You can’t compare the practice of self-care to cats. At least, not according to Mara Wilson.
“Cats are weird, alien creatures, and I’m surrounded by them as we speak,” she said.
Instead, the actor/storyteller/playwright/author/voice-over actor/performer would equate self-care to taking care of dogs — or even small children.
“Self-care isn’t about spoiling yourself,” she said, “It’s about disciplining yourself. It’s like how you need to train dogs. You do it out of love. If they make mistakes, you don’t hate them forever — you love them.”
Structure and discipline are two main components of self-care for Wilson. It’s about breaking down bigger anxieties into more manageable quantities, as opposed to the popularized notion of self-care: pampering.
It’s Okay to be a Nervous Person
Wilson, 31, self-diagnosed her mental health issues at the age of 12 — and they were confirmed soon after by a doctor. She has obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression. Due to her platform, she has become a vocal advocate for others in similar situations by showing up and being honest.
“I used to apologize for being nervous because I thought it made you weak,” she said. “I once had a teacher in college ask me how a presentation went, and I said that it made me nervous. She smiled and nodded and said: ‘Own yourself as a nervous person.’”
That piece of advice clicked for Wilson, and she began to understand and accept her vulnerabilities.
“Owning your vulnerability is a much stronger place to be,” Wilson said.
Additionally, as a performer, she’s had to find the line between being open and honest with your audience and sharing too much. Many comedians today have jokes about their anxiety, depression or other mental illnesses — a favorite comedian of Wilson’s is Aparna Nancherla, who has performed many sets relating to these issues.
“A lot of people are very unfiltered when they perform, and I’m open as well,” she said, “but I know it’s better for my mental health to process and filter things for myself first.”
Embracing vulnerability and accepting who you are doesn’t mean you’ll find immediate or infinite success. In fact, Wilson said she believes her anxiety has prevented her from writing all the projects she’d like to.
“You’re going to have good days and bad days,” she said. “And if there are things you’re not ready to share with the world, that’s okay.”
Social Media: More Problems, but more Connections
Wilson has observed how the discussion around mental health has changed in the last couple of decades while learning how to unite her mental illnesses with her personality and platform.
“If you talked about this in the ‘90s, people would approach you with an ‘oh, poor you’ attitude,” she said. “In the past five years or so, I’ve seen a lot more empathy out there, especially when reacting to how tabloids or Twitter treat celebrities with [addiction] issues.”
Even though people are more open about their mental health today, despite some lingering stigmas, the development of the internet and social media have actually contributed to overall stresses; in Wilson’s words, the internet has “obviously caused more problems,” but people are able to make connections and reach out to others because of it, too.
A Diagnosis isn’t Damning
If people are considering seeking help for potential mental illnesses, Wilson is an advocate for low-cost, affordable therapy, but also for people to find the right therapist for them.
“Find a therapist that you can pay for and who gets you,” said Wilson. “Not everybody is going to be a good fit, but there are all kinds of therapists who even specialize [in treating] people of different backgrounds, religions, sexualities.”
While she was able to find a diagnosis and get help early, she did a great deal of work on her own and later than when she would have preferred. There was more stigma around discussing mental health in the past, she recognizes, but wishes the adults in her life did more.
“People were worried that a diagnosis for me as a child would be damning,” said Wilson. “I wish that people would’ve done what I couldn’t in order to help me. Being in therapy would have helped me duel, face, and learn from my issues much sooner.” Mara Wilson faced at an early age what many of us go through with mental health issues — inertia and incentive against taking proactive measures.
“A lot of people don’t want to believe there’s anything wrong with their kids or students, or they feel it’s going to reflect poorly on them as a parent, or sibling, or teacher,” she said, “but it won’t. You also can’t just send people to therapy and demand that they get better on their own. It’ll take changes at home to make everyone better off.”
Your Mind Needs Check-Ups, Too
After dealing with the pressures of a career in entertainment at a young age, and the loss of her mother when Wilson was 9 years old, she can tell what her symptoms are.
In her early years of high school, she’d alternate between making scenes and hoping someone would notice, and withdrawing into herself and internalizing her issues.
“It’s important to know when, and how, to ask for help,” said Wilson. “Sometimes people don’t ask for help because they don’t want to be a bother. Well, people have died of not wanting to be a bother.”
Instead of resisting help, Wilson now knows how to better maintain her mental illnesses and what to look out for — just as with physical injuries.
“I’ve sprained my ankles a lot of times,” she said. “They’re weak. And if something happens to them, I know I might need to put a brace on, and that I won’t be able to do as much as I want to for a couple of days.”
“Taking care of your mental health is kind of like that,” Wilson continued. “You know that you have this issue, so you need to be careful and watch out for it. Because of that knowledge, I’m more prepared to deal with it than people who haven’t faced their facts.”
Mara Wilson, best known for her childhood roles in Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda, is a writer and actor living in Los Angeles. Mara was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder at an early age and has written extensively about her experience, most notably in her memoir Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, available from Penguin Random House. Mara is actively involved in mental health awareness initiatives and has lent her voice to organizations such as Project UROK and Okay to Say. She continues to speak openly about her own mental health and challenge stigma as a public figure.
Mara also publishes a newsletter of her writing with Substack, ‘Shan’t We Call the Vicar?’ which can be found at mara.substack.com.
Follow her on Twitter at @MaraWilson.