I’ll Take Care of You

On the sad seduction of “treating myself” during a crisis

Here is some useless shit I’ve bought myself since my dad had a stroke six weeks ago: Two pedicures, $30 each. Two massages, one barebones ($55), the other bougie ($115). Three pairs of nice $25 underwear, mostly for no reason but also because I have zero time to do laundry. Three blowouts, ranging from $45 to $60, one of which was irrationally booked during a torrential rainstorm. A $32 tub of bath salt scrub, which I have only used once because it stings my hangnails. Maybe $75 worth of Bobbi Brown makeup, which amounted to one lipstick and one bronzer. A $500 wrap dress. A $25 pair of sexy thigh-highs. A $48 rare ribeye steak, with garlic spinach and extra bernaise sauce a la carte, plus a glass of wine, all of which I consumed alone while perched at the bar of a fancy steakhouse during happy hour. (Total bill: $112.) At least five Ubers costing more than $30. One session with a cleaning lady, $100. One giant load of laundry sent out and delivered back to me, $55. Two daily garage bills, $29 each, from when I decided to drive to work in my dad’s car just because I felt like it.

Under normal circumstances, I rarely get pedicures, I clean my own house, I go to the laundromat, I take the subway. I tend to shop at H&M and Buffalo Exchange for most of my clothes. I often leave the house bare-faced. I pride myself on never having really understood the concept of “retail therapy.”

But since Thanksgiving weekend, my spending habits have gone through the roof along with my anxiety levels. That Saturday, my 82-year-old father had a serious stroke affecting the right side of his body; since my mother died in 2006 and my half-siblings live out of town, I became the person responsible for him. Smack in the middle of this scrum of hospital-going and stress-crying and cat-feeding and bill-paying, my partner Aaron (on whom I’d normally be leaning) got four long-planned nose and throat surgeries. He left the hospital a swollen, druggy mess leaking viscera from his face, and would remain that way for the better part of two weeks. So between conversations with physical therapists and insurance agents, I was also crushing up his Percocets in applesauce and changing gauze on his nose. And unlike my father, Aaron was actively in pain, which made him touchy and impatient.

My life became a blur of errands and chores and emotional breakdowns. As a woman nursing two men back to health, I felt stuffed into an archaic gender role for which I had little aptitude. It was getting to me.

And so I began to Treat Myself. Between retrieving my dad’s mail and my man’s pills, I ducked into swanky bars and flirtatiously asked the bartender about new cocktails. Barely able to squeeze in shower time, I instead dropped everything and went to Drybar, where for a precious 45 minutes, a stranger complimented my curls, caressed my head, enveloped me in the white noise of a blow dryer, and transformed my frizzy top knot into a fall of fragrant, golden silk. One night before a holiday party, overwhelmed by the pile of dirty clothes in my room, I walked into a Diane von Furstenberg store and announced I wanted to buy my first DVF dress. An obsequious saleswoman wound up drowning me in gorgeous garments, like I was Vivian on Rodeo Drive, kvelling when one of her offerings achieved a particularly fetching silhouette. I bought the dress; she gave me a hug.

I’ve been craving not only these luxurious items but human kindness, too. Not the pitying kindness one normally gets during a family crisis, but the bland, deferential kindness that makes me feel calmer and wealthier than I really am. I’m painfully aware of the emotional labor expended by my grinning stylist or store clerk; as a waitress, I absorbed my customers’ anger and joy whether I wanted to or not. Now I find myself initiating that osmosis. I deserve it, I think. I’ve been feeling isolated and overworked and failed by bigger institutions, and I can offset those feelings by paying people to be nice to me. In the midst of my crash course in caretaking, they all seem to wheedle, Drake-like: “I’ll take care of you.”

A few weeks after the stroke, once the sticker shock of my credit card bills set in, I realized I had succumbed to the phenomenon of “self-care.” As Ester Bloom recently pointed out in the Atlantic, self-care in 2015 America doesn’t mean curling up with a book or sleeping more or going to the doctor—it means spending money on a series of “indulgent yet somehow necessary” products that serve as physical and psychic respites from our hectic lives. Like caretaking, this behavior is gendered; I’ve simply swapped out one female trope for another.

I recognize that I’m lucky—even though I can’t really afford this stuff, a well-paid job has made my coping mechanism a short-term setback rather than a financial catastrophe. But retail therapy cuts across class lines. One in three stressed-out Americans reaches for shopping to calm her worries. The U.S. economy stays afloat because we blow money on stuff we don’t need. As Linda Tirado memorably wrote in 2013, poor people, who often deal with my kind of acute stress on a chronic basis, spend money on ephemeral delights because they refuse to live “a bleak life devoid of small pleasures.” No matter who you are, it’s easy to believe the seductive, late-capitalist promise that if you’re willing to part with a few dollars, even if you really shouldn’t, you can always pretend, for a brief moment, that you have an easier life than you do.

Just a few weeks later, things are marginally better—Aaron is no longer bedridden, my dad is closer to being back home—so the “me” spending has calmed down. I’m indulging in cheaper distractions like novels, Netflix marathons, and harmless crushes. But I still catch myself playing the part of a Woman Of Leisure: lingering in the shower, chatting up waitresses, dressing up for no apparent reason. I’ll still feign a casualness that telegraphs to the Sephora clerk that oh yeah, nbd, I buy $36 lip glosses all the time, even if I won’t make it further than the sample counter. Anything to signal to her that I’m not a slave to my obligations, that I do know how to balance it all. It’s all bullshit, and I know it, and she knows it, but for those two minutes, she smiles and does her job while I gratefully tune out my pain.

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