Monday, August 22, 2011

What's In Your Bag, Revisited: The Sims, My Half-Eaten Box of Raisins, and Self-Care

My Sim-Called Life

Several years ago I spent embarrassingly large chunks of time playing The Sims. For those of you who don’t know, The Sims is a life-simulation video game in which you program your characters with certain characteristics, both physical and mental, then set them loose in life—education, work, family, etc. You chart their progress through a variety of means—income, assets, sickness, emotional health. Only Farmville rivals it as far as speaking to Americans’ need to turn play into work, but I digress.

Being just un peu d’narcissiste, I made a Sim of myself. I rated her above average in creativity but not off-the charts; I slanted her toward extroversion and away from commitment (I’m a freelancer, after all). I made her intelligent, absent-minded, a little lazy, emotional. I even made her a Gemini. I wanted her to do well, so I had her study a lot. Her money went toward education, not toward furniture that would upgrade her from the game’s starter apartment kit. She spent her time sleeping, studying, and working. She did not see her friends, nor did she clean her house or cook, nor did she have a love life. My plan worked: She did well. She raked in the money.

And then—she stopped. She refused to exercise, standing up and yelling “YO!” at me when I’d try to make her work out, because she didn’t have enough energy. Her boredom levels skyrocketed; her anger levels grew. At one point, I marched my Sim over to her desk, where she’d faithfully studied every night; instead of reading, she put her head in her lap and cried. She was unable to do anything: She was underfed, overworked, lonely, angry, and depressed.

At the time, I told the story to friends in a tone of amusement. For unlike my Sim, I did see my friends; I wasn’t lonely, I had a boyfriend; I wasn’t underfed—the problem, in fact, was quite the opposite. Forget that I saw my friends less than once a month because I was always too exhausted to put forth the effort of friendship. Forget that I was overeating because I had no other ways of relieving stress. As for the boyfriend who kept me un-lonely, his Sim committed arson, thus ending the game when the entire family went down in a blaze of glory. 
*   *   *   *   *

My life—both the simulated one and my real one—is far better now. But when I looked at my list from my flippant take on last week’s “What’s In Your Bag?” post, I remembered the uneasy mix of hilarity and alarm I felt when I saw my Sim sit down and weep. For even as ridiculous as it is that I drove my simulated self to tears—or that I’ve carried around a half-eaten box of raisins since February—I knew it spoke to the lack of genuine self-care in my life.

I wrote about what was in my bag because there was a part of me that was rolling my eyes at the picture-perfect purse interiors displayed on other posts for the meme. My instinct is to look at those lists of beautifully photographed goods with everything just-so and say to myself, Well, bully for you, then. I picture women who carry hand crème and designer lipsticks displayed alongside keys to their BMWs as being from some other planet of perfect-looking people where nobody has any pores. Me, of course, I’m a “real woman.” I pilfer paper towels from the office kitchen instead of carrying special wipes made for special people. I stash dirty granola bar wrappers and unwanted flyers in my bag because I’m too good of a citizen to litter and in too much of a damn hurry to wait for a trash can. I carry around makeup from 2007, because who am I to think I’m so privileged as to deserve new cosmetics when these work perfectly fine?

It is not me being “real”; it is me short-changing myself on self-care. I used to think that self-care was anything that was utterly nonproductive. Cleaning my purse doesn’t feel like self-care; it feels like work. Zoning out on the couch with a box of graham crackers and watching five consecutive episodes of Dexter, however, was “self-care” because it was my fucking time, goddammit, and I’m not going to pick up the phone and I’m not going to answer your e-mail and I’m not going to exercise or even do a fucking Sun Salutation because I am far too busy caring for myself, do you understand?

You will not be surprised to learn that this form of self-care rarely results in me actually feeling cared for. My version of “self-care” has long been to wait until I am at the very end of my gas tank, and then to do the only thing I have energy left to do—which is pretty much nothing. But it gives me enough of a break to get back on track, until I’m running on empty again, and again, and again. And again.

When I looked at the contents of my bag, as amused as I was by reporting my state of disarray, I also saw how little care I’d been allowing myself on a day-to-day basis. The wet-naps I’d carried around for more than five years? I was saving them for when I “really” needed them, as though they were some rare, precious jewel—paper towels would do for me. The pilfered notebook is too big, weighing down the purse and robbing me of the pleasure of the small, sleek, palm-sized notebooks I prefer. The caffeine pills spoke to my belief that stepping out of the office for five minutes to get a fresh cup of coffee wasn’t worth it.

I don’t think that consumption is the route to self-care—I don’t need to replace anything in my bag with some new, fancy, expensive item (I’ll let the Chanel sunglasses stand on their own, thanks). It’s more that nearly everything in my bag is broken, dirty, or a shabby fill-in for something that is hardly a break-the-bank proposition in the first place. I’m treating self-care as something that needs to be a splurge—the sunglasses! a day at Spa Castle!—instead of something that can be small, daily, and constant. And while I don’t believe that a woman’s state of mind can be deduced from the state of her bag, neither do I think that carrying around a unit in which nearly everything is in a state of disrepair can help me out of whatever state of disrepair I might be in.

