These Days, ‘Self-Care’ Means More Than Just Escape

It was late last year, around mid-September, when I finally surrendered to the fatigue. The months preceding had been besieged by nonstop work, paralyzing anxiety, and what felt like a gushing waterfall of stress. I was 30, and like a handful of friends who’d shared comparable stories, felt increasingly and exponentially overwhelmed by the dizzying pace I thought I needed to maintain in order to succeed at adulthood.

Out of this manic velocity, two immediate consequences arose. I began experiencing phantom chest pains—subtle, prodding, undeviating—and periodic breathing aberrations that made it hard to inhale and exhale for a sustained period of time. After a chest x-ray at a downtown Manhattan lab revealed that there were no maladies at work, my doctor determined it was most likely the result of constant stress, which had begun to compound in my body. She suggested that I was carrying it with me, and prescribed an inhaler as one course of treatment (as a child I suffered from serious bouts of asthma). The other avenue to well-being would prove much more intricate: “You’re exhausted,” she told me. “You have to rest.”

How I would go about attaining rest—which, I should say, was not solely a matter of sleep—was not immediately clear or as easily realized in the subsequent months.

The earliest remedies were simple, if insubstantial: I threw myself into fabricated realities. It was a purposeful, obsessive detachment. Upon the suggestion of my cousin who’d been staying with me, I began watching mindless reality TV, and soon became fixated with MTV’s Are You The One? With matching hunger, I devoured full seasons of light-hearted comedies like Happy Endings, the ABC sitcom about a cohort of twentysomethings in Chicago. I retreated to a place that I believed demanded little of me. I told myself it was survival—blind to the fact that true self-preservation is, too, a kind of continuous, laboring work.

Escape and preservation may overlap, but they’re not synonymous. The real question in front of me was larger, vaguer, and just as elusive: How could I better take care of myself in the face of a constant barrage of news that was being shoved into my life from television and Twitter and push alerts? How could I shut out the noise?

It’s one thing to stay abreast of what is transpiring in the world around you; it’s a wholly different thing to feel buffeted by the tempo of the world. With each day came violent shock and new inhumanities—the shooting at Pulse nightclub; the killing of another unarmed black man by police; the growing protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline. In November, the election of Donald Trump landed with the full force of apocalyptic gloom and time seemed to thicken. A week was a year was a month was day. First was confirmation of Russian interference in the election. Then came chatter of who might comprise Trump’s cabinet. Then it was something Trump said or did or tweeted—The Muslim Ban, The Wall! His ascendancy to the White House had accelerated the modes by which we consume news. We were fat before, but with Trump in office, we had become achingly gluttonous.

I realized that the crush I felt was directly correlated to my digital habits: neurotically tracking news for work, posting to Twitter and Instagram, texting friends with rhythmic frequency, responding to and sending emails around the clock. A great portion of my day was being spent in front of screens—an iPhone, a laptop, my work computer, or simply watching TV at home. These daily practices had become the seeds of my own undoing. How then would I bridge the distance between who I had become and who I needed to be? Was more rest possible?

The objective was balance. But achieving balance demanded I disengage. To that end, I made a very conscious decision: In my personal time outside of work, I would no longer deliberately read or watch the news—or any TV shows or movies that transported me to a place of despair. No more American Crime or Vice News Tonight. There were exceptions, of course. The dystopian planes of Westworld seemed far too removed from our present bind; I happily indulged. I fashioned new habits: Each morning I ingested current events via Viceland’s Desus & Mero from the night before, moved with less urgency in lieu of rushing to work, and tried to rely less on my iPhone during commutes, flinging myself into a book.

The escapism I sought needed to be unchallenging, soft, and assured. It wasn’t a complete digital detox, though; I reoriented my focus. I deleted the Twitter app from my phone, a tool I'd become too dependent on. When I found myself on the platform I consciously sought out moments of joy and soon began recording Instagram Stories. The gym also became a daily ritual—a place to relieve stress, blast music, and easily unplug from the online world. That I was slowly assuming a healthier lifestyle only seemed like an added bonus.

This past May, during a routine checkup with my doctor, I realized the chest pains had dissipated. I’d been getting more rest, taking more time for myself, and it seemed to be paying off. Still, I struggled with bouts of anxiety, of figuratively feeling closed in; it was no surprise that, at a given moment, I still found myself short of breath.

