My Self Care is Not Your Damn Business

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I’ve been pissed off this week. Pissed off to the point of being incapable of doing my normal work and becoming so anxious and twitchy that I needed to call on some mindfulness skills that have gotten pretty rusty. I want you all to know this because I want you to know the consequences of trendy, uninformed, bullshit thinkpieces and their kin, the edgy Facebook status.

This week I just can’t seem to get away from people making commentary on others’ self care routines. Unsurprisingly, most of it hinges on “Tumblr self care,” that holy grail of joke fodder that is in large part created and consumed by teenagers and young adults. I want to make a note of that, because it’s important to realize that Tumblr is in large part young people struggling to understand how they exist responsibly in the world. It’s especially a lot of outcasts, introverts, and mentally ill folks who are young and trying to understand how to deal with the pain they feel while also maintaining relationships and contributing to the world.

So first and foremost, can we cut Tumblr a bit of slack? We all struggled with this same kind of thing when we were younger, so stop shitting all over today’s young people because they happen to be sorting it out online instead of in their basement. The world isn’t ending because young people are trying to figure things out.

But second, the messages that we are sending to these young people in response to their (honestly not that big of a deal) posts about self care are completely toxic. I want to start by giving you an idea of the types of messages that most people with mental illness hear on a regular basis. It’s incredibly common in the U.S. at least for the message “you are what you accomplish” to get ingrained at a pretty early age. Where I grew up, I was also often sent the message that we don’t talk about our feelings very much, we deal with them, and we move on. Once you commit to something you DO NOT back out of it or you’re a bad and flakey person. You don’t cause drama or act negatively, because no one wants to be around a drama queen and you’ll end up with no friends. Don’t be selfish, give more to other people than yourself, your life isn’t so bad, other people have it worse, why are you upset there’s nothing to be upset about get over it, I bet if you just exercised and ate healthy you’d feel fine, blahblahblah. No one is living their life in some sort of uncertainty about whether their friends like them flaking out or whether it feels really great to not be able to get out of bed. The messages of guilt and shame around emotions and mental illness start early and come often.

Unsurprisingly, people with mental illnesses also tend to be people with hyperactive senses of guilt and shame anyway. There are a few personality disorders out there that don’t have those as symptoms, but nearly every other mental illness includes guilt, shame, or self-hatred as some element of its symptoms. SO. Can we all please start from the understanding that there really isn’t an epidemic of depressed and anxious people parading around oblivious to the way their actions affect others, totally ok with the fact that they can’t deal with life? There MAY be the usual packs of teens and young adults who are still figuring out the ways their actions affect others, or how to find some balance in their lives, but that has to do with being 14-18, not with having a mental illness.

So with all of that history of serious guilt and stigma and internalized bias I get real pissed off when I see stuff like this:

“Seriously, nothing is worse than the writing and the ~comic strips about mental illness~ and the pandering videos which tell us that people with anxiety are these fragile butterflies who must be catered to at every turn. ‘Just take care of yourself,’ this rhetoric says. ‘Practice self-care! Take a bath! Cancel your plans! Don’t explain yourself! If your friends can’t give you space and be totally understanding, that means they’re not your friends!!! They’re toxic! GET THEM OUT OF YOUR LIFE. You have no obligation to keep around Toxic People. If you need to throw your phone into a river and spend two weeks locked in your room eating Ding Dongs, that’s what you need!! :3′”

There are approximately a billion things wrong with this paragraph, so I’m going to start with the most obvious one: this person doesn’t link to any evidence that these people or this advice exists. What I see when I go on Tumblr is a lot of people reminding each other that they’re valuable, that emotions aren’t bad, that it’s important to eat and sleep well, notes about taking your meds or exercising, and a few about the fact that it’s important to choose your friends carefully because some people will leave you feeling worse than you started. Some are little things, like goals to drink water or buy something that you particularly enjoy, or suggestions to try a coloring book or a bath. Some of them are about setting reasonable boundaries, and reminding people that they should take care of themselves IN ADDITION TO OTHER PEOPLE. And sometimes it’s just little reminders that things will be ok.

