An honest reflection
Lee Poole MACN
I have always had a keen interest in my personal health, wellbeing and taking care of myself at all levels. This started in school, long before I thought of nursing as a possible career and long before I would have called this interest self-care. Over the years, I have explored and refined through experimentation and honest reflection, the different activities that I find that support me physically, emotionally and energetically.
Often, when discussing self-care, people go straight to diet and exercise and say that they need to exercise more and eat less. For me, this is too simplistic. For me, self-care is the way that I approach myself and would like to care for myself. I look at it as if I were someone else having to care for this body then what would I do? Often, I have found that I am my own harshest critic and have been the one to treat myself worse than anyone else treats me and that I treat others better than myself. Why would this be so? Why would I not want to take care of myself and treat myself like the precious being that I am? After all, I only have the one body to take me through this life. I would never treat my children with the harshness or the hardness that I treat myself with at times, so why do I allow this?
It has been an interesting journey to explore these and many other aspects of self-care over the years. When I was younger and going through university I played competitive rugby. This involved training up to four times per week, weight sessions in the gym four to five times a week and playing one or two games per week depending on representative commitments. I ate a diet that was low in fat, high in carbohydrates and sugar – to give me enough energy for all of the activity. At the time I felt like this was supporting me to be fit, strong and healthy, however, I also used it as an excuse to party too much on the weekends. I had an attitude that I do so much exercise and am healthy enough to handle drinking as much alcohol as I could and eating whatever I liked on the weekend.
Once I finished my nursing degree and started working shift work I realised that this lifestyle was not truly supporting me, despite seemingly being fit and healthy. My body was actually battered, bruised and hard as a result of the exercise and sport. My sleep was poor, I was eating constantly to maintain enough energy to sustain my exercise and I started to develop skin and gastrointestinal issues. This was a big stop for me as I had to look at my choices to see whether my ‘picture’ of what healthy meant was really healthy for me.
At the advancing age of 23, having had a couple of minor injuries while playing rugby and having moved to a new town for a new job, I decided to retire from rugby and took up running, continuing with regular gym work and then moved to triathlon training. I also made some changes and refinements to my diet by removing gluten and dairy, to which I felt I was reacting. With these changes I thought I was continuing to care for myself and refining my definition of what self-care was. After some time, I began to realise that continuing all this exercise was not actually supporting me in my day to day life. Exercise had actually become my life.
Outside of training, there was nowhere in my life that I would be required to run 15 kilometres or lift something ridiculously heavy or swim for a couple of kilometres. What my life did require of my body was to be on my feet and walking all day, I needed to be alert, not tired, and thinking clearly, and I needed to be able to relate to patients with kindness, compassion and empathy. I realised that my food, exercise and the way I treated myself was not actually caring and did not actually support me in my daily work and home life. I had built a body that was full of useless, hard muscle that I could torture through exercise but that would not support me on a daily basis. I was not unwell, but I was not vital and energetic or full of life.
I began to look at what would truly support me in my daily life. I changed my food, eating more foods that I had prepared from scratch rather than processed foods, I reduced my carbohydrates, I reduced the amount of weights I did at the gym and changed to working out at home for shorter periods of time. I stopped running and started walking. I changed my approach to the way I cared for myself and started to listen to my body and treat it as precious – not brittle or fragile. I would reflect on how I was treating myself and ask if this was a way that I would want to take care of a child, and if not, then why would I treat my body in this way?
The biggest shift for me over the years has been in my approach to the way I care for myself and the commitment to continually reviewing the way I care for myself, and asking if what I am doing is truly supporting me. I now feel more healthy and vital at 40 than I did in my 20s, and sleep better than I ever have, despite continuing to work shifts, having two young children and a wife who works full-time. I am engaged and committed to my work, study and supporting the profession in a way that I have not been previously.
Through my experience, I have learnt a great deal about self-care and what it is that truly supports me. This continues to be an evolving journey of experimentation and incremental changes. I know that what supports me currently may not be supportive in the future. By sharing my experience of my relationship with self, I hope I have been able to demonstrate that self-care is more than just diet and exercise and that what supports one person may not support another, or what supports someone currently may not in the future. In my experience, there is no ‘one size fits all approach’ or program that will deliver self-care; rather, it is about developing a relationship with myself and if I listen to what my body tells me I will be caring for it to the deepest level I know.