Sunday, May 3, 2015

On Baltimore: How do we care for ourselves?

Here is one thing that is true: I want to do ALL the things.  I want to march, and protest, and write, and read important people's thoughts about Baltimore, and about the Black Lives Matter movement, and about the death of Freddie Gray and the way everything is unfolding.  I want to have ALL the conversations.  I want to do something that matters, and mostly, I want to stop everything from hurting.  It's not realistic, I know I can't, I know that this pain is perhaps a part of the process that moves us towards justice, but damn.  It just hurts.

Here is another thing that is true: This weekend, I had to deal with a client emergency.  On Friday, right before I left work, I had to have a conversation with a mother in which I told her that her 14-year-old is likely never going to have any functional communication, is not going to be able to master toileting independently, and she isn't going to "snap out of" her developmental disability.  I had to call Child Protective Services last week for suspected abuse of a child, and I had to sit with my traumatized little guy and try to figure out what was happening.  I ended my week exhausted.

Here is one final truth: I feel guilty, and lazy, and like I don't care enough.  I feel like I don't put my words and beliefs and thoughts into action enough.  I can convince myself that I am apathetic, and I am angry at apathy.  I get angry at myself that I can't do all the things, or even most of the things.  Honestly, I can't even do some of the things: what I can do is I can have conversations, and I can read, and I can donate some, and I can educate myself.  I like to dedicate my yoga practice to something or someone, because I believe that the energy and intention and effort goes I dedicated my yoga practice today to Baltimore and to justice and to peace. 

But what I did for real this weekend?  I handled the emergency client situation.  I ate ice cream with a friend.  I enjoyed the sunshine.  I talked about stuff.  I zentangled.  I went to yoga.  And I spent a hell of a lot of time going in circles in my head.  In terms of actual, tangible, real, meaningful change I took part in...there was none.  I am having a hard time letting my brain let go of all of the events in Baltimore this week.  I am having a hard time letting my brain focus on other things, because I am overwhelmed and feel guilty about the privilege of being able to let go. 

I'm not alone in this, right?  We are, many of us perhaps, in this place.

So I'm going to go all psychologist on you, and I'm going to focus on what I know.  I know people, and I know stories, and I know mental health, and so I'm going to write about self-care.

I have written about self-care before.  I think a good deal about how we as "helpers" (be that psychologists, or medical professionals, or social workers, or clergy, or activists) talk about, implement, and support one another in taking care of ourselves.  I can only really speak from the psychologist angle, but from what I have seen, we don't.  We don't talk about it, we don't implement it, we don't support one another in it, and frankly...I think that's really messed up.

But that's not entirely what I'm writing about now, although it may be a piece of it.  Really, I think that the way we talk about self-care is messed up.  I think the way we conceptualize self-care is wrong, and I'm pretty sure it needs a do-over.  Think about it.  What you normally see is this:

How to do self-care: (1) Do something nice for yourself.  Take a bath with candles and smelly things that make you feel good.  Get a massage.  Take yourself out to eat.  (2) Get exercise.  Spend time in the sun.  (3) Eat healthy food.  Eat regularly.  Be healthy.  (4) Have a gratitude practice.  (5) Spend time with people who make you feel good.  (6) Sleep.  Do it regularly, well, and often. 

...and that's about it.  Right?  Am I making this up? 

I think what we're doing here is we're missing the point.  The rhetoric around self-care seems to be that of "give of yourself indefinitely and selflessly...and when you feel tired or burned out or angry or sad or guilty, don't talk about it.  Instead, sleep.  Start a gratitude practice.  Get a massage or something.  This should make you feel good, and then, whether you're ready or not, you should jump back in. 

Don't get me wrong -- that's a good list.  But of course we should do all of these things.  Of course we should value and practice all of those things on that list.  Of course we all have times when some or all of those things are difficult.  (And, I'll add that many, if not all, of these things require a level of privilege).  However, we cannot simultaneously indicate that we value good self-care habits while we also indicate that you should work tirelessly and selflessly.  We cannot simultaneously indicate that we value good self-care when we don't talk about about taking care of ourselves or about the many ways in which self-care can be challenging.  

So here's what I think: we need to change the narrative.  I think that we -- those of us who care about and believe in and are struggling to work towards justice -- I think that we have the opportunity to do so.  I think it is necessary for us to do so.  In order for us to make the important work we are discussing and organizing and moving towards sustainable, I think we need to change the narrative.

The problem that I see (as I said here) is that Baltimore has been in crisis for a long time.  It is going to take a long time to change.  I don't want us to be so whole-heartedly in the struggle while the crisis is occurring that we have to back out when it's no longer the tragedy du jour.  There are deep-rooted, painful inequalities and injustices that need our attention.  This fight is going to be long, and it is going to be hard, and we are going to be tired.  I would much rather confront that head-on, at the beginning of the battle, so we know where we're headed and we set ourselves on the right trajectory.

It feels a bit pretentious for me to say, "so here's a list of what we should do"...because I don't know what we should do.  Regardless, I am going to present a list of my thoughts.  Take it or leave it.

