Several years ago, a dear friend introduced me to The Artist’s Way, Julia’s Cameron’s book on writing, art and “unblocking” one’s creative sensibilities. Its fundamentals – morning pages and self-care – were immensely helpful in my journey to becoming comfortable with my artist-self.
But this self-care thing? At first it seemed me like a “well, duh” sort of suggestion. Eat right, get plenty of sleep, don’t get over stressed, do fun things, blah blah. It took me a while to realize this isn’t just a matter of “treating yo’ self” à la Tom and Donna on Parks and Recreation. It consists of pampering, yes, but it goes deeper than that. It’s self-awareness – physically, spiritually and mentally – and the ability to give yourself limits. Or to give yourself a break.
I tend to be hard on myself – just ask my closest friends. The fact is, I’m a human being, not a machine. And I also struggle with anxiety, which tends to attack when I’m – you guessed it – tired and already overwhelmed by life. Anxiety is something I try to ignore (emphasis on try) and pretend is under control. “Under control” is a deception because that implies it’s chained up and locked in a closet, when it is actually part of my brain chemistry and follows me around like a looming shadow. Medication has helped tremendously. So has counselling and the mere fact of growing up. But it is still there, ready to pounce when I’m at my weakest.
So what do I need to do? Self-care.
… Refraining from calling myself a lazy dummy for whatever reason. I am no lazy dummy.
… Knowing my triggers. Anxiety creeps in when I’m dehydrated, over-caffeinated and hungry. Solutions to this are water, water, wholesome snacks (like almonds), and eating protein. One more thing to add: avoiding sugar. (Grumble.)
… Splurging on a choice cut of salmon because it is healthy, delicious and will make me happy.
… Taking time to make myself a nice batch of pancakes or an equally satisfying breakfast. OR… another of my favorites: make something pretty and then eat it. Eat. It. All.
…Taking a day or two (or, dang it, a week) off from the novel-grind when I’m feeling overwhelmed, panicky and stuck. After wards, the novel starts coming back to me refreshed and ready to go. This is especially important to prevent burnout. This does not mean I get to stop writing – instead, it is an opportunity to journal freely or write something completely different.
… Letting life happen when it happens. For example, much of June has involved visits with my family. I usually never get good writing in when I’m there – simply because I’m distracted and I don’t get the level of privacy I crave for deep creative work. If I go to be with family, I’m going to be with family, not sequestered in the back bedroom with my world-building. I did that when I was a teenager for teenage reasons. At thirty, there is no excuse.
… Sleeping in of a Saturday even if the experts say I shouldn’t. It’s hotter than blazes in Nebraska right now, which means I will usually wake up groggy and gross. So sleeping in? A long midday nap? It’s a logical solution to a problem that will be lurking till the autumnal equinox. No guilt required.
… Saying no to certain activities. Especially if it means preserving energy or sanity.
… Getting up and going to that yoga class even if I don’t feel like it. My body will thank me one day. I hope.
… Walking as a constant, brain-healthy mode of exercise. Without music, without a phone – just me, my brain, and maybe some deep thinking (optional). Going outside and connecting daily to nature is also essential.
… Playing with the cat. Play is fundamental to a young cat’s well-being, not to mention her owner’s. Since I lost Ninja so early and unexpectedly I’ve been conscious of Beatrix’s needs and don’t want to miss out on moments in her little life. She needs the stimulation and the exercise, and she will remind me of this fact by plunging her claws into my furniture. At the end of the day, I don’t want a grumpy and disgruntled pet. I want to give her the best life a cat can have, no matter how long or short it is. And who doesn’t love watching a cat pounce on toy mice or chase hair ties across the room?
We could all take a few lessons from the carefree but intensely-lived life of a cat.
… Watching television. Yup. For me, it clears the brain-palate and helps me stop thinking obsessively about some new problem with my work-in-progress… especially if it is a good story.
… Reminding myself that I am not a machine, that physically I can only take so much sitting down and pounding the keyboard. It is okay to be tired! Say it “I’m a human! I get tired!”
… Treating myself to a coffee once in a while just because.
So, you see some of these things are about managing my anxiety, and some of it is simply giving myself permission to be a human. It’s strange how hard that can be sometimes, being nice to oneself, especially in a culture that values maximum productivity. Rest is not a sign of weakness but a tool for recharging the brain, refilling the creative well, and tending to our vital needs. Only then can we expect to create well and live well.