I want to know what occurs to you when you hear the term “self-care”. I want to know what happens when you hear: You exist and are real. That, therefore, you must live and take care of your container, your body.
I first heard “self-care” during my training as a rape crisis counselor. I was a feisty 21-year old with a lot of energy invested in my identity as a crusty vegan feminist. My fellow counselors discussed the importance of self-care, but I couldn’t overcome the notion that it was blasphemy to waste precious time on meditating, weekends off, and creative projects when I could be using that time to help others. How could I justify “indulging” in self-care, when so many humans and animals hardly get to live at all? Like most other things I know, I learned the hard way that in a society based on so many hierarchies placing one body above another, self-care might be amongst the most political and revolutionary ideas one can engage with.
As a rape crisis counselor and supervisor, I was working overnights on the hotline. During that time, I also founded an animal rights group and became involved with anti-war organizing leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. All these issues were embedded with each other in painstaking ways I couldn’t escape. My cells and heartbeat obsessed. Every day I made new connections between the hierarchies and violences permeating the planet, from the destruction wrecked by global capitalism, to that done against individual bodies on dinner plates. The choice I made in the face of this overwhelm was to starve. How could I stop for dinner when a shift needed to be covered? When I had to facilitate a meeting? When Iraqi children were being destroyed and I had the privilege of a voice?
Since adolescence, anorexia had been my default. Yet I hesitate to indulge some grand personal narrative around this. It’s true that I’ve obsessed in a manner, to a depth, that you’d only understand if you’ve had an eating disorder. Eating disorders are a purgatorial encasement comprised of out-of-control thought-patterns that incessantly generate themselves through your body, consuming your reality like a tyrant who may or may not exist in a guard tower. Eating disorders are torture. It doesn’t matter who you are; they don’t discriminate based on intelligence, bravery, strength, or political orientation; based on whether you are made out of love or hate. Anorexia doesn’t come from personality, yet it destroys personality altogether. It comes from a place before you, and it goes beyond who you are, infiltrates you from all sides and from around every external and internal angle. It makes you it. It becomes your only story. This is why I hesitate to write about it. I want to say things that go beyond a tired individualist tale and into the realm of helpfulness.
The best I can come up with is: I’m writing this, offering it, because, if you are so alone that you cannot even find your own body, I want to remind you that you are allowed to rest and be gentle, to hold yourself back into existence. I want to tell you that you are wonderful. I suppose I could say things like: My self-destruction arose from a message I’d internalized during my personal and cultural upbringing—that my existence, my literal and metaphorical body, had time to wait. There was only so much happiness to go around, and I had to sacrifice some of mine for the sake of those who seemed to have none.
So, you? How do you hold yourself? Do you see that you exist? Me, I lost so many pounds of myself that I couldn’t get out of bed. I vomited blood, broke bones, destroyed my stomach, lost my hair, got banned from the gym, fucked up my teeth, forgot where I was, got lost on my own street. Eventually I was forced to remove myself from almost all the political and social work projects I was involved in and enter treatment. Everything became its opposite. Maybe you’ve enacted a similar story. If so, I bow to you. Eating disorders override all things life-ward and good. If you’ve been to the depths of one, you have seen hell and known hell’s profound wisdom. Tell people about what you have found there. Tell people how anorexia puts a prison inside and outside you. It makes you into a prison and it makes a prison around your prison. Oppression is a prison in which we learn to police ourselves. Tell people how we can break the prisons if we decide to see them. To see our own prison bars and to see each others’ and maybe, if we are strong enough, to even see the prisons that encompass the guards. Tell about how in order to do these things, we need each other—desperately, profoundly, in ways that we might not have even conceived of yet.
When I was in that hospital that time–it was, unfortunately, far from the only one my eating disorder landed me in—there was one political project I rationalized lingering with, for it was mobile. I’d been helping a friend with some important research and brought all my materials and books with me to the locked ward. I could only use a tiny pencil to write, and I had to sneak it in, because pens and pencils are considered dangerous in these kinds of places. Two days later, my heart almost stopped. It was my 23rd birthday. Because I was almost dead, I do not recall this happening. I recall waking up and my roommate on the ward swinging her fists at doctors. She wouldn’t eat because she thought they were poisoning her. It was then that I was persuaded to put the books away. At night my roommate moaned and I whispered to her: I know you know yourself. You exist. Keep going. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
For months my life was consumed by all-day eating disorder treatment. I was essentially forced to eat food that, to me—someone who’d spent most of my life considering and advocating ethical ways to eat—was unethical. It was more than a year before I was able to re-engage with the things I cared about. This might seem extreme. Yet almost all the helpers, activists, and radical dreamers I know have at some point experienced a consequential degree of preventable self-neglect. Very few have truly internalized the vital connection between oneself and others that self-care sustains, a connection that evaporates with self-destruction.
I often turn to a story Thich Naht Hahn tells about the eyes of a bus driver. We’re all on and around her bus and our lives depend on her ability to see. On her intricate awareness of the road, how to move the machine and do the job. This is literal. If the bus driver closes her eyes, gets drunk, gets dizzy, goes blind, or has a heart that stops, we’ll all be deeply harmed. This is the nature of self-care. It’s intimately tied into the well-being of everybody around us. It is the opposite of personal indulgence because the self is not just the individual. We’re all riding on each others’ bus, whether or not we want to, simply by virtue of being alive together. Without a basic awareness of what we need, how we work, what our strengths, intentions, and weakness are, and how to be present and alive, we risk causing profound harm even when we think we are being neutral or helpful.
