Self-care in the Real World

Self-care in the Real World |


“One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” – Iris Murdoch’s protagonist in The Sea, The Sea

The quote above was number 27 on my list of 40 lessons learned in 40 years — I like it so much it’s even mentioned in my book. I’m a passionate believer in the wisdom of giving oneself regular small treats. It ties into my philosophy of showing myself kindness whenever I can. Because I’ve spent a lot of my life being decidedly UNkind to myself. Honestly, no one could ever say anything meaner to me than some of the rubbish I’ve told myself — still tell myself, on the bad days. But these days I try to do better by myself. I consciously try to be kinder. And it starts with the many layers of self-care.

The first layer: the quick fix

I have a tendency to spoil myself as if I were my own overly indulgent relative. If I want an almond latte I go get an almond latte. I spend an absolute fortune on books. I buy myself flowers and scented candles occasionally. I own a ridiculous amount of perfume. On really icky days I get out the big guns: new Spotify playlists (hours of fun!).

I know I buy myself presents to make up for the fact that I’m single (“I haven’t had sex in *cough* a long time — I deserve this Diptyque candle!”) When I’m no longer single I’m sure there’ll be other reasons to justify the presents. Self-care that involves spending money in this way is more of a quick fix, though one that’s certainly pleasurable in the moment. And I’m okay with the occasional quick fix — it always brightens my day.

The second layer: the reactive

The next layer of self-care is responding to how I’m feeling at any given time with a kind action. Sometimes I worry this type of self-care is simply laziness. When I stay in bed an hour longer… when I go to bed an hour earlier. When I take a long bath instead of dealing with my inbox. When I give in to the mid-afternoon chocolate craving… it crosses my mind that I’m far too lenient with myself, because somewhere inside me is this twisted notion that Hard Work is the only way (and this applies to everything, not just paid work). But experience has taught me that it’s better to attend to my needs rather than push through and ignore them. This means that if I wake up with a headache I’ll do the bare minimum needed in the morning then let myself have the afternoon on the sofa. If I’m feeling upset about something I’ll be extra gentle with myself, doing whatever I need to work through the issue (phone my sister, go for a walk, journal); often I just need to get out of the house and reset my brain.

The third layer: the self-investment

This last layer takes a bit more effort but the benefits will be felt for years to come. At the moment my biggest self-investments are my weekly sessions with a therapist, my gym membership (I’ve been 3 times, people! I’m going to make this happen!), and going back on antidepressants. I view all of these as the absolute best way I can take care of myself right now. Working with my therapist gives me space to unravel my head; going to the gym will eventually bring health and stamina (I hate going but the smug feeling afterwards is worth it); and the tablets are helping to bring me back up to the surface so I can function in this world like a normal person.

At this time in my life I am my own biggest responsibility which means I have the time and income to invest in self-care, but even when my circumstances change I hope I’ll be able to maintain this practice of attending to my needs — I know it makes me a more considerate sister, daughter and friend. To me, self-care is really self-kindness, and I find the more self-aware I become the more I recognise what I need. In my twenties and early 30s I was less clued in to how I felt, and as a result my self-care rarely went deeper than the first layer. These days my deepest desire is to feel calm, balanced and safe: my three layers of self-care help me get closer to this.


Cards in the photo: Intuitive Wisdom Oracle Cards and The Greenwood Tarot (now out of print)

On reflection

I’m obsessed wth my skin at the moment. This is one part impending 40th birthday to two-parts finally making a tattoo appointment. I’ve always had a fairly balanced complexion. I still get the occasional (usually hormonal) spot and have a few fine lines, but the wrinkles have yet to take over. Definitely getting a bit jowly, but smiling sorts that out for now. I regularly get told I look younger than I am, and believe me when I say I don’t take that for granted AT ALL. Hating hearing it in my 20s but loving hearing it now, obviously.

But my skin has been changing. This is the first winter I’ve really noticed the effects of the central-heating-cold-weather dynamic on my skin — can you say dehydration? I’ve been slathering on richer creams and oils and using thicker, creamier cleansers. Suddenly the potions* I choose cost three times what I used to spend — I want organic, clean, super-duper  products to help me make the most of what i have, while I still have it. After a lifetime of combination skin, this new dryness is something I’ve had to figure out how to tackle. I spent my entire teenage leafing through beauty books and making face scrubs from oatmeal + yoghurt (thanks for that tip Victoria Principal) so I thought I had my skincare routine down, but it turns out your skin really does change over time (I know, right? Victoria wasn’t lying!)

