Updated: Sep 2, 2019
The evolution of looking after myself from the drunk years to my fourth year sober.
If you are a drinker, alcohol is likely self-care.
You want to relax, forget your worries and connect? Have a lovely pint. Need to stop fretting about that stupid thing you just said to your mother-in-law? Don’t worry, wine’s got you!
Alcohol takes your troubles away, and it makes you sexy. What else can offer that? Legally?
As a result, for a long time, drinking was my primary form of self-care. Forget manicures or bubble baths or spa days or massage, all I needed was four/five/six/seven/eight pints.
After that, I was good as new. By which I mean I’d forgotten what I was worried about, and my single concern was getting carbohydrates and cheese into my face, fast.
Hangovers were another fantastic opportunity to be good to myself. Nursing my body better with super noodle sandwiches and cheesy American comedies was the height of relaxation. At least, it was once I’d received reassuring replies to the vibe-checking texts I’d sent to whoever I’d drunk with. Gotta settle that hangxiety.
Self-care as a term, circa the mid-late 2000s was unknown to me. Did it exist? Not in my world.
Back then, lying in bed all day was the best self-care move I had discovered. I called it ‘having a poorly day’ and it was what I liked better than anything else. In fact, I realise as I write this, that what I’m talking about here are ineffective techniques for managing poor mental health.
In reality, drinking was closer to self-medicating than self-care much of the time.
But I had no idea about that.
Self-care in the moderation Years.
During the deliberation years when I was fighting to drink normally so I could keep alcohol in my life, I found my way towards some healthier practices. I joined the gym and started hot yoga. I got familiar with my bath. I left Facebook. I tried to find a hobby. Zumba, Spanish, weightlifting, climbing. Nothing stuck.
I learned to meditate and went to my first Quaker meeting. I was desperate to feel better, but didn’t know how. I did my best to turn to all of these things instead of drinking. Mostly I did both.
But it was progress. Without knowing it, I was learning the tools that would get me through, once I was finally ready/able to let go of booze.
Honestly, I never believed that day would come. But it did.
Self-care in early recovery.
After finally asking for help to get sober, I arrived in a self-care paradise.
I learned that I drank to change the way I felt, and that I would need alternative activities and rituals to deal with my feelings and stay sober from now on. Since I’d already been shopping for hobbies, I had a head start. I revisited yoga and started swimming on Friday nights.
Suddenly self-care was a part of my vocabulary. My new clean and sober friends were learning to take better care of themselves too, and we threw ourselves into it with the same gusto drunk and used with.
We experimented with prayer (whatever that meant), meditation, healing rituals and sage burning. There were sharing circles, late-night trips to stone circles and druid sunrise celebrations. I picked up my guitar and baked cookies and started drawing. Anything to fill the hours that drinking left.
I gave myself permission to leave parties after an hour if I felt like it. To not go in the first place if I thought it would trigger my desire for a drink.
After years of resenting cake for its pointlessness, I developed a rabid sweet tooth, meeting people daily for a slice of dough or pastry, on top of the home baking. Somehow I still lost weight.
I lit candles and read self-help books and learned how to grow vegetables and stopped eating meat. I spent time with friends who made me feel safe and hopeful and valued, who understood that my sobriety was miraculous and precious.
Over time, I developed more interests than I had time for and my phone filled with people I could call to help manage my feelings without needing to drink.
Self-care at eighteen months sober.
I reflected on what was working, and learned to say, ‘Let me get back to you’ to invitations. I became comfortable with the discomfort of saying no when things didn’t feel good to me or weren’t working.
I began to do things consistently and reliably, something I hadn’t previously been capable of. Small things like taking off my make up before I slept and going to bed early and answering my phone or calling people back.
Self-care felt so good that it took over my life. And unlike drinking and hangovers, it had no downside. Plus most of it was free: friendships, nature, breathing deeply. It was the gift that kept on giving.
I began writing a gratitude list daily in order to get a better understanding of what made me content. Because when I am content I can be useful, and when I am useful I can be content.
Self-care started at the surface (baths, clothes, make-up removal) and moved deeper (food, friendships, family) and deeper (thoughts, heart, philosophy) until there was little in my life that wasn’t healthy and sustainable.
I still get lazy and neglectful, but I know how to course-correct. Mostly, these days, self-care is letting myself off for making mistakes (so many, every day) and reminding myself this is modus-operandi for a human being.
It is accepting my limitations and not wishing to be somebody else or pretending to be. It is forgiving myself for being imperfect and ordinary, and reminding myself I’m just like everyone else. Not better, not worse.
It’s small things, like putting down my phone for forty mins (a record-breaking achievement at the moment). Going for a run. Going to work in town, well-groomed, rather than typing in bed in pajamas. It’s sticking to plans with friends, though I’m tired out because I want to show up for them. It’s doing a meditation though I’m busy so that resentment doesn’t show up in my work.
Gradually, my devotion to self-care continues to change me. I am losing the ability to push myself through things that feel terrible, to disregard my own preferences. I am weakening my frightening capacity for denial.
When something feels bad or wrong, I understand that my body is trying to communicate with me. I try to listen, rather than numb it. This is how I can best take care of myself.
Sometimes I go too far into introversion. Sometimes I spend way too long on my phone. Sometimes I fall back into self-pity or snap at my boyfriend. But a lot of the time I take good care of myself, like I would take care of a beloved friend.
And when I slip into old habits, I know what I need to do to get back on track. Sometimes I'm not willing to do the right thing straight away, because I can't be arsed or because I'm resentful that I have to. Why is it so hard just to feel okay?
But I make it back soon enough. The discomfort, in the end, motivates me. Because experience has shown me, time and again, that these actions work, that they can change the way I feel, just how booze used to, and the sooner I take responsibility and do them, the sooner I can return to feeling powerful and being useful.
And so far I haven’t needed to pick up a drink.