If I’d chosen to be healthy, I’d have been able to do more, and better, work. I’d have felt happy doing it, instead of guilty, depressed, and anxiety-ridden. I wouldn’t have had to spend months unbound, eating food I advocated against and using my time and resources trying not to die. I’m positive my self-destruction, reactivity, and poor health affected others in ways I’ll never know, because I was driving the bus with my eyes closed and I crashed. I experienced this crash and so did everyone around me: my loved ones, my colleagues, my clients and those I counseled, my cat, everyone I wanted to help, the folks who wanted to help me. Many of the political systems I was trying to name and break down—patriarchy, violent food production, hatred and destruction of bodies—were actually strengthened.
But to heal from anorexia is to grow yourself back. To grow yourself back is to grow others back. I was so terrified that I almost disappeared. I healed and I appeared again. I was so terrified that I almost unfastened my heart and dropped it in a cultural garbage can. I healed and grew my heart back. I dug my heart out of the war because I do not support the war. I stopped an entire war by healing.
At first, I brushed off self-care as inherently apolitical—some kind of sneaky twist on hyper-individualistic consumerist culture. And it’s true that self-care, like everything else, often gets channeled through Western culture as little more than a brand to consume—a quick-fix tweak of diet, a brand-name exercise regime, an excuse to disconnect. A solely individualist pursuit that should come at the cost of everything and everyone else; the other extreme, the rejection of the political for the unadulterated personal. But if we are to be effective mutineers, we must be able to mindfully contend with these extremes of relating to the self. To take care of ourselves in a manner that doesn’t reject the body for the politic or the politic for the body, because the two are connected in ways that came before and go beyond both of them, and beyond words and constructions altogether. If you inhabit a body that’s in some way been deemed unacceptable— if you’re a woman, a queer person, a transgender person, a person of color, a person of the “wrong” size or shape, a trauma victim of any gender— then to insist upon your own existence is one of the most revolutionary acts you can perform.
There are so many simple, free self-care practices that we can try to commit to: eating as well as possible, getting enough sleep, mindfully building breaks into our lives. Contemplative activities like journaling, developing presence and awareness through meditation, and spending time outside can change the entire game. We can set up childcare, meal, and work shares to help each other create space for rest. Whenever possible, we can ask others to take over tasks we don’t have energy for. On the path to radical self-care, saying “no” is sometimes in everybody’s best interest. It takes patience and awareness to create new habits. We must be so gentle and creative. But even just twenty minutes a day of self-care has changed my life. For those who are worried about losing their perspective, or their identity, to self-care, I promise: I haven’t lost touch with my passions—in fact, I’m a much better, happier, and more useful version of myself now.
Just like the rest of the sentient beings, we don’t deserve to starve, and we’re part of many systems that are affected by our starvation. For better or worse, it’s impossible to opt out of the reality of not being alone in this strange existence. If we don’t have health and awareness, if we’re unnecessarily starving in a societal trash heap, we can’t have ourselves and each other. This “each other” extends from our loved ones to all beings across the world. I believe this is spiritual, dharmic and karmic, but it’s also plain old physics, biology and evolution. Our genuine well-being is nothing but magnificent. It is in our ability to create enough well-being to go around for everyone.
The thing is, control is not the same as agency. Agency is big, it is empowering; control tries to contain and dominate things. Even at my worst, I have the agency to try to turn dominance into co-operation, power-over into power-with. When I am overwhelmed by personal losses, I can look at myself and be a witness. I can say, “I see you. You are in pain. Let’s rest.” We can say that to each other. When I am overwhelmed by my perceived powerlessness in the face of issues as big as wars, rape, factory farms, and ecocide, I remember that I do not have to contribute to the fucked-ness of the world by harming myself and, by proxy, those around me.
A beautiful person I was in treatment with once said, “Eating disorders are when you are busy dying. I want to be busy being alive.” Yes. That’s just it. We’re huge and ravenous and impossible to contain; this is terrifying. Especially as a woman in this culture, it’s supposed to be. When there is pain, sometimes it feels nearly impossible to keep my eyes open. But when I can move beyond the fear, I find myself in an inexplicable wellspring of wonder and reverence. It’s the kind of wonder where I can’t breathe, like when I saw the Milky Way from that deserted West Virginia field, or when I stood in a rainbow beneath Niagara Falls, or when I touched the Mississippi River, or when I find that pink tree on my block in the spring, or when it’s firefly season. Or when I met my nephew the day he was born. And suddenly I remember why I need to start being busy being alive. Suddenly I feel the need, with a desperation as big as my heart, to beg you, all of you who are in so much unnecessary pain: Come with me, come with me, come with me…there is so much to see on the other side! It is real. To heal is real. You’ve got to believe me. Look at yourself. You have hands and knees, a face, lungs. You have pens and paper. You, yourself, are as spectacular as everything you love. Do not listen to the tyrant—take up your own space. Come with me.