It was two o'clock on a Thursday afternoon. I was in bed, wallowing in a dangerous cocktail of self-pity, guilt and sadness. I had just missed my 200 level political science class, and I remember deciding whether I would even bother trying to get myself out of bed for my 3 PM Arabic discussion.

Depression, at the time, was not a foreign concept to me. I had battled the illness, along with a mixture of anxiety and agoraphobia, for the better part of three years.

But what was a new concept to me was the idea of self-care. A friend suggested it after finding me curled up in the corner of the school common room one day after school. At her suggestion, I took to the internet and soon found a treasure trove of self-care related media. At first, it seemed like a godsend for me — whole corners of the internet were seemingly dedicated to coping mechanisms for depression and anxiety.

Over the past few months though, as I have trudged through the seemingly endless streams of photos and blogs and articles, I have begun to notice a troubling trend.

Certain websites on the internet seem to put forth a very specific version of self-care. As I have scrolled through, I have seen the same tips appear again and again. Tips like "treating yourself," "taking a bath," and "going for a walk," each paired with a stylized, aesthetically pleasing image. I've lost count of the number of times I have gone online seeking self-care tips, only to be presented with pictures of beautiful girls, draped in boyfriend sweaters with made-up faces, giving off the appearance of casual effortlessness.

Are these tips inherently bad? No, not in certain contexts. I can’t fault people offering advice or inspiration. And sometimes, when I’m feeling down, a cup of tea will cheer me up, or a hot shower will stabilize my mood.

But a lot of the time, you’ll never see my self-care methods showcased online.

When I am in a depressive episode, the last thing that would help me is lighting a candle and playing soothing music. In that moment, when I’m at my lowest, there is no way I’m in a state to artfully arrange myself in the corner of the room with a fluffy pillow, an herbal tea and a comforter.

During an anxiety attack, I don’t look like the done up girls in the photos. Most likely, I haven’t showered in a while, because I haven’t been able to get out of bed. My room is a mess, because my mental illness has left me too exhausted to move.

Therein lies the problem. There is a striking disparity between the internet’s romanticized version of self-care, and our own realities. More often than not, the tips these sites post fail to push past surface-level self-care efforts, and too often simplify mental illnesses into quirks with simple fixes.

Mental illnesses are more complex than that, and as such, true self-care is as well. What we too often forget is that these posts are crafted portrayals of the real world.

All of this stems from a larger issue. The romanticization of mental illness is something that has been discussed in-depth in the past few years, but it serves repeating. Being "damaged" is now seen as a personality trait — something to be desired, to make you interesting. As such, a romanticized version of both mental illness and self-care has been created online.

Most of the time, though, there is nothing cute about self-care. It’s messy. It’s forcing yourself to get out of bed and take a shower because you’ve laid in bed for three days straight and are starting to smell. It’s tackling your class work so that you don’t fall further behind in courses.

Self-care often means doing things you hate in the moment, because you know they will help you in the long run, and most of the time, those moments aren’t Instagram worthy.

But that’s self-care sometimes. Not pretty, not glamorous, but necessary and cathartic.

So, at 2:10 on a Thursday afternoon, I didn’t treat myself by staying in bed. I didn’t throw on a sweatshirt and sip on a cup of tea. I didn’t put on an Ed Sheeran album and do artful watercolors on the balcony.

True self-care, for me in that moment, was loving myself enough to get out of bed, wrestle my mess of unkept hair into a bun and get on a bus to make my 3 PM class.

Did I hate it? Yes. Was I thankful that I did it after? Hell yes.

Self-care can be hard. It isn’t always pretty, and it isn't always what it looks like online. Sure, some days self-care may be Instagram-worthy, like buying yourself flowers or posting a selfie because you're feeling extra good about yourself one day or taking a bubble bath just because you can. 

But other times — a lot of times — self-care is crying until you can't cry anymore, giving your best friend or mom a call or finally making that appointment to see a therapist that you've been putting off. These are the days when it's important to remember that part of self-care is loving yourself enough to give yourself the care you need, whatever that looks like to you.

Lead Image Credit: Naomi August via Unsplash