Self-care is a choice. It means facing stresses and cravings and being brave enough to clear out garbage in order to live a joy-filled, responsible, and productive writing life.
This week I read Sarah Bessey’s new book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things. I came away from it with three insights. First, miracles, big and small, can and do happen in people’s lives. Second, it’s okay to say you’re not fine. Third—and this one really stuck out for me—self-care and self-comfort are not the same thing.
Bessey suffered chronic pain after a car accident and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic anxiety and depression, and later still with fibromyalgia. Although she experienced a radical healing of some of her accident-related injuries, she still must cope with chronic pain and depression. After what she referred to as “My Weeks of Wallowing,” Bessey told her husband, “I’m ready to admit that I’m not fine.” She wrote, “I had to stop running, turn back, and look my real life in the face at last.”1
Self-Comfort vs. Self-care
This story spoke to me because I’m an anxious person. I don’t have chronic pain issues, but I do experience almost-daily, back-of-my-mind anxiety. I also suffer from SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a form of depression.
As I understand it, self-comfort is doing what makes you feel good and helps you escape when life seems overwhelming. Self-care is taking positive action to pursue a lifestyle that brings you the best physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health you can give yourself.
During the long, bright days of our Canadian summer, I generally put my writing on the back burner, although I maintain it at a reduced level. Instead of spending hours writing each day, I spend hours working in my gardens, singing to myself and listening to the birds. My body grows strong, the anxiety knot in my stomach fades, and I find joy all around me—in seeds sprouting from the soil, in the loveliness of irises and peonies, in the richness of the natural world surrounding my home.
Self-care comes naturally in summer, although I occasionally overdo the gardening and end up with a sore back or sore knees. Self-comfort usually means a bowl of popcorn along with a movie now and then, or—I admit it—some large helpings of dessert. In summer I don’t worry much about the extra calories because I know I’ll work them off.
When winter descends, with its long periods of darkness and short, cold hours of daylight, it’s a different story. Instead of spending hours actively working outdoors in the fresh air, I spend hours seated at my writing desk, staring at a computer monitor and mentally straining to find words to paint the scenes in my mind. Sometimes I forget to get up and move around, causing my legs to swell and stiffen. My eyes feel gritty because I don’t blink as often as I do when looking at the real world. The knot in my stomach reappears because crafting intense scenes is intense work. Yet, I love writing.
Often when I take a break, my mind is still racing, and my heart, pounding. It’s like being caught in the throes of a high-adrenaline, “fight or flight” situation. At those times, the intensity I bring to my writing transforms into a sudden, almost uncontrollable craving. I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs, so those aren’t things I crave. What I do crave is food, but not just any food. I want junk food with high carbs and high calories—candy and chips and ice cream.
I’ve had runs of days when during a writing break I’ve wolfed down most of a big bag of chips or an entire bag of licorice allsorts, or eaten bowls of ice cream, all the while knowing this is not a healthy thing to do. Such binges aren’t self-care in any sense of the word. They’re not even self-comfort. Instead, they’re a gluttonous indulgence that I always regret. The few minutes of perceived escape from tension and anxiety through eating are not worth having a cranky digestive tract and wincing with shame when I step on the bathroom scale.
With my work comes another problem. I use the Internet a lot to check word meanings or find synonyms or research topics. I also receive writing-related e-mails and use social media to promote my writing. When I’m in “butt-in-chair-hands-on-keyboard” mode during the winter, I experience a steadily rising pressure to read email and visit social media sites, to post and post and engage with the world. I compulsively check my smart phone over and over, hoping for new messages.
I can tell myself that writing is a lonely vocation—which it is. I can tell myself that I need attention, but the truth is that I want attention. The Internet is a platform I can use to seek that attention or to vent, should I choose to do so. It’s always available and has a worldwide audience. Surely someone out there will understand what I’m going through and support me in my struggle? Surely someone will notice me?
But is this truly self-care? Is it even self-comfort? Or is spending hours on the Internet simply another gluttonous indulgence, like my junk-food binges during writing breaks? Sarah Bessey’s book made me think about these things.
After she admitted to her husband that she wasn’t fine, Bessey began taking medications she’d been prescribed but had previously refused to take. She forced herself to get up off the couch and do the physical therapy her body needed. She stopped traveling extensively for her work as a speaker and preacher in order to reduce stress on her body. In short, she focused on self-care. She took positive action that wasn’t necessarily what she wanted to do, but was what she needed to do to get to a better place. She chose life, and life abundant.
Revamping my writer lifestyle
As a result of reading Bessey’s book, I’ve been studying my writer lifestyle. I’m looking for places to implement self-care or tweak self-comfort or throw out gluttonous indulgence. Here’s what I’ve got so far. Some of these strategies are new and some are ones I’ve found helpful over the years.
To help combat SAD, I stretch, row, and lift weights every morning before breakfast. Many days, I don’t feel like heading down to the basement to the rowing machine, but I’ve made a commitment to caring for my mind and body. I also place a blue “happy light”2 on my desk for thirty minutes when I start work. The blue wavelengths contribute to increased energy and a more positive mood. My husband bought the light for me as a Christmas gift one year, and it definitely brightens my spirits during dreary winter days. I also make sure I get outdoors every day, usually for a walk in the afternoon after I finish writing for the day.
To time or not to time
To relieve writing tension and give my eyes and body a break from sitting in front of a computer, I set a kitchen timer at one-hour intervals. The timer reminds me to get up and walk around for a minute or five to get the blood moving in my legs and let my eyes relax and blink normally. On the opposite end of the time-keeping spectrum, a new tactic I’ve adopted is not wearing a watch. I started this after my watch strap broke during the summer and I didn’t have time to fix it immediately. I was amazed at how much more peaceful I felt when I wasn’t pausing my work to glance at my watch. So, I left it off, and I don’t miss it.
