Finding and Minding Our ‘Check Engine’ Lights

My car, Sadie the Saturn S-Series, is 17 years old. She’s been in my family since I was a high schooler and I’ve driven her for more than half of my life.

She’s a dutiful gal, and she’s been there for the major events of my adult life — driving my husband and me out to our honeymoon in Colorado, driving each of our four newborn boys home from the hospital, and moving our family across the country to start our new life in Massachusetts after I accepted a tenure-track position at a university out here.

One fun fact about my car is that the check engine light has been on for the better part of four years. Naturally my husband and I were concerned at first, but each quick fix proved untenable. Whatever the mechanic did to fix the problem would work for a week or two, but eventually the light would pop up again even if the car seemed to run just fine. Ultimately, we were assured that the issues causing the light to perpetually glow were both expensive to address and non-critical in terms of safety, and we simply accepted its omnipresent warning.

Relatedly, we also rarely drive the car more than five miles at a time, just enough to get me to campus and to the YMCA.

Regardless, every time I sit behind Sadie the Saturn’s steering wheel, I look at that bright, glowing little message and think about the car’s health and well-being.

It got me thinking about my own body and self-care. Do I have a check engine light?

On the surface, surely not. Someone would have pointed it out by now. But do I have internal indicators that hint when I might not be taking the best care of my body? Undoubtedly, though it took me a lot of years to recognize them.

This year’s journey toward self-care has, for me, really been about becoming more in-tune with my body and striving for balance. As part of that journey, I’ve tried to grow more sensitive to the cues that my body and mind give me when things are swinging out of whack and I’m making decisions that aren’t in my own best interest. There are certain parts of my academic year that are more vulnerable toward this unbalance than others, and I happen to be in the thick of one such period now (after the new semester has started but before I’ve settled into a comfortable groove that accounts for all my to-do tasks. Before any kind of rhythm sets in.)

So what do my personal ‘check engine lights’ look like?

I stop making grocery lists. When life is running smoothly, I plan out all of my shopping lists a week at a time (or sometimes even a month at a time.) Meals are strategic, shopping trips are scheduled in advance, and I’m getting plenty of balanced meals each week. When the grocery lists go out the window, meals become chaotic, unplanned, unbalanced, and my energy levels and mood tailspin. Warning light.

I don’t read for pleasure for days or weeks. My one true indulgence in life, my most genuine “me time,” is spent curled up with a novel (usually a mindless romance.) If this isn’t happening, it’s a good indicator that frantic productivity has taken over virtually all of my time, and that’s not a healthy thing. As a productivity junkie, it’s essential that I carve out time each week merely to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s creative labor. Warning light.

I stop reaching out to family and friends. When I’m feeling healthy, well and balanced, I call my parents, I reach out to my girlfriends. I make coffee dates and plan for the occasional evening out with friends. When I’m out of whack, this all goes to the wayside and weeks can go by without me reaching out to someone else. As an extrovert who feeds off of these social connections, this spells trouble. Warning light.

I get that “treading water” feeling. This one’s hard to explain, but it feels like a physical manifestation of low-level anxiety. My mind’s never at peace because there’s always a ‘should’ hanging over my head. It’s hard to sleep. I feel the slightest tightness in my chest and knot in my stomach from the knowledge that I’m not quite where I should be in some arena of my life — my professional work, my fitness goals, my healthful eating, my creative writing, my parenting or wife-ing (that’s a word, right?) I wake up early and stay up late, trying to squeeze a few more hours of productivity out of each day. Overall I feel like I’m mostly just treading water, or exhaustedly running on a hamster wheel, working relentlessly in all corners of my life, but not getting anywhere or ever experiencing the satisfaction of a completed task. Warning light.

For me, graduate school represents the years that, like Sadie the Saturn, my check engine began to glow non-stop. I eventually recognized the signals, but I didn’t get a check up. I simply ignored them. Because of time. Because of money. Because of gestation. Because I’d said yes to too many things due to my feelings of imposter syndrome. I pushed full tilt and took poor care of my body and my spirit. Unfortunately, I brought these bad habits with me even into my first years on the tenure track.

I told myself for a lot of years that self-maintenance was impossible. That the adjustments it would take for those ‘lights’ to go off, for my life to settle back into a healthy balance, weren’t feasible. During the labor of my precarious graduate school years, this was more true. Now that I’m working full-time and in a more privileged position, it’s less true, and I’ve had to unlearn some bad habits in order to acknowledge what is now in my power to change after years of feeling helpless to the realities of my working conditions.

But from time to time, those old, unhealthy habits resurface. So now I’m trying to be better at 1.) recognizing those bright neon ‘check engine lights’ that glow within me from time to time throughout the year and 2.) conducting prompt maintenance to get them to shut back off. I no longer say “I’ll just push through until the end of the semester.” I’m actively working to reject the train of thought that says “Just survive for ‘x’ more weeks and then you can take care of yourself.

So what does this more routine maintenance look like for me? First it usually means a few long evenings of journaling, reflecting, looking at my typical weekly schedule, and talking with my family members about what is and isn’t working about our current situation. Sometimes it means asking for help (not my forte!) and sometimes it means lowering my standards in some aspect of my life (even less my forte!) Sometimes it means stepping down from a responsibility that I took on but can’t sustain. It often looks and feels like slamming on the breaks drastically.  But what I’ve learned from too many years of pushing my engine past its comfort zone is that when I do this, the quality of everything suffers and I get less satisfaction from my work, my hobbies and my relationships (you know, those little things that collectively comprise MY ENTIRE LIFE?!)

Sadie the Saturn is in her golden years. Though it makes me weepy to think about (yes, I cried through that How I Met Your Mother episode about Marshall’s Pontiac Fiero), her days are numbered. But mine aren’t. I’m an early-thirties professional with decades of professional work ahead of me. It no longer suffices for me to go rumbling down the highway of my life, ignoring the obvious clanking in my engine and praying I don’t break down on the side of the road.

If you have ‘check engine’ lights in your life, if there are physical, mental or emotional warning signs that you turn a blind eye to over and over again in the hopes that they’ll somehow, miraculously disappear, I encourage you, if it’s even remotely within your power to do so, to consider a self-care tune-up. That’s what I’ll be doing this weekend. I think my engine will thank me.

Ever watchful,