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Show Yourself Some Love!

Think Self-Care Sounds Self-Indulgent? Think Again.

March 27, 2015

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Effective antiretroviral therapy has given people with HIV our lives back. But with this new lease on life can come responsibility and, for many of us, stress. Along with all the ordinary tasks of life, we are living with a demanding chronic illness. We juggle doctors' appointments, bloodwork and medication schedules with employment, school or taking care of our loved ones -- or all three!

With all of these responsibilities, it's easy to lose your equilibrium and forget to put yourself first. When life has you in a stranglehold, it might seem hard to give yourself permission to, say, not take phone calls during dinner. But people with HIV from across the country affirm that putting time aside for self-care is crucial to our survival and well-being.

Why Is Self-Care So Crucial?

When you've got a lot on your plate, caring for yourself can seem selfish and indulgent -- something to feel guilty about. We might feel that it isn't "right" to do things that are purely pleasurable. We might have internalized a message that we should "do without."

But, in fact, you need to take good care of yourself in order to be available for those who are important to you. Ignoring your own needs can make you sick or can worsen existing health problems, whereas cultivating self-care practices can bring meaning and fulfillment to your life. As you care for yourself, you will find that you are more present, caring and available to others, less likely to "lose your balance" over time and, when challenges arise, more able to quickly restore it.


How to Tell When the Balance Is Tipping

Claudia Medina, a 42-year-old Latina woman who has been living with HIV for two decades, had met her life goal of working in an AIDS service organization. Her colleagues were "awesome" and her work was meaningful. But her job as an advocate for prisoners and ex-prisoners was also stressful: The issues of oppression she was dealing with on a daily basis eventually took a toll on her personally. She knew something was wrong when she realized that although she spent her days getting proper identification for the people she worked with, her own passport had expired and her SIN card needed to be replaced. And she wasn't finding the time to do her yoga, work out or take her vitamins.

Medina's supervisor could see that she was starting to lose her equilibrium and suggested that she limit her committee work and stop taking work home with her. Looking back, Medina realizes that she wasn't giving herself permission to care for herself. "I wanted to do everything for everybody," she says. "I had this feeling that if I didn't do it, it wasn't going to get done."

Her stress began to show itself on a physical level: She gained weight and became increasingly forgetful. Her organizational and time management skills deteriorated. Even though she had written herself reminders -- on her phone, on her computer and in her daytimer -- she forgot the dates of important workshops and details about where she was giving presentations. She started to wonder if she was experiencing HIV-related neurocognitive problems.

Gradually, Medina stopped socializing and became more isolated. She found it difficult to relax and sleep at night, and she found herself drinking more on the weekends to unwind. The twin demons of anxiety and depression, which she has dealt with throughout her life, were harder to keep under control. "There was so much negativity in my life. My personal life was spilling over into my work, and I was having meltdowns at work. Every day began to feel like a chore, and it was hard to get up in the mornings."

Tom Hilton didn't realize that he had lost the balance in his life until his family and friends held an intervention. "Stimulants, especially coke, crack and meth, were big for me," he says. The 49-year-old Prince Edward Islander now acknowledges that a sense of unworthiness and internalized homophobia compelled him to "run to anyone or anything that could take me away from looking seriously at myself." These factors also kept him from learning about safer sex and HIV, resulting in his HIV diagnosis in 1992.

Luckily, Hilton had friends and family who cared about him. He ruefully admits, "I swallowed my pride, listened to what these people were saying to me and decided to move back home to PEI and give myself a fair shot at a healthy life."

Does any of this sound familiar? It does to me. By the time I decided that I needed to restore the balance in my life, I was feeling and doing many of the same things as Claudia and Tom. No energy for work? Check. Negativity? Depression? Anxiety? Check, check and check. Increased substance use? Check. Disrupted sleeping and eating patterns? Double check.

Restoring Balance

People with HIV can learn to stay balanced through conscious self-care. It takes attention and practice. As Hilton says, "It isn't easy to take myself seriously, it's much easier to sabotage myself."

3 Simple Questions

A journey of self-care can begin with three simple questions:

  • What do I need more of right now?
  • What do I need less of?
  • What is causing me to feel stressed out? Why?

Now think of a simple activity you could do in the next week that would address your responses. For example, if you feel that the demands of family, friends or work are overwhelming, consider giving yourself a half-hour of daily "me" time. Turn off your phone, shut your door and listen to some soothing music.

Check in with yourself at the end of the week and see how this small intervention has made you feel. You may want to continue this routine, or you may want to switch things up, substituting the musical interlude with a warm bath by candlelight, for example.

Just Say "No!"

It can also help to make an agreement with yourself about those things that you want out of your life: your "no!" list. This is part of developing healthy boundaries. For example, if your space is cluttered and chaotic, make an agreement to keep only those things that have meaning for you. Throw the rest out! Or have a garage sale! Other things that might go on a "no" list are: gossiping, fretting about the past, sleeping with your cellphone in the bedroom.

Post your resolutions in a place where you can see them. Share them with others so they understand what you are doing. But remember to be kind to yourself; if you slip, don't beat yourself up, just pick up where you left off.

In Medina's case, she resolved to avoid multitasking, which left her feeling unfocused. "Multitasking is the devil," she declares. "I compartmentalize things much more now. I start and finish a task before moving on to the next one."

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This article was provided by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. It is a part of the publication The Positive Side. Visit CATIE's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.

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