My hand slapped the snooze button as my alarm squawked for the fifth time. As I felt the sting on my fingers from smacking the hard plastic and the grit of my eyes as they peeled open, I tried to recall what unholy notion convinced me to set it at the crack of dawn in the first place. My skin prickles with nerves. With my body still feeling fatigued, I sit my head up-right against a pillow and allow my eyes to scan the room.

On the corner of my dresser, sitting in front of the window, are a stacked-up pile of unread books taunting me. Thin rays of sunlight peaked through the blinds and onto the spines of the books. Each title was illuminated with an iridescent glow: The Self-Love Experiment. Unf*ck Yourself. Girl, Wash Your Face. The Gifts of Imperfection. Mindset Makeover. Finding You, Soul Journal. They’re part of my plan to transform my psyche into one of an effective human being who has more than a singular brain cell. I walk over to the pile and skim through the pages in my collection of self-help books. Each one remains in fair condition since I bought them used at the public library during a sporadic emotional relapse. Sticky notes are glued to the top of page about a quarter of the way through each book denoting where I had stopped and will likely not revisit. 

I grab the book that fell hidden behind the stack, The Guide to Ultimate Happiness. Its condition was poor in comparison to the others in the stack. Except in this case, I was the cause of its disfigurements. Its binding worn from its many journeys at the bottom of my bag; the pages are sullied by coffee stains and food crumbs. I skim through the pages. The parchment feels as thin as my skin has become. Detailed notes are left in the margin, each one recorded with the belief that I would be led to a revelation. They were written with such force that the back of the pages felt like braille

The paper cover is tattered, but I can still make-out the illustration; there’s a woman doing a back dive into the ocean, as the sun dipped down below the horizon. The vast ocean below her was her home, where she belonged, a place to escape from life. But beyond those magical waves below her was something even more amazing: the sky. Beautiful smudges of coral, lavender, turquoise, and a fiery orange blended together to create a sight that swept her away from all worries. Soft white sand encompassed the ocean, emitting a feeling of safety and security. How I wish I could jump into the illustration; into the girl whose only problems were the tides of the water. I return the book in my hand to its dwelling on the top of the paperback tower.

Adjacent to the pile, I spot my daily planner lying exposed amongst the clutter on my dresser. Its surface is covered with bullet points and to-do lists written last night. Micro-scheduling my day precisely is a practiced I learned from a lifestyle blogger who shares posts and blog entries daily about her perfect life. She writes under the pen name “Skilled@Life,” so I assume she knows a thing or two. According to one of her blog posts, scheduling a daily routine will help achieve major goals in life; the trick, she claims, is to reward oneself with a method of what she deems “self-care” after every difficult task:

  • 6:30AM Wake up at the break of dawn even though you went to bed at 3AM the night before because your schedule demanded you to do so.
  • 6:45AM Treat yourself for waking up early with a brewed cup of decaffeinated coffee with almond milk.
  • 7:00AM Pack the $200 textbooks that each professor required which were so far out of your budget that you were forced to eat ramen for three meals a day, for a week straight.
  • 7:15AM Treat yourself with Hindi Kama Sutra cross-fit yoga to reduce anxiety.
  • 8:15AM Check your bank account and realize you’re two dollars away from receiving an overdraft fee.
  • 8:30AM Treat yourself by choosing the right filter for the Instagram picture of your impeccably prepared acai bowl.
  • 8:45AM, Make a spreadsheet of your finances then panic as you realize social security will likely run out by time you retire.
  • 9:15AM Treat yourself by taking a bath with fair trade organic coca butter bath bombs surrounded by hand-poured soy candles and posting a picture on your Snap story.
  • 9:30AM Breathe, if your schedule allows.
  • 9:45AM Hit the library and start passionately working on your homework.
  • 10:00AM Pray to God that you chose a field of study that will help you find a job that will allow you to have a family and live a reasonable lifestyle, while also paying off your superfluous student debt.

I make it to the university library by 9:45AM and choose a spot in what’s called the “Quiet Room,” also known as the room that’s so quiet you can practically hear the person next to you blink. When I open the door, all heads snap in my direction. My heart clenches and I can feel the warmth in my cheeks magnify. I try to shuffle my way to the back of the room without drawing any more attention to me; but my awkwardness exacerbates the problem as I trip over a bookbag and cause a scene. Once I find a seat in the back corner that allowed me some semblance of privacy, I sit for a minute to recover from the embarrassment.

The cushioned chair is a gaudy burnt orange and smells like it has been there for at least a couple decades. I think about how the first person who sat in this chair probably only had the option to take notes in class in a notebook… with a pen… by hand. I shiver.

Self-transformation time. I lay back and nestle my body into the worn chair. I pull out the first textbook in my book bag and open to page one. My phone vibrates. I get absorbed into a blackhole of hyperlinks then thrown into a bottomless pit of distraction.

It started with an e-mail from the local clinic offering sign-ups for a free STI screening which lead me to Google the symptoms of STI’s. My investigation was then interrupted by an advertisement from a website called “Petitionz4U” whose most recent bill was advocating for more meatless options at McDonalds. To see if I was qualified to sign this petition, I Googled “is veganism right for me?” which led me to a site of personality exams. I took the personality test that determined which dietary lifestyle is right for me, as well as the one that determined my inner spirit animal.

