The truth about self-care: how isolation has changed the way I look after myself

Eleanor Morgan

When the lockdown was announced, I worried that losing the option of seeing friends would be disastrous for my mental health. I live alone and often work from home, so solitude is my baseline. It can be lonely, of course. My dog’s need for exercise and attention breaks things up – even if her conversation is limited – but planning to see people keeps me buoyant. The first few days were ripe with catastrophising. One afternoon, my throat felt dry. I thought: ‘Here we go, the panic attacks are starting.’ That I had been silently staring out the window, eating one Digestive after another, is by the by.

Jealousy of friends with partners and gardens quickly swelled; shared meals and body warmth felt so far away. Of course, it goes both ways: my aloneness is something that friends with rambunctious toddlers envy. In lockdown, life has shrunk to the size of a few rooms, so the volume of our inner dialogue shoots up. There’s so much time to think. The elastic quality of time right now – because we don’t know when this ends – is distressing, too, and as a self-employed person I’m scared, but I’ve surprised myself mentally. I’m doing all right so far.

After the anxious prophesying passed (“I will 100% go completely mad alone!”), I started confronting a concept I have struggled to sever from ideology: self-care. Thanks to capitalism, the term has been commodified, so often sold back to us – particularly women – as products we never knew we needed. In reality, self-care looks different for everyone. I broadly see it as a loose commitment with yourself to eat, exercise, get outside regularly, sleep and, almost above all else, to acknowledge our fundamental need for connection with other human beings. Identifying the activities that bring us pleasure and peace is also part of the picture.

As the author of two mental health-related books, now training as a psychologist and having spent the last year in supervised practice, I have used the words “self-care” in relation to other people many times. In all honesty, I am not sure I have applied it wholeheartedly to myself. I mostly eat and sleep well, exercise outside daily and socialise. But despite everything I have learned about self-compassion – which the notion of self-care feeds into – I sometimes struggle to identify what makes me feel good.

This enforced solitude has been a wake-up call. I’m realising how much “properness” I have attached to doing things with other people, and the sense of pathos to doing them alone; as if enjoyable stuff is only half-real if no one is enjoying it with me. As is so common, this is tied up in questions of self-worth, but as a kind of experiment, I’ve been making an effort to … make an effort. Who knew that filling your spare time with activities besides phone scrolling might feel nice?

Cooking has been the big one. I am a confident cook but usually eat very simply when alone. In the past three weeks I have made pho, various curries and homemade tacos. I forget that my love of chopping vegetables can just be for me. I’m rummaging around in the woody bits of Hampstead Heath, connecting with eight-year-old me who loved turning over logs to see what crawled out, because why not? I’ve even taken a magnifying glass out on a couple of my daily walks. I’m asking people to “hang out” on FaceTime rather than waiting to be asked – a personally significant thing. This year kicked off with a double-whammy of pain: major surgery, then a break-up during the recovery. I am also certain I have had the virus, which, as an asthmatic, felt a bit hairy. Now, in the utterly strange and frightening time that has followed, I realise that, for me, surviving probably means trying to thrive, too.