*   *   *   *   *

This is not a treatise. I'm not a self-care blogger, or even a self-acceptance blogger. Much of the time I think the way to accept yourself is to stop thinking about it so damn much. But last week "what's in your bag?" made me realize I wasn't thinking about enough. I'm skeptical of "I deserve"s: I deserve a massage, I deserve a day off, I deserve a vacation. We all deserve massages and days off and vacations, but only the privileged among us get to ever have those. It can feel like a short road from I deserve to I am entitled, and it's a road I'm afraid to even look at. 

Not looking, though, means that I don't see that there are other roads stemming from I deserve. Roads like: You will do everything in your life better if you are not running on empty. Roads like: Bingeing on self-care is what makes you privileged, not small acts of self-care that are basic and low-cost, and unless you learn those small acts you'll be doomed to only exercise the very self-care privilege you say you're against. Roads like: Unless you do a reasonable amount of self-care, you will not be able to do your work in the world.  

And, at the side of one of those roads, I found something unexpected. I've mentioned before how I see my beauty work as utilitarian, not as a place of joy. It's more complex than that, of course, but at its root beauty work is not a source of joy for me. But it is one area that I've always kept up: No matter how hectic my morning, without fail I find time to "put on my face." And, bacteria-caked concealer aside (Beke Beau, I'm tossing it, I swear!), my makeup is one area of my bag in which everything is in reasonable shape. I may begrudge my beauty work, but at its heart it is self-care. It is small, daily, and constant. I didn't expect to find a model of self-care in an area of my life that's full of contradictions and complexities—but perhaps I "deserve" that small bit of salvation in my quest for an end to disrepair.


  1. wow !! ur thoughts made me think as if I was talking to one of my guy friends.

    Wish more girls could have the same perspective.

    I don't get it why you made a sim which is lazy and not social. If u never thought of urself as one ?

    hmm. I would make a sim a better version of what I perceive my self to be so that I am motivated but again that is just me.

  2. Oh, Autumn! Very intriguing take on that purse post. I think you are on to something very universal and that is to what extent we spend time caring for ourselves vs. caring for others (or working) and how much of that is necessary vs. narcissistic.

    I laughed when I read your Sims story because I could relate - I could see myself driving myself to tears in real life or simulated life - and there is humor in that. If you chose to see it. Which you did. Which is GOOD!

  3. This! This! A million times this! Nothing like blogging to hold a mirror up to your life - sometimes with surprising reflections!

    This is such a fantastic essay on self-care. "It is not me being “real”; it is me short-changing myself on self-care." was like you were looking into my soul! Somehow self-care for me was really just an emergency response to desperate situations when my needs were screaming (not intelligent arguments mind you). But "care" is really continued maintenance not triage.

    Use those wet wipes - you "deserve" it! ; )

  4. I've moved away from the go-until-spent-then-break-down model of self-care in recent years, but I'm quite familiar with it. Also recognize that instinct to stiff yourself when it comes to creature comforts like hand wipes and notebooks. I wonder what makes us feel like self-care must be done in extremes.

  5. How's about instead of "I deserve": "I need". Because you do need a vacation and a day off and a massage. We all do!

  6. Where to start?

    First, I've been playing The Sims for probably well over 10 years, so I had a good laugh at the first part of this.

    Secondly, I think it's awesome that such a seemingly superficial post of "What's in my bag" could bring up such a intricate topic that you wouldn't usually expect.


  7. Autumn- this is most excellent! It's so introspective, and you looked at yourself both objectively (without pitying or doing the opposite), but with emotion and clarity too. This is so awesome! I loved what you reamed from your bag post.

  8. Excellent post. And spookily well-timed -- I was just telling my husband how run-down-to-empty I feel because we're going on vacation at the end of this week and I cannot wait.

    Except the truth is, early last week, I had the thought, "this is the first time I can recall gearing up for vacation and NOT feeling 100% burned out first." I've been working hard on the self-care stuff this summer and I think it's been working for me in return...

    And yet, I promptly self-sabotaged that notion by getting uber-stressed when a story unexpectedly came back needing a huge revise/I missed a day of work for family stuff and had to play serious catch u the next day/a bunch of bookshelves fell off my office wall, resulting in an office that looks like 5,000 of your purses got dumped in there, plus piles of books everywhere. And so today, I'm feeling all drained and exhausted and like, "how will I make it to Saturday?!"

    But your post is making me ask: Do I really feel that way, or am I choosing to hype up the above litany of annoyances to create the burn-out... because otherwise I won't feel like I've "earned" my two weeks off?

