Shreya Sen-Handley | Merits of self-care during a bad year'

Queen Elizabeth II had declared 1992 her ‘annus horribilis’ making us titter at the time, not only because we were in our teens and everything sounded rude, but because we couldn’t even conceive of the possibility of a WHOLE YEAR going belly up.

I know better now.

At the cost of provoking my own Annus Horribilis, 2023, into conjuring further bad luck for me in its few remaining months, let me give you some of my year’s ‘lowdarks’: both my India-based elderly parents were hospitalised this year at different times, in my rush to get to them from the other side of the world, I suffered a severe mid-air seizure, exacerbating pre-existing chronic health conditions. Our beloved dog fell so ill it looked like we might lose her, and the rotten cherry atop the *$%^cake was the pandemic-propelled decimation of arts funding in the UK, which made many of my cast-iron, signed-and-sealed writing commissions disappear into thin year… I mean air.

Knowing that creatives around the world had been similarly impacted didn’t make it better, because, as any artist will attest, it isn’t really about our pockets, empty at the best of times, but what it does to our self-worth and state of mind. Nor is the ruin of arts practitioners this year’s only setback, with wildfires, earthquakes, wars, cost-of-living crises and epidemics steadily engulfing the planet.

Funny, in this context, is that my closet-poet doc tells me it’s “de-stress or distress” for me. That my survival depends on dialling down the anxiety. But if survival wasn’t already a struggle, would I be worried? Yet, pressed for a POA to deal with this Catch-22 conundrum, the doc had no answers.

Nevertheless, chill out we must. Make the best of a bad job. Get our heads down and plough on. That I can do, and have always done, but this unwinding malarkey — how on this storm-tossed earth does one do that? Should I phone a friend? Ask the audience? Can Pink Floyd help me get comfortably numb?

My bestie said looking forward to his retirement sustained him. But the average age of retirement in most countries has been pushed to seventy, which seems too distant a prize to even contemplate! Gone are the days, even in prosperous western states, when you could retire in your fifties with a pension that kept you in clover for the rest of your life. A subject so triggering for France this year, that a million would-be-pensioners fought over it with the gendarmes, up and down the Champs Elysees!

How about a ‘mini-retirement’ Gary-Neville-style? We cackled when this millionaire footballer waxed lyrical about his ‘new’ idea; a centuries-old concept everyday folk call a holiday! He might be better acquainted with it in practice, however, as we plebs could do with a proper break. The average American, often working two jobs, gets ten paid annual holidays, whilst the rest of us, marginally better off, are too beset with health, financial, parental, and other problems to relax.

Our family holidays are unfailingly fun, but rarely rejuvenating because we feel compelled, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, to drink life to the lees. Every parent knows that children can never sit still, keeping us on our toes as well! Besides which, most ‘responsible’ adult minds can’t stop ticking, with work ideas, domestic stratagem, and our inner voices loudly attempting to quell ‘em.

The antidote, we’re told, is a daily dose of ‘wellness’. ‘Self-care’ it’s also called, cloaked in a hundred different rigs, by a million, money-raking Instagram influenzas (‘influencers’ you say?). They’ll make you chuck your tottering piles of beloved books to ‘spark joy’. Or push you to attain nirvana by buying their ghostwritten tomes, nicked philosophies, and snake oil. One fine day, your muff-scented candle purchase from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop will have you weltering in the very stresspools you tried to escape. Wellness or well less, y’all?

But if turning away from mass-marketed bunkum, we tailored self-care to our individual needs instead, it could work. In recent years I’ve found that tiny acts of kindness towards myself does, in fact, reduce stress. Like ignoring social dictums that impede comfort. Certain women’s garments, for example, that society enforces, I’ve divested for the most part.

What about the little quirks we all have? Why not allow ourselves those? Children routinely self-soothe, but we restrain ourselves as adults. Pacing helps when I’m anxious, and (mild) rocking when I need to marshal patience, but where I would’ve stopped myself in company as a younger person, I can no longer be bothered! I have a friend who talks to himself, making elaborate gestures. As he ages, he cares less and less whether people think he’s bonkers. What he is, is extremely bright, and can see a situation from so many angles, that he must powwow with himself.

We really must let people be themselves, decompressing as a consequence.

I do bits more every year to look after my mental health my way, as do friends and acquaintances. And you’d make such spiffing contributions too that it would be brilliant if we started a list that was sent around the planet, with each and every human adding their own personal de-stressors to it. We’d become richer (emotionally at least) than the wellness gurus, who could all take a hike!

We’d still need doctors though, and shrinks, and most of all, arts practitioners! We’d also require solutions for our overwhelming problems — like climate change. But slaying our inner demons could be a start.

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