Laura Wood, Everyone’s Business campaign champion and lived experience facilitator for maternal mental health peer support project at Mind and the McPin Foundation
After the traumatic delivery of my son in 2014, I lost myself almost entirely. I was experiencing flashbacks, horrifying intrusive thoughts, and crippling anxiety. Every moment felt like an emergency and I had visions of throwing my baby into traffic. Finally, desperate and suicidal, I was admitted to a psychiatric mother and baby unit. This enabled me to receive specialist treatment without being separated from my little boy, and it probably saved my life. Whilst there, I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD, which explained not only my current difficulties but also my lifelong history of mental ill health.
At the unit, we were taught emotional coping skills, one of which was self-care. They suggested the usual things: mindfulness, colouring, hand cream, chocolate. To be honest, mindfulness makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a rusty spoon. Colouring-in bores me; I find it infantilising and think it’s interesting that no one tells men to do it. Hand cream is, well, handy, as in it’s useful, but that’s all. Chocolate is delicious but my research confirms that too much of it makes me fat. This was not for me, I decided.
I found that the things which were effective at alleviating my intense distress were all harmful to me in some way. This makes sense, if you think about it: trauma damages our relationships with others, but it’s even worse for our relationship with ourselves. We can end up feeling that we are to blame for what’s happened, even without any rational justification for that. We can feel that we caused it or deserved it. With that mindset, self-care makes no sense.
Trauma can also cause us to shut off from our bodies, so it’s more difficult to recognise and meet our own needs for food, rest, etc. What’s needed then, is a far more complex and involved process than putting stickers on a cardboard box and filling it with hand cream, though that might be part of it for some. I found that, ultimately, what I had to do was to learn how to befriend myself. This quotation sums it up for me:
“As we begin to re-experience a visceral reconnection with the needs of our bodies, there is a brand new capacity to warmly love the self. We experience a new quality of authenticity in our caring, which redirects our attention to our health, our diets, our energy, our time management. This enhanced care for the self arises spontaneously and naturally, not as a response to a “should”. We are able to experience an immediate and intrinsic pleasure in self-care.”
– Stephen Cope
I’m not claiming to have cracked this, but I’m getting there slowly. It can be done. A big part of it, for me, has been having time and space to process, reflect, and forge meaning from my experiences. We also need to do those things which uplift us, restore us, keep us going, remind us what we’re about. These are unique to us as individuals: we find them, and learn how best to implement them, mostly by trial and error. If you like mindfulness and colouring-in, go for it. If you need to take three-day baths and play the banjo in the nude, knock yourself out. Personally, I keep a bullet journal, write, stomp about with headphones on, wear a lot of brooches, and swear like a sailor.
Self-care is more difficult as a new or newish mum, when going to the loo by yourself can feel like a spa day. Babies constantly need things, and it can be hard enough to get yourself fed and showered, never mind have hobbies. It’s unfortunate that the activities I used to enjoy, like baking and hiking, are so much logistically harder now, when I probably need them more. I’m consoled by the fact that this is temporary – children grow and need us less – and that I’ve discovered new activities and interests which I would never have explored otherwise. Parenting is an exercise in getting everyone’s conflicting needs met simultaneously. To do this, I think we are more resourceful, creative, and adaptable than we give ourselves credit for.