Home Care Instructions After Hitting A(nother) Bottom
Drink lots of fluids and get plenty of rest
Posted Jan 17, 2017
The second to last Wednesday of December I sat in the 23rd Street subway station clutching the arm rests of the bench so tightly that my fingernails dug into the grain of the wood, and trying (unsuccessfully) to hold back tears. I wiped away the tears uncontrollably streaming down my face the whole subway ride back to Brooklyn, and on my walk home from the train I stopped at Barnes & Noble to treat myself to a new book in an attempt to cheer myself up a little.
“I’ll do debit card,” I croaked as I slid the book I’d selected across the counter to the cashier, and when he looked up at me after ringing me up I’m pretty sure his reaction to my puffy, bloodshot red-rimmed eyes and blotchy face could be described as “recoiling.”
At home, I cried myself to sleep, and woke up in the middle of the night in tears again. I plodded to the bathroom and on my way back to bed I noticed that my stuffed animal had fallen on the floor (yes, I sleep with a stuffed animal for comfort).
“Are you OK?” I asked it in baby talk as I picked it up off the ground and put it back into bed. “You’ll be OK,” I said to it, but more to myself, as I crawled into bed to sob more.
I’d been heading (in my more dramatic moments I like to say “careening”) towards a bottom for a long time, possibly the past six months, and maybe even a lot longer. During that time I’d been under a murky haze of persistent, ongoing, low-grade depression—primarily this malaise was a result of feeling utterly defeated about my career and finances and completely baffled about how to improve these situations, so I’d resigned to giving up and just doing what I needed to do to trudge through each day, by rote, by myself, and without joy. And, when I let myself even think about it, another contributing factor that occasionally tormented me, too, was my unsuccessful attempts at dating and relationships with no hope of that changing on the horizon.
On that six-month or longer road towards a bottom, I hadn’t necessarily felt a lot of pain—I’d mostly just felt numb. But on the second to last Wednesday of December, I finally hit that bottom, and I hit it hard.
For 24 hours I was in excruciating pain, a sobbing, barely functional mess, making small talk with her stuffed animal. Then the pain started to ease up and I felt…actually kind of good, even though I was still definitely hanging out at that bottom I’d just whacked into. I felt really raw and ragged, but viscerally alive, which was better than the checked-out way I’d been sleepwalking through my days for a while.
Many famous authors and self-help gurus have written about having a “dark night of the soul.” They hit a bottom, cry on the bathroom floor, and then magically rise from the tiled-floor ashes, their life transformed into the shining success story we see before us today. This neat and tidy narrative has not been my experience. My narrative is that I keep making the same mistakes and continue to wrestle with the same tenacious patterns, which keeps landing me close to where I was that night in December, at a bottom.
This was far from the first bottom I’ve ever hit—there’ve been more than I can count. I’ve cried on the bathroom floor, and in my studio apartment on the floor that’s in the kitchen section in front of the refrigerator, and the floor that’s in the tiny home office area next to my desk. I’ve cried myself to sleep, woken up in the middle of the night crying, and sobbed on the subway and walking through New York City streets. And I haven’t risen from any of those many dark nights of the soul transformed into a shiny, happy, shimmering success.
But there’s something relieving about hitting a bottom and finally arriving at the destination I’d been heading (careening) towards. It wakes me up to all the ways that my life isn’t working, and from that awake, fallen-apart place I can start to rebuild—hopefully on a little bit stronger of a foundation each time. And it puts me into a place of so much pain that I have no choice but to do the simple thing that I generally neglect: take very basic care of myself.
I’d been feeling physically run down the second to last week of December, and two days after hitting bottom I woke up really sick. I went to the urgent care clinic in my neighborhood and was diagnosed with a sinus infection, and sent home with four prescriptions and a three-page printout. The first two pages included information about my diagnosis, instructions for taking my medications, and a “Home Care” section that listed things like drinking a lot of fluids and putting a warm, moist washcloth on my face. The third page contained general information about a healthy lifestyle with “Your Care Instructions” in bold at the top.
At home, I took down an inspirational quote that was pinned to my bulletin board to make room for “Your Care Instructions” which I tacked up in its place.
My Care Instructions. Just reading that phrase soothed me. How comforting to have lists telling me exactly what I needed to do to take care of myself, when I so often feel like this knowledge or skill or whatever it is eludes me, and all I had to do was follow those typed-out directions.
So for the next week and a half, I followed those instructions: I took all my medications at the appropriate times, and with or without food as directed. I drank lots of fluids. I rested, frequently.
And then I added some of my own home care: I took the week off from doing any work at all, which I never, ever do. I binge-read books—about struggling and hitting gritty bottoms and healing and crawling out—for hours and hours at a time, uninterrupted. I stayed off social media for days, watching the notifications build up on the Facebook app on my phone and refusing to give in to their taunting call to jump outside myself to see what a better holiday everyone else was having, or how many people had or had not Liked my last post. I slashed my To Do list down to the bare minimum from its usual crushingly tasky length. One day I only put two things on my list with one of them as optional, and I didn’t do either. Another day, I swept my floor, ridding it of the long-accumulating hairballs and dust bunnies, and washed my bedding, so my apartment felt a little more homey and nurturing.
By the time the holidays were over, I’d nursed myself back to health and out of my emotional bottom, although all of the circumstances that got me there still remain to be dealt with, and my life is still very much in need of a less shaky foundation. But I got myself into a place energetically where what I need to do doesn’t feel so insurmountable (for the moment; just to be totally transparent, this could quickly change).
The challenge is of course, now that life has returned to normal post-holidays, and the tasks are piling up on my To Do list, and I’m back to checking social media regularly, to not get overwhelmed and defeated and go back to my default of self-neglect. To continue with taking care of myself and climbing my way out of the bottom one step at a time instead of sliding back into its gritty darkness.
My Care Instructions are tacked up to my bulletin board to remind me to keep doing the simple things—drink plenty of fluids, get enough rest—and that if I take care of myself in basic ways that honestly don’t come automatically or easily to me, and do so with gentleness and kindness towards myself, I can feel, if not completely serene, at least somewhat at peace even when everything appears to be falling apart around me. And from that nurtured place I can start to pick up the pieces and slowly rebuild my life, not resenting that I have to keep doing this again and again, but with trust that even a foundation that’s just a little bit stronger this time around will make a difference.