For as long as I can remember, I was one of “those people” who prided myself on getting by on very little sleep, working long hours, and never taking a day off. The phrase “self-care” wasn’t part of my vocabulary. But in 2017, after five years of increasingly painful and often debilitating symptoms, I was diagnosed with migraines and lupus. It’s unclear if my frequent migraines are directly caused by lupus or if they’re the result of a separate medical issue — but what’s crystal clear is that my migraines taught me the importance of self-care and this shift in priorities has benefited my physical and mental health. In fact, prioritizing self-care has changed my outlook on life.
Until I was 17, I balanced 30 hours of professional ballet training each week with a full academic course load and, like every other dancer, I performed and competed through injuries and illness. When I made the decision to trade my pointe shoes for college textbooks, I frequently pulled all-nighters because my anxiety disorder convinced me that I was unprepared for every test. My anxiety and perfectionism go hand-in-hand, so when I landed my first job in New York City I made sure to go the extra mile (or ten) because I was convinced I would fail if I didn’t.
By 2015, my physical health was rapidly declining. I’d always gotten the occasional headache, but I began experiencing migraines — and they were becoming more intense and frequent. Due to my undiagnosed lupus, I also battled extreme, unexplained fatigue, joint pain, rashes and fevers. I was becoming too ill to continue “pushing through” as I had for so many years. Although I didn’t think of it as self-care at the time, I took the first step in prioritizing my health: I moved across the country to Seattle and began a career as a freelance writer.
The flexible schedule of freelancing is beneficial to my health in many ways, mainly because it allows me to strike while the iron’s hot and complete my assignments when I’m feeling my best. When I have a migraine, I can (usually) rest in a dark room and ride it out rather than sit through a long meeting attempting to not grimace, vomit or collapse in pain.
But I still had work to do when it came to truly prioritizing my health. I was eager to prove myself as a freelancer, so I continued to work over 60 hours per week. During my first year in Seattle, I taught dance classes on the side to earn extra money. I checked my inbox obsessively at all hours of the day and night, seven days a week and rarely took a day off from writing or pitching to new outlets. I only took breaks when the pain was debilitating, and I shrugged off the idea that preventative measures (like, for example, consistently getting enough sleep) would improve my health in the long run.
Then I was finally diagnosed with lupus and my doctors explained that 20 percent of lupus patients also experience migraines. A lot of things clicked for me in that moment: I realized that I had a serious physical illness and I wasn’t simply weak and lazy as I’d convinced myself. My doctors told me that I’d need to make some lifestyle changes in order to manage my symptoms — and most of them involved self-care.
I’d never liked the term “self-care.” To me, it sounded selfish and indulgent — and society conditions women to believe that putting ourselves first is, well, selfish. But when I decided to give self-care a try, I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life: Putting ourselves and our health first isn’t selfish and if anyone tries to convince us otherwise, it’s an act of self-care to eliminate them from our lives.
We all have different physical and mental health issues, so self-care looks different for everyone — but the common thread is that we only get one body (and mind) in our lifetime and we need to appreciate it, cherish it, and take care of it. For me, the most important self-care routines involve managing my symptoms to prevent flare-ups. Although I was initially skeptical, I found that weekly acupuncture appointments have helped ease my symptoms. I also began dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a form of therapy that helps patients adjust their mindset — in my case, the skills I’ve learned in DBT have helped remind me that it’s more than OK to take a day off when I sense that my physical health is declining.
But self-care is about more than just these appointments; it’s also about the “little things” I incorporate into my daily life. Because I’m extremely prone to dehydration which in turn triggers my migraines, I found a good deal on an aromatherapy humidifier (I might as well enjoy some soothing scents while I’m keeping myself hydrated, after all). At the first sign that a lupus flare-up or a migraine is on the horizon, I give myself permission to spend the day resting on the couch with no screens or bright lights in the vicinity, put on a hydrating face mask, and take a bath.
The toughest act of self-care for me to master is saying “no” — and it’s something I’m still working on. My natural inclination is to accept every work assignment that comes my way, even if my plate is full. I feel guilty turning down invitations from friends and fearful that they’ll stop inviting me places at all. But speaking up and being honest has made this process so much easier and less lonely — editors understand that, as much as I want to write at every available opportunity, overworking myself will ultimately catch up with me and my physical health will suffer. My friends understand that, because alcohol triggers my symptoms, it’s nothing personal if I say “no” to happy hour. We’ve found plenty of other ways to spend time together, whether it’s hiking on one of my “good” days or simply relaxing together in my apartment when I’m ill but could use some companionship.
I still feel pangs of guilt every time I take an unexpected day off, say “no” to a friend or an editor, or spend money on products and treatments that help ease my symptoms. But then I remind myself that absolutely nothing is worth sacrificing my health — and when I actively engage in self-care, I’m a better daughter, sister, aunt, friend, employee, and person. I have so many wonderful things in my life, but I can only enjoy them if I’m healthy — and prioritizing self-care is the only way I’ll be able to fully embrace and appreciate all the blessings life has given me.