I’m a little bit ashamed to admit I’ve purchased four eye creams over the last month or so, desperately trying to find the answer to the eye bags that have taken up residence on my face. This time last year they weren’t there and it’s been a shock to see such a fast change happen in real time. If I’m standing in the right light I can still take an Instagram vanity selfie that magically smoothes out the bags (see above) but in real life those suckers refuse to shift. I want to get to a place where I accept and love these changes in my appearance… but I’m not there yet, not quite.

I don’t believe in overpriced anti-wrinkle creams — rather, I believe in a sensible skincare routine, lots of water and daily SPF application. I’ve inherited my paternal grandmother’s complexion and she used soap, water and Oil of Ulay (as it was called then) every day; if I close my eyes I can still smell that scented pink lotion that will forever remind me of her. I know that genetics and bone structure play a big part in how we age over time, and I do my best to put good food into my body in the hope that i’ll see the results on my skin as well as my general health. Like most women I take pleasure in painting my toenails, wearing clothes that flatter my figure and adorning myself with jewellery — appearance is a key part of my identity as a woman. It’s creative and occasionally *whispers* fun. But what’s most interesting about this time in my life is how I really do feel myself moving into a different category. I’m sensing that my 40s will bring more changes than just the ones I see on my face.

One thing my grandmother didn’t have — and I’m sure never even considered — were tattoos on her porcelain English skin.

This morning I was fascinated to read a post I’d written about my tattoos back in 2006, sharing how I regretted the blue lily I have on my arm:

“The thing is, I have always been, and will continue to be, the girl with the tattoos. When I worked at a national newspaper, this was how most of my colleagues identified me. Admittedly most of the time I cover my arms and no one is any the wiser (the tattoo is covered by the sleeve of a T-shirt, thank god) but I still get those looks, the looks that see the tattoos first and make an assumption. Even I look at women with tattoos and make an assumption. I’m not a particularly conservative person, so the tattoos are not at odds with how I live my life, but they certainly make me look more extroverted than I really am.”

The assumption that I am more extroverted is still true, but I’m a little amazed at how my thoughts about my tattoos have changed in the last seven years. Me-then still had a lot of unravelling to do. Me-then was still measuring herself by the rules she’d followed in her 20s. Me-then seems scared and uptight to me.

Me-now? She wants ALL the tattoos. Don’t like the blue lily? Rather than try to remove it I plan to find a tattoo artist whose artistic brilliance makes my heart thump and transfom the lily into something new. Something bigger. Something that reflects the woman I am today. Bigger, bolder, eye-bags be damned! This is what I can control. This is where I can be creative and daring and adorn myself in a way that means something to me.

When I told my mum I was planning a new tattoo for my 40th, she said: “But what’s it going to look like when you’re older?” And without missing a beat I said, “I AM older!” [I know you’re reading this — I love you, mum :)] On the one hand I wish I’d had more done when I was younger and skinnier, but this really is the youngest I’m ever going to be. There was a moment a few years back when I started wearing clothes that covered me more than was necessary — I was hiding myself, not wanting to be seen. And I don’t know if it’s the London energy seeping back into my bones, but I really don’t want to hide anymore. And persuing my fascination for permanent skin adornment is making me feel more excited than I have in some time. It feels delicious and sacred (something my friend Jo understands too – read this post) and more me-now than ever. Plus I have fantasies of being this woman in my dotage ;-)

So I’ve been planning the new ink for some months now. First will be the tattoo marking my fortieth year — that’s happening at the end of February and has an inspiring story around it, if you’d like me share after it’s done — and then the transformation of the blue lily will take place later in the year. It’s time to write a new story on my skin.**

As you may have guessed, I’m entering my 40s with a fuck it attitude, the one I’ve always had in me multiplied by a thousand. I suddenly sense there are no more rules — I can eat what I want, do what I want and really — finally — bite into my life and really savour it. I’m all grown up and don’t have to answer to anyone. It feels heady and liberating. I understand why some men people fall into a mid-life crisis when they hit their forties — you certainly become more aware of your mortality with every new grey hair — but I feel fully conscious around all of this. I feel like I now have permission to just be ME.

So often I get caught up in the ghostly reflection of how I used to look, measuring it against what’s in the mirror today. But then I think of my new mantra — today is the youngest I will ever be — and I try to trust that I will learn to accept my eye bags and my lines, and later my wrinkles and my sags. And I promise myself I will not waste a moment of this life

There are no more rules.

* Because I know some of you might want to know, I’m currently using and loving Antipodes, REN and Eve Lom products. Not cheap but bloody good, in my very humble opinion

** My mum and sister have offered to pay for the first tattoo as my 40th birthday present from them, which I LOVE so much. One of my most treasured possesions is the ring they bought me for my 30th birthday. Now I’ll have another reminder of my beloveds on me at all times. LOVE.

The edge of my universe

Today, I’m tired.