You know what I see nowhere? Ignore your friends and don’t tell them what’s up. You’re better off alone. I see the exact opposite of that. I see people trying to connect with each other. So the first issue I have is that this is responding to a problem that doesn’t exist. I also fail to see how people writing or taking a bath hurts ANYONE. The way people seem to equate “doing things for yourself” with “being selfish” is a serious problem and contributes to the ongoing struggle many people have with taking any time or resources for themselves. As you can see in many of the linked examples, people talk repeatedly about having a hard time with giving themselves time and care. That’s WHY the dialogue at the moment is so one-sided. We don’t need any more reminders that we should think of other people too. Those are already everywhere (as discussed above). So these messages exist to combat the current climate, and so don’t feel the need to pussy foot around things or talk about how you also need to take care of other people. People who only look at messages like “it’s ok to cut someone out of your life if you need to,” are ignoring all the messages that say “only bad people give up on their friends.” Do you see the fear in this article? It’s completely tinged with the terror that all the ways of dealing with mental illness are bad and wrong. We don’t need more of that. We don’t need more thinkpieces telling us that we’d better watch out or our mental illness will sneak up and make us jerks (and it will be our own fault).

Most of us have already had friends disappear on us, or been told we’re selfish and self-absorbed, or that we’re manipulative and abusive, even when we’re trying so hard to be ok. We don’t need more reminders to watch our backs, or keep from getting too selfish in our self care.

And beyond the people guilting us for just engaging in self care, I’ve seen the start of battles between people who like different types of self care. In particular, I see a lot of people who prefer more “active” or “accomplishment” type forms of self care looking down on self care that’s a little more basic. Most people with a mental illness know that they should get out of bed, take a shower, eat well, exercise, clean their apartment, call their friends, etc. That’s why there’s so much effort to validate the other kinds of self care: it’s ok to hide under the blankets sometimes. It’s ok to wear pajamas to go see your friends. It’s ok to spend a little extra on that latte if it means you’ll have the energy and emotional wherewithal to get to work today. None of this says “you should probably always do these things because they’re really productive.” It says they’re ok to do sometimes.

As someone who really does thrive on self care that is very sensory and very basic (footie pajamas, a mocha, my cat, a chewy necklace), I can guarantee that I don’t do these things to replace my basic life skills, nor do I use them to focus on myself over other people. I often end up feeling childish and incompetent. I need reminders from my friends that I’m not hurting anyone, and that there’s nothing inherently great about looking dignified. I certainly don’t need someone to tell me that I’m trite and my mental illness isn’t “real” or “gritty” enough because I use “cute” coping skills. I’ll use whatever damn well makes me feel better, even if it’s riding a unicycle while playing the kazoo. I don’t care how it looks, and the reality of mental illness is that when it hurts that bad you don’t care if you look stupid, you just need it to stop.

The hierarchy of “productive” self care over “useless” self care and the anxiety about being good to friends is not just thoroughly unhelpful in general, it also screws over people who happen to have physical disabilities or who can’t afford a gym membership and good food or people with chronic pain. It creates more stigma against people who can’t easily leave the house, or who might have days that are unexpectedly painful. There is no good reason to tell people that they should stop using coping skills that are working and that don’t hurt anyone.

Now what is true is that sometimes people with depression or anxiety do become self absorbed because their own pain overwhelms their ability to look at much else. This however, has little to do with someone’s self care routines and more to do with the actual illness: when you cannot physically get out of bed, you are generally not at your best as a friend. But the solution to this problem is to increase the number of coping skills and self care options available, not to increase the guilt and shame. The more blame we place on self-care, the more we miss that it’s actually helping improve the situation. I know that I am a better friend when I let myself cancel sometimes and show up when I will actually be a decent person to be around, when I take some time for myself so that I can listen and support my friends. I am a better person and a kinder human being when I treat my depression. That treatment includes self care, everything from the tiniest fidget to the expensive massage, and the showers and cooking and sleeping and cleaning in between.

I know that this has gotten long and ranty, but there is nothing that ruins my day faster than people saying that there are right and wrong ways for me, in my own life, to deal with my mental health, and then heaping guilt on me for not doing what they think is right. There’s a reason the dialogue around mental illness has turned to (perhaps too much) validation and love: it’s because those things work a whole lot better than shitting on someone. There is no reason to continue perpetuating stigma against mental illness under the guise of being “edgy” or “real.” Stop.

Complaining About Trigger Warnings is Sexist

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Now that I have your attention with an overly general headline, let’s talk reality.

For quite some time in Western culture, women have been associated with emotions (nature, the body), and men with rationality (mind, culture). Unsurprisingly, rationality in U.S. society tends to be prioritized over emotions, and people who include their emotions in their arguments or conversations are seen as irrational, bad at argumentation, or just plain weak. I’m not going to get into arguing for the existence of this dichotomy in the Western mind, so check out some basic women’s or feminist studies if you’re cynical.

