The Importance of Rest
Years ago, in a horrendous series of events, my puppy Bella was hit by a car. I rushed her to the veterinary hospital with tire marks on her tiny head (she's a six-pound poodle) -- and I was certain that if she didn’t survive, I wouldn't either.
But thankfully, the Veterinary Heroes/Angels-With-Skin-On saved Bella’s life, and after one week in the hospital, we brought her home.
When I carried Bella through the front door of our house and set her down on the floor, she gazed toward the back of our living room, where the sun poured in from a window and cast a pool of light onto the carpet. Bella limped directly over to that patch of light and napped there for a few hours.
Of all the places she could have gone, Bella found the warmest, brightest, most comforting spot in sight. And even though there was cheese to beg for and FedEx guys to bark about and grass outside that she hadn't peed on lately, Bella let herself rest.
It had been a long week for both of us. Bella rested in the sun and recovered, and I ran around as usual, pushing myself to the brink with work and graduate school and wedding planning and caring for my injured dog. In therapy that week, I shared with my therapist the truth about rest. How I understood that the solution to my stress and anxiety was to rest, but whenever I attempted it, I felt guilty, like I was breaking the rules and being “bad.” We spent some time analyzing whether my discomfort with rest was because of our productivity-obsessed, grind culture, or because of my having grown up in an alcoholic home, or because of my addiction to social media -- and then we stopped analyzing. My therapist said, let’s practice rest right now. She opened the window and let some sunlight in. It warmed my chair and for a moment I tried to pretend I was Bella on the sunlit carpet. My therapist asked me to close my eyes for one minute and breathe. I did, like the good patient I was always trying to be.
And then she said, how do you feel?
I felt the same. Stressed. Annoyed. Nervous.
I remember telling her that meditation felt like something inaccessible, or for people who were better and healthier than me. I told her that I often feel too tired to meditate or practice mindfulness, even for a minute. I said that I was scared to have breaks in my schedule because those were usually the times I relapsed with my eating disorder. I told her I was also afraid of napping. For some reason, when I woke up from a nap in the middle of the day, I often binged.
That was the beginning of a conversation I am still having in therapy years later, now as a working mother of two. I am in recovery from bulimia. I take medication daily and meet with a therapist weekly to support my ongoing challenges with depression and anxiety. I have more awareness and tools now to recognize when my brain is telling me an unhelpful story about what I do or don’t deserve, what I can or can’t do. I’m no longer afraid of breaks and I crave free, open time.
When a voice in my head says “push harder, just one more email, one more task,” I sometimes listen to that voice and sacrifice my mental health at the altar of hustle culture yet again.
Other times, I look at Bella -- who is now my blind and elderly therapy dog -- and close my computer. I leave my desk early, turn my phone off, and put Bella in the dog stroller. I push her around the block, wishing she was a puppy again with two working eyes and four working legs and lots of years left on earth.
And then it dawns on me that Bella is not wishing for an earlier version of her life. She is here, in this moment, raising her snout to the sky and taking in the smells of the world. I think about how someday my own eyes and legs will likely give out, and maybe someone will be pushing me in a wheelchair as I’m pushing Bella in the stroller. When that day comes, will I have been thankful for the days that I hustled, or the days that I rested? For the extra email I sent or for the extra walk I took with my beloved dog? I know the answer.
I come home from the walk. I write down more ways I can invite rest into my life, especially when my mind is telling me a story about how or why I can’t.
- Write a note to myself, from Bella, and put it somewhere near the bed. Let that note be all about how worthy and loved and perfect I am in the eyes of my dog, and how it is more than okay for me to rest. It’s not unproductive. It’s vital for my self-care and mental health.
- Read the brilliant work of Tricia Hersey, who founded The Nap Ministry, which examines the liberating power of naps and names sleep deprivation as a racial and social justice issue.
- Put the phone away at least an hour before bedtime and don’t turn it on for at least one hour after waking up.
- If I’ve been up at night with my children or dogs and my sleep has been interrupted (as it often is), nap if possible. If a nap is not possible due to caregiving or work responsibilities, practice extreme self-compassion and do less, not more.
- Put an alarm in my phone three times a day as a reminder to do a one-minute meditation or repeat the mantra “I am loved.”
- Consciously leave a task unfinished every day, and challenge thoughts about it with love and kindness.
- Practice RAIN: https://www.tarabrach.com/rain/.
- Keep talking about the challenges and the wins with rest in therapy.