Fighting food cravings
When I take a writing break and feel that old, dangerous craving for junk food, I ask myself, Is this self-care? Of course, the answer is no. If I’m truly hungry, rather than filled with adrenaline-fueled anxiety, I eat carrot sticks, a few roasted almonds, or a slice of wholegrain toast with tahini and apple slices on it. That qualifies as self-care.
Blocking the lure of the Internet
During the summer, I can happily not turn on my computer for days and only look at my smart phone a few times a day. But in winter, the seductive call of smart phone and search engines is far more insidious. This week, it hit home to me that I reach for my phone too often to check weather, email, and social media. So, as of today, I’m making a new commitment: whenever I reach for my phone or feel tempted to surf the Internet, I’m going to ask myself the same question I ask about food cravings: Is this self-care? I’m also going to ask another question: Is this a productive use of my time?
I know, I know. We all need a little down time every day, and social media can offer connection. However, if the answer to the above questions is no, and if I have no real reason to spend time on the internet other than a craving for attention or a need to mindlessly escape the circumstances of my life, then I need to seriously rethink my relationship with technology. I have a life to live. A real life with responsibilities to my health, my family, my home, and my work, all of which bring me joy. I refuse to let the Internet steal that joy from me.
So, here’s my plan. I’ll check my email three times a day, like I did back in the good old days before I had a smart phone. I’ll limit my time on social media to a few minutes in the morning and a few minutes in the evening. The world won’t stop spinning if I don’t look at Facebook for a day. And when I’m tempted to go online, I’ll ask myself, Is this self-care? and Is this a productive use of my time? and expect myself to answer honestly.
Some writers I know block their access to the Internet entirely while they’re working. If my plan doesn’t work, I’ll try that. A great tactic I’ve used for first drafts is to write old style on a paper pad, with my computer turned off. I’m doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this month, and that’s my strategy. It allows me to connect with my words in an organic way that a computer never can.
Self-care is a choice
In the midst of Sarah Bessey’s painful life circumstances, she wrote that she chose life. So do I. Self-care is a choice. It means facing up to the truth of my current writer lifestyle situation—the stresses and cravings and almost irresistible technological attractions—and being brave enough to clear out garbage so I can live a joy-filled, responsible, and productive life as a writer. If that resonates with you, I can assure you that carrot sticks taste great.
Whether or not you’re a writer, do you have a self-care tip? If so, please share it in the comment box below. I’d love to hear from you.
- Sarah Bessey. Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God. 2019. Howard Books, New York, pp. 135, 157.
- Philips goLITE BLU
2 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Self-care and what it looks like for me as a writer”
Hi Magi: I enjoyed speaking with you as Katie recently via Facebook messenger. After reading the above blog on self-care, I felt the urge to respond. I agree that there is a difference between self-care and self-comfort, although I believe there are times when they can be one and the same. Sometimes we need to comfort ourselves just as a parent would. Self-indulgence is one end of the spectrum and the other end is self-flagellation, and I’ve swung both ways. I think I’ve developed a more reasonable balance over the years, but I struggle with keeping that middle road. “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself…”
I deal with issues very like yours, as a writer, and in life in general. I’m rarely without some degree of anxiety and I’m also prone to depression. I, too, sit too long at the computer; my legs swell, and I have developed lower back problems. I also set my kitchen timer as a reminder to get up and stretch, although sometimes I ignore it. One of the practices I find most helpful is to keep my mini trampoline handy and bounce often. In the evening I indulge in a little Netflix but I bounce while I’m doing it and then get down on the floor and do yoga. Now that the weather is better I’ve been forcing myself to walk but I don’t really enjoy it. I’ve also become aware that I check my smart phone too often and it helps to put it on nighttime mode. Prayer, meditation, and journal writing are vital to me. They are my lifeline. Another issue we share is that when I’m stressed or struggling to move forward with my writing, I head for the kitchen. I don’t keep junk food in the house, however, and haven’t for years. I do keep “Just Us” dark chocolate bars and I allow myself a little chocolate several times a day. It’s good for body and spirit as long as I don’t over-indulge. When I really need to satisfy my need for something sweet, I melt a bit of dark chocolate over water on the stove, add a little organic peanut butter, and swirl it through organic Greek style yogurt which is high in protein. I’m a little dubious about dairy, but my diet is so strict in other ways, I have been indulging in the dairy recently. I also love a big bowl of organic popcorn with olive oil and sea salt occasionally. Weight is not a problem for me-except, unlike most people, I lose it too easily.
Your garden is a thing of beauty! You most be spending long hours in it now that the weather is cooperating. Do you grow organically? I hope you have a relaxing and joyful summer in nature. I see you have a deep appreciation for this beautiful planet, as do I. Shirley Whitman
Thanks so much for visiting my Seeker blog and for sharing how you implement self-care to cope with the stresses of writing and life. I feel that you and I are kindred spirits! Now that it’s summer here in Nova Scotia, I’m spending less time at my desk and hours a day outdoors, working in my gardens. My peonies are in full bloom and tear my heart with their loveliness. The vegetables are coming along, although they could definitely use some rain. Working so close to the land always gives me a great appreciation for the seasons, the soil, the weather, and the beauty of Creation. This morning young red-breasted nuthatches foraged in my spruce windbreak, and nestling tree swallows in a bird house perched atop our deer fence begged for food from their swift-flying parents. So much beauty surrounds me! Best wishes for a wonderful and creative summer! – Magi Nams