If we were having coffee, I would tell you that I’m grasping at the edge of a comfortable new existence. I’d probably be cradling a cup of chamomile tea, letting its calm warmth radiate through me. The past few months have been hard, more demanding than I could possibly have imagined. I suspect that no one who has experienced this kind of curriculum truthfully expresses how difficult it can be. Dwelling on the hardships would make the experience unbearable. As a way of shielding the uninitiated from undue mental anguish, this lie of omission might be effective. Unfortunately, it also downplays the importance of developing successful coping strategies. I mention “coping strategies” not to dwell on the negative, but simply to be realistic. It’s not always reasonable to aim for mastery in vet school. Coping with the curriculum and achieving proficiency—while striving to maintain mental fortitude and physical wellbeing—is essential, however. On an everyday basis, this means finding a way to make the best use of every hour and every ounce of strength at my disposal. And that necessitates embracing an idea that once made me cringe.
Mention of the phrase “self-care” in my presence still elicits an eye roll that challenges the limits of human physiology, but the display isn’t nearly as dramatic as the one my past self would have mustered.
I’m not a fan of the particular self-care mentality that social media has popularized, the one in which every interaction with the outside world constitutes an insult to your person, and any activity that brings pleasure constitutes self-care. Instead, I prioritize evaluating my experiences objectively, and determining which ones truly pose a threat to my health and wellbeing. This way, I find that I’m able to easily eliminate a huge number of self-inflicted insults—negative thinking, skimping on sleep, and eating infrequent meals consisting of disgusting food. Most products sold at Wawa are, indeed, edible, but that hardly justifies their placement in the “food” category. Any remaining difficulties, the ones that can’t reasonably be eliminated, become the focus for my limited time and energy.
There are a certain number of things that I need to do each day—attend class, review course material, eat and sleep, at a minimum. Attending to these inevitably depletes my reserve, decreasing my wellbeing in the process. Recognizing this phenomenon, rather than promptly ignoring it and plowing ahead, I focus on activities that replenish my mental and physical reserve, and improve my wellbeing. This is where self-care comes into play. If something feels good, and—here’s the catch—it also bolsters my physical and mental reserve, I devote my remaining time and energy to it. If an activity merely brings pleasure in the moment, but doesn’t have any lasting benefit—or worse, hinders my ability to be productive later—it’s more of a “treat yo self” situation than real self care.
In this context, self-care often involves something as simple as preparing meals at home. I enjoy cooking. Losing myself in a complex recipe allows me to drag my mind away from school for a few hours. And while improving my technique in the anatomy lab still leaves me lightyears from mastery, improving my technique in the kitchen makes me feel like I’ve achieved something tangible. Cooking is time consuming, but packing lunch and snacks saves time and money that otherwise would have been spent on prepared food. I’m also more likely to eat regularly when food is readily available, and almost anything I cook is healthier and more delicious than the convenience food I would reach for in its absence. All of these things easily earn cooking a place in my self-care regime.
Other tasks, like managing chronic health problems, are harder to justify. I’ll be the first to acknowledge the drain that accompanies consulting with doctors and therapists, pursuing diagnostics, the trial-and-error nature of implementing new treatments, and, sometimes, hearing things that you’d rather not hear. But, I also know that ignoring my long-term health constitutes one of the most serious threats to my wellbeing. Health has an annoying tendency to decline when you aren’t actively maintaining it, so devoting some attention to my wellbeing in the present is one of the best ways to ensure I’ll be able to accomplish all of my goals in the future. From that perspective, attending to my health is an essential self-care task.
On the other hand, lots of activities I previously enjoyed have failed to make the cut. These days, it’s very hard to justify indulging in a regular cocktail. My perpetual exhaustion amplifies the effect of even one drink, rendering me totally incapable of studying. Even enjoying a tiny drink at the end of the day leaves me feeling ever so slightly more groggy than usual the next morning. When that means I can’t put my best effort into that morning’s anatomy lab, I absolutely cannot justify the pleasure of a nightcap. Instead, I reach for tea. A warm cup of chamomile brew energizes me when I’m studying, and helps me unwind when I’m getting ready for bed. Tea is also less expensive than alcohol. All of this means that alcohol consumption is best reserved for special occasions.
Likewise, reading for pleasure and watching TV have become more limited parts of my daily routine. I read on my lunch break or in bed, but not when my time would be better spent studying or sleeping. It’s impossible to neglect the beauty of words and the endless pleasure and self-improvement they bring, but entire days spent reading—or writing, for that matter—are now a rarity. Because meal breaks are necessary, I make an effort to enjoy them as much as possible by watching TV while I eat. I purposely go for the low-hanging fruit here—I’m looking at you, X-Files—because shows with superficial qualities are quickly embraced and easily forgotten. They force me to stop thinking about classwork for 20 or 45 minutes, and allow me to get back to studying without missing a beat. Because I’m a human being, I enjoy literature and television. I can justify including them as part of my self-care routine, because, in moderation, they give me a much-needed mental break. Anything that makes marathon study sessions more productive, I’ve learned, should be quickly embraced by a veterinary student.
I’ve rambled on this long only to say that I realize now, more than ever, how important it is to take care of myself. No matter how well I take care of myself, there will be days when I don’t feel well and can’t fully devote myself to my academic pursuits. Even when this realization threatens to crush my very existence, I remember my goals, and resist the temptation to indulge in empty pleasures just to make it through the day. By investing time and energy in a real self-care regimen, I can at least improve my chances of staying healthy and meeting my academic goals. By being mindful of the strain that my daily life places on my wellbeing, I can counteract that stress in meaningful ways, and still make time for the little things that make everyday life worth living.