How to Self-Care when You’re too Sick or Exhausted to Self-Care

Let’s get real. In life, there is a glass floor, a sheet of ice, and sometimes we fall through.

Most of the time, when we feel like we’re at “rock bottom,” we’re really standing on that sheet of ice. It’s uncomfortable, sure. And we think we can’t possibly get any lower. And, most of the time, that’s where we realize we need to make a change. We start our self-care. We go for a walk. We spend time with friends and loved ones. We take a bath or light a candle or book a massage. We finally do what we need to get up from rock bottom.

But then there are those times when you realize that “rock bottom” was really a sheet of ice, because you fell through. For me, that’s because of HG (hyperemesis gravidarum). For you, it could be a serious physical illness, a mental illness, depression, grief, etc. Whatever the cause, we realize that something is seriously wrong. We realize something needs to change. Those self-care lists of “things to do when you’re having a bad day” look appealing.

But we can’t bring ourselves (either physically or emotionally) to do a single thing on those lists! We’re laying naked, bawling, on the bathroom floor. (It’s okay; I’m pretty sure we’ve all done that at some point.) The list says “light a candle,” but we can’t even crawl into the kitchen for the match. The list says “eat comfort food” or “eat healthy food,” but maybe we can’t eat any food. In fact, we’d love to eat some real food but we’ve only been able to eat plain pasta, crackers, Pedialyte, popsicles, and/or protein shakes for months now. Or maybe the doctors have put us on a special diet. The list says “take a bath,” and we can barely crawl into the bathroom. The list says “take a walk” or “do yoga” and the suggestion is laughable. So what do we do when we feel like THAT, when we’re under the ice?

Well I have a few tips stocked up by now in my journey. This is self-care level zero. “There is no level zero.” Well, now there is.

1. If you haven’t already, get diagnosed if you can. I know the last thing you want to do is go down to the doctor on those bad days. And then, on the good days, you might think “I don’t need to go today. Maybe I’m getting better anyway.” But if the bad days keep following those good days, we can recognize that those thoughts may be us avoiding the doctor, or tricking ourselves. Whatever it is, physical illness or mental illness, whether you can drive to the doctor or you need to ask someone to take you, whether it’s a good day or a bad day, please go see a health professional.

It really does make things easier. People will better understand what you’re going through: your boss, your friends, even your spouse. You may find untapped resources through your diagnosis. It may even help you to understand what you’re going through. You are not alone. There are people out there who have gone through the same thing, who can give you hope and tips that are actually helpful (unlike the tips we get from well-meaning people who have no clue).  Getting diagnosed can help.

2. Use the good days to prepare for the bad days. I know that when it’s a bad day, there’s no way I would do these things. But on a good day, when I’m feeling a little better, it’s sometimes possible to get ready for the next bad day.

3. Chargers. Buy (or have someone bring you) extra phone chargers and put them wherever you find yourself on bad days: the bed, the bathroom, the couch, wherever. I take my phone with me everywhere on bad days. I use it to distract myself from how crappy I’m feeling, and it totally helps.

4. Choose the right media. Be careful to choose something that uplifts you as you are right now. For example, I love minimalism, environmentalism, tiny houses, and nature. On good days, and before I was sick, those things were always energizing and inspiring! Guess what? Now, all those things make me feel worse! They make me feel like I need to be cleaning, or I need to be doing more for the environment, or I need to be outside. But if I try to do those things right now, it’s just too much. Oops. Those things are great media, but not for me as I am right now.

Last night, I watched Pursuit of Happyness. It had been forever since I’d seen it and I remembered it as a good, inspiring movie. Boy, was I wrong! You know what that movie is really about?? A dad makes a bad investment, loses his wife, and has to work to within an inch of his life to recover from it. Watching that movie this time around, all I could see was how crappy his life was and how ridiculously hard he had to work to make it better. Here I am, already exhausted, and I need to work harder for things to get better?! That feels so impossible. Here I am, feeling like a failure and more dependent on my hubby every day and, in the movie, his wife left him for being a failure! Ugh, in my current emotional state, this movie was the wrong choice.

