By Leah Harris
“Like many survivors, I can isolate myself while engaging in the stereotypes of self-care. I may look brave or even enlightened as I take up yoga or running, write glowing reviews of books on self-acceptance, and channel my emotions into elaborate art projects and self-revealing blog posts. This form of self-care can feel less like liberation and more like solitary confinement. Sometimes what I actually need is someone to show up at my house with take-out, sit there while I pick at my food, stay with me until I’m falling asleep sitting up on the couch, and then send me to bed and tuck the blankets around me. Occasionally that happens without my asking. And sometimes I have to bravely reach out and alert someone that I need to talk, or cry, or most of all just not be alone. There are times when not insisting on taking care of myself is the most radical form of self-care I can practice.” — Self as Other: Reflections on Self-Care *
As a trauma survivor growing up in various adolescent mental health systems, I learned that my current coping skills (self-injury, suicidal behavior, illicit drug use) were unacceptable, but not given any ideas as to what to replace them with. No one seemed to want to know much about the early childhood traumas that were driving these behaviors. Instead, I collected an assortment of diagnoses. I was told that I would be forever dependent on mediated relationships with professionals, and an ever-changing combination of pills. The message was that my troubles were chemical in nature and largely beyond my control. Care would always be something I would have to accept from others, not to perform for myself.
It took many years for me to overthrow that painful legacy, and come to learn that I could take responsibility for my own well-being. After exiting the mental health system at 25, I attempted to “prove my worth” through academic achievement, overwork, and nonstop activism. For a while, that was enough. But in my late twenties, I was headed for a heavy dose of burnout. I couldn’t get out of bed. I was wracked with physical pain and I was deeply depressed. I felt myself heading into a crisis. My coping strategies, while more socially acceptable, were no longer working.
In the depths of my despair, I picked up an audiobook by Thich Nhat Hahn called Creating True Peace. That was what got me onto a path of mindfulness. I threw myself into it, signing up for every retreat and every class. I was on a mission to heal myself, reading every book I could find about meditation and holistic health. I signed up for acupuncture, because thankfully I had insurance and it would cover it. I took my acupuncturist’s advice and changed my diet to be in accordance with my blood type. I was doing all my wellness practices. And I sometimes felt guilty and self-indulgent for needing so very much self-care just to function.
Then I had a baby, and soon thereafter became a single parent. I tried my best to keep up with my self care, but it went out the window when I was faced with the demands of raising a baby all alone, as well as being on the verge of losing my house. Self care became a luxury that I could in no way afford. I was exhorted in books to “meditate for 5 minutes,” but even that felt out of my reach. I had no family nearby to help, and my friends were all themselves single parents just struggling to get through each day. Again, crisis loomed.
I instinctively knew that what I needed was not another self-care practice, but another person. I somehow found the energy to reach out to a friend. She came right over to my house and asked me what I needed in that moment. It was such a relief, to have some practical help, someone in my corner. I fell into the comfort of her supportive presence. She helped me to tend to my immediate needs for sleep and help with childcare, and I was able to move past the crushing emotional distress into a place of being able to function again, parent my kid, and hang on to our home.
Today, the “balance” that we are all supposed to achieve still eludes me. Sometimes I just can’t adjust to what I see in the world around me, no matter what I do. I can’t meditate or chant away the stories that people email to me every day, stories of oppression in systems, or being isolated with their misery and shame. I have come to realize that the best form of self-care for me is to engage in trying to change the way things are. I show up for my young son and give him the love and nurturance he needs. I show up to support the other people in my life, and try to reach out when I am struggling. But I don’t feel at all guilty anymore for sometimes taking less than stellar care of myself. And that feels liberating. I can allow myself to be imperfect.
