When my alarm goes off each morning, an elaborate ritual begins. If you were to watch my routine, you’d think I was incredibly detail-oriented, and then you’d think it is taking way too long for me to get out the door.
First, it’s the face wash (which I’ve finally figured out isn’t just, you know, hand soap). That’s followed by a serum, a moisturizer, and an SPF (50, thanks —I’m translucent; my Mediterranean genes betrayed me). Next comes the stretching (and cracking), the apple cider vinegar concoction (yes, it does work), the handful of vits I remember to take, and the occasional YouTube kickboxing workout. All said and done, I behave like a pretty legitimate grown-up. Thing is, this whole song and dance only recently started.
At 18, I was more concerned with how dark I could tan (peer pressure from the local tanning salon, circa 2005), or how much I could party before going to class the next day. I 100 percent never wore SPF or moisturizer, and any workout I did was definitely negated by an I-deserve-it carb explosion. The worst thing I did? Ordered a Venti latte (made from—this is not a lie—half and half) at least once a week. Half. And. Half.
I just wasn’t concerned with basic self-care techniques. I’d stay up all night during college and it followed me to when I started working in the “real world.” Who cares, I thought? I’d lived on four hours of sleep since I was 15; why not keep it going?
Turns out there were plenty of reasons not to, actually.
I didn’t realize how these behaviors would affect me now, at age 30. I’d run full steam ahead on bad eating habits, way too much wine (“at least it’s not tequila…”), and I had a distaste for working out. If I was stressed, I ate. If I was tired, I ate. If I was busy, I’d snack on empty calories. And when I woke up for work, I’d brush my teeth and run out the door.
Then I’d wonder why I felt sluggish all the time. My skin was always broken out. I was constantly dealing with shoulder cramps. And I was gaining weight. I made no time for me—no time to just be alive, to take care of myself, to listen to my body.
Just saying the words “listen to my body” makes me cringe (I’m not one for self-care-isms), but the reality is that I didn’t listen to my body. I actively turned away from care habits because I was “busy” or “I didn’t need them.”
But when I was 25 I was diagnosed with arthritis and I realized I needed to wake up. My actual body was falling apart, and the extra weight on my joints was a problem. I needed to start stretching, to start working out, to start eating well. I needed to quit the amount of sugary alcohol I was drinking and I needed to start taking care of my skin. I needed energy. I was tired-looking and worn out. I became a zombie with a robust social calendar and a refrigerator full of garbage.
I fought this reality with a stubbornness that ought to be applauded (really, I win at being stubborn), but I eventually succumbed to the necessity of self-care and now I’m better for it.
So what did I do?
I started eating better.
This was the hardest change. I became more cognizant of calories and portions, which is tough when what you want to do is eat all the cheese and all the bread. I began making salads and cooking veggie dishes and turning to whole foods. I stopped eating chocolate cereal and bagels at midnight (I live in NYC—I can order anything I want at any hour), and I started checking the side of the box for nutrition facts. It’s incredibly easy to eat double your daily caloric need every day, I realized. I mean, it’s simple. If I was more aware earlier, I could have avoided the weight gain, the stomach issues, and the bad habits I fight to kick these days.
I started being kind to my skin.
This may seem trivial and vain, but it’s not. We have to live in our bodies all of our lives, so why not nurture them? I’m not the hugest fan of dry, cracked skin—and I certainly don’t want to age prematurely, so why shouldn’t I do what it takes to care for myself? I try to use products that come from mostly natural sources, and I make sure I cover my face and skin in SPF when I’m in the sun. Cancer is the pits, and I’m not going to risk it because I’m lazy.
I learned to love water.
I used to think lots of coffee and milk was the key to hydration. Somehow, I was wrong; I constantly felt terrible. Water is so epically underrated that it’s no surprise people have to remind others to drink it. First, with a meal it helps to keep you full (so you don’t go back for several servings you don’t need). And then it helps hydrate your skin, and it flushes toxins from your system. A huge glass of water first thing in the morning has changed my life for the better. Pro-tip: Set a reminder to take your vitamins with your first glass of water. Turns out, vitamins actually work. (I was apparently the last person to figure this out.)
I started going to bed before midnight.
I love staying up late and am most productive during the witching hours. But once I decided to stop fighting sleep, I felt like a human being—radiant, energetic, happy, engaged, responsible. What is lost from those magical evening hours is gained ten-fold the next day. Had I done this earlier on, I don’t think I would have had so many rough days and so little energy.
I took time to hang out alone.
I used to cram my schedule with engagements: work, post-work work, post-work networking, weekend work, late-night social events, parties, meet-ups. It was like I was always on, always scheduled. Sitting on the couch in silence became a foreign thing to me; I was lost, and I didn’t even know it. Once I began understanding the difference between productivity and success (success doesn’t simply come from work; it comes from balance), I felt so much more alive. I could see more clearly, and I could see what I’d been missing all along: my self.
I stopped caring about the rules.
Everyone always says that they have all the answers. And sometimes I say I have all the answers. But I’ve learned that self-care and personal happiness are unique for everyone. Do what works best for you (but I really am telling you that water, working out, and vegetables are good for you). I wish I had known this earlier; I would have spared myself a lot of cranky, tired, overstimulated years.