With a little trial and error, you can find media that makes you feel good. Find something to watch, read, or listen to that makes you feel like life is beautiful again. (I love the band John Butler Trio for that. And there are some great Ted Talks on Youtube about self-acceptance.) Avoid whatever makes you feel like you’re not enough or like your life or spouse isn’t good enough. Because you are doing your best. You are enough. Exactly as you are. Right now.

5. Stock up on necessities. Like with chargers, there may be times when you feel up to going out or when a family member or volunteer can pick things up for you. Get toilet paper, laundry soap, bread, almond milk, Pedialyte, certain foods, extra drugs, essential oil, candles & matches, frozen casseroles & soup for your family to eat when you can’t shop or cook, etc. On bad days, make a list. Or on good days, think about whatever you might need or want on bad days. It’s way easier to light that self-care candle when you’ve got the candle and matches on your nightstand all ready to go!

6. Ask for help. I know. This one is hard. You may be very used to taking care of other people. You may love being strong, independent, and self-reliant even in the worst of circumstances. That’s me to a T. But resisting asking for help for so long made my fall through the ice much worse. I would’ve gotten sick either way, so I would’ve fallen through the ice either way, but I kept trying to push through it alone. I kept trying to do it all. I wore myself out quickly. And, when I finally did break down, it was sudden and we weren’t as prepared.

It’s like with a car. We could hear a funny noise, take our car in for a diagnosis, get a quote for repairs, and have a little time to save up for the repairs and arrange for a rental. Or we could hear the funny noise, ignore it, tell the car to “buck up and muscle through it,” and eventually have the engine blow out on the freeway on a day when we’re late for some big meeting and no one is free to come pick us up. The car has to go in for repairs either way, just like we have to deal with illness and difficult emotions either way. But one scenario is clearly superior to the other. Lol! I chose option 2. But in hindsight, I wish I’d chosen option 1 and asked for help sooner.

Asking for help is hard. Sometimes I feel like my hubby is already doing more than his fair share. How could I possibly ask him to do even one more thing? My kid should be a kid. How can I ask her to take care of me? My family and friends are so busy and have their own trials (which we discuss all the time). How could I add more to their plates? My work is a place of business and asking for special accomodations could damage my reputation there. How could I ask for anything with that risk?

I ask because I need to. That’s the thing about falling through the ice. You need to call out for help. Whether you have no groceries, you’re out of medicine, you need someone to watch your kids, you need financial assistance, you need a lighter work schedule, you need a ride to the hospital, etc. recognize that for what it is: a need.

I think we’ve drawn the line between needs and wants a little too far to one side. To me, unless I’m literally going to die, everything else feels like a want. With that definition, I can’t ask for anything! How do you define needs? My definition is definitely undergoing some tweaking. Maybe a need is not only what is needed to prevent literal death; maybe needs can include the little things that make us feel better too: from medicine, to ice packs, to even candles. My point is, we should take some time not only to think about what we need, but to think about what a need really is. Let’s try not to deny ourselves, but to give ourselves permission to do what it takes to heal, or just to make it through the day. Let’s give ourselves permission to ask for help.

7. It’s okay to feel vulnerable. Yes, asking for help is so hard that there’s more. Asking for help can feel vulnerable. It’s putting yourself out there and admitting your weaknesses all at once. But don’t for one second think that’s weak- it takes a strong person to do both of those things.

It’s also easy to feel rejected when someone refuses to or is unavailable to help. We finally become desperate enough to put ourselves out there and call a family member, or a friend, or someone from the church phone tree.

And then they are too busy. Or they forget. Or they don’t answer. Or they don’t call back. Or they are out of town. Or whatever it is. Ouch! Even when the person has the best excuse ever (like they can’t possibly run to the store for you because they’re in another state right now), for some reason, it still really hurts!

And that is okay too. Earlier, I was watching this Ted Talk by psychologist Guy Winch:

And he said something that struck me. He said:

Loneliness. Loneliness creates a deep, psychological wound. One that distorts our perceptions and scrambles our thinking. It makes us believe that those around us care much less than they actually do. It makes us really afraid to reach out because why set yourself up for rejection and heartache when your heart is already aching more than you can stand? …

Rejection is extremely painful. … Especially after a rejection, we all start thinking of all our faults and all our shortcomings, what we wish we were, what we wish we weren’t, we call ourselves names… we all do it.

