THE BLOG
03/27/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated May 27, 2013

Saving My Sanity Through Self-Care

A small pot of moisturizing cream changed my life.

Allow me to explain.

I had woken up one morning last fall unable to feel my right hand. Figuring I had slept on it funny, I shook it out, opening and closing my fingers, thinking I could wiggle it back to life. As the morning progressed, the numbness subsided, but a tingling sensation that reached up to my elbow stayed with me all day.

The next morning, pins and needles still pricking my arm, I went out for a run. As I started to climb a hill on the homestretch, the toes in my left foot went numb. They continued to tingle even after stretching and a shower. Over the next several days, other sensations joined the inventory: intermittent numbness in my left hand, tingling in my feet and thighs, a nagging itchiness around my mouth.

At my husband's insistence, I made an appointment with my general practitioner. Her brown eyes warm and encouraging, she told me that any number of minor conditions could be to blame -- post-viral syndrome, vitamin B deficiency, thyroid imbalance -- and then set about ruling them out. After a basic physical exam and a series of blood tests came back fine and my tingling continued unabated, she ordered an MRI of my brain to rule out two letters I had not wanted to consider: MS.

As I lay in the hollow tube of the MRI machine, the loud beating of its innards clanging around me, I tried to breathe deeply enough to slow my racing heart, but I couldn't help but imagine the tidal wave of changes that would crash over my life if the radiologist on the other side of the glass found the lesions I prayed he wouldn't: pain, exhaustion, loss of balance. How would I take care of my kids? How would I take care of myself?

When the test was done, the technician slid me out of the tube and sent me home, assuring me that he hadn't seen anything worrisome. Later that day, the radiologist confirmed the tech's initial diagnosis and I found myself back in my own doctor's office, deciding how to proceed. Her next move was to send me to a doctor of physical medicine who conducted nerve studies. By inserting electrified needles into my nerves, he would be able to tell if my numbness originated in nerve damage.

When I arrived at the doctor's office, he asked me to sit down for a chat before he started the test. I found myself telling him about my three kids, about being a stay-at-home mom, about having trouble finding time to write, about missing my friends and family back east, about feeling anxious a lot of the time. He looked me squarely in the eye and asked about how I manage stress.

"I don't, really," I told him, laughing apologetically. "I feel stressed out pretty much all the time."

He started his physical exam, testing my reflexes and manipulating my hands and feet. When his hands came to my shoulders, he sighed deeply and said, "I think I know what your problem is. Your shoulders are so tight that they're compressing the nerves that run into your arms and hands. If your lower back is just as tight, that could explain the numbness in your legs and feet."

"Kristen," he continued. "You're worrying yourself sick. If you want to feel better, you need to change your life."

I started to cry a little then, in relief and disbelief that my way of moving through the world, shouldering in to challenges and trying to wrestle them into submission, wasn't working after all. After he finished the nerve study, he sent me home with a list of recommendations about weekly massage, daily exercise, healthier eating. Although they all sounded good in theory, I felt paralyzed about how to start. Furthermore, I felt paralyzed about whether to start. After all, I liked my way of doing things. Those habits that he was asking me to change had brought me a life that I was proud of.

That night I looked at myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. I noticed the dark circles, as blue as bruises, under my eyes. I felt my jaw clench as I attacked my front teeth. I rinsed. I spit. And I opened the cabinet under my sink and took out a tiny jar of moisturizer I had gotten as a sample from my dermatologist. I unscrewed the lid and inhaled the fresh, calming scent. I scooped out a little on my index finger, then smoothed it over my face. As I spread the rich, luxurious cream over my parched skin, I felt a little piece of myself come back to life, as though the lotion was moisturizing my spirit and not just my face.

I started my journey to wellness with the simple ritual of washing and moisturizing my face every morning and every night. Making the time for the tiniest bit of self-care reminded me to call and make an appointment for a massage. Feeling the transformative effects of massage on my muscles helped me make changes in my diet so that my insides would feel as soothed as my outside. Cutting out caffeine, sugar, and processed food gave me a wave of energy that I rode into more frequent running and daily yoga. Regular exercise helped me sleep more soundly at night. Getting good rest allowed me to greet the day and my family with more patience. Reserves of patience fortify me on those days when thebabysittercancelledmysonhaspinkeyethebabywon'tnapandCalgonjustwon'ttakemeaway.

As soon as I started to take care of myself, the tingling and numbness in my limbs vanished as quickly as it came, my body figuring, I suppose, that I had taken its warnings seriously. My shoulders still hang out up around my ears from time to time. And it's not like I never yell. I don't suppose I will ever be mistaken for a Zen master.

But saying yes to moisturizer helped me say yes to a happier, healthier me.

This post originally appeared on A Little Yes.

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