Self-care on the tough days

I really like Darlene Cohen’s description of “down ‘n’ dirty comfort” on the days in which you’ve hit your limit. Cohen lived with painful rheumatoid arthritis for many years, and unfortunately she is no longer with us. She died from cancer earlier this year. She knew what it was like to hit bottom, and she had some wonderful ideas about what to do about it. Cohen wrote in “Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach to Living with Physical and Emotional Pain:”

Even though it’s an ideal time to “embrace the suffering” or learn to “dance with disaster,” you don’t care. Furthermore, you don’t care that you don’t care. You’ve had it with trying to expand your consciousness. You hate your life and everybody in it. Nobody else cares; why should you? You’re at the end of your rope. It’s time for down ‘n’ dirty comfort. What you need is whatever will get you through the next few hours. (p. 36)

Now, I’m a big fan of reframing, of seeing the lessons in our suffering that help us to develop more wisdom, compassion, and love. But I think that on the days in which we feel most frustrated and downtrodden, we find our greatest compassion in our compassionate actions toward ourselves. If it means pampering ourselves for the day, then so be it. Cohen wrote that when we feel this crappy, we can “start with a refuge, a place to which to retreat when you can’t cope–just to find out what relief feels like.”

She advised us to write a list of activities that can help us feel like we have a refuge:

Don’t hesitate to write down whatever it is, no matter how humiliating it might seem at first to think you actually need these silly things: mindless novels, trash TV, eating binges, complaining, punching a pillow, whatever. Of course, you can also include what are thought of as more wholesome modes of comfort, like petting a dog, writing poetry, inviting a friend to see a movie, and any comforting movements of stress-reduction exercises you may have learned. (p. 37)

As Cohen pointed out, this kind of self-care is deliberate. We are choosing to engage in these activities with the intention of finding relief, rather than unconsciously behaving in ways that enable us to avoid our suffering. Ah yes, of course it can be a slippery slope, but I think that one way to ensure that our actions are deliberate is to ask ourselves before starting an activity, “Is this what I really need right now?” It is a double-check on our unconscious minds. Cohen wrote further:

As Frank Sinatra reputedly said, “Whatever gets you through the night.” I say if you’re in real need, go for whatever gives your consciousness a little jiggle. But know what that is; know what your extremes are. Know what can debase you and what form your debasement takes. (p. 39)

I really encourage you to read Cohen’s book (and please note, I have nothing to gain from you reading her book, except perhaps for a positive feeling that I’ve done something that can help others suffer less). The quotes I’ve chosen don’t do justice to the breadth of Cohen’s wisdom.

So what are my “down ‘n’ dirty comforts?” I have to admit that since I’ve been in remission from Crohn’s colitis for six years, I don’t have so many tough days. The chronic pain I once had daily has also diminished to almost nothing. For the past 10 days, I’ve had an awful chest cold. I hardly get any sleep because I’m coughing nearly constantly throughout the night and then I feel exhausted throughout the day. I can’t take any meds for it (more on that in a later post). I know that this illness is quite temporary–it will pass soon–and yet I feel completely spent. Being sick has brought back a lot of memories.

During one hospitalization for severe inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), I borrowed a little TV and DVD player from the hospital and my sister brought the film “Amelie” for me to watch. For the duration of that film, I was blissed out. It is such a lovely film! I now own the DVD and I watched it this week and enjoyed every moment.

Pancakes are one of my favorite comfort foods. Whenever I came home from the hospital, I always requested that someone make me pancakes, even if I was coming home in the evening! Steaming hot pancakes with maple syrup….mmmmm. One time, my sister carried a heavy tray of pancakes two miles to the hospital for me so that I could enjoy that simple comfort. It was one of the best gifts ever.

I don’t remember if I’ve already told the story about my last hospitalization and how I ordered a lot of Chinese food right after the docs said I could eat again. I had been “NPO” (no food or water) for about 3 days. I think the docs wanted me to start with drinking Ensure, but I couldn’t drink a sip of that stuff, I had had enough of it in the years prior. So I ordered enough Chinese food for me, my sister, and some friends. The aromas were wonderful! Since my intestines were tender, I ate some of the blander foods: egg drop soup, rice, a little fish, but I so enjoyed smelling the Chinese food in the hospital because, well, the smells of the hospital are nothing short of awful.

I’m part Italian and part Jewish, and perhaps it is part of my cultural heritage to be comforted by food. But most of the time I was in the hospital for IBD flares (a total of 3 or 4 months), I was not allowed to eat anything. So I found other comforts. For example:

  • The sunlight shining on my face in the middle of the afternoon.
  • The unsquelchable laughter of a child (en route to visit a relative in the hospital).
  • Listening to some of my favorite music and dancing with my fingers.
  • Singing a tune to myself (even with a weakened voice, it made me smile).
  • Painting with glitter glue (a friend had brought some for me) and asking friends to help me decorate the hospital room.

These are some things I have done. This week I’ve comforted myself by watching videos of songs from my favorite musicals. 🙂 Some of these clips may bore you, but I love them and I like to share things that I love!

Here is “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof:”

“Go Home with Bonnie Jean” from “Brigadoon:”

“America” from “West Side Story:”

“What Do the Simple Folk Do [when they are blue]?” from “Camelot:”

What are your “down ‘n’ dirty comforts?”

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lieke Wagemaker
    Aug 22, 2011 @ 14:23:09

    Hi Erica,
    Nice to read your blog.
    Keep it up.
    Love and a smile, from sunflower Lieke


  2. Erica
    Aug 22, 2011 @ 16:59:26

    Thanks for reading my blog and for your encouragement Lieke!


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