Self Care When You Can’t Get Dressed

I have many days when I can’t get dressed.

For me, it’s because of my chronic illnesses, but it can happen for all sorts of reasons – depression, poor mental health, fatigue, situational crises, physical pain, or even just having no motivation. When this happens, it’s incredibly hard to get out of bed, put some clothes on, and go about my day as normal. Everything feels too overwhelming.

On these days, I usually end up throwing self care completely out of the window, and I end up feeling even worse for having wasted a day. I get stuck thinking that if I can’t get dressed, then what’s the point of doing anything? It feels like the first step in the morning, and if I don’t manage it, then the whole day is a write-off.

But recently, I’ve been trying to come up with a different way of dealing with it. For me, my main issue is chronic fatigue, which leaves me too exhausted to get clothes on myself. I have carers to help me, but sometimes even with them it is simply too much energy. If I pushed myself to get dressed, I’d spend the next few days flat on my face in bed, unable to move.

But I didn’t like that I was spending so much time not doing anything when it felt like I had some energy, but not enough to get dressed.

So I started skipping the getting-dressed step.

Now, when I wake up and feel exhausted and in pain and sick and fed up of everything, I say to myself, okay, let’s not get dressed today. Let’s do smaller, easier things that will make me feel good about myself. But then I got stuck on what those things were. 

When I looked up self care tips online, I just got frustrated, because most of them are inaccessible to me (I can’t just ‘go for a walk’ in a pandemic, and I’m still waiting to purchase a wheelchair that would let me leave the house alone), and there’s only so many breathing exercises I can do before I’m going to drive myself mad.

So I decided to make my own list. I started small, and I’m still using trial-and-error to figure a lot of these out, but I thought I’d share some with you, in case you too struggle to know what to do on days where everything feels like too much. Although I will note – if you are nondisabled (i.e. not physically disabled, mentally ill, neurodivergent, etc.), these steps will probably seem really obvious and easy to you. But trust me, to those of us who struggle with this, these things can turn a day around completely.

Washing Hands and Face

Yes, this seems simple and obvious, but I was actually skipping this step for ages because I didn’t think it was important enough. I didn’t want to waste precious energy on something I don’t strictly need to do.

I underestimated the power of cold water.

Splashing my face and hands with cold water, even on days I’m not well enough to have a full wash, helps me wake up and feel ready for the day. It literally stops my eyes from feeling so heavy (if you have chronic fatigue, you’ll know exactly what I mean). It’s been something magical for me since trying it, though it won’t work for everyone. A lot of this is trial and error, so if this doesn’t work for you, drop it. But for me, it’s become the first thing I do in the morning.

If I’m not feeling up to getting out of bed, my carer will bring me a damp flannel and a towel from the bathroom, so I can do it first thing, when my brain is telling me that it doesn’t want to do anything other than curl back under the covers. Wet wipes kept by the bed also work. 

This is the first step to me convincing my brain that just because we have physical limits we can’t push through doesn’t mean we can’t do anything.

Getting out of bed

Yes, I know this is tough. Trust me, I know – but guess what? You don’t have to get dressed once you’re out of bed. You can literally just stride (or wobble, in my case) straight to the sofa in your pyjamas and burrow under another pile of blankets. That’s what I do.

Something about being out of the bedroom makes all the difference to me mentally. Different surroundings during the day also help with sleep hygiene, if you are someone who struggles with insomnia like me.

As an add-on to the above, I make myself a place outside of bed that becomes my daytime nest. I surround myself with my favourite things – books, my laptop, pictures, blankets, furniture – and curl up somewhere cosy with my electric blanket and a hot drink. That way, it isn’t so different to being out of bed, but it feels a million times better, and I can convince my brain that the day has now started.

Organisation

I like to keep track of what I’m doing, just to break up the day and stop time from feeling so endless. I like being able to look at a list of things I managed at the end of the day – and yes, that includes things like eating, preparing food, and drinking water! Productivity isn’t the key here, because we don’t need to be productive to have value, especially on bad days. Instead, I keep track of my days so I can look back and see what I was up to over the past few weeks and months. It’s also a handy way of keeping track of symptoms.

There are several ways to keep track of tasks: to-do lists, bullet journalling, writing notes on your phone – whatever works for you! Personally, I started a bullet journal in 2020 and I have fallen in love with it. I plan all my book ideas and write out my character descriptions as well as tracking how many words I write, how I’m feeling each day, how much energy I have and what I manage to get done. 

I also keep a filofax for managing appointments and remembering what day of the week it is – I completely lose track without it! Long hours spent at home when you’re housebound make the days all blur into one.

Routine

This is another one that may seem obvious, but I have found it vital to have a day-to-day routine to stick to, even on days when I’m unable to get dressed or out of bed. It’s flexible enough to change based on how much energy I have or how much pain I’m in, and it’s helped me feel a lot better about myself and my life to have something regular to stick to each day.

Finding a routine that worked for me was another case of trial and error, and I’m still tweaking it. I started by making a list of the things that are very important to me: getting out of bed if possible, eating at regular times of the day, setting alarms for my medication and taking it at the same time each day, etc. I also learned which times of day are my most productive and try to work any important tasks into those hours.

For me, the morning is definitely when I’m at my best. The hours of 8-11am are when I can get the most done, so I try and write, or organise appointments, or do usual life admin, in this window when I can. Then the afternoon is mine to rest and recover as I need to.

Of course, there are days when I can’t stick to my routine at all, and I’m too unwell to get out of bed. On those days, I prop myself up on lots of pillows and let myself rest until I’m well enough to start again. I do not push through and get up anyway if I don’t feel up to it – this only leads to disaster when living with an illness like ME.

Environment

Lastly, I want to talk about something I’ve only recently realised the importance of for me, and that is the area that I live and work. During the pandemic, everyone has had a taste of what it’s like to be stuck at home all the time, but I’ve been housebound a lot longer than that and thought I’d be able to cope.

I have coped, but it’s been hard on my mental health. I didn’t realise how important the occasional trip to a cafe was for me. It’s become even more difficult in the winter, as I can’t go outside to the country where it is safe due to the weather, which means I have literally been shut away in my flat for months.

Because I spend so much time inside, I decided to focus on making it a really nice environment to be in. I don’t mean big changes like furniture or decor – those are expensive! – but small things like putting up photos I love, or sticking post-it notes everywhere with little quotes and reminders of things I love, or making sure I have a cosy corner with a nest of blankets to curl up in every day.

I also try to hit different senses, not just sight – I light scented candles, I make sure to keep the lights on even if it isn’t dark outside to keep it bright, I leave around textured blankets to stroke and I wear comfy, fluffy clothes. I also have room spray that keeps things smelling fresh, and watering my plants gives me a nice sense of responsibility. (Companionship too, yes I do talk to them).

You don’t have to spend a lot of money on making an environment nice – even just collecting some of your favourite objects from around the house and grouping them together in the place you spend the most time can make a big difference.

So those are a few things that I do to keep me sane when I’m stuck at home so much and too unwell to manage anything productive (again: productivity does not define our worth). Sometimes, if I follow these steps in the morning, then later in the day I do feel well enough to get dressed and manage to get a little bit done, but it depends entirely on the day. I do find that sticking to this routine keeps my mental health on track while also taking care of my physical health, which is always a fine balance. But remember: even on the days where everything feels impossible and all you managed to accomplish was living through it, then that is an achievement in itself and your life is valuable. Never forget that.