self-care (and other buzzwords that eventually mean nothing)

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve ever learned about self-care, is that there is no time for it. You’ve got to steal time for it.

The first time I heard the phrase “self-care,” I was in college. I had the honor of living in a beloved intentional housing community of fellow students who were working toward social justice. We spent a lot of our time showing up at protests, showing up in classes, showing up for each other, showing up for house meetings, etc. All while trying to succeed in a hostile academic environment, rife with racial micro aggressions and class(ed) privileges galore. It is no coincidence that I learned about self-care here. Without it, many of us may not have survived.

After hearing the phrase for the first time, it stuck to me. I began hearing it everywhere. It was being tossed around like this thing that everyone (except me) had a shared definition of. I even started saying it, knowing damn well I had very few context clues to actually understand what it meant. At the time, I was also more ‘know-it-all’ than ‘curious’, so I didn’t do too much asking around about it.

I started off undergrad as a pre-med student (LOL!). I’d received high grades in Science in High School so I thought my passion for taking care of others, my determination to get my immediate family out of a system of poverty, and a few medical-focused programs for high school students back home would make me the perfect candidate for pre-med studies.

I failed miserably. Several times. Literally. I failed quizzes. I failed tests. I even failed a class that I took as pass/fail (just realized that was still tender to me when I wrote that, ouch!). I was distracted. I didn’t know my own learning style. I was not prepared to do the level of math nor science that was expected of me. I did not know how to study. I was afraid of ever-looming crises happening back home that I was not present to fix. I was also partying for the first time—I remember coming back to my room drunk one night before a chemistry test (that I had given up studying for) and stepping on something to jump up on my too-high extra long twin bed. The next morning when I awoke from my sleep having snoozed my alarm twice, I gasped out of my dream, threw on any old thing, pulled on my jacket and ran all the way to the lecture hall for my exam. It was not until I sat down in my seat and took my coat off  (I was warm from all that cross-campus hangover/still drunk running), that I realized I had stepped on a banana the night before and it had been smashed onto the back of my jacket leaving a VERY SUSPECT, very noticeable stain on the back of my black jacket. Mortified is a word I am very familiar with.

Anyhow, your girl was on a downward spiral, but it was, like, a fun water slide with clear liquor instead of water so…shrug.

I’d ran all the way across campus to fail this test, just like I had failed the others. I’d been buying myself clothes online whenever I got the exam results back, to make myself feel better. I was very fly when I failed. I realized (not that long ago, actually) that I was trying to balance what was quickly becoming low self-esteem.

I don’t want to meddle too much with the past by over-analyzing decisions I made just to talk about how I came to know self-care, so I’ll just tie it together here: buying myself nice things was my way of taking care of myself, but it didn’t last. I needed other things (from myself) to take real care of myself. In order to find out what these things were, I had to do the work of sitting with myself. And connecting.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember the first time that I heard myself telling myself what I needed. I can say, though, that once I focused on what I heard myself saying I needed, it was like I was attuned to a different level of activity happening in the world. I learned that an integral part of taking care of myself, was listening for what care I actually needed. (Isn’t that hella basic?! Like, duh.) However, listening requires being quiet. Listening requires slowing down. Listening requires sensing and feeling.

Sensing and feeling are perhaps the most difficult things I have ever worked to do. Having been at points in my life where I can’t taste my food, feel my own feet on the ground underneath me, or even acknowledge my chronic pain until it wares on other parts of my body to wipe me out, I didn’t have much practice with knowing what my body was feeling or giving it what it needed.

The most basic utter I always return to when things are too noisy, are my hunger and my need to use the bathroom. If I know when I need to eat or make my way to the toilet, then I can, at the very least, hear these needs and take care of myself by feeding myself or finding a place to excrete some waste.

I struggle with self-care every single day. For the past three weeks (I can’t believe it’s been that long), I’ve been struggling with a nasty pressure headache that trolls me every damn day. Sometimes it menaces and takes on the shape of a knot at the top of my head. My least favorite is when it feels like a baton is emerging right through the middle of my brain, just wedging itself in no particular direction. My memory goes too. Prior to the headache, I’d been multi-tasking with too much on my plate and found myself typing out a very important email about something I forgot right in the middle of doing it. Once I remembered what it was about, I forgot the name of the person it was to—even though they are a very close friend.

Even though my body is very loud about the things that I need, sometimes I’m still not being attentive enough to listen. Or I’m not valuing myself enough in the moment to take (literally take/steal/borrow/commandeer) the time that is necessary to address my need through self-care. Because there is never time for self-care. This is also something that was a big part of the mysterious puzzle of self-care that no one mentioned while they were so busy doing it—you have to steal time to make it happen because there are so many factors that prohibit us from doing it.

In fact, a huge part of my self-care process includes giving myself permission to exist outside of an inhumane pace that doesn’t work for me (‘cause I’m human and shit). I need time to look at my (emotional/spiritual/physical) reserves and pore over/ pour into them so that I have room for clarity and movement. I need time to notice what it is that is draining me so that I can stop it. When I am overwhelmed and undersupported, I need time to lay down and feel my back on the ground, to see my belly raising up and down with breath I create to keep myself alive. I need time to remember that I am a human being, living in a rat-race moment, that I have a choice to participate in or say, “nah, this shit is not for me (ever, right now, etc.).”

Without stealing this time for self-care, I am suffering. I have experienced enough spiraling to know that in times of deep depression and heightened anxiety I need quick, simple, easy (simple and easy ain’t the same at all) access to self-care. It’s like I’m hella dehydrated and I can’t move, so I need a really long bendy straw to reach me wherever I’m at so that I can sip a little bit of water at a time from my static position of not being able to move.*

*THIS IS NOT EASY. I eventually had access to enough emotional resting places and eventually enough emotional support (shout out to somatic therapy, for real) to build up reserves for times of crisis to be able to avoid spinning out every single time I experienced anxiety or depression. This took money, this took time I didn’t have, this took the help of others, this took access to transportation and language.

Which leads me to my next point about riding the self-care horse. If I have to have the right riding outfit, the strength to pull myself up onto the damn thing, the know-how to tell it where I need it to go and how to make it listen to me, then the likelihood that I’m even making my way toward the stables is very low. (does that make sense?)

I’m trying to say that self-care has to be accessible. Self-care should not be a privilege. Self-care should not be a phenomenon among the likes of coconut water, kale and hot yoga. Things that have always been good for you but are kept out of reach, appropriated, made costly—abstracted, tabooed and associated with whiteness. Emotional well-being is not a white privilege. 

Here are things I ask myself when I’m doing self-care: When is the last time I drank water? When is the last time I ate? When is the last time I moved my body in a way that felt good? Do I have a name/connection to what I am experiencing? Is the thing I need accessible to me right now? If not, how soon can I give it to myself? And what can I do while I wait to access this thing I need?

Unfortunately, it’s a goddamn privilege to say that if I have nothing else, I have my breath (Eric Garner). To say that I can give myself water (Flint, Standing Rock). To say that I can move my body in a way that feels good (people confined by prisons, jails, state control).

I need self-care to survive in this world. In this time. It gives me possibility in an impossible place. It makes it possible for me to be a better ally, to take care of others in a way that actually suits their needs (because I’ve practiced listening/being attentive), to show up with more of myself, and to be flexible and agile.

One time Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

 Even though I wasn’t there (and probably wasn’t even born yet), I say from my place in my struggle, "damn right!".