Why ‘self-care’ means something different to those with chronic illnesses

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Two weeks into Michaelmas term, I had the worst period of my life. Not just “crying into a tin of Celebrations over Pride and Prejudice (2005)” bad, but debilitating stomach pain, nausea and light-headedness. After a six hour round trip to the university hospital, I was told by a friendly young female doctor that all signs pointed to endometriosis. 

Endometriosis is a medical condition which affects roughly one in ten women globally – it’s primarily defined by extreme period pain caused by the womb lining growing elsewhere in the female reproductive system. For me, the diagnosis meant an answer to all of the mystery medical symptoms I had experienced over the past six years; including a particular kind of excruciating stomach pain I described to my poor wincing housemate as ‘a seat belt that’s being pulled supertight over your tummy that also happens to be on fire’. This debilitating pain was also paired with utterly bone-crunching periods of fatigue, stomach problems and anemia.

‘Endometriosis is a medical condition which affects roughly one in ten women globally’

Even though I’d struggled with all of the main endometriosis symptoms for six years, this diagnosis still turned my world upside down. Previously, even though there had been rumours of endometriosis from the ever changing cast of medical professionals I’d seeked help from over the years, I had never expected an answer to be this concrete. Fortunately, this new answer meant that I can now share the lessons I have learnt from the six years I have been ill, things that I hope any student, whether chronically ill or bogged down with a nasty cold can find useful.

When we talk about “self-care”, we often talk about it in a very foofy metropolitan sense. In a consumerist society, self-care often centers around purchasing goods to make ourselves feel better, despite the origin of self-care being in the women’s liberation and civil rights activist groups in the sixties and seventies. Self-care, as I define it, is a reclamation of the self from institutions which do not recognise the needs of the minority, be that minority transgender, disabled or feminine. Put into practice, self-care invloves both practices which improve wellbeing, and the ability to advocate for one’s needs.

‘Self-care, as I define it, is a reclamation of the self from institutions which do not recognise the needs of the minority’

The best example I can give of self-advocacy would be the neglect of women’s pain in institutionalised medicine. Women with endometriosis are often brushed off by doctors and sent on their way with cocktails of contraceptive pills and painkillers until the illness becomes debilitating and demands notice. Over the summer, I approached my doctor with sudden appetite loss and stomach problems and was ignored, only to end up in hospital two months later. The skill of self-advocacy is therefore the ability to communicate your needs to the institution you are seeking help from, without fear of being “hysterical” or “demanding”. In practical terms, this can mean seeking an extension from your department even if you’ve already had to use one or pushing for a second medical opinion if you feel your concerns have been dismissed. Learning how to advocate for your needs is an essential aspect of self-care.

Another thing my illness has taught me is patience. As competitive Durham students, obsessed with grades, internships and sports, we are often subconsciously telling ourselves to keep pushing, even when it hurts. This dangerous mentality can lead to the smallest cold becoming a prolonged illness because of how caught up we are in this “growth” mentality. Self-care is knowing when to stop pushing and to take time out to look after yourself and get help. Taking the time you need and being patient with your recovery is essential to preventing problems in the future.

‘Self-care doesn’t have to be about carefully curated skin-care routines or following the advice of influencers’

Finally, I would urge you to treat self-care not as something which masks the problems, but something which helps you to care for yourself both now and in the future. Self-care doesn’t have to be about carefully curated skin-care routines or following the advice of influencers whose role it is to sell you on products to “treat yourself” when you are struggling, it can be about performing the nitty gritty tasks you need to do to move forward. My Sunday self-care routine consists of changing my bed, tidying my room and if I have the energy, catching up on work the week before – I consider this to be caring for myself as it puts me in the best possible position for the week ahead, tackling issues head on rather than attempting to paper over the cracks.

Essentially, self-care when you’re ill, whether chronically or temporarily, mentally or physically is about making your happiness and health a priority over all else. Advocate for yourself, show patience towards your body and be kind to who you will be in the future, for if we don’t show care towards ourselves, how can we expect anybody else to?

Image by Christina Victoria Craft via Unsplash

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