For a brief second, I detach my eyes from the screen to look at the clock and realize I had a 60-minute digital blackout. My heart plummets until it bounces in my toes. A whole hour went by and all I did was discover that I’m an STI-free vegan whose wild soul correlates to that of a Fire-bellied toad. For fucks sake. I need a cigarette.

I blow the smoke into the open air and watch it ripple from my lips as it escapes with the wind. My lips press around the end of a cigarette and I take another deep inhale. The fumes billow in my throat and slowly diffuse throughout my body, wrapping around my lungs like a warm blanket. As the smoke chases my exhale, I noticed I’m sitting on a bench in front of a “smoke-free campus” sign. A paradox. I laugh. My mind is clear, a black void humming with force. For a moment I feel calm, but it only takes a few seconds before my muscles regain their tautness. As I sit on the bench behind the library where there was more sunlight, I bask in the rays and my own ennui.

When I was a girl, I would sneak out at midnight and walk to the beach alone. Once I found a quiet spot, I would nestle my small body into the sandy bank and listen to the placidity of the water. While I read the most recent book I had checked from the library, waves of deep royal blue crept towards me before running away, only to repeat the process in a cycle that caused droplets of salty water to spray onto my bare, sand-encrusted feet. Pulses surged under my skin like waves as I engaged with the story. I anticipated growing up and experiencing the world as it had been portrayed in the fables. Being an adult meant freedom. Now I look back at this moment and wish I could be that age again. A paradox. After I finished a chapter, I sat my head up-right against a lump of sand and my breath would adjust to follow the pace of the water’s oscillation. I would run my fingers through the sand, unearthing shells and littered cigarette butts. My mind recalls the moments of simplicity and peaceful ignorance before being thrown into the inferno of reality.

“Excuse me. You’re blowing smoke in my face,” I jolt back to reality, startled to hear a voice interrupting my day dream. The voice was unfamiliar to me, as well as the boy that it’s coming from. Though he has a serious look to him, he can’t be more than twenty. Sharp-featured and blue-eyed, he could burn a hole through my forehead with his gaze.

“Self-care,” I reply with sarcasm while I raise my cigarette as if it were a glass. He sours at my tone, his mouth twisting into a grimace. His eyes darken, and he takes a step forward, surveying me from head to toe. He means well but comes off as patronizing.

“You’re not even supposed to be smoking here. I could so easily report you. There’s a sign right behind you that says smo-“

“OK- I fucking get it!” There I go, letting my mouth run away with my brain. The words trip over my tongue feeling foreign in my mouth. I watch as his eyes direct themselves to the collection of self-help books falling out of my bag. Shit. I hurry to shove the books back into concealment. This was enough for my brain to open its floodgates and release a whirl of emotions pouring out inside of me, unable to mask my perturbation.

“Do you mind if I bum a smoke?” His voice is suddenly melodic, humming with deep, soothing vibrations. Instead of looking judgmental, he seems empathetic. When his eyes trail to mine, I force myself to look away. His warmth and strange kindness confused me; he didn’t seem like the typical cigarette scrounger, attempting to cadge a smoke. But I allowed him to mooch a light from my pack of Marlboro. “So, are you really a follower of the whole ‘self-care’ mania?” He asks to establish his bona fides, as if to prove he had once blown a ludicrous amount of money on things that are supposed to improve his life, but it too propelled him into the opposite direction. He props himself on the bench directly across from me.

“I don’t know.” I respond with trepidation. “Every ‘solution’ seems ephemeral. It works for a little while until I dwindle to an extreme low. Sometimes it brings me to an even deeper low than I was before.” I try to blink back hot tears thinking about all the action I took to preserve my own sanity and failed.

“Then they’re distractions, not solutions.” My eyes turn cold at his words. But the wall of ice recedes, melting as my gaze softens. In my stomach, a hollow feeling emerges but my ears are still drawn to his words. “Sometimes you realize that you thought you had something keeping you going, but that it might be a lie. When you actually really understand that, it feels like you swallowed a rock. How I see it, today’s description of self-care is just an unreasonable justification for self-sabotage.” He takes a long, purposeful drag and as he puffs out a cloud of smoke, his features soften.  His sharp blue eyes that at first seemed imperious, now look like a pure reflection of the ocean. Beneath the bench he sits at, I spot a daisy growing within the cracks of the concrete. “I’m Jake, by the way.”

“Kara,” I stammer. He nods his head and raises his cigarette to me. Maybe Jake is right. Maybe self-care is an unbeautifulthing. Maybe it’s about facing the most difficult problems in life head on, and then needing to take deliberate breaks from living to do basic things. True self-care is not about salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life I don’t need to regularly escape from which often entails doing the things I least want to do.

I take another hit and draw smoke into my lungs. When I shut my eyes, I envision myself sitting on the bench. The nicotine rush masks my shooting pulses of anxiety and I look completely at peace. I think about how I feel when I smoke- it’s a very hard question to answer. Smoking has become part of my life. In a sense, it is like asking how I feel to live.

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