By Emily Bailey-Page – Arts Editor
CN: Self-care, sleep problems,
When dealing with your mental health, structure and routine can be intensely useful. Getting up at the same time every day, having set working hours and mealtimes, doing your laundry on the same day each week: these things give you an external framework to fall back on when things get difficult. Having a routine means that basic self-care becomes habitual, a semi-automatic process. You don’t have to start each day lying in bed with a blank slate, staring at the ceiling and wondering how you’re supposed to take care of yourself today. This was how I spent most of my first year of university, and for those of us not naturally inclined towards structure or forward planning, it can be the relative freedoms of university and our newly flexible schedules that can be our undoing.
The additional benefits of having a good routine can vary hugely according to your needs. As someone handling an anxiety disorder in the renowned pressure cooker of the University of Cambridge, having set working hours I adhere to every day means that regardless of how much I manage to actually achieve, I can point back to the effort I put in across the week and know that I did the best that I could. I have also always struggled with sleep and fatigue, but going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day means that my temperamental body clock is as clued into resting when it’s supposed to as much as possible.
Except things don’t always work out that way. Sometimes, I do everything I’m supposed to: I avoid social media two hours before bed, I drink my chamomile tea and turn the lights off at ten. But at 2.30am I’m still lying there in the dark. Keeping still and breathing deeply isn’t doing anything, and I’m wide awake. To distract myself from the anxiety of knowing I’ll struggle to write the essay I have to do tomorrow without a good night’s sleep, I grab my phone and scroll through Facebook, absent-minded and frustrated. I put it back down, guilty with the knowledge that I wasn’t supposed to do that, and panicked that however difficult getting to sleep was before, I’ve now just made it worse.
Because this is the thing that well-meaning advice about structure and routine never tells you. The kind of healthy self-discipline that is part of taking care of yourself as an adult can tip over into a self-defeating perfectionism, and the people to whom this is most likely to happen are those who will find it most difficult to tell the difference. For the high-achieving anxiety sufferer, the message warps itself; if you’re feeling less than optimally functional, or try as you might you just can’t take in the words of that chapter to have to read, it must be that somewhere along the line you didn’t put in place all the things that you needed to. You clearly can’t have made sure you got enough sleep last night, or you must have not fed yourself food that was nutritious enough, or you didn’t have the self-control to keep your room tidy, so is it any wonder that you can’t focus? That most galling of three-word slogans drums itself like a guilty, repetitive chant around the insides of your skull: you have failed.
“That most galling of three-word slogans drums itself like a guilty, repetitive chant around the insides of your skull: you have failed.”
In this twisted logic, even self-care becomes a stick to beat yourself with. It actually ends up feeding into the damaging and antiquated assumption that poor mental health is essentially down to a lack of effort and if only you had a little more discipline you could pull yourself up by the bootstraps. But the honest truth is that even the most disciplined human being alive can’t control everything. Some nights you won’t sleep. Some days you’ll feel under the weather. Some days you’ll be lazy and hungover. Some days you’ll just plain fuck up. And yet nothing will be irrevocably broken and you will in fact still be worthy of love.
If you start off with no self-discipline and no basic idea of how to take care of yourself, it’s understandable that discovering the joys of routine might send you to the other extreme of controlling perfectionism. But truly taking care of yourself is about finding the right balance between discipline and lenience. Sometimes you’ve got to be stern with yourself, but sometimes the best gift you can give yourself is to let yourself off the hook and just say ‘fuck it’, because you don’t have to always get it right.