Lessons From a Broken Air Conditioner

Late in the summer, our air conditioner went out. Just completely and totally bit it, with no warning whatsoever. Well, strike that. That’s probably technically true, but in actuality I think it warned me early on but I mistook it’s warning for a minor glitch (involving spraying what I initially thought might be contaminated sewer water all through our hvac and, by extension, our house) and thought I’d fixed the problem when, in fact, I had not.

And just in case you’re as worried as I was, there was actually no poop water involved. So there’s that.

Anyway, while Tahd was away on a work trip (because, always) while I was pounding and sweating and swearing away in the basement at the condenser, it occurred to me that we had, in fact, lived in this house for a long time without ever having replaced something major.  No furnace, no roof, no hot water heater, and, yes, no air conditioner. Thirteen years, in fact. And none of this paraphernalia was new when we moved in.  Lucky us, I guess!

We’ve done the regular house things like painting and replacing faucets and fixing fences and even some DIY flooring work. Tahd has him some skills! 😉 In fact, it seems like there’s always a house project or ten on the back burner.  Our house is old and well-lived-in, and there’s always something to do.

We kicked off our school year at the beginning of September, and it’s been gradually wearing me done.  Which is to be expected, I suppose. Homeschooling is hard. Heck, education aside, just raising kids is hard. Exhausting, even. So it shouldn’t surprise me that I’ve gotten to the whinnying of November, eight weeks, with hardly a moment for myself and feel depleted. What did I think was going to happen?

Some realizations dawn over me slowly through trial and circumstance. Usually that’s the case. A precious few hit like lightning bolts out of nowhere, and that’s what the broken air conditioner did for me. It sent me a lightning bolt.

Self-care is not self-indulgence.

Somewhere along the way for me, self-care became associated with things like getting your nails done, taking a luxurious bath, buying yourself a treat, going out for dinner, eating some (or all the…) chocolate. Hear me here–there’s nothing wrong with any of these things! Not a thing!

But they’re not the primary things that feed my soul. I delight in them, certainly, but for me, they’re indulgences.  I tend spend a lot of my life rattling around inside my own head, so the things that feed my soul typically revolve around either intentionally engaging with or intentionally quieting the deeper parts of my spirit.  My most valuable sensorial experiences bring me back to the physical world via simplicity–the foundational essentials like moving my body, making sure I’m hydrated, and getting enough sleep.

For me, bubble baths and manicures are like building a beautiful enclosure and installing elaborate landscaping around my broken air conditioner without ever actually replacing it.

It helped me so much when I thought about my self-care in terms of home maintenance. I’d never expect my house to plug along unattended under the weight of our bustling family. No one would. That’s why landlords paint after tenants move out and home improvement stores run DIY classes and I have to book my concrete guy months in advance. Homes require basic maintenance, not just for looks but for safety and functionality.

Why do I expect to be any different?

To be the wife, mother, and woman I want to be, I need to keep my body healthy and I need to take care of my mind.  Period. These aren’t negotiables. They’re minimums, not indulgences. Just like Tahd had to fix the igniter on our furnace during one of our Wisconsin winters, I have to take care of my body and mind. They’re central to who I am, who I can be, and what I can offer to the world.

So I’ve been thinking about what I need to meet these minimums, even when things are hectic and stressful like they are now.  Which is probably just a description of regular life for those of us in these middle years–the not-a-child and not-retired era that spans most of the decades of our existences.

For me, I need quiet–not a lot, but a little. A few hours every week is ideal, but even every two weeks keeps my crazies at bay. My soul comes back to itself and I remember who I am independent of my identity as wife and mother.

I need to get dressed and do some sort of makeup and hairstyle every day. I imagine this is laughable to people who work outside the home for whom this would hardly merit a mention. But when I stay at home every day, it gets easy for me to slide into inertia and “forget” to get dressed.  If I’m having a funk-filled melancholic pajama day, I can often completely change my energy if I get dressed and do a little hair and makeup.

I need to drink water. I forget all the time, and I drag when I’m dehydrated.

I need to move my body. It regulates my mood and manages my depression like nothing else–better, even, than antidepressants.

I need some sort of creative outlet, some way to add beauty and soul to the world. I think this is why I love writing and photography, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be these two things. Sometimes just a beautifully-lettered heading on the next page of my bullet journal makes me happy all the way to my toes.  Sometimes, engaging in creativity feels indulgent to me and seems unnecessary, but without it, I get cranky and restless and paralyzed, and I remember that God created this need within me and honoring Him means honoring this part of me.

I need to cultivate peace–peace within myself, within my relationships, within my environment, and on behalf of others.

Maybe you’re geared to be more of a sensory person, and the feeling you get in a hot bath of the water floating your cares away speaks to you. Maybe the sight of your weekly manicure reminds you that you’re worthy of investing in yourself. Maybe the taste of a decadent, gourmet meal brings you together with loved ones who feed your extroverted soul.

It’s not about guilt over how simple or elaborate your self-care techniques are.  Nobody gets points for being super simple or for going above-and-beyond. Self-care is not a game. The extravagance of your self-care (or lack of it) does not define your worth. It’s simply about knowing what you need and doing what it takes to tend to your minimums.  If you have leftover resources for indulgences, great! Enjoy!  But the first level of work–your minimum–must be done, or we become like houses with immaculate curb appeal but are falling apart on the inside.

It is not indulgent to take care of yourself. It is necessary. Full stop. And that…well, that is what I learned about myself from a broken air conditioner.

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  1. Sooo true!! I’m learning this all over again!

  2. Linda Wasik says:

    Me too Heidi, me too!

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