(1)  We need to change the narrative stating that activism, working in helping professions, etc is "selfless."  When we work from this narrative, we create a false dichotomy between the work we do and caring for ourselves.  This, I believe, is harmful.  Most importantly, this stance is harmful because it sets us up to feel shame, and guilt, and perhaps a sense of failure when we need to take a breath, or step back from our work.  We can build ourselves or others up to a level of "selflessness" in that the more a person seems dedicated to her work (i.e. the more/harder she works), the "better" we believe her to be.  Selflessness is not and cannot be the goal.  Balance, and health, and sustainability, and belief in ones cause or work...those are goals we can support one another in.  This looks different for every person -- and that difference also needs to be respected.

Further, the idea that this work is "selfless" is in and of itself is a fallacy.  I work with children with developmental disabilities because it fills up my heart.  I do it because I believe they are people with inherent worth and dignity, and because it hurts my heart to know that there are people, and lawmakers, and isms in place that fight against that.  I feel like a better, more whole person when I can end my day knowing that I taught a 10-year-old to use a picture to request her favorite movie, or that I have reduced a 14-year-olds head-banging behavior by 50%. 

I believe in fighting for reproductive justice and fighting rape culture, because I need to believe change is happening in these areas.  I need to fight that battle, because I and many other women hurt.

I believe that black lives matter, and the knowledge that people are dying, and mothers are scared for their children's lives, and people are grieving in ways that I and my family will never need to grieve or fear makes me angry.  It sits in my heart and my stomach like rocks I can't remove.  I was given an unearned privilege, and I believe with all of my being that it is my responsibility to use that power to confront the systems keeping the inequalities in place. 

There is nothing selfless about this: I fight these battles, because I need to fight these battles.  Our work is not selfless.  It is a way of deeply caring for ourselves.  It is one of many ways of caring for ourselves.  When we frame our work as being one way of engaging in self-care, we may be able to take care of ourselves in all the ways we need with more ease. 

(2) Many of us balk at this idea of self-care, in large part because it focuses only on the self.  We (especially those of us who are "helpers") focus so much on others that it can be a challenge for us to do things for ourselves, much less say phrases like "I need to take care of myself."

But here's the truth: self-care is not just about the self.  Self-care is about caring for our minds and our bodies, but it is also about caring for our families.  It is also about caring for our communities.  It is also about giving others the gift of allowing them to care for us.  It is also about allowing ourselves to be in community with others who care like we do, and to find energy, and joy, and solidarity, and tears with them.  To be with one another in that manner is a gift.    

I wrote some of my half-baked ideas about this here, and I believe them to be true: the hurt, the wounding, the grief, and injustice we are fighting happened in society.  The burnout, or shame, or guilt, or exhaustion we feel -- that does not happen in a vacuum.  So why is it that we think that the antidote to this is to focus on the self, to spend time alone, etc?  Perhaps that is a piece of the antidote (alone time certainly is for me), but I also know that the true healing can only occur in community.  Self-care is community-care.  It really is true that we belong to one another.

(3) I don't think that we-as-a-society truly value the necessary and important ways we need to care for ourselves -- particularly we as helper-types, or we as activists, or we as those who believe in bending that arc towards justice.  We need to see self-care as a value, and we need to act in ways that support that -- both in our public works for justice, and in our smaller communities, and in our private lives. 

(4) Self-care should be a community goal, and a community concern.  We belong to one another, and that includes caring for one another.  Just as we cannot work towards justice alone, we cannot care for ourselves alone.  It was never meant to be that way.

(5) As people engaged in activism, in helping professions, etc, we often have a platform from which we can model self-care for others.  What would it mean if we actively chose not to model the "selfless" role, and instead to model a self-care that looks like wellness, and sustainability, and honoring ourselves, our bodies and our communities?  What if we modeled what it looks like to trust our communities enough to trust them with our vulnerability as well as our strength?  What if we acted from a place of knowing that we are enough?  What if we acted from a place of truly believing that what we have to offer from our deepest heart -- that piece of action that is filling us up and sustaining us -- what if we acted knowing that it is enough?

(6) I can't seem to find a good place to put this, so I'm going to put it here.  I think one of the most overlooked aspects of self-care is the need to acknowledge that your feelings -- whatever they are -- are valid.  Perhaps you feel guilty, or angry, or sad.  Maybe you feel overwhelmed, or shut down, or scared.  Maybe you are grieving, or all you can say is that "it hurts."  I think it is easy to dismiss these feelings under the realization that you are engaging in this work because others are suffering more than you.  Because there are injustices occurring to people who aren't you, and you believe in fighting to change that. 

But your feelings, and your reactions -- they are valid, too.  When your community is hurting, as ours is, your feelings matter.  Even if you live in the suburbs.  Even if you're white.  Even if you're not sure how you feel, or you think you shouldn't feel that way. 

I think it's also important to note that, when frightening things are occurring in our community, it can trigger old (seemingly unrelated) feelings.  This, too, is valid, okay?  And it's important to let those feelings be there -- to name them for what they are.  This is powerful self-care.

This is long and rambling and wordy, but if you remember nothing else, remember this list:

(1) What you do matters.  Doing something -- it always matters.

(2) We belong to one another. 

(3) You are enough.  The actions you can take in a way that supports and uplifts your spirit are enough. 

(4) We -- your community -- we are here to grieve, and celebrate, and fight, and be with you.  Let us care for one another as we struggle towards that which is right together.   

Love, and peace, and blessings, and all good stuff to you, my friends.

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