    And that is just silliness. But it's amazing how hard it is to give yourself permission to take care of yourself... Anyway, thanks for this. And love how it all came out of seeing the contents of your bag!

  9. "At one point, I marched my Sim over to her desk, where she’d faithfully studied every night; instead of reading, she put her head in her lap and cried."

    That poor Sim! Does this story feel a little Twilight Zone to anyone else? Strike up some intense music, and you've got a psychological thriller on your hands.

    "Much of the time I think the way to accept yourself is to stop thinking about it so damn much."

    Ha! Agreed.

    The end to disrepair is... repair. Which sounds like work because it IS work. Routine maintenance makes everything run more smoothly, but it's hard to spend your last bit of energy on life maintenance.

    I try to save up some of that dull fixer-upper work (taking care of my nails, mending clothes, purse-cleaning, etc..) to deal with while watching a movie on Netflix. Then I can get a little drudgery done whilst simultaneously semi-justifying watching a movie.

    "You will do everything in your life better if you are not running on empty."


    I loved that Medicinal Marzipan link. I may finally buy Rosie's book---- as an act of self-care!

    Maybe it would help to think of self-care as a manifestation of self-respect. Or maybe a lack of self-respect is what causes us to shortchange ourselves in the Acts of Care department.

    If you'd included your address, I bet every one of us would have shipped you all the concealer and handi-wipes you can use. You have adoring fans, and you earned 'em!

  10. Wow, this was so well-written. :)

  11. I've been having some thoughts along these same lines recently. ALL of my clothing is thrifted and while the sustainability of that pleases me, I have found myself wondering what occasion would prompt me to purchase something new.

    Years ago, as a single parent, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. When I complained that it was impossible in my position to take time out to care for myself, the physician made clear that if I did not, I would not be around to care for my daughters.

  12. Vishal, that's interesting--I feel like while men might be better at self-care, they'd also be less likely to talk about it. But I'm not sure. In any case, if I play The Sims again maybe I'll give it a go with my ideal self! Heh.

    Cameo, the line of necessary vs. narcissistic is one I wrestle with--hell, I wrestle with that just doing the blog. How much self-reflection is shedding light on what other people experience, and how much is just Me Me Me? But then I remember how I feel when I read someone else's experience (like yours) and see how much it resonates. I suppose it can work the same way with self-care--we can see how our friends should be nicer to themselves, but have a harder time doing it for ourselves.

    ModernSauce, thank you! "continued maintenance, not triage"--that's perfect. As a matter of fact, tonight I'm going to have a massage because I want one, not because my back is so twisted that it's painful to walk. Maintenance!

    Sal, I'd venture that part of the tendency to give ourselves self-care in extremes has something to do with our American work system? Not that we're the hardest-working nation on earth, but we work longer hours than many other industrialized nations, and we love the whole "if you just put your mind to it you can do anything" thing. Which sounds nice but in truth is actually self-punishing. "Putting our mind to it" can easily mean going to the point of burnout, hence the extremes.

    Stacia, I like "I need" because it sounds somewhat less entitled. "I deserve" sounds to me like I did something special to warrant it; "I need" lays a clearer boundary, and makes it clear that it's not negotiable. (BTW, watching you clear out your bag was one of the inspirations for this--to me it seemed like a small daily act of self-care.)

    Courtney, I don't usually do prompts but I'm super-glad I did this one. Some people say I overanalyze. I say I just get "inspired easily"! Ha!

    Alexa, thank you! Especially for articulating that I wasn't being self-pitying. I worry about that a lot--which actually is exactly what this whole cycle is about, being afraid of seeming self-indulgent. So thank you.

    Beauty Schooled, innnnteresting! That once you recognized you were going on a vacation without being at the bottom of your barrel, you drained the barrel ASAP! It could be an organic reaction, or it could have been a response to the recognition. In any case, you *did* recognize it, which to me seems like then maybe next time you can be aware of it earlier and know to engage in a little pre-vacation self-care. In any case, I hope you're having a splendid time and am eager for your return!

    Rebekah, it's a pity X-Files is off the air, because you'd have a sell script right there... Excellent point about how repair really is work. And, you know, I am a little lazy! Because, yeah, a lot of times I'm like, "I could clean up my apartment...orrrr I could space out and watch, say, X-Files
    (I've been on a kick). I like your idea of combining the indulgent pleasures with the routine stuff--thank you.

    Miriam, thank you!

    Terri, what would that occasion be, do you think? It seems like the thrifting was a logical response that has served you well, but there could indeed be other messages you're giving yourself there too. Also, I'm glad that s/he recognized what was going on. I've heard (and experienced) so many tales of physicians not recognizing mental health concerns and overmedicalizing them when they do come up (I've never felt dismissed by a doctor about my mental health, but sometimes the treatment has felt a little breezy, because they're seeing it like an overall health issue, whereas it feels quite different than getting my bad back looked at)--the advice you got was astute, and I'm glad you listened.