Over the course of my cancer treatment and recovery, people have called me superwoman, amazing, incredible, inspiring—take your pick of hyperboles. While it's always nice to hear these things, I may have developed a small disorder around an unrealistic sense of my own super-ness (that and my husband keeps telling me I must have some sort of mutant superpower from all the radiation I was blasted with).
This past weekend, I ran a 5k race in 20:25 and almost (almost!!) got back to my pre-cancer record. I was thrilled. I was superwoman. I was unstoppable.
The next day I pulled off an awesome birthday party for both kids. Again, I was rocking it. And then I came crashing down. Hard.
As I write this I am in a fog of medication and pain. (I know. This is bumming you out. But stick with me.)
Last year at this exact same time, I had a nasty bout of shingles and raced anyway. (Yep. Unstoppable even when it’s idiotic.) What I didn’t share widely was that since then I have been
plagued on and off with what is called “post-herpetic neuralgia”—chronic pain that can last years after the shingles go away. Apparently it only affects 5% of those younger than 60. But I hate being “normal”, so I always go for the exception. You know, to stand out. (Overachiever, even when it comes to pain! Woo!)
Looking back over the last few weeks, however, it all makes perfect sense. Work has been really busy, we are trying to sell our house, family life has been chaotic, I was planning a birthday party for the kids, my daughter was diagnosed with asthma, and I am preparing to leave the province for ten weeks to do my yoga therapy training. My only refuge was while teaching yoga, because there I had to breathe slowly and help everyone else de-stress.
“But if I was getting sick, how on earth did I run so fast and then pull off a great birthday party for the kids the next day?” I asked my husband.
“Because it’s you,” he said. “You can push through anything.”
And there it is.
When people tell you often enough that you are super, you start to believe it. You start to believe that nothing can, or should, stop you. This can save your life, as it did mine, but it can also blind you to your own imbalance. And when, like me, you are in a position of helping other people with their stress and pain, you should at least be able to deal with your own stress and pain, right?
But there is nothing quite as humbling as realizing that you are not walking the talk. I am good at a lot of things, but self-care is not one of them. I am not alone in this defect; many of us are truly horrible at self-care. It is an epidemic in most people I see. People just do not take care of themselves. But why is this happening? Why are we not worth a little TLC?
On a crashing plane, you’ve got to put on your own oxygen mask first. Because you may feel unstoppable, and people may call you that. And people may genuinely need you. But if you’re not breathing, you are absolutely not going to save the day. You will drop dead.
Shoving stress deep down inside, guzzling another coffee, skipping out on sleep, numbing ourselves on TV or junk food—this is not healthy coping. But for many of us, especially mothers it seems, self-care feels inherently selfish.
But it’s not. Self-care is the oxygen mask, and stress is the crashing plane. Heart disease, obesity, anxiety, asthma, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, shingles...while stress doesn't necessarily cause all these things, it can certainly exacerbate and accelerate them. And if stress can have such deep physiological effects, then who is to say that joy can't also change your body? Or fear? Or love? Or grief? We know these emotions affect us deeply, but why don't we do anything about it?
"But I don't have time!" You don't, it's true. But you also don't have time for a hospital stay, or stress leave, or disability, or shingles, or the myriad other health problems you are creating from lack of self-care.
So stop. Create space. Take a deep breath. I'll do it with you.
Because even Supers need a break sometimes.