“The importance of prioritizing reciprocal care becomes even clearer when we understand that our stresses and traumas are a common plight and not individual pathologies. As human animals, we are living in environments that cause emotional and physiological incoherence. While we may not be able to eradicate the systems that imprison us immediately, we stand a far better chance if we don’t get tricked into thinking our struggles or the solutions to them are individual. The more ways we find to act in honesty with each other, whether in sorrow or in excitement, the stronger and more resilient we become—individually and collectively.” –Self as Other: Reflections on Self-Care
The problem with both the illness and the wellness paradigms are that they are deeply rooted in individualism. We learn that the “disease” is rooted in the individual, and the individual is the one who needs to figure out how to function in society. While all along the status quo changes little.
In America, illness and wellness are almost always depoliticized and decontextualized. Depression ceases to be an understandable reaction to our dehumanizing way of life, and instead becomes a brain disease. People of privilege feel guilty for being depressed when they “have it all,” but miss the point that regardless of privilege, none of us are immune to the distress caused by our increasingly isolated and self-centered modes of being. None of us are immune to crushing hopelessness. We ruthlessly hold ourselves to unrealistic expectations to “perform” in a competitive and often soul-crushing world, and sometimes we fail. I believe this is why people who were said to have “had it all” kill themselves in alarming numbers.
In this society, we have a dichotomized response to distress. Suck it up and adjust to what is, or be put somewhere where you will be made to adjust. It is possible to be so focused on individual illness and wellness that we forget the equally important need to work for collective wellness and social justice. In an ideal world, we are taking care of one other, and working together to change the way things are.
For several years, I have been part of a single mothers’ support listserv. This has nothing to do with “mental health,” though many of the moms, myself included, have struggled with deep distress at times. It has to do with reciprocal care. We do everything from sharing words of encouragement in tough times; to sharing childcare; to having clothing swaps; to providing information and community resources; to having community potlucks; to organizing meals during illness or tragedy; to giving dating advice; to lending each other suits for job interviews; to accompanying one another to stressful court hearings; to organizing Moms’ Nights Out (MNOs). We are the village, created out of a common need. This kind of network costs no money, and it’s the hope of what care can truly be.
A liberating notion of care would follow from the understanding that most of us need other people. We need truly safe relationships in our everyday lives where we can be vulnerable and real, and let the masks of “keeping it together” fall away. A redefined notion of care would presuppose that we as individuals are all deeply interconnected. The “burden of healing” would be spread around, rather than placed squarely on each of our individual shoulders. Together, we are stronger than alone.
Survivors have designed hearing voices networks by and for people who struggle to cope with voices and visions, as well as peer support groups for people struggling with suicide and trauma. These are hugely important. But I am envisioning much broader networks of community support than what we currently have now. Student networks on campuses could be a safe place to share resources, skills, and support, and to advocate together to improve the availability of support for all students on campus. Teachers could form support networks to deal with the challenges of being educators in public systems with dwindling resources, and find ways together to meet their own needs, as well as the needs of the children and families they work with. Neighbors could form networks to provide emotional support to one another, while also addressing their practical community issues. All it takes is a few people who want to break down isolation, loneliness, despair, and overwhelm to create openings for mutual aid, mutual support, and culture change. I know there are many pockets of communities like this already scattered around the country, but in so many other places, folks continue to struggle in isolation.
I want people everywhere to have access to the kind of social support and care that doesn’t require a diagnosis or insurance billing code or involve scheduling an appointment six weeks from now. If we knew how much power we, everyday people, had to care with each other, I believe that many of these oppressive systems that are designed to care for us would be unnecessary. We wouldn’t have to resort to them anymore, because we would have collaborated with others to meet our collective and individual needs.
For too long we as a society have outsourced emotional and social care, and it has largely been a disaster. Everyone admits the systems are broken. Our current way of life is not sustainable. It’s time to seriously re-imagine what care means. The future is in our hands.
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* Thanks to Agustina Vidal of The Icarus Project for getting me thinking about this subject of “self-care.”
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More posts by Leah Harris on Beyond Meds