A long-distance friend with whom I am emotionally very connected told me about self-care. I thought it was a term she invented. She is my mama friend who sold everything and moved across the country to Boulder, took up poetry, and yearned for a true love.
“What do you mean by self-care? Don’t you care for yourself?” I thought.
But she meant how she had been carving out time for quiet every day to write and take a bath, get a weekly massage, and take weekend getaways without her two daughters. I think I actually took the phone away from my ear to look at it incredulously. Who has time for this? Or money? It may have been one of the conversations that I admitted to her we were on different playing fields. And we laughed at our differences and how we remain so close.
This friend was forever introducing me to the next thing on the horizon, like the GAPS diet, salt spas, and nettle tea, so I figured this self-care business might possibly be another fad. Turns out, the term self-care has a long history in the United States and was not just the next buzz word.
Self-care historically is a radical act.
Feminist Audre Lorde pointed out back in the late 80s that self-care is not indulgence, but rather about self-preservation. In the 60s, the term self-care was embraced by the women’s and civil rights movements to gain control over one’s healthcare instead of relying on the patriarchal, white dominant medical establishment. The Black Panther Party started healthcare clinics nationwide. It’s common for disenfranchised and subjugated groups throughout history to embrace self-care so they can buck the notion that they need control and negate efforts to discredit their equality. Self-care historically is a radical act.
I couldn’t see it from where I was, in that moment.
At the time of this phone conversation with my beloved Boulder mama friend, I was at a point in my life where I couldn’t see the ways in which I needed care. I didn’t understand the concept because I hadn’t been doing it and was therefore burned out, exhausted, and feeling ill. To think about self-care felt indulgent to me, and something to be done when everything else was finished. Waiting to feel better until we take care of ourselves seems insane, but when you don’t feel good, how else are you going to look at it?
My own tipping point towards self-care came in steps.
The first was when my iron became so dangerously low and unfixable by diet changes that I needed infusions. I had a glimpse after that first infusion of what other people felt like. You mean you don’t feel like you’re going to die, actually die, by the end of the day? The next was when my day job became so toxic, physically and emotionally, that I couldn’t imagine stepping foot in there for another year. My self-care now includes keeping close track of my iron levels and a career path that is not confined within walls.
There’s nothing to feel guilty about when we take the time to figure out what we really need, and then act in favor of those needs. And we must understand that it’s not going to look the same for everyone. I got a lot of snide comments when I took a year and cut my work hours to 20 a week. That wouldn’t fulfill a need for everyone, or it would create other needs, perhaps, that would be worse. It just doesn’t matter if our actions are different as long they’re supporting our internal structures to their highest potential. My father’s parenting motto was, “You can do anything you want as long as it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else.”
This is self-care – the evaluation of how to support our deepest needs and making choices to support them. Understanding that suffering does not equate success, and living unconsciously does not bring fulfillment. Caring for oneself is not mere survival or checking off the boxes on our daily to-do list. It’s living with an eye towards thriving, because collectively, we’ll all be better off.