An Education in Self Care

I nursed the soreness on the right side of my mouth, massaging my jaw with my hand, and swallowed two Ibuprofen with a gulp of water. I applied numbing gel to the place where a new tooth was intruding through tender gums. This made eating tolerable.

I was first referred to an oral surgeon for impacted wisdom teeth at age 21 and proceeded to ignore them for more than a decade. They eventually started poking through my gums a few years ago and causing painful flare-ups that would come and go. But recently they had started lasting longer and getting closer together. I was in pain and quietly frustrated by my own avoidance.

I woke up the next morning, still sore, and looked in the mirror. The right side of my face was puffy. While the pain had become routine, swelling was new. I tamped down my anxiety and called the oral surgeon that I’d been referred to months before and, while their schedule was technically full, they made an appointment for me the next day to have them removed. In the weeks since, I’ve followed the commonly-known regimen of soft foods, a course of antibiotics, pills for the swelling, pain medication, an oral rinse twice a day, and a disgusting but satisfying process of ‘irrigating’ the sockets with salt water.

This isn’t the only exposure I’ve had to the unglamorous side of self care. For the last few months, I also saw a physical therapist once every two weeks to nurse a back injury I’d had since the preceding September, and religiously did the exercises he assigned me morning and night to stabilize my back. I also had two nails removed on my left foot, the hopefully-final step in a decade-long battle against nail fungus with an arsenal of topical medications, home remedies like tea tree oil and Vick’s VapoRub, laser treatments, and a UV-light shoe sterilizer. ‘Scorched earth’ was the last remaining option, and it came with its own post-procedure routine: four weeks of frequent epsom salt soaks (twice a day for 20 minutes — I lasted a week) and bandage-changing.

I think that to understand how I neglected the basic care of my teeth and feet and back for so long, it is important to talk about anxiety. When many people hear the word anxiety, they think of panic attacks. Can’t breathe, heart racing, going-to-die episodes, physiological fight-or-flight without the presence of an actual threat. I have had only one of these in my life and I didn’t even have a name for it at the time. For me, anxiety isn’t explosive, consuming, incapacitating; it is more of a constant hum, like a sound at a frequency just beyond my perception but just there enough to be there. It is my companion, the frenemy that brews up insecurity and inadequacy and worry and keeps it at a rolling simmer. It paralyzes me in the contradictory space of fretting about everything that goes wrong with my body and convincing myself that I can treat it with VapoRub.

This spring, the anxiety finally grew debilitating enough that I recognized it not only as an impediment to my attending to my needs but itself a need unattended. The sudden shift to full-scale work-from-home with my whole company during the pandemic was not easy. I found myself in back-to-back meetings all day long. I often turned off my video and cried to myself on mute. One morning, the valve finally burst and I sobbed to my husband, “I don’t think I can do this anymore,” without really knowing what I meant by “this.” Then I canceled my next meeting and made appointments to meet with my doctor and a therapist.

I am a beginner when it comes to self-care. International Self-care Day was yesterday and I missed it. But my 30s have been a crash course in catching up on the needs I have been long neglecting, and I am trying to learn to think of myself as someone who listens to her body. Going through a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis last year taught me this. That’s a longer story, but the thrust of it is that I did almost nothing but listen to doctors and tend to my body in uncomfortable and fatiguing ways for several weeks, and I came out a different person. Caring for myself was no longer just a chore or something to be afraid of and procrastinate. I deserve care. I honor myself by it. It is a ministry.

So much of what I once considered self-care and self-love was based on a capitalist definition. Self-care meant consumption of some kind: haircuts, skincare products, new makeup, new clothes, fluffy pillows, candles, tea. And while those things are still a part of how I show I love and value myself, I have had to learn that my body also needs me to pay attention to the internal and unseen needs, like wisdom teeth or an injured back or a toenail fungus or an invisible illness like anxiety or multiple sclerosis. Self-care is not always restful or glamorous or visible. Sometimes self-care is gross and ugly and work.

I am profoundly lucky to have the tools I need to be cared for. I live in a system that ties health care to employment, and in so doing makes a judgment about who is worthy of receiving care and how much. Audre Lorde said self-care is a radical act of self-preservation and a political statement. Insisting on self-care, particularly of the type that does not benefit capitalism, is a rejection of a system that shows plainly in black-and-white who deserves to have a cared-for body.

My anxiety and capitalism want me to reject care. My anxiety wants me to find any excuse to avoid problems in the hope they will go away. Capitalism wants me to pay health care premiums but not be very expensive to care for. I will not allow it; I will be costly. I am high maintenance, and I demand to be maintained. I am not a cost-benefit analysis. I am a person.

Of all of the care I have received recently, I am most grateful for therapy. The freedom to acknowledge my pain has been fundamental to understanding my humanness and my worth as an individual separate from my productivity. “I want to feel better” is an abstract and faraway goal, but therapy is a spot on the map from which I can see a way forward. My healthy, cared-for body will be the house that therapy built. And I will not be the only one footing the bill.


Photo by Cristian Palmer on Unsplash

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