Self-care is not selfish. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.Eleanor Brownn
Nearly everyone has heard the phrase “You can’t pour from an empty cup”, but what does that mean to someone living with mental illness? The phrase itself conveys the message that one cannot put energy into helping other people when they do not have the energy themselves. The concept is similar to the emergency instructions give on an airplane: affix your own oxygen mask before you assist others.
When you have a mental illness, however, sometimes you are running on empty more often than you would like. Life can take a lot out of you when you are depressed, or anxious, engaging in behaviors, using, or even manic or psychotic. You don’t always know which way is up when symptoms are dragging you down, and struggling to find the surface can take all of the energy you’ve got.
It can be hard for other people to understand this concept, when you find yourself with nothing to pour out for them. Friends can feel hurt, partners unloved, family ignored. It can be equally frustrating for the exhausted sufferer, if not more so. It’s painful to realize that you have nothing to give to someone who is reaching out to you. But in order to provide support, you need to be stable yourself.
Yesterday, I had a horrible, awful day. My grief, depression, anxiety, and guilt overwhelmed me and for the first time in weeks, I simply did not have the energy to do any more than the bare minimum. I reached out to a friend for support, but was hit in return with a long list of their own problems that they wanted to talk about. I closed out of the conversation.
I felt terrible, and angry. Part of me was mad at my friend, for burdening me with their issues when I had so clearly communicated that I was not in a good place. The rest of me, however, was angry at myself, for abandoning them when they obviously needed help themselves. The fact of the matter, however, that I was simply in no place to be giving support or guidance while in the midst of my own turmoil. The very idea of responding left me feeling drained.
I apologized to my friend today, and I’d like to say that they were forgiving and understanding. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and not everyone is going to be able to sympathize with us all of the time. My friend was clearly annoyed with me, and brushed me off. That stung, but there was nothing I could do. I wasn’t able to be there for them when I was called on, and I couldn’t force them to forgive me for that.
After some reflection, I’ve found that I no longer feel bad about myself for this interaction. Yesterday, I needed the help, and that’s okay. As much as I’d like to be the perfect friend to everybody, it is ultimately up to me to take care of myself. My responsibility to my own well-being is far greater than my responsibility for theirs.
Self-care is not selfish, even if it feels like it sometimes. If we don’t take the time to heal ourselves, we only prolong our suffering, and decrease our ability to be there for others for an even longer period of time. Better to stitch yourself up before heading back into battle than to bleed out on the field.
I reached out to some other friends whose cups were a little more full, and I drew strength and support from them. I played my current favorite video game, and watched my current favorite cartoon. I cuddled with my cats, and cried when I felt I really needed to. When my husband got home, I came clean to him about the fact that I’ve been struggling with my ED again, but I asked that I be allowed to try to work this one out on my own. He was supportive and loving and understanding, and I felt better that he knew. I did the things I needed to do to get back to where I needed to be today.
This morning, I woke up an hour and a half early, and woke my husband up with a smile and a kiss. I played with my dog for a while, and then I sat down and finished all of the homework that needed to be done for the day, and even some that didn’t need to be done until next week. My vessel felt full at last, and now I am ready to begin serving again.