Simultaneous to this lovely set up, in the past few years we’ve been seeing a whole lot of hooplah about trigger warnings, college students, coddling, and how kids these days are so oversensitive. They’re accused of being too easily offended, of throwing away their freedoms in order to create a safe bubble. Safe spaces are mocked, kids are told they’ll fall apart in the “real world,” and talking heads bemoan the state of the youth.

These two issues are not unrelated. Academia has for quite some time been a bastion for white men, a place where “rationality” is said to rule, and where those whose emotions rule are not allowed. My time in college was a time in which objective inquiry was prized above all else. Emotions were to be eradicated. It is not an accident that this worship of the mind over the body is associated with a place that is traditionally male and has been vehemently guarded against female incursions. It’s also not an accident that the further you go into academics, the more likely you are to encounter horrific sexism, including out of control harassment in a number of graduate programs.

Many of the screeds I have read against the coddled college student use language that has typically been applied to women. Overly emotional. Coddled. Sheltered. Children. These are the same criticisms that were used to keep women from engaging in public dialogue for a long time. Of course women couldn’t vote/go to school/hold office: they think with their emotions. They have emotions, even strong emotions, even emotions that come from trauma and abuse. Of course there are some serious differences, as many of the people asking for trigger warnings are people with mental illnesses, and simply being a woman or having emotions (contrary to much of the history of psychology) is not the same as having a mental illness. But the fear of recognizing emotions and making space for them will always have gendered connotations. The disgust at people having emotions, speaking about their emotions, and asking for their emotions to be taken into account will always have gendered connotations.

When we talk about third and fourth wave feminism and the ways that we can embrace things that are traditionally viewed as feminine instead of simply saying that women can do all that men can do, this is what I think of. I think of the ways that the emotional labor women has done needs to be recognized. I think about the ways that we need to make emotional labor a societal endeavor that is taken on by everyone instead of hidden away to be performed by women in their homes. I think of the ways that new social connections and supports are denigrated, from trigger warnings to snapchat. These are the types of things that women have always done: we have warned each other about people and things that are dangerous, we have been the social glue, we have subtly found ways to guide conversation and topic away from spots that we know are sore. These tasks are becoming public through discussions about safe spaces and trigger warnings. Instead of simply creating our safe spaces in nail salons or other “feminine” places, we are speaking openly about the point and purpose of it, discussing the ways that emotions need to be tended in order to have a functional and healthy society.

And of course we are mocked for it. It is seen as unnecessary, weak, or damaging. More than that, it is seen as a threat. This makes more sense when you view it as the attempt to move emotional labor into the public sphere. Not only is it a demand for recognition of oppression and privilege, it is also a demand that everyone shares equally in creating places where people can be safe from those problems, or places where people who have been hurt, traumatized, or abused, can still participate.

For a long time that was hidden work. That was women’s work. And now it’s in the light. It’s ugly. It’s hard. And a lot of people don’t want to do it. So they whine about free speech and the breakdown of higher education so that they don’t have to face the fact that we are finally speaking openly about our emotional health and asking each other to step up to the plate and support each other.

I’m done idolizing the idea that we should all pretend we don’t have emotions or needs or scars. I’m done pretending that humans should prioritize rationality above all else if that means we don’t recognize our human nature as emotional, embodied creatures. I am over the idea that people in college are delicate flowers who haven’t dealt with real life. Trigger warnings and safe spaces were created to help people with PTSD and other mental illnesses. Those are real life. Those are the kinds of “feminine diseases” we ignored throughout all of history and still cannot figure out how to treat. If college students have found things that help them, then I’m all for it, and I’m sick to death of the horror over oh so weak emotions. I thought we had realized how unhelpful that narrative was with second wave feminism, but I guess we’re fighting the same battles.

So again: emotions are not weak. Asking for help isn’t weak. Particularly if you are someone whose brain is a little different, a little dangerous, it is necessary and vital to ask for help in caring for yourself. Emotions are important parts of human life and they cannot be ignored, even in situations in which it would be much easier if we could all just be perfectly rational beings. None of these things take away freedoms or coddle anyone. They create stronger, interconnected people who can function more healthily. I for one am for emotionally healthy people.

New Year, New Thoughts

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So it’s a new year, and while I haven’t done resolutions in quite some time, I realized that completely unrelated to the new year, I have a number of goals and projects that I think are important to my health and wellbeing, and so I thought I’d share them with you along with some thoughts about making resolutions that build myself up and help me integrate self care and self esteem into my life rather than creating resolutions that will just make me feel shitty. Welcome to self care resolutions!

