You cannot pour from an empty cup. You must fill your cup first.
Has your cup ever been empty? No? You are one of the lucky few ☺
In the fall of 2017, my cup was empty. I felt drained by the constant support I gave to my fiancé’s community choir, where I was also a board member and singing member, to the point where it was affecting our relationship. Ironically, what began as a lifelong passion for singing and music, and brought us together, was turning into an obligation and burden. I felt apathetic about practicing between rehearsals, and bitter about actually having to go to rehearsals since I would spend hours every week working on other administrative tasks to keep the organization going. And this was just my hobby. Professionally, my job had become a dead end for me, and I was the odd woman out in my department. My coworkers excluded me, withheld department info and processes from me, and even bullied me. It was so subtle that even my boss had difficulties trying to identify and address it.
By August 2017, I began to struggle with depression and anxiety. In reality, I had been struggling with depression for several years, but ignored warning signs and felt like I could manage it without medication. Developing anxiety along with the depression practically made me implode. I could barely eat or sleep, my hair and skin were dull, and my skin crawled almost nonstop. The feeling of wanting to escape from my own skin, yet somehow observing all this from overhead was completely overwhelming. My fiancé was so worried about me that he’d get up to go for neighborhood walks with me at 3:30am, just so I wouldn’t be alone (he’s a keeper, for sure). Walking seemed to be the only thing that gave me a feeling of calm.
Flash forward to February 2019, and I look back on this time with mixed feelings. It was a difficult time, but now I feel happy, healthy, and eagerly look forward to work, and coming home to my husband (see how I did that? ☺). My glass is full again, and when it dips below a certain level, I rely on self-care to restore it.
So, what steps did I take to go from an early 30’s empty glass crisis into a much more settled, fulfilled woman? This is where self-care came in, and when my cup finally began to refill. My employer had begun to embrace the self-care concept, but didn’t really provide adequate tools for explaining what self-care was and how we as employees could incorporate it into our daily lives. If self-care is defined as the practice of taking an active role or action to preserve or improve one’s personal health, where do you start? Here is how I started my journey:
Reach out and ask for help
The turning point for me was November, 2017. I knew I needed help, and I couldn’t continue plodding along on my own. I finally made an appointment with my primary care provider to discuss medication therapy. My brain was out of whack, and needed that chemical help to reset, and grow. Prescription for a mild antidepressant in hand, I felt stronger knowing that I had something supporting me from within. I also began to see a therapist, someone whom I could talk to that wasn’t a friend, and could give me honest, sometimes hard advice. This combination of medication and therapy was the foundation for getting myself well, and for sustaining me when things got even harder in February 2018 (a topic for another day). Once this foundation was established, I was able to focus more on the self-care that I had been hearing so much about, but hadn’t been able to put into regular practice.
Take time for yourself
I enjoy a glass of good red wine, and I would use it as a reward for getting through my work day and not coming home in tears. Usually I’d crawl in bed with a glass and watch an episode or two of Sex and the City. It was one of those little things that took very little effort and time, but felt like a guilty pleasure (I never felt guilty, actually). If my fiancé was home, I’d probably stay in the living room and watch it from the couch.
Another thing I love to do is give myself 10 minutes to meditate in the morning (more on that below). This gives me the opportunity to check in with myself, which I have found to be very beneficial, as it starts my day on a positive, focused note.
Exercise and sweat are amazing endorphin boosters, and I work out seriously 3-4 times weekly at the gym. I decided to join Planet Fitness, and I absolutely love it there. It’s very relaxed, no pressure, no judgment. I still continue with my walks, enjoying that time with my husband when he is able to join me, as well as with friends. It was so pleasant to catch up and chat outside, rather than always meeting at bars and shouting at each other over the music. Summertime is hiking season, so hikes usually replace walks for a few short months of the year. I do give myself rest days because I need them, but I love burning off that excess negative energy, and knowing that I committed to myself and pushed myself every time.
I had mildly dabbled in meditation techniques in college, mostly due to a theology professor who made us begin class every day with breathing exercises to focus and calm us. Once the anxiety crept in, I turned to meditation to help calm myself. I have meditated every day since October 2017, and I love it. I mostly use meditation apps downloaded to my phone. The first is Meditation (white square with blue circle inside). The guide is female, which is awesome because so many of them have a male voice with an ambiguously British accent. They have 7, 14 and 21 minute single meditations across a wide variety of topics, and 7 day programs to further enhance your meditation experience. Additionally, I also like Calm, which has a great Instagram page with small entries that take 30 seconds to 1 minute to complete. Headspace (yellow-orange icon) is another great app with countless options for meditating, although I haven’t utilized it to its full potential.
I also think nutrition plays an enormous part in how we feel on a daily basis. While I’m sure many of us could write novels on the diets we’ve tried, I think small changes can have a huge impact. For me, I try to eat a larger breakfast, a good lunch, two snacks and finish my day with a smaller dinner. I also try to keep my dinner heavier on protein than carbs and fat, as it helps avoid that uncomfortably full feeling, and I swear helps me sleep better.
Ultimately, your self-care priorities might be vastly different from mine. However, my biggest piece of advice to you is to not wait for a problem to arise before you start practicing self-care, and start small. A few minutes here or there can pay huge dividends over time. By refilling my cup, I was able to begin helping others fill their cups without sacrificing my own well-being.
