Self-Care or Selfish?

I wrote this blog post following the shooting in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018. I delayed posting this because I was wary of derailing any of the important conversations that were taking place. It is not my intention to do so now. I simply wanted to discuss my own experiences with OCD and reflect on the inherent privilege of some forms of self-care. 

During my senior year of college, I was officially diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In retrospect, I had been suffering with OCD (initially diagnosed as Generalized Anxiety Disorder) for a long time. My brain cycled through different topics of obsession. The first obsession I remember was kidnapping. I must have been six or seven when worries about kidnapping consumed my brain. Then it was spiders. Sometime during middle school, I got fixated on sleeping. Would I be able to fall asleep? How long would it take? What would happen if I couldn’t fall asleep? These obsessive thoughts would take over my brain, make me sick to my stomach, and prevent me from focusing on more important things.

Of course, in addition to these obsessions, I also had compulsions. I would check the lock on every door in my house. I would search every inch of bed for spiders. I would make a list of topics to think about when I couldn’t fall asleep at night. These compulsions would give me a temporary feeling of relief, which only exacerbated the power of the obsessions. That’s the trickiness of OCD. But I made the OCD work for me, enough to avoid diagnosis until I was 22.

My senior year of college, however, something changed. I got a new obsession, one that wouldn’t be placated by compulsive behavior. I became fixated on death. I wasn’t suicidal. In fact, I was the opposite. I was obsessed with the unanswerable spiritual and philosophical questions about death. I needed answers. I needed to be smarter than centuries of scientific, philosophical, and spiritual leaders. Now, I’m a pretty smart person, but I’m not that smart. There was no way I could find the answers I needed to soothe my new obsession.

After a couple weeks of lying in bed, feeling constantly ill, crying hysterically, and missing important classes and events, I was convinced to seek help. I found a therapist who quickly diagnosed me with OCD. A lifetime of obsession finally made sense. It was liberating to have that answer, but it wasn’t the answer I wanted. The answer I wanted – a definitive, accurate assessment of death and dying, obviously – was never going to happen. Instead of succumbing to obsessions and fixating on unanswerable questions, my therapist encouraged me to address the mental illness itself. I did cognitive behavioral therapy. I learned coping techniques. I got new medication.

Two months later, I could get through class without crying. Three months later, I could last ten or fifteen minutes without thinking about death. Six months later, my life was back on track. I still thought about death occasionally, but it wasn’t consuming my life. I figured out how to avoid triggers and distract my brain. There were topics I learned to completely avoid – the death penalty, terminal illness, mass shootings, end-of-life care. There was no possible way for me to engage with those ideas productively, so I started avoiding them altogether.

Last week, on the afternoon of February 14, when I opened my computer and saw headlines about another school shooting, I looked away. I didn’t read the news. I avoided social media. I skimmed headlines enough to be informed, but then I closed the tab. I chose to protect myself.

Everyone talks about the importance of self-care. Showering, eating, going outside, exercising, taking medicine – those are all acceptable methods of self-care. But when ignoring tragedy is my method of coping, it doesn’t feel like self-care. It feels like a desperate attempt at self-preservation. And it feels selfish.

There are no words to describe how lucky I am to be able to ignore the headlines, to turn off the news, and to shut myself off from the world. There are so many people who want to protect themselves, who want to distance themselves, but can’t. Because their lives have been ruined by tragedy. Or because, in 2018, their lives are constantly at risk. I cannot comprehend how those people cope. I don’t think I could. But I guess, when your options are limited, you do what you can to function. I hope I would be strong enough to do the same.

However, that isn’t my situation. I’m incredibly privileged. I’m also stuck with pretty terrible mental illness. And, if I’m being honest, I’m also kind of selfish. I don’t want to go back to lying in bed all day, thinking nothing matters, ignoring my friends, and feeling like the world is crashing down on me. So I do what I have to do, even if that’s a little bit shameful and a lot bit selfish.

To easy my guilty conscience, I try to focus on what I can do. There are plenty of things wrong with the world, and most of them don’t send me spiraling. Gerrymandering? I’m coming for you. Abortion? Let’s make clinics accessible and affordable. Immigration? There’s so much work to be done. Economic plans? I have a thousand opinions. (Not very smart ones, but still.) There are issues that I can talk about and think about and do things about. I can vote for the right people and give money to the right organizations. And sometime in the future, I hope that I’m able to engage with any topic without destroying myself in the process. In the meantime, I need to stick with my own mode self-care, even if that is a little bit selfish.

2 Comments

  1. wingedtrish

    Kalena, this is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot too. When does self-care become selfish? I have to say, I don’t think that choosing to ignore the news in these instances is selfish at all. If you were to land yourself in another damaging and isolating thought spiral because you chose to spend too much time in the tragic thralls of the news knowing full well how it would affect you – that’s what I would call selfish. You know what you need to do to show up for yourself and the important people in your life every day, and you do what you have to do. I think that’s admirable. It’s not like you’re sitting in a bath with an expensive bath bomb donned with a gold flecked sheet mask and a glass of champagne going “oh I just can’t handle the news.” No, you’re distancing yourself to stay well.

    Like

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