‘This is about you.’
‘You need to put yourself first.’
‘Be kind to yourself.’
Who hasn’t heard this and dismissed it entirely?
I know I used to always snigger when it came up in the yoga videos I’ve been doing for years (sorry, Adriene).
I was always taught to think of others. Be kind to others. Think about what I say or do, how it will affect other people. Don’t be selfish. Don’t do something because you want to do it, but think how it will impact your friends, your family, your colleagues, people you don’t know but might suffer from your actions.
Be nice. Be gentle. Be self-effaced.
Put the needs of others before yours – after all, you are only one person. Think of how many people you can help by carrying a little more weight on your shoulders. And a little more. And a little more.
Go to work, even if you’re not feeling great. You don’t want to add to other people’s workload.
Be the confidant, the support system, the one who helps people with their issues and sweeps their own aside.
Lend a hand, an arm, your whole self.
I am not saying I was perfect. Oh no, I was constantly breaking these unwritten rules and feeling in the back of my mind that it was wrong. Taking a sick day for an ear infection, and berating myself for it. Screening my brother’s calls when I couldn’t deal with his pain. Feeling selfish. Feeling inadequate. Feeling guilty. Picking up the phone and dropping it back down again. Down. Down. Down.
Oh, guilt, my old trusted companion. How I got used to you, making it all about me in my quest to pretend I didn’t matter. That’s the real selfishness.
‘You need to forget everything else, and focus on you.’
It took a cancer diagnosis.
In that moment, within a split second, you realise it really is all about you.
It is your life on the line.
Of course, you think about your family, your friends, your partner. How it will impact them.
How you will impact them. It all comes back to you.
Was I lucky in that I didn’t have children or a long-term partner to think about, to care for, to support during my cancer journey? Probably. Lonelier, but easier.
Knowingly or not, through trial and error, I started putting myself first, and accepting it.
Very few people know this, but one of my first acts as a cancer patient was to break off a relationship that was only just starting. I am talking a few weeks of casual dating – nothing serious or committed by any means. At the time, I felt like it was the kind thing to do. We were barely more than strangers getting to know each other, who was I to bring him into my fast-spiralling life. I broke it off. No reason given. No mention of cancer. Just not feeling it.
I wasn’t feeling much of anything, to be honest.
Looking back, I think that was my first step in accepting that I needed to prioritise myself, and actually taking a step in that direction. I didn’t have the brainpower or emotional capacity to focus on another human being.
Part of it was shame. Avoidance. I didn’t have to tell him about the disease growing inside of me. Fear. The fear of him breaking it off because of my cancer. The fact I felt I had failed at being a woman.
But part of it was me coming to terms with the fact I now needed to be my own priority.
I took time off work. First a few hours here and there for hospital appointments, then half days, then days. I had always struggled with being off work, and unloading my workload onto others. It became easier. To be honest, it’s not like I was any use when I was sitting at my desk at that time.
It became easier to let go.
When my first operation was cancelled, I signed myself off sick for a week. Because I was anxious, I was tired, I was overwhelmed, I was broken. I can’t remember what I put on my absence certificate.
When asked how I was doing, I started being honest. Telling people about my diagnosis. Unloading my burden onto them, making them part of my story.
I asked my parents to come over, something I had not done in 5 years of living abroad. It was about me, and I didn’t feel bad about it.
The four months between my diagnosis and the end of my recovery period were tough, but they also came with a freedom I never thought I’d have, and I have not felt since.
As a cancer patient, you get a free pass. A get out of jail free card. People are so lovely, they forgive you every outburst, every mistake, every moment of selfishness. It makes you feel like it’s ok to put yourself first. It’s ok not to feel guilty. You are entitled to focus on you.
And then, suddenly, you recover. You realise it was only temporary. Everyone has put it behind them – and rightly so. You’re alone with your survivorship, in the middle of a global pandemic, and it’s not about you anymore.
The comedown is pretty rough.
And the cycle starts again. Feeling bad. Letting people down because you feel bad. Feeling guilty about letting people down because you feel bad. Feeling selfish about feeling guilty about letting people down because you feel bad.
It took me a while (and many hours of therapy) to get to a state where I don’t always feel bad about putting myself first from time to time.
I say not always, because I still have pangs of guilt when I do. But it doesn’t stop me taking a break from the pandemonium of the real world to focus on myself.
I’ll take a sick day when I’ve had a panic attack that kept me up all night.
I’ll log off work a whole 30 minutes before my therapy appointment so I have time to clear my head.
I’ll ignore texts and messages that I fear might contain an involuntary trigger – sometimes for weeks.
I’ll cancel on my friends at the last minute if I feel like going out is a step too far for my fragile mental health.
All these things I would never have done before, because the crippling guilt would have made it all not worth it.
I wish I hadn’t needed cancer and deep-rooted mental health issues to realise that it’s ok to put yourself first.
It’s ok if you’re perfectly healthy. It’s ok if you’re perfectly happy.
And you know what? It’s ok to write a blog and make it all about you.