alcohol use disorder– manipulating my body and my brain to maximize time and space for my addiction.
The Battle of Wits: You Can’t Out-Logic the Truth
Self-care is honest. Inconvenient. Hard. It’s separating fact from fiction by paying more attention to how we feel than what we think–which changes often. Case in point: “I’m never drinking again; I’ll just have one; Ah, fuck it.” When we feel bad, it’s a sign that something is off—a deeper truth. The mind makes assumptions and will believe anything that seems logical. We’re easily misled and confused—especially by social norms and group think. The truth resonates in our emotions—the body cannot be fooled. After years of using my brain to trick and outsmart my body, this has been a huge mental shift.
All emotions serve a purpose—including the pesky and painful ones. Positive emotions are fun–they tell us that our needs are being met. Negative emotions are warning signs of inconsistency—cognitive dissonance. Pretending you’re not angry or hurt or afraid because you shouldn’t be or don’t want to be is like pretending you don’t have to poop. After a while, being full of shit gets uncomfortable. Taking the time to notice and process what you’re feeling is like taking the time to go to the bathroom. Stop, look and listen to your emotions—this is the foundation of self-care. You can’t fix a problem with the same thinking that created it. That’s why we make rhymes out of cliches– stinkin’ thinkin’ and feeling leads to healing—they are generally true and easy to remember.
Self-Care is Surrender
Here’s an example of how self-care can be counterintuitive. My football-loving husband and I were in a hotel room. He was watching a playoff game. Due to the time zone in our location, it was only halftime at 11 pm. We had to get up early and I was ready for bed. The lights and sounds coming from the television would make it impossible for me to sleep. We were at an impasse: he felt entitled to finish the game; I felt entitled to my rest.
We agreed on a compromise. He’d mute the sound and I’d put on a sleep mask. It wasn’t ideal for either of us. He couldn’t hear and I could still see flickering lights. My anger festered as the clock passed midnight. What an ass! I would never do this to anyone. And HE would never allow this bullshit if he was trying to sleep. What the fuck!?!
My mind was spinning this story into an epic battle of good and evil. Cortisol raged through my body. I concluded that this situation was a clear sign of disrespect—a sign that my loving husband was not who I thought he was—or worse, exactly what I suspected. He’s a bully. I’m his victim. This is not okay.
The Truth Will Set You Free
You can’t fight for peace and expect to win. I suddenly realized the problem was not the television. Or my husband. The problem was my thinking. The source of my anger was my own mind. I was pissing off myself with this story. I’ve fallen asleep in busy airports. On windy beaches. With an infant sucking on my boob. The light penetrating my mask was not the issue.
Self-care requires us to practice awareness. Awareness is being able to recognize the difference between what is happening in the world and what is happening in our minds. In this situation, I had to choose between allowing my brain to run off leash OR processing my anger like an adult.
It was hard to know how to love myself in that moment. I was so right. (Also, fuck the patriarchy and the double standards that come with it.) But trusting my emotions to show me the problem (instead of my thoughts) allowed me to solve it. Ripping the television off the wall and calling my lawyer to initiate the launch sequence for divorce would not have helped me sleep.
I wrenched my focus away from the drama in my head and began to soothe my body, one breath at a time. The anger felt like heat and pulsing and tightness. My heart raced; my ego screamed. But the less I paid attention to those thoughts and stayed present with the experience, the more the negative energy dissipated. It took about 30 minutes to fall asleep.
What You Pay Attention to Grows. What You Neglect Dies.
Under the influence of alcohol use disorder, this situation would have ended badly—for me. I would have drank to dull my anger and/or let it rip until someone called hotel security. Either way, I would have suffered. Instead, I paid attention to what I really needed—peace and sleep–and let go of what I didn’t want—anger and drama. Being sober has allowed me to develop coping skills and to problem-solve on my own behalf.
Self-care is learning to manage the mind by respecting our emotions—allowing for them instead of trying to change or suppress them. It’s not easy to grasp that emotions are triggered by our thoughts—not by what’s happening around us. But once you make the distinction, you are no longer a victim of circumstance. You don’t need other people to change or specific conditions to happen or mind-altering substances to make you feel okay. Learning to withstand emotional discomfort long enough to identify the source allows you to move beyond it. Self-care is freedom.
Bottom line: For many of us in early sobriety, self-care can feel like babysitting a colicky infant. You’re never quite sure if you’re hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Maybe you need to eat. Or have a nap. Maybe you need to take yourself on a walk. Or a drive. Or a vacation. The sooner you make peace with the fact that self-care is a necessity and not a luxury you can’t afford, the better. Whenever I hear myself think, “I don’t have time to take care of myself,” I respond with, “You don’t have time to NOT take care of yourself!”
Self-care is not about checking off items on your to-do list. Check in with yourself and respond with compassion. Effective self-care takes practice—it’s a skill you have to learn. It’s exhausting at first—caring full time for a needy human always is. It gets easier as you get to know yourself. You’ll be able to anticipate your needs and enjoy your own company. You’re worth the effort.
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