  1. Read! I always feel better when I replace some of my computer time with reading time. IT helps me step back from what’s happening on the internet, gives me a little bit of escapism time, and makes me feel more productive. However I want to be a little more specific than just “read more” because that isn’t a very helpful goal. I’d like to continue to read each night before I go to bed, and start tracking what I’m reading on Goodreads. A tentative goal is 50 books this year, although I haven’t tracked before so I have no idea what’s reasonable.
  2. Deal with health issues. I think this is something more people could stand to do. I think a lot of us ignore random pains or weirdness because we don’t want to deal with going to the doctor or because it seems stupid. I’ve had headaches for my whole life and constant exhaustion for many years, no matter how much sleep I get. So this year I will go see a doctor and ask about these things. I will get a sleep study, I will see if there is a way to improve my quality of life. Because I fucking deserve it, and because I know that my emotions will be more stable when my physical health is stable. This is one of the Adulting things that I don’t feel I was ever taught: how to advocate for my own health, or identify when a problem is serious enough to warrant medical attention. So my secondary goal is also to improve my confidence around my ability to do Stupid Life Things.
  3. Look into a tubal ligation. I have never wanted children and I don’t ever see that changing. Permanent sterilization feels like an act of empowerment and control over my body to me. I would strongly prefer not to ever have to deal with birth control ever again. So this would take one (totally unlikely awful) stress off my mind: pregnancy. I was talking with a friend last night about this, and she pointed out that in addition, we cannot rely on abortion being readily available in the future. I don’t want my reproductive future to be contingent on our elected officials not being dicks to women. So: taking control.
  4. Finish editing my novel and start getting it out there to publishers. I’ve been working on it for a year, and I’m fine with taking my time (it’s a side project), but at some point I have to take the deep breath and be confident enough in my abilities that I cannot continue trying to “fix” it, because it will never be good enough. So one more run through, and then it starts going out. Writing and publishing a novel has been the one goal that has held through my entire life and I want to make that happen.
  5. Start eating meat again. Ok, hear me out on this one. I made the switch to vegetarianism in the midst of my eating disorder, and while I do strongly believe in the ethical principles of animal rights, I would be lying if I said the decision was not motivated by the disorder. It makes it easier to restrict, and it makes me less healthy. And while I have kept it up as I’ve started increasing my food intake, it has made it increasingly difficult to eat a balanced diet. I realize that there are people out there who can be completely healthy on a veggie or vegan diet, but I am not one of them. Thanks to a lot of my sensory issues around taste and texture I really can’t stomach most veggie proteins, which means that I’m gaining weight and getting minimal nutrition from my diet. I need to focus on eating well rather than just eating. I don’t like prioritizing my own health over animal rights, which is why this one is a challenge and a goal rather than just a simple decision for me. But it’s important for me to recognize that I deserve health and that I am allowed to prioritize myself. Acting it out by feeding myself helps me to convince myself that I deserve respect and care. It’s a choice that I can make to help shift my values. By consistently acting out something that I have rationally decided is important, I’m hoping to slowly adjust the emotions associated with it.
  6. This is the haziest goal I have: figure out what to do with the information that I am autistic. I haven’t had much spare time in the last few weeks since I got the diagnosis to decide whether I want to pursue any kind of treatment or pass info on to my therapist or read more about the autism community or what. I’d like to try going to a support group, and read more first hand accounts from others about how they have learned to cope. But I’d also like to do more research about whether there are different therapeutic techniques or ways of doing CBT that are more or less effective with autism. I just feel like I need more information, so that’s where I’ll start, and I hope to have something concrete to do with the diagnosis, some ways of helping myself that came out of that information by the end of the year.
  7. Climb a 5.11b. Feel good about it. This last year I got to the climbing gym pretty regularly through the whole year. It made a big difference and I’d really like to keep it up. I’d also like to actually keep improving, but I don’t want to forget to applaud myself and recognize when I hit goals. It’s too easy to continually be looking to the next thing. So more than any physical accomplishment, I want to take a little bit of time at each milestone to throw myself a little internal party and feel like a boss.
  8. Build a gaming table. Do more work with my hands. Most of the work that I do doesn’t produce nice, physical results that I can hold and see. While I love what I do, and I love writing, there’s something soothing and confidence building about creating something physical. I’ve been doing a lot of cross stitching recently and I think that’s a good start, but The Boyfriend and I both want to build a gaming table and I think that’s a good large goal for me to have. It’s clear, it shouldn’t be overly complex, and it’s something that I know I’ll use and want in the long term.

So that’s it. I’m focusing more on what makes me happy this year. What about you?