I love the sparkle that surrounds me when I walk past a perfume counter in a department store. There is a magic that reminds me of Laura in her ball gown as Luke spun her through Wyndham's on the soap opera General Hospital. That feeling of magic explodes like a firecracker when the saleswoman slips a gorgeous box into my bag and says, “This is your gift with purchase. Have a great day!”
How can I not have a great day when I receive something unexpected that makes me feel special?
As strange as it may sound, there is a gift with purchase that comes with divorce. That gift with purchase is a permission slip for self-care.
Like the gifts you get from the beauty counter, with this one, you decide if it means anything to you, or gets tossed.
It took me a while to appreciate my gift. As I went through my divorce, and things felt awful, my friends and my therapist would say, “Take care of yourself!” The words went past me like, “Have a nice day.” A divorce is similar to other bad times in life, like death of a loved one or loss of a job. While friends may offer food and flowers, the best gift actually comes when you begin to offer that care to yourself. You’re the only person who can decide what self-care means for you.
Maybe I didn’t grab onto the concept at first because women are taught to care for others. Or maybe it was much simpler than that; I didn’t know what self-care meant for me.
I didn’t even recognize the first example of self-care for what it was. l was accumulating legal papers, like the ones that the marshal served me with a brusk, “You know what to do with these.” (I didn’t.) I put them in a drawer. I didn’t want to see them, much less study them and learn the legalese behind them. I wasn’t procrastinating or avoiding my responsibilities. When I had to prepare for a court date or a meeting with an attorney, those papers were right there, ready for me to tackle. But I didn’t need to be inadvertently jerked back into the loss, confusion and pain they represented. I dealt with those feelings when I wrote in my journal or took a long walk to think things through. Putting the papers out of sight was a step toward taking care of myself by helping me take control of when and how I spent time working through emotions and legal decisions.
I used the permission slip more deliberately later. When my husband’s aunt and uncle invited me to dinner months after he moved out and filed for divorce, I accepted even though I felt a bit scared to do so. I’d missed them and assumed I’d have to just get used to the idea of no contact with them when the divorce was final.
By giving myself permission to do what I wanted—enjoy their company for a lovely evening and forget how we were related—I discovered that my assumptions about what my family would be after the divorce were wrong.
We talked, and agreed we’d like to redefine our relationship. Today, years after the divorce, they introduce me as their niece, and I have to say I’m overwhelmed by that honor.
The permission slip for self-care allowed me to try on new roles, as I dropped old ones such as “wife,” and “daughter-in-law.” Something different might surprisingly fit the new me, and I had permission to try—such as when I buckled myself into a bouncy thing at the mall. I bounced from the ground floor up, well past the railing on the second, as the attendant pulled my legs to pop me up through the huge atrium opening. I was glad I did it, and more glad that I was taking care of myself by trying new things. I had permission to be happy about my bouncy thing experience, and permission to never do it again, for which my stomach is still grateful.
The permission slip for self-care was also about challenging my beliefs about what I "must" do, and questioning thoughts that were untrue, unproductive, or made me miserable.
When I would think that I “must” or “had to” do something, I'd ask myself why I thought that. Could I make the task into a “want to?” Could I chose a different path? Sometimes, the best answer is somewhere in the middle between obligation and desire. That’s okay, too. I’m never going to be thrilled to touch the vacuum cleaner, but I do a much better job when I feel I’m chasing dust bunnies for myself rather than because I’m supposed to have a clean house.
In addition to finding ways to be nice to myself or learn about me, self-care is a great way to get through the tough stuff. I had carefully and happily planned what to wear on my wedding day, but had no idea what I was going to wear to court to get divorced. I knew I wouldn’t like much about that day or want to keep reminders around, such as the clothes I wore. With a healthy dose of self-care, I picked a dress that had been hanging, unworn, in the back of my closet. The day after the divorce, I cleaned it and gave it a new life at the thrift store.
Giving myself a new life was not as easy or as fast. But the permission slip for self-care makes the long, hard journey much better. I have more energy to spare when I take care of myself.
Divorce can feel like someone just opened Pandora’s box to let loose a hoard of monsters. I always remember what was last to exit that box—hope. With a little care, that hope helped me get through the divorce and come out a better, stronger, and happier.
I don’t have many of the gifts with purchase I’ve received from department stores over the years. Perfumes and make-up go bad or get used up, totes rip, and some gifts are, frankly, cheap. The permission slip for self-care, however, is mine to keep forever.
Linda Zukauskas is a freelance writer and journalist in Connecticut. After more than a decade of marriage, she and her husband split amicably in 2008. She works primarily as a ghostwriter.