I’m tired of the grey London weather.
I’m tired of the blogosphere.
I’m tired of reading the same old purple prose that doesn’t actually mean anything.
I’m tired of platitudes and hyperbole.
I’m tired of reading about how everyone’s lives are so awesome.
I’m tired of reading about how grateful they are for their awesome lives.
I’m tired of hearing about green juices, cleanses, engagements and weddings.
I’m tired of competitiveness.
I’m tired of requests and demands.
I’m tired of being a slave to my inbox.
I’m tired of waiting for results.
I’m tired of being alone.
I’m tired of being tired.

This morning my therapist remarked that I seem to standing at the edge of my universe, that I’ve gone as far as I can and now I’m ready to cross over into a whole new one. And I nodded and said yes, YES. That’s exactly how it feels.

I’m ready for a new universe of experience. A new world of possibility and inspiration and love. One where I don’t feel tired at all.

I believe it’s possible.

Patience. Patience. Patience.

Three little stitches

I had a mole removed on Monday. It all started a few weeks ago after showering one morning before heading out to a doctor’s appointment about something else entirely. As I dried my skin I happened to look down at the mole on my abdomen, the one that had been looking strange for while, when ‘SHOW THE DOCTOR’ boomed loud and clear in my head. It had never occured to me to do that — I’d noticed the changes but never actually cottoned on to what that might mean. Our bodies change — it’s just part of getting older, surely?

So I showed the doctor, he referred me to the dermatology department at Hammersmith Hospital and on Monday I found myself having local anaesthetic injected into my flesh before a patch of my skin was removed along with the franken-mole. I was given three stitches — my first ever — and sent home to wait for the results of the biopsy.

As with most things, I’m doing my best to take this in my stride. if the results are clear I just have to continue being vigilant with my skin and regularly check my moles. If the results are of the more scary variety I’ll need to a have a much larger patch of skin removed and we’ll take it from there. As of right now it could go either way.

I was planning to write a post about this when I had the results, but, of course, this is blocking any other posts I had planned. Sharing photos on Instagram and Facebook, and hearing about others who’ve been in this situation — some many times before — has been really helpful. I spent my childhood getting burned to a crisp so have always been careful to use sunblock ever since, especially in my twenties when 10 years with an Italian meant 10 years of visting his family under the scorching summer sun. Slapping on the SPF has been the bane of my life as I really can’t go into the sun without burning. Now i’m grateful I persevered with it.

I tend to view my body as merely the vehicle that gets me around — I’ve never really identified it as ME. This has resulted in life lived from the neck up, only paying attention to my body when it stops working efficiently (which is a lot of time when you don’t take care of it). The extra book-baby weight that made me feel like crap; the RSI that’s plagued me for years; the suspected gluten intolerance; the PMS; the overly sensitive skin that blisters at the slightest touch. It’s all an inconvenience that makes me like my body even less and convinces me I got short-changed in the DNA department.

And human bodies are just so biological. Viruses can attack them. They swell and bloat for seemingly no reason. They age and stop working properly. Moles go renegade and need to be cut off. This is all coming at a time when I’m already feeling a bit sensitive about about ageing. In the last few years my body has definitely started changing. It’s quite shocking to appear to be losing the resilience and invincibility you thought you had when you were younger. To realise the morning creases on your face are still there in the evening. And let’s not even speak of the sagging and drooping and general unfirmness of it all.

I experience the world through my senses — sometimes too much — but rather than this be about the body it’s simply information that’s fed back into my brain. So it’s time to join my head and body back together, to accept that while I’m here this IS me, sags creases and all. And i don’t know what this looks like yet, because it’s not as simple as join a gym and start drinking green juice. But I do know I can’t just think my way into this.

In extremely related news, I’ve been planning my next tattoo, the one that will mark the beginning of my 40s (37 days to go!). It’s not lost on me that I’m planning to indelibly change how my skin looks again while also tending to my first ever scar. I’m actually really psyched about having a scar — does that sound odd? I view it as a badge of honour somehow, a marker of my ability to look after myself, even when that brings permanent physical change. There are the scars we choose and the ones that are thrust upon us. Until now my scars have all been held inside me — for the longest time during my bereavement I wished I had scars on the outside to show how much my life had been changed by his death. It didn’t seem right that I looked the same when my insides had been rearranged forever. Now, in the smallest way, I bear proof of time passing that goes deeper than laughter lines and the odd grey hair. Somehow these three little stitches have woken me up to how disconnected I’ve been from mySelf. I want to stitch myself back together: head, body, heart and soul. I’ve no doubt there will be more stitches to come, if not now then at some point in the future, so best I start now, with the things I have some control over, while I wait for the biopsy results I have no control over at all.