In January of 2018, I was experiencing heartache—but I can’t remember what for. I do remember being freshly back on campus after the Christmas break and crying so hard in my dorm room that my chest physically started to hurt. It was bizarre and alarming. Someone online told me they had experienced a similar sensation and had had to get their heart physically checked.
I remember thinking, if heartbreak were to leave the realm of the purely metaphorical, this is what it would feel like. In that moment, I felt in danger of dying alone in my room if my heart suddenly gave out—and I panicked. I had such limited communication with nearly everyone in my life. I often immersed myself in isolation. I had no roommate. Who would know if there was an emergency? Who would care? And who would help?
As whatever I was suffering heartache from refused to subside and the physical chest pains continued, I decided it was time for a physical check-up. I hadn’t had one in a while and I just wanted to make sure nothing else strange was happening with my body. The doctors told me that physically, I really was mostly fine.
Emotions—like heartbreak and sadness—aren’t the only things that manifest physically for me. My anxiety does as well—and I often get anxious about the most miniscule things. Like replying texts or waiting for people I’m supposed to be meeting. My body will tense up and it will feel like all my muscles are clenched. My heart rate will speed up, I may start sweating. But it’s essentially the muscles that suffer the brunt of the mess. My shoulders, arms, chest. Tense as tightened ropes. It exhausts my body in a tangible way, no matter how psychological my anxiety itself may be. It’s terrifying.
I thought no year could be worse for my mental health than 2016, but 2018 proved to me that I don’t have to die just to visit hell. I have never, never wanted to kill myself as much as I have between those twelve months, and I’ve never tried to hurt myself as deliberately as I have within this time either. It’s felt like pain after trauma after heartbreak after pain. Everything has been more complicated than it ever was before.
In the middle of the year, I started experiencing sensations in my head that I couldn’t explain. It often felt like my head had lost balance and that my nerves were malfunctioning so I couldn’t lie, sit or stand still; I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t concentrate on any task. I don’t know what a stroke feels like, but I was convinced I was about to have one. I panicked every time my parents left me at home alone and my brother wasn’t around. If I had a medical emergency, who would help? And why couldn’t anything logically explain what was happening in my head?
My mother took me to get a far-too-expensive series of thorough medical checkups. Aside slight anaemia, there was absolutely nothing wrong with me. This was becoming a pattern; me being convinced I was about to die, and then proof arising that there was “nothing wrong with me.”
On Monday, 24th December 2018, I had a long day where events seemed particularly designed to trigger my anxiety and irritation. I had maxed myself out during the weekend as well, attending way too many events and having my introvert self be constantly surrounded by people—almost always an anxiety-inducing phenomenon for me. Both at home (you know how Christmas time is with African families and how it is when your house is the host venue for festivities) and out of the house. So, on Monday, after several things that were supposed to go according to plan did not, I just broke.
It was chest pains again. Dull but deep. And persistent. That night, when the pains started, I thought I was going to die, again. I felt like I was suffocating, but nothing seemed to be evidently suffocating me. Slight movements seemed to trigger chest pangs. I went to bed in pain, in too awful of a mental state to even browse myself to sleep with my phone. The pain didn’t relent. I wondered if I’d wake up the next morning. If I did wake up, though, I expected that the pain would have faded.
I woke up the next morning and the pain was the same. Aside the chest aches, there was pain throughout my back, from my neck to my lower back. Then I developed a migraine which, despite frequent doses of painkillers, refused to completely vanish for about four days.
I was incapacitated, nearly bedridden, under a body-imposed house arrest for several days, and by the third day, it was already clear to me that my physical breakdown was a result of not having taken care of myself. Throughout the year, everything that had stressed me out, whether psychological or physical, I had essentially pushed aside after it happened, tried to ignore and forget my pain rather than heal it. I’d tried to proceed with my life as normally as I possibly could with the pain in the background.
At the end of the worst year of my life, my body was having no more nonsense. It was as if it was saying to me: You don’t even have to try committing suicide, sis, I’ll kill you on your mind’s behalf.
My mother, worried, got my uncle, who is a heart surgeon, to carry out a cardiac ultrasound on me just in case. Yup, you guessed it—nothing wrong with my damn heart. My uncle’s hypothesis was that the ache was from my muscles, not my organ. That wasn’t hard to believe at all. I knew my muscles stored stress. It wasn’t surprising that at least twelve months of stored stress was now trying to take me out.