I began to more comfortably disengage in real life, too: I turned down social events and parties, lost touch with acquaintances, and, on rare occasions, spent whole days inside my apartment on weekends where I would order food on Seamless and spend as little energy as humanly possible. I started getting pedicures and, upon advice from a friend, ravenously listened to Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations, a self-empowerment podcast that features discussions with spiritual leaders, authors, and self-help gurus. This summer, I found myself venturing to Central Park alone to sit under the sun, listening to episodes about vulnerability, being more present, and—as Dr. Brene Brown suggested in one episode—practicing more gratitude to attain joy. I had become more selfish with my time. And I felt great—but it still didn’t feel like enough.

I will admit here, too: I did begin to feel more alone. A retreat from the world is also a retreat from intimacies and joys you’ve long held dear. A series of studies suggested social isolation can in fact be harmful and is sometimes the source of increased anxiety, irregular sleep patterns, and a fluctuating immune system. A thought blossomed: Was I going about this the wrong way?

Some weeks ago, as I waited for a subway to arrive during the clatter of rush hour, I witnessed an older gentleman in a tan suit tell his friend, emphatically extending his right arm for effect: “Your only focus should be finding a new situation.” He pointed forward as if the destination was just ahead, and I began to think if I too might find some new source of well-being in that same direction. I took this as my charge. For the greater part of the year I had disconnected from friends and social engagements, with mostly positive results. But, in truth, I had become too comfortable with this modified way of life. It was time to seek out a new situation.

In early November, one month after 58 people were killed in a Las Vegas shooting and two days after a gunman opened fire in a South Texas church, I emailed a batch of friends and asked, “What do you do to feel less anxious?” I wanted to know what they’d done to combat such galvanizing experiences. Did they have tips on how to abate the world’s strain? Had they also felt crushed under daily cruelties? I posed a straightforward question: “What practices have you taken on, if any, since Trump was elected that have better assuaged your unease?”

The responses were immediate, and many were eager to share. “I get on [NYC area commuter rail line] Metro North and get off and go hiking,” one friend suggested. Another who works for a major news organization replied: “More sleep, more vulnerability about my emotional state, more reconnection with the earth’s natural patterns.” A friend who recently overcame his own series of personal demons, joked: “Oh my lord HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU HAVE?” Another confessed: “I smoke most nights before bed. I never smoked with regularity before 2016.”

When feeling plagued by angst or elevated stress, one friend who lives in DC said he throws himself into deep dives on the internet, researching questions like “How to calculate the number of stars in our solar system?” or “How many queens have ruled over England?” Another friend, who takes SSRIs for his general anxiety disorder, suggested reading Thich Nhat Hanh, who he said offers an abundance of “advice on the actual practical side of focusing on breathing, being in the moment, etc,” adding: “He’s like the Mr. Rogers of Buddhism.” Meditation, prayer, and being more selective in who I portion my time to all featured heavily in the responses (the latter of which I’d been doing).

“This is such eerie timing,” one friend responded later that night. She explained that she’d recently suffered from a spell of panic attacks and had taken time off from work. Among her recommendations, the one I found most fascinating, and the one that seemed to be the thread among each response I received was, I realized, the most obvious: “More communal meals with close friends and family.” Each friend, in their own way, had adjusted their life to be more present—to one’s emotional state, to the silence around them, to the people they cherish in their lives. And because our capacity for presence has atrophied in the age of multitasking—we typically allocate a morsel of our attention to a given moment, rarely the full self—the decision to be mindfully present felt revolutionary to me.

In the 12 months prior, I had done my very best to unpin myself from daily commitments: social norms, friends, lingering responsibilities. In doing so, I’d cultivated a great expanse around me—but, I now see, it was far too much for one person to nurture all by himself. In doing so, I had produced a marginal supply of well-being. I realized, too, that there was no one avenue to how I should attack the disquiet of a particular day and the tensions it carried.

What is both uncanny and true about this story is that days prior to sending that email and receiving a bounty of advice, I found myself at a friend’s intimate dinner party. We’d assembled to celebrate a birthday, and also each other. It had been a taxing year and we were thankful for release, momentarily away from a world that had rendered our bodies as targets and as symbols of subjective value. We took photos and posted small slices of the night to our respective Instagram accounts. We ate and danced and ate some more. We laughed giant gulps of laughter. I think of my friend’s words—how injecting yourself into the right community of people can be a corrective to private and public tumult—and I think back to that night. My breathing did not waver once.

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