By: Susan Tower
Susan is a nonprofit executive, based in Missoula, MT. Until last year, she had been actively involved in school and community choirs for almost 28 years, but decided to take a break to focus on self-care and being a newlywed. In addition to her passion for nonprofits and choir, she loves to travel, and believes deeply in self-care, and the magical power of koalas. Some of her travel musings can be found on her blog, kimchiintheoutback.com.
Note: The contents of this article relate the experiences of the interviewee for informational purposes and should not substitute for professional psychological advice. Always consult a qualified mental health provider with any questions you have regarding a medical disorder.
How Lights’ first album colored my journey with mental illness--and helped me heal
In the spring of 2011, fifteen-year-old me was a sophomore in high school. I was depressed, and had been since middle school. I had one close friend. My peers and I competed within a hierarchy of class ranks, and smart phones, and annotated novels in our English classes.
The internet offered some escape. It was an unmemorable, not-special day on YouTube. Until it wasn’t.
Subscribed to British musician Ed Morris, who in late March, under the username “MrMusicman284” posted his latest cover--of Canadian singer-songwriter Lights’ “River”--I clicked.
“Absolutely love it,” Morris began, gushing. “She did an acoustic performance on Billboard[‘s channel], and I’ve just been watching it for, like, days now.”
Without even giving the music stylings of Ed Morris a chance, I clicked off, and searched for said performance.
I remember it being the best song I had heard in a long time. From there I found the original, in all its pulsing, electropop glory. And then I unearthed more--her complete first album, The Listening.
When it arrived in the mail from Amazon, I had just arrived home from school. I immediately put it on.
The first notes of “Saviour” trickled into my ears: The night is deafening when the silence is listening...
Now the proud owner of Lights’ downcast debut disguised as 13 bubbly, brilliant bops, in physical form all the way from Canada--I grinned. I can’t say I remember many individual smiles, but I remember this one.
Five months later, I realized how timely Lights’ entrance into my life was. Especially that very first song.
On the edge of my junior year, I was diagnosed with anxiety. I had always been a nervous, socially-hesitant kid, but I wasn’t prepared for panic attacks, nor their entwinement with my pre-existing depression. They proved so jarring, were so consistent, and felt so permanent, that suicide returned to my mind as a viable solution.
My family had delayed our summer vacation that year, slated for a week or so after my diagnosis. My packing included a new addition this time: a translucent orange bottle with some 15 chalky capsules. No refills. Any moment could trigger my anxiety; I had to pick my battles wisely.
The car ride to the beach was no exception. Besides stops to eat, I was trapped for at least four hours on bustling highways. With iPod Touch in tow, I blared music in my earbuds and tried to sleep. It was lullaby-esque “River (Acoustic)” that diffused the tightness in my chest and my shallow breathing.
For every bout of anxiety thereafter, I turned to that song. For nearly every morning drive until I finished high school--perhaps to combat it proactively--I would play The Listening for the hundredth time before I’d reach for the radio.
And there were 12 other songs on the album, of course:
“Face Up” captures isolation and discouragement.
“Second Go” paints insecurity and compartmentalized emotions.
“Pretend” and its reprise reflect on growing pains, and the innocence of childhood.
“Drive My Soul” presents an identity crisis--her “Landslide,” if you will.
“The Last Thing on Your Mind” talks of support, accountability, and validation.
And “Lions!” and the title track have some of the most poignant imagery I’ve heard in pop music, or all of music for that matter.
A few years ago, I found my misplaced amber bottle. Its label bore an expired date, with a few capsules remaining. My anxiety (and depression) has since waned significantly, but the medicinal remnants served as a tangible symbol for my self-empowerment. As a therapist once told me, even when I didn’t believe it: “You are in charge of the way you feel.”
During my freshman year in college, however, it was hard to remember that mantra (or even recall the cathartic power of Lights’ music, despite her poster adorning the wall beside my bunk.) My depression resurfaced for the first of many additional times throughout my undergraduate years, and my anxiety remained crouched right behind it, ready--unlike I ever was for it. My university’s Health & Counseling Center, shrouded in a wooded part of campus, offered 12 free sessions a year.
“And sometimes,” an evaluator assured me with a wink, “we lose count.”
A few months in to the fall semester, I starting seeing a staff psychologist named C*. I didn’t know what to expect from state-school therapy, but to my pleasant surprise, we meshed well. Somehow, during one of our earliest meetings, music was brought up. Then Lights, and her striking diction on The Listening, my favorite album. C turned around right there, mid-conversation, to Google song lyrics. She loved them.
The next time I met with C, no sooner had I taken a seat in my usual chair, than she spun around to her desk once again--this time, to my disbelief, with her own copy of The Listening CD in hand. I was touched; from a small gesture, C made her investment in me clear outright. In that moment it all came full circle, in the likeness of a trusty chorus:
Take me river, carry me far
Lead me river, like a mother;
Take me over to some other unknown
Put me in the undertow
To C, Ed Morris, and to Lights herself--I owe you one.
About the Author
Stephanie Smith, 23, lives in Charlotte, NC and graduated from UNC Asheville in 2017 with a B.A. in Mass Communication. Previously, she's contributed news and features to Highlight Magazine and Charlotte's Nü Sound. Stephanie remains a huge fan of Lights and has seen her live twice.
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