I’ve been thinking about self-care lately. Until very recently, nearly every time I have read the term, it has been with a tone of disdain. I considered it that thing which those Instagrammers with pristine and minimalistic photo-grids are always on about. And the poets whose micro-poetry posts get thousands of likes. And the life coach-ish people whose professional skill sets I’m never quite certain about. An empty phrase that sounds nice but means nothing. I thought of “self-care” as a myth. I wish it was a myth. I know (now) that it is not.
Self-care, in my opinion, is not done justice by the definition of “taking care of yourself.” Unless the last word in there is italicized: taking care of yourself. That involves developing a deep understanding of yourself and acting accordingly, in the way that best keeps you, as an individual, healthy. You can’t get anywhere useful if you try caring for yourself without understanding yourself, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you understand yourself and refuse to care for yourself accordingly. The latter is something I’m guiltier of than anyone else I know.
I recently wrote about My Faith + My Body, the anger I feel towards my body for being “badly designed”; the flaws within which keep me from being able to function at others’ capacities, whether it’s because of my photosensitivity, easy fatigue, chronic migraine, or whatever. Even though I long ago acknowledged that this is how my body works, I kept berating myself for not being able to keep up with the world, with other people, and with my own life. When so many others around me are doing much more than me, so much more efficiently and tirelessly, it’s nearly impossible not to see myself as inferior because I’m designed differently.
In reaction to the sense of inferiority, I tend to deliberately ignore my design and attribute everything “wrong with me” to laziness and indiscipline. Then I put more on my plate than I can handle—even as the world has already handed me a very full one—and then I try to operate at a pace and capacity I was never meant to. How can I not crash, then, mentally and physically? I’m not a superhero and I can’t do everything. I can’t even do what the average person can do.
My body’s design isn’t the only thing I handle badly. I wrote in On Suffering about how I’ve punished myself for the state of my mental health. I’ve written in How Do You Want to Be Loved? about how I’ve allowed disasters in my personal relationships to pile up and affect me brutally. I’ve written in There Is No Prototype on how I’ve embarrassed myself through a refusal to acknowledge my own uniqueness. It is this same kind of refusal that has landed me in these quasi-medical emergencies throughout the year.
I am slow with many things. I often berate myself for it even though I know—have even put the line in a poem once—that slow is not equal to stupid. Slow is an adjective, not a value judgment, and I wish I would start acting like I believe it, because I know that as of now, “SLOW” is the way my life demands to be lived.
Self-care through knowledge of self is important to me because it’s the only way I’ll recognize how to reject generic advice. I tend to ignore the way my specific body, mind and emotions work in favor of the lie that if I only work hard and/or train at XYZ pace recommended by the internet/some person who doesn’t know how my body/mind works, I’ll reach where someone else has reached. (When the actual fact is, if I follow the unspecialized advice I’m recommended, I might die.) No doubt a different person, when given the very same advice, may follow it and thrive. (Make no mistake, this makes me angry. I want to be able to thrive the “normal” way.) But trying to keep up with everyone and everything is what lands me in the kinds of medical conundrums described above.
I want and am slowly trying to commit to caring for myself in the specific ways my mind, body and emotions demand to be cared for. I recognize and fear that one of the hardest parts of my journey is going to struggling with other people not understanding my lifestyle choices or the motives behind them. If I listen to my body and stay at home when all my friends are going out, how would this affect my relationships with them? Will they never extend their invitations again? Will they begin to consider me the kind of friend they can only text but never hang out with in person? Will they harbor secret thoughts that I hate them? If I take three days to respond to texts, will they get anxious that they’ve said something wrong? Or get fed up and simply quit texting me? When I deactivate from all the platforms on which I’m usually reachable, will they think I intentionally tried to cut them off? If I stay at home for days on end, will my parents think I’m lazy? If I go half a week without seeing my grandparents, will I receive a lecture for being intentionally rude?
The list of questions that trap me in fear goes on. They’re also not purely hypothetical; nearly every single one of them has happened before. Such sentiments already have been expressed by the people in my life, and I wasn’t even trying to take care of myself at those times.
Being a human being with my specific design is difficult. But if I’m determined to keep myself alive, if I truly believe in Life Over Everything, there are storms I will have to brave. I’m not looking forward to it. I wish my self-care practice didn’t have to be as complicated as situations currently demand—but I simply can’t see a way around it. On a day-to-day basis, I’m constantly having to check in with myself, to intake or eliminate substances from my body, to regulate phone, screen and internet usage, monitor sleep and socialization, exercise, take time off from school, see therapists and doctors regularly, do all these self-care practices that I’ve usually neglected, just so I don’t die.
I haven’t yet reached the point where I am not resentful that I have to take much more pronounced self-care measures than most people I know (I just want to be normal, for God’s sake!), but I hope I get there soon. I hope I get there soon.