For a long time, I never knew how to treat myself. I stayed up late cramming notes with my sister so she could pass her test. I spent hours sitting next to my brother painstakingly coaching him on how to write an essay. I advised each of parents as they presented me with problems in their relationship and in our family. I made sure my siblings and I did all our chores before our parents came home, to reduce the tension in a fragile and explosive home. I went whenever called to the aid of my grandmother and uncles and cousins no matter how I was treated. I was the level head for every crazy teenage spiral that my best friend spun into.
I was a sibling who became a babysitter who became a teacher, an identity that followed me through college, across the globe, and back home again. I brought empathy and comfort to the children in my care.
This was my life. This was who I was. I learned to define myself, not by my accomplishments, or by what I loved, or even by my personality, but through my relationships with others. I was a daughter, a sister, a friend, a niece, a cousin, a granddaughter, a teacher.
I didn’t know who I was unless I was taking care of someone else.
This is not to say that I didn’t have wants or needs of my own. It simply meant that I thought my needs were less important than others, especially the ones I loved. I put others before myself because “I had to.”
But a funny thing happens when you live your life like this. Eventually it catches up to you. Eventually the pain of being hurt by people you love, the sadness of always putting yourself last, the fear that one wrong step would crumble the carefully constructed world around you, overwhelms you.
Sitting at a wooden table under the fluorescent lights on the 5th floor of the hospital I was asked to think about the person who I was and the person who I wanted to be when I left. I was, like every other patient on that floor, there because I was either a danger to myself or to others. I fell into the former category. And for the first time I began to figure out who I was on my own terms.
Through years of diagnoses of depression, anxiety, PTSD, through years of permutations of group and individual therapy, through countless hours of focused and dedicated hard work I took on the biggest project anyone could ever take on: treating my own mental health. I learned to value my caring nature and my very real desire to help others, while also valuing my own needs and rediscovering and developing my own interests and hobbies.
So, what do I do to treat myself now? I feel the rhythm of the spoon circling the heavy orange mixing bowl as I make dough for cookies. I lose myself in fanfiction of my favorite stories so I can meet and fall in love with my favorite characters all over again. I call out sick to work so I can spend a day lounging in my pajamas, writing in my journal, eating chocolate, watching Netflix, and taking care of no one but myself.
I do this because I still want to be there for others. I still want to be a daughter, a sister, a niece, a granddaughter, a friend, an aunt, a girlfriend, and a teacher.
But now I know that I am more than those things. I am a person in my own right, valuable and important, determined and stubborn, goofy and creative, intelligent and curious, fierce and strong, who also happens to be kind and nurturing and caring and empathetic with a powerful innate need to care for others. And now I also know that I cannot care for others if I do not first care for myself.
I hope to leave you with this message: You can’t be there for those you love if you don’t take care of yourself first. Take a moment each day to "treat yoself."
By: Mandy Doyle
I am from Florence, Massachusetts with llamas and vineyards, but I currently live in Boston. I am a sexuality education teacher and self-defense instructor for people with disabilities. I also run my own private tutoring business. I have lived in Zaragoza, Spain, Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. I love being a nerd girl and fan girl, I love baking, and I love earrings.