What taking care of yourself looks like in real time

gustave flaubert quote about work and creativity

I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but when I was a girl, I had a brilliant notion: what if I could have all of the sicknesses of my lifetime at once, rather than having them parceled out here and there, when they were least expected and seldom welcome?

Or, because I quickly figured out my genius solution would probably kill you (after a few mind-blowing days of unspeakable agony), what if we could at least choose when we’d have them, rescheduling broken bones and burst appendixes from rare or inconvenient times (holidays, big presentations, nice weather in Chicago) to dull stretches where nothing is going on, anyway?

Like most things that seem like a great idea until you see them played out on an episode of Twilight Zone, I eventually figured out the flaw in Plan B as well: there is never, ever a time when it’s good to be sick; there are only times when it’s less awful than other times.

* * * * *

Staying healthy has both hard and “soft” costs attached to it, just like getting sick does. But because we don’t notice health nearly as much as we do the lack thereof, it’s hard to get people to pay upfront. Nothing new here. And of course, this refusal to deal with something until it’s in tatters or on fire, demanding our attention, is not limited to our physical well-being. How many people do you know who have harnessed the Magic of Compound Interest by maintaining a fully-funded 401-K from the time they entered the workforce? Or, closer still to home, who have never run out of toilet paper? I mean, really, toilet paper! If there’s one thing that’s easier to make sure you have handy, I don’t know what it is. And yet,

Well, let’s leave this train of thought while the disembarking is good, shall we?

* * * * *

It is very, very easy for me to tell myself I will pay myself Thursday for a hamburger today, and gladly. To stay up late working or, even more stupidly, watching Jackie Brown for the 57th time. It is easy to say I should go to a particular event, that one of my promises to myself was to keep my promises, and that breaking them will cause me as much or more stress as keeping them. It is easy to not exercise, to drive rather than walk, to eat poorly rather than well. It is as easy to say “yes” as it is hard to say “no”, and the consequences of a flippant choice are so far down the road that surely, we reason, a conveniently-timed meteor or other bit of TBD pixie dust will save us between now and then.

For me it is easiest of all to work, and to work poorly, honoring neither the time it takes to do work well, nor the extracurricular effort that goes into maintaining the infrastructure upon which the work relies. Forget what’s theoretically possible; being ill these past five months has forced me to examine what is honestly possible, and desirable, and tenable.

While I’ve (mercifully) always been a woman of narrow interests, this go-round of illness has forced me to narrow them to a point I would not have believed possible.1 These days, I work and I take care of myself, and that’s about it. Sometimes I marvel at all of the purely social activities I hear other people talking about (on Twitter and Facebook, since I rarely go out). To me a weekend is just a calmer, quieter couple of days where the phone stops ringing, the emails at least slow down, and I feel less of a pang shutting down operations to get some rest. And I’m fine with that, there will be other times with a different mix of activities, just like there were before.2

For writers, at least, good work, like contentment, comes from boring, well-ordered lives.3 The more mental and physical clutter I removed from my life, the more room was left to do my work.

But the clearing also makes more obvious the crufty tangles that are left. Money murkiness. Patchy systems. Sludgy workflows.

So part of taking care of myself has been crazy stuff you’d think had nothing to do with taking care of yourself, all of it having to do with imposing structure. For example, my return to the uniform: establishing one look and investing in multiples to reduce stress around dressing and traveling. Dividing my week into sectors for reading, writing, and talking. I can’t speak for the BDSM crowd, but in my little pedestrian, decidedly non-kinky way, I’ve found constraints very freeing, so much so that I continue to implement new systems as I tweak the old ones, testing for friction all the time.

The biggest recent shift in my self-care has been a rededication to GTD. Although really, what I’m doing has a whole lot less to do with any particular system for organizing one’s stuff and a whole lot more with slowing things down to get clear. Which is, I think, what the best systems are: clearly thought out. Eight years after discovering David Allen’s book, I’m finally getting that the crux of the system is the questioning: What’s the next action? Where does this go? What does “done” look like? And that the questions themselves must be asked every single time, slowly and painstakingly before swiftly and organically. Organization doesn’t come from occasional actions any more than health comes from popping an occasional vitamin. Truly taking care of myself means living in truth all of the time, not just when it is convenient.

I don’t know yet what “well” looks like. It may end up not looking at all like robust good health I’ve been dreaming of since my Crohn’s onset, health that lets me spend my energy as cavalierly as I did in my 20s and 30s.

But as I finally (knock wood, throw salt over shoulder, stab a leprechaun) pull out of this flare, I have a better idea of what putting “well” first looks like for me. It is as predictable as a uniform and as strictly run as the Catholic elementary school I wore mine to for eight years. It trades the highs of coffee for the gentle buzz of tea. It favors dollars placed toward proper food and time invested in preparing it. It goes to bed early. It enjoys fellow travelers. It dislikes drama. It spends a surprising amount of time in the bathtub and on foot.

It’s my boring-ass new life, and it is awesome.

xxx
c

1When I was in recovery from my Crohn’s onset, back in 2002-03, my illness was so profoundly far-reaching that convalescence was the sole item on the menu. This particular almost-flare is more like having a flu that’s constantly teetering between a plain old cold and walking pneumonia that’ll put you down for months, or descend quickly into some unknowable, unnamable worse. Gray areas are the hardest to navigate on your own, health-wise. At least, they are for workaholics.

2Okay, I don’t solely work and rest. Over the past several months, I’ve lunched and dined with friends two handfuls of times, seen at least one movie in an actual movie theater, attended a party for at last a half-hour, and been to hear live music, a comedy show and a play. The play, which is running through May 29, I highly recommend (and I recommend very few plays). If you live in Los Angeles and like your theater well-done and funny, it’s a must-go.

3 This gets into semantic jockeying, but for our purposes, that other contentment-plus stuff I find comes more from peak experiences. That poor, poor word “happiness” has been so batted about that I wonder what it means anymore. I tend to think my friend Gretchen, who for my money is the smartest, most accessible writer on the topic of happiness today, really writes about contentment. But it’s not her fault the filthy hordes came in and mucked up a perfectly good word.

7 comments

  1. There’s a great parent-child exchange in one of Elizabeth Berg’s books. Child: “I want to do whatever I want whenever I want to, forever.” Mother: “Oh my. Good luck, honey.”

  2. I wore mine for 12 years…and I am only still learning how put me first – instead of everyone else… lol

  3. Eloquent, clever, starkly amusing… Good god Colleen you’ve got me writing a comment to your blog like it was a freakin’ movie review. Your fault. I read your stuff and superlatives start to flow.

  4. Colleen, this came at just the right time for me. I esp. loved the line “Truly taking care of myself means living in truth all of the time, not just when it is convenient.” It’s my new mantra. Thank you.

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