Self Care, Wellness, and The Art of Self Delusion

The Old Costanza-ism is apt. to my ill brain: If my bipolar brain is wrong about self care, then the opposite would have to be right

Self care is not natural for me. My wellness routine is minimal if at all existent, and varies widely with the swings of my bipolar disorder. I needed to find a mental health routine that would work for me.

Treat yo’ self…

You’ve undoubtedly heard about the craze going on across the internet and media everywhere.

Self care is very vogue.

I normally pride myself on not falling into the trap of pop mental health and wellness culture, but the craze came around in a dire time for me. So I immediately jumped on the bandwagon.

The concept just made sense to me. It’s like the safety demonstration on an airplane: put on your own mask before assisting others. In order to take care of anyone else, I first had to take care of myself.

I had to attend to my own needs and wants. If I wanted to go on an impromptu 8 mile run, I went 10. If I wanted to sit on the couch and drink a bottle of wine I did so. Oh, and I’ll need that whole pizza for my personal wellness. Please and thank you.

This felt right, mostly because it felt good.

Even though it felt good at first, after a while, there were some issues.

As a result of my self care routine, my liver was crying, and I was more tired than ever. My face was as greasy as the pizza all over my shirt and I felt terrible. I was convinced that this philosophy of wellness was, for me anyway, a foolish path.

I went back to my normal mental health routine of one mile every other week and a half bottle of wine a day when depressed and 5 miles every day and two bottles when manic. Thankfully, that eventually brought me back to feeling…just as bad.

What I got wrong about self care

As it turns out, I had totally misunderstood the concepts of self care, and it was wreaking havoc on my mental health.

The fact was, I was confusing self care with self-indulgence. I had read that at its core, wellness was listening to your mind and body and giving it what it needs. But those extra 15 lbs of pizza I was carrying around in my gut was not what my mind and body needed. It’s what it wanted.

And that, my friends, is why this type of self care is for those without mental disorders, like my bipolar. Even then, it’s bad advice.

An ill mind knows nothing of wellness

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that my bipolar brain is dumb. It constantly tells me lies and tries to undermine my happiness.

It’s no wonder that letting it control my self care routine was a losing strategy.

My self indulgent behavior was just that. It wasn’t self care. I was listening to a mind and body which were unreliable at best. Listening to them didn’t take me into wellness, it sank me further into depression and rocketed me higher into mania.

I was believing all the lies that it told me about my sense of superiority, and my sense worthlessness, my grandiosity, and my loss of hope. I was getting even sicker from the turbulence.

matter over mind: a self care routine for bipolar individuals

Two weeks ago, I decided to try an experiment:

The first week, I would live as I had during my first so-called self care phase. The second, I would do a Costanza and whatever my mind told me to do–you guessed it–I did the opposite.

After I did (or did not do) anything my mind said, I set a timer for 15 minutes and then use three words to describe my reaction. I tried to avoid using any form of “good” or “bad” or excessively positive or negative language like happy or sad. I would then be able to arrange these into a customized self care routine.

It is important to understand that during these two weeks I have been manic.

manic Monday

To be honest, I was looking forward to indulgence week. Clearly I had forgotten my first experience–my hindsight has never been 20/20. I imagined waking up Monday morning, and having a week of relaxation and fun.

Here’s what actually happened that week:

  • 7 mile run: Low Energy, Agitated, Restless
  • Cleaned the house…all of it: Loose, Frustrated, Self-Satisfied
  • Wrote 5 articles (only one made it): Productive, Tired, Guilty
  • Drank a 6 pack: Sick, Ashamed, Nervous
  • Ordered Takeout: Anxious, Guilty, Self-Anger

Mindful Monday

By the end of indulgence week, I was very much ready to tell my bipolar brain to shut up, and welcomed my wellness week self care routine. Still, there was a little trepidation. Ignoring your impulses is very difficult, especially when they scream at you like mine do, but I think I did reasonably well.

  • Took out the trash (and then stopped): Relaxed, Relieved, Calm
  • Took the dogs for a nature walk (instead of a long run): Grateful, Inspired, Recharged
  • Went to the library (when I wanted to spend all day at home): Energized, Nostalgic, Intrigued
  • Went to the gym (and not the liquor store): Confident, Hopeful, Exhausted
  • Made my wife dinner (instead of ordering takeout): Content, Loving, Loved

know your mind, know yourself

The self care experiment was very revealing. More than one thing surprised me:

My Manic mind was not always wrong–but usually was.

Some of the feelings that resulted from manic behavior were actually positive. Productive, Proud, Loose, Invincible, these are all words that made the list.

As nice as that was, for every positive, there were 20 or so negatives. At the end, I felt worse, not better.

My Mindful Mind was not always right–but usually was.

Wellness week had its own negative aspects: Superiority, Irritation, Boredom. But for every rejection of my bipolar mind, my positives grew more prominent in my lists.

I felt empowered to choose to ignore my bipolar brain.

I wasn’t considering this when I designed the self care experiment, but one side effect was gaining the knowledge that I had the choice to ignore my mind, and the lies it tells me. Either it never occurred to me as a possibility or my meds are working–or both.

Self care for the rest of us

When you have a mental disorder, wellness and self care are not as easy as listening to your mind and body. When you are not well, this strategy can actually be detrimental to your overall mental health. Many of the things that I thought were helping me, were in fact sabotaging my efforts to get well.

What I learned was very illuminating for me. I plan on doing this experiment again when I am in depression. When I finish, I can look back on these notes to help me rise or re-ground.

Whether I feel like running or running away, I will know which thoughts are true and which are lies.

I encourage you all to try this experiment and discover your own truths and lies.

What are your favorite self care routines and three good feelings to go with them?

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