It’s interesting that we do because our self-esteem is already hurting. Why would we want to go and damage it even further? Right? We wouldn’t make a physical injury worse on purpose. You wouldn’t get a cut on your arm and decide “Oh I know! I’m going to take a knife and see how much deeper I can make it!” But we do that with psychological injuries all the time. …

We know from dozens of studies that when your self-esteem is lower, you are more vulnerable to stress and to anxieties, that failures and rejections hurt more. And it takes longer to recover from them. … When you’re in emotional pain, treat yourself with the same compassion you would expect from a truly-good friend.

So, if rejection hurts, that’s okay. Only you know how hard things have been for you lately. On top of the grief or depression or the illness, you may be feeling rejected or lonely. My self-esteem took a huge hit when I stopped being able to do everything that I used to. Just know that, although it may seem like those around us care less, they really care more. As we ask others for help, we need to keep tabs on our own emotions. We need to understand that we’re extra vulnerable right now. We need to give ourselves all the compassion we can muster.

8. Don’t hide yourself. We want to be tough. When people ask how we’re doing, we want to answer “fine.” When people ask, “Can you please…?” We want to be able to say “Yes!” Going through something like you’re going through is hard. It’s exhausting. It’s vulnerable. It’s sometimes very embarassing. Our first instinct is to hide it from everyone, to just act like it’s not there and maybe no one will notice, to keep working harder and maybe we can compensate, maybe it’ll go away. Sometimes we even hide from ourselves.

That may work for the small trials, but we’re talking about falling through the ice here- big trials. The first step to having compassion for ourselves is to be honest with ourselves about how we’re really doing, physically and emotionally. The first step in asking for help is to be honest with others about how we’re really doing. Have you ever acted so tough that your spouse and family didn’t even know or believe that anything was wrong when you finally did tell them? Yup, me too.

But we don’t need to act tough right now. You’re already tough exactly as you are. Others won’t always understand what you’re going through, but if you’re honest with them, they’ll understand a little better. And, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discover that you’re already doing your best and that’s more than enough.

8. Finally, let go. I sometimes get stuck in the past. I compare what I can do now to what I could get done a few months ago. It sucks. I sometimes get stuck in the future. I freak out about how much longer this will go on, how on Earth I’m going to make it during that time, and how much catching up I’ll have to do at home and work to make up for every minute I’m getting behind now. It also sucks.

Letting go means focusing on the present. This is my favorite poem:

Letting Go

To let go doesn’t mean to stop caring; it means I can´t do it for someone else.

To let go is not to cut myself off; it’s the realization that I can´t control another.

To let go is not to enable, but to allow learning from natural consequences.

To let go is to admit powerlessness, which means the outcome is not in my hands.

To let go is not to try to change or blame another; I can change only myself.

To let go is not to care for, but to care about.

To let go is not to fix, but to be supportive.

To let go is not to judge, but to allow another to be a human being.

To let go is not to be in the middle arranging all the outcomes, but to allow others to affect their own outcomes.

To let go is not to be protective; it is to permit another to face reality.

To let go is not to deny, but to accept.

To let go is not to adjust everything to my desires, but to take each day as it comes and to cherish the moment.

To let go is not to nag, scold, or argue, but to search out my own shortcomings and to correct them.

To let go is not to criticize and regulate anyone, but to try to become what I dream I can be.

To let go is not to regret the past, but to grow and live for the future.

To let go is to fear less and love more.

While we’re on this crazy journey, and especially while we’re riding out this particularly rough patch, let’s not focus on what we could do in the past or worry about what will happen in the future.  Let’s take each day as it comes, cherish the good moments, and ride out the bad ones.

Tell me what you think!  How do you define needs?  Are there any other tips you’ve used for self-care when you’re exhausted?

*Photos by nikko macaspacÁlvaro, Cristian NewmanFilip Mroz, Stephen Di Donato on Unsplash.