May 11, 2014

Selfish or Self-Care? Drawing the Line.


spa bath feet tub

You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.

~ Buddha

Recently, I wrote about the fact that since my father’s recent death, my identity has changed. I am not, any longer, “the person who takes care of her parents.”

The response from most people was identical to what I would have said to them, had our positions been reversed: I should take care of myself, now. So why does that stick in my psyche like a wad of indigestible brain food?

It makes sense, especially because I am surrounded literally and virtually by thoughtful, generous folks who tend to be my age and have some idea about what it’s like to make this transition. They are right. I know this.

It is, maybe, like the time where the butterfly is trying to get out of the cocoon and has never seen the blue sky or felt the softness of a peony petal. It’s just about being alone, changed and in the dark surrounded by what seems like an impenetrable prison. All the beauty is out there, but how could I tell?

So, in the absence of guidance from my usual bottom-line arbiters (my parents, who have, for the present, declined to speak to the issue) I set my intentions for a balance of hard work and self-care. The hard work part was easy; I spend the first half of every day taking care of business at the old homestead, room by room, shelf by shelf.

Self-care was less natural. I was raised to be of service, to ask, first and always, “how can I help?” The example at my house was that we put others first, did the needful, and sucked it up when we really felt like finishing a book and eating peanut butter crackers. It went way back with my people—one grandmother ran a Red Cross chapter and one grandfather famously gave away his family’s possessions because he ran into somebody who needed them.

My mother, who really truly loved me, used to remind me that I was “not the center of the universe.” This was intended not to crush my self-esteem, but to instill in me a deep understanding that the world was full of other people with joys, sorrows and needs of their own.

It was a good lesson, and true.

It was, though, a lesson best suited to a person more naturally selfish. My dark, Irish melancholy tends to hold me in a place of self-effacing fear unless I strive constantly to bring myself back to a place of confidence and ease. I always believe I am wrong. I am eternally waiting for the public revelation that I am a fraud, a creature of warm and kind surface concealing cold and hideous depths.

I took it to heart, that lesson. I have served often, willingly, and with all of my heart. I rest easily there, comfortable that I am fulfilling my mission on this earth.

So now, now when I am exhorted to “take care of myself,” I am filled with dis-ease, and I find myself seeking out those who will point out to me that lots of people lose their parents, lots of people grieve, and clear out houses and act as executors while continuing to function at work and at home. Sure, maybe they get weepy over Hallmark ads, but their shit is fundamentally in one bag.

Mine is not. I can’t keep it together right now. My heart is breaking and I am being forced to face the fact that I am not a real adult, a Handler of Things, a Brick.

In my head I hear my parents telling me that it’s okay, that I have been through a lot for a pretty tender person, an un-calloused palm on the oar of an unwieldy boat.

“Annie,” they say, “there’s a line between selfish and self-preservation. Save yourself. Pace yourself. Take the time to wail and write and pray, to come to understand that we are always a part of you and a part that will forever love and believe in you.”

“But,” I argue (some things never change), “you both did it. Why can’t I?

And then my mother reminds me that after the death of her own mother she developed incapacitating back pain and spent six weeks in bed.

My father reminds me that when his mother died he was adrift, depressed, carrying on in form only. “I just told you,” he says, “days before I died, that I regret that I took no time to absorb that loss.”

So with their help, with their voices as live and loving as they ever were, I move forward knowing that self-care is not the same as selfishness, that someone as intense and hypersensitive as I am would be the first to know if I crossed that line. I know that I will always be moved to serve, but that service that doesn’t come from a well of health and strength is not the best I have to give.

There will be hours of packing boxes, crying over photos and making way for the next life of their home.

There will be, there must be, hours of snuggling with the dogs, reading poetry and having coffee with people who listen deeply and love extravagantly.

I am not selfish.

I am not very tough, and I never do what everyone else does, but that’s really okay.

It is a blasphemy against the parents who loved me and understood me to treat myself as an unworthy creature.

It is a tragedy to keep that butterfly trapped in the dark, when there is such wonder waiting just outside the cocoon.



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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Lauren Beck/Flickr

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Tara May 12, 2014 5:23pm

Beautifully written. As someone who has just lost a parent, this is such a strange transition. The buffer between us and mortality has lessened, and that new reality takes a lot of time to adjust to. Wishing you peace and fulfillment on your continuing journey. x

GabbyAbby_Jax May 12, 2014 3:51pm

You said it all in that next to last graph, Ann. I recently came across something that shook me similarly, as that sentence does. It was the statement that comparison is an act of violence against yourself. And so it is. We all make our way along these winding paths called life in our unique peripatetic ways, none better than the next. I've been blessed by the generosity of others like yourself you have shared their stories with me, not for comparison, but for comfort.

blueintx2012 May 11, 2014 7:26pm

Taking care of oneself is the hardest kind of care-taking. Poetry, dogs, coffee – yes. And writing, still writing – such a gift you have to share your darkest heart with us in such a way that we are nourished Still taking care of others, even in taking care of yourself!

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Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols has been everything from a cellist to a lawyer, and is currently a Buddhist who gets paid to cook at a Protestant church. She lives in a 100-year old house in Michigan with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals. You can hang out with her by joining the Facebook group “Metta-Morphosis.”