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When Self-Care is Survival


whale embroidery, completed while nurturing myself in grief

I am deep into a season of trauma and grief that has brought me to my knees. A season when my soul has been stripped bare, my heart has been cracked open, and my body has been broken down. A season when self-care is survival. A season when sometimes taking my next breath is all I can bare. 

And so I surrender to the nurturing I need. I cry in therapy. I stretch on the yoga mat. I give blood to the doctors. I sleep and I hug and I eat and I walk and I breathe. The atoms of a molecule that feels like oxygen when the waves of despair threaten to drown me. 

Becoming a mother triggered a rebirth for me. Losing my mother is also triggering a rebirth. Being ripped from the womb of who I used to be with her in the world is painful and scary. But a blanket helps. 

These are the 12 acts of self-care that I have found helpful in making the hardest moments bearable. For me, right now, the hardness is grief. But your struggle might come from a completely different source. What heaviness are you carrying? What helps you? What one thing can you do to make the hard moments more bearable? 

1 . Sleep

My bed feels like a womb. Lying wrapped in a soft, heavy cocoon, nestled in the small, simple sanctuary of my bedroom, I feel secure. Sometimes I sleep a lot, restoring the months of sleeplessness I endured while caring for my mother during her final transition. Sometimes I sleep very little, processing the darkest feelings that are too scary to show in the light of the day, in the company of my loved ones. But whatever comes, when I surrender to it from the warmth of my bed, it feels a little more bearable. 

2. Therapy

My therapist can hold the depth of my pain and confusion in a way that someone who loves me cannot. She can reflect back to me the complicated layers of relationships and identities that I am struggling to process in a way that a friend is just not equipped to do. For one hour every week, I show up and I do the work of turning myself inside out. It feels like kicking a wasp’s nest every time. And it also feels imperative. I have an infected wound that begins to scab over with gravel and bacteria inside and therapy rips it open and flushes it with alcohol – painful and hard but essential for healthy long-term healing.

3. Yoga

I show up on the mat and move the trauma through a body that is heavy and aching with the tension of months of hypervigilance and anguish. I follow Adriene’s lead, stretching and flowing, breaking up the brittleness of pain. 

4. Baths

A hot bath has always felt like a nightly baptism for me, melting away the stress of the day and purifying me for the respite of night. I wade through the steam, add salts and oils, light a candle, and sink into the warm water where I float and everything feels just a little lighter and cleaner. 

5. Nature

Nature is my church. When I step outside, I feel the spirit of mother nature. I hear the sermon of the breeze and the birds. I feel connected to something bigger than myself. The tangles within me loosen in the fresh air. Sometimes I just take one step outside and one breath. I’ve never regretted it. 

6. Food

When loss of appetite is a staple of your upset, nourishing your body feels radical in both hardness and goodness. So I bite into a piece of fruit, go to a favorite restaurant, or whatever else sweetens the moment just a little. I close my eyes and loose myself in the taste and texture, consuming every layer the bite has to offer.

7. Mindfulness

PTSD pulls me into the past, back to that hospital room, with a powerful gravity and acuity. Anxiety pulls me into a future without her. Mindfulness anchors me in the present. I breathe in. I breathe out. I feel sensations on my skin: wispy hair on my neck, soft rug under my feet, fluffy dog in my lap, a child’s hand in mine. I smell the essential oil on my chest, the lunch my family made. I hear the music I turned on the speaker, Lego’s clicking into place on the coffee table, a ball rolling down the hall. I see the birds gliding on the currents over the Sound out the window. Up, down, around. In a state of mindfulness, I am fully immersed in the present moment at a depth where everything else feels far away and dull. Everything is allowed to just be as it is—to simply exist (or not). 

8. People

I give myself permission to be ruthlessly with or without people (my children excepted). I reject any sense of obligation and choose to reciprocate connection as feels helpful for me. Recovery is a necessarily selfish time. I do not have the emotional bandwidth or energy to be there in support of others in the way that I have so naturally for so long. I forgive myself for this and the people who love me remind me that there is nothing to forgive. 

9. Doctors

Pursuing the wellness practitioners that can support me requires energy that is difficult to muster, but I do. Sometimes it feels like it would be easy to allow myself to wither away to nothing. But I show up for the phone calls and the office visits and the lab work and the procedures and the treatments my body needs to survive the trauma it is metabolizing. My body, which has always been so strong in the face of adversity, could not survive this season without help. So I get it. 

10. Writing

Writing has always been my language for processing and yet, the grief was so significant that words failed me for a long time. Journaling is a powerfully effective treatment for healing from trauma and so I showed up, pen in hand, writing little more than single words for months: Pain. Perfume. Terror. Freckles. Until lightning struck and a sentence formed. Then a paragraph. Now the words flow more freely, releasing more and more of the burden. 

11. Music

Music can reach parts of us that words cannot. I sing to my children often and the magic of its ability to permeate into a deeper sense of knowing in them, penetrating even the fiercest of defenses, has always amazed me. And yet, it took me some time to realize that it had the same power over me. Every song became a lullaby to my damaged soul. So I invited more of it in. The Beatles feel like my support group.

12. Handcrafts

As I moved through our daily Bucket System with my homeschooled kids, I realized that working with my hands felt good in an oddly significant way. I helped West with his ukulele and then spent an hour with the instrument myself. I pulled out an embroidery kit and suddenly nights previously spent crawling out of my skin reliving horrors became peaceful. It’s like that energy gets worked out through my hands and my mind has a point of focus that is logical and ordered. A + B = C. It’s within my control. I can fix mistakes. I can begin and end at will. Funny how I can get all that from some strings.

Maybe yoga isn’t your jam but running is how you show up for your body. Maybe words aren’t your subconscious’s native language but drawing is. Grab hold of whatever acts of self-care make you feel just a little bit better. And when you take them in altogether, the goodness and lightness and progress is meaningful.

Today is my mother’s birthday. One year ago today I was singing her the birthday song for the last time. One month later, she was gone. A bath can’t cure that grief. It can’t be the hug from my mama that I really need. But it can help just a little. And when you add up all those small acts of nurturing, you do feel better—not fixed or whole or perfect, but growing into a new self in a healthy way. After so many months of this self-care, I am feeling lighter (less weight and less darkness). My mom would approve.

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I work from an island in the Pacific Northwest, where I live wild and free in connection with my hilarious husband and three growing sailors in our fixer upper on the beach. I authentically live this healing work out loud raising my own neurodivergent family (inner child included) and draw on my decades of education and experience (I've done all the nerdy work so you don't have to) to guide a revolution of overwhelmed parents just like you to feeling at peace within yourself, consciously connected with your children, embraced by a supportive community, and enjoying a values-aligned life you love.

Gentle parenting, natural homeschooling, & simple living mentor

I'm Rachel Rainbolt

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