When most things in your life are trudging along pretty solidly, self care seems like those moments you take to be a little self-indulgent to reward yourself for getting through a tough week. Maybe it’s a girl’s night with friends, watching movies and doing face masks. Or it’s treating yourself to something from your favorite restaurant/coffee shop/bakery etc. Me-time.
Well that’s what I used to think anyway. I used it as moments to zen out from the hustle and bustle and dote on myself.
And then something I never thought would happen did. Our perfect playful, sweet, 9-year old cat we’d raised from a 9 week old kitten, started having recurring seizures (the regular vet misdiagnosed it as nausea). 4 days from the seizures starting, we ended up having to rush him to a late night emergency vet, and we were given the crushing diagnosis of a fast-growing brain tumor.
While the humans prepped to rush him from Berkeley to UC Davis for an MRI, he left us.
We left our apartment panicked cat parents, and returned to an empty apartment, with an empty carrier.
I still hear my screams as we left the emergency vet without him.
It was then that I’d get an unwelcome crash course in what self care is for so many suffering from grief, depression and the whole spectrum of mental health.
I first learned that self care is accepting the days you can’t get out of bed. Or the days where you muster up the strength to just lay on your couch all day. Brushing your teeth, let alone brushing your hair, feels like a major triumph.
Self care is telling your friends and family when you’re not ok, and letting them take care of you.
It’s not having the expectations that you’ll be able to do things like you did before. Filling your instagram with “before” photos because in new photos your smile doesn’t reach your eyes.
Self care is sometimes being ok with not at all being ok.
Self care is asking for help, and for me that’s going to therapy.
It’s pouring your heart out to a professional, and just crying for your first session.
Grief, and the depression and anxiety that can result are hell. I mean, obviously I knew some day he’d pass, but we thought we had more time. Everyone hopes for the solace of at least being able to say what a good long life they had. In fact, most pet rescues nearly threaten you with what a long commitment a cat is supposed to be. Nothing prepares you to be robbed of that time.
And no one can console you.
Especially if what you lost was the thing who let you hold them through your darkest times, soaked up or licked away your tears.
Nothing prepares you for the emptiness, the loneliness, the utter devastation.
The what-ifs. The anger at yourself for thinking of the what-ifs when the what-is is so inescapable.
Then, there’s the trauma. The brain being the complex organ it is, tossing images of that night into the forefront while you’re just trying to get through your work day. Getting first hand knowledge of what “triggers” really mean- how your once gloriously curated Instagram feed of happy pets is all of a sudden equally infuriating and cruel. How any mention of seizures instantly upsets you in a unpredictable way each time.
And sometimes there is numbness. And it’s not always better than feeling. As someone who has always been extremely in touch with their emotions, often to the point of ridicule, numbness is not as self-preserving as it sounds. To go from being someone who always has a strong emotion about practically everything, to feeling like you’re just along for whatever more messed up things this ride on the planet has in store for you.
Don’t forget the unwanted opinions of outsiders: those impatient for you to be done grieving/being depressed, those who want to compare your experiences with every other tragedy they can name, to belittle your feelings, to give you that “reality check.” Or my real favorite “so when are you getting another cat?”
To those of you going through something similar, not that you haven’t probably realized it in some part of your mind, but
those people don’t matter.
Anyone who is impatient with your grief, depression or anything else you’re dealing with, they don’t matter. Even if they’re a loved one or a close friend. Their apathy, their lack of simple human decency, is not your fault.
No they don’t have a point.
They are the internet trolls of your own personal life, and deserve the block button. It’s not your job to make them see where they went wrong. Your duty is to take care of yourself, because they’re certainly not going to.
Now that I’ve thoroughly brought down the mood, I want to pass on the things I’ve learned so far in therapy, because while I wish everyone hurting would seek out help, I know that’s not always possible. So with the emphatic support of my therapist, I present these pieces of encouragement.
- If you’ve ever been told you feel too much, you’re actually a marvel, and a prime candidate for therapy. Instead of spending your session trying to determine how you feel, you can begin to figure out what to do with your feelings, and sort through them.
- You can’t feel too much. And you’re not feeling the emotions of multiple people. These kinds of dismissals are what the apathetic use against you to make themselves feel “normal”, more comfortable, superior.
- Listen to yourself, and if possible do what your body asks of you. Sometimes it’s an unexpected nap; an “unproductive” day; an unplugged day; not responding to messages; not making any meaningful decisions; not making plans more than a few hours ahead; just getting through the day the best way you can.
- Try not to worry about what people aren’t saying. Grief/Depression brain is real good at wanting you to read nefarious things into everything said and unsaid. But if you can, pause, and try to come up with as many possible intentions behind what is upsetting you, and chose the most neutral. And if you’re up to it, ask. You’re already facing the pain of your current situation, the truth is rarely worse than the worst your mind can come up with.
- It’s ok if nothing give you solace. It’s ok if apologies only make you sadder. The piece to be taken from it is that people are reaching out, and they’re trying. And its ok if it makes absolutely nothing better. Adages and proverbs can be absolutely useless in times of grief and trauma. And people know they can’t make it better, but take what comfort you can in the fact people care enough to try.
- Your great pain is a sign of how greatly you loved. Our boy was incredible, and the thought of ever bringing another furry life into our lives is eclipsed by how perfect he was for us. And you can only be brought so low, by something that took you up so high. While it hurts more than any expletive can convey, how fortunate was I to be so loved by something? And how fortunate was I to get to love something so selflessly that I so clearly feel the 16 lb hole in my chest?
- Therapy, if you’re truly honest with your therapist, can work miracles. Whatever the cause, whatever the diagnosis, being heard and your pain believed is such a salve for the soul. I may spend much of my session crying, further realizing how much this feline made my life better, and how much so many things suck without him, but I come out of every session understanding myself better, my pain better, and while not necessarily feeling that things will ever be quite that good again, that things being different have their own possibilities too.
And the most important thing I’ve taken from therapy so far is this metaphor for the grieving process:
When your loss first occurs, you are sitting at a long table.
Just you and Grief.
Get comfortable at being uncomfortable, it might be awhile of just the two of you.
But gradually, as time goes on, good things, neutral things, other elements, will join you at the table.
Grief is always there, but with time and patience with yourself, more interesting conversationalists will join you at that table.
There’s no being over it, or done with it.
Unfortunately it’s now a part of you, but I promise, it won't forever be the only part of you.