Self-Care Needs More Self and More Care
by Liliana Navelgas, Staff Contributor
Disclaimer: I have to stress, very strongly, that in writing this article I do not aim to tackle the dimension of clinical mental health. I suffer from mental health struggles myself, and I will acknowledge that those have played hugely into the personal account I detail in this article. However, discussion of mental health issues in a clinical sense is not my area of expertise and I have no perspective to justly speak on behalf of or represent beyond my own. Thus, I reserve any insight I offer here to a solely philosophical/sociological space of discussion. I recognize that mental health considerations run deep even into that space, but I will try my best to navigate that well.
I opened my bleary eyes to the view of my blinds. They were shut almost completely so that no rays of sunlight streamed in all sparkling and unabashed, and it didn’t take a second longer than that moment for me to figure out exactly what time it was. Now, before I continue, I have to clarify that “exactly” is a relative term here. That might be contradictory to even think of, “exactly” being a relative term, but it was the kind of contradiction that I felt so complacent with. I could not tell whether it was 2 or 4 o’clock, and frankly I didn’t give a shit either way. But at the same time, I did know exactly what time it was: it was a time past the morning glow, a time of sleepy brown shade blanketing my room. It was May and all its grief, trailing behind the dying spring. I knew so quickly how it would command me. That time had a voice, see: the day is gone and done. The world has outrun you. Sink fully back into your daze.
So I did, over and over. The days and weeks like this inevitably meshed into months, which only made the sleepy brown shade seem to grow ever bigger and therefore more insurmountable. At some point, I fully just gave up any intention of even fighting against it. I let the blinds stay closed, the alarms snooze every five minutes, the Google Classroom assignments stay undone until 30 minutes before the midnight due date. Apathy became a sedative; I was so afraid to see clearly how big the sleepy brown shade had gotten, to know how far it had put me away from myself.
It was a terrifying pattern that now makes me recall the 2018 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. As it goes, the main character, a recent college grad, devotes herself to a restoration that she believes she can bring about by sleeping for one full year. She quietly and cleanly disengages from her particularities, putting her bills on auto-pay (makes me wish I could’ve done something analogous with my Google Classroom assignments) and living off the inheritance she had automatically acquired after her parents’ death. While the main character ultimately concludes that she has succeeded in this alleged rebirth, it is only after the untimely death of her best and only friend during 9/11 that she becomes fully convinced. In the end, it wasn’t the year-long discombobulation that steered this woman away from falling into total nihilism, but a sudden realization of life’s priceless nature and of how precious it is to be lucid. In the end, for all of her cynicism and romanticization of floating away, the feeling that clings to the main character is “awe… because [the main character’s best friend] is beautiful. There she is, a human being… and she is wide awake.” And that is what draws her on. The heroine of My Year of Rest and Relaxation regains her tether to the world because she is again aware of her own selfhood, a core that she must sustain and nurture while fully awake.
What this woman discovers, and what we must uphold as central in our efforts of self-care, is the importance of self-accountability. Self-accountability can be a counterintuitive concept because it is not the kind of accountability that has been propagated through Western cultural messaging. I know this for certain because I’ve seen and been subject to this myself; even in settings as intimate as therapist offices, I found that it had been thoroughly ingrained in me to feel like I needed something to show for even in the midst of tribulation. If I had a bad day, I still had to function normally, to be as congenial and productive and useful as I would be in the best of spirits. Otherwise, I would feel like I was going off the rails, “sabotaged by an inner saboteur”, as Rupaul would say. All because I failed to remain accountable to an outside world that expects much of me, even though I could not even feel whole in myself for the day. As if by instinct, I feel that I am hardly alone in this. A productivity-focused culture has enchained us to an ideal of accountability that precedes and justifies our sense of purpose; we have been subservient to a toxic nexus of aesthetic, material expectations that we must meet in order to feel like we have earned a sense of accomplishment. That creates a transactional arrangement that commodifies the feeling of pride at having fulfilled a given goal. If we always have to earn our sense of accomplishment through tangible proof of having done something, we grow to rightfully and naturally resent the zeitgeist that sets the prices of this precious good. What stems from this resentment may be an effort to liberate ourselves from the concept of accountability in general, being so fed up at “the system,” if you will, that we rashly break this social contract and all its clauses. Who cares about purpose? Who cares about accomplishment? Who cares about accountability in a world that would never be accountable to you in return?
I will be the first person to acknowledge how freeing it initially feels. Beginning the first full week of quarantine, I binge-watched Grey’s Anatomy till 5 AM every night and no longer bothered to cook, fully content subsisting on frozen dinners and chips though I was aware in some rapidly fading periphery of my mind that I’d rather be hunched over a stove, feeling steam waft onto my face or my hand gripped around a knife, slicing into an onion or a lemon. Nevertheless, the soft languor of the couch became more seductive as fresh herbs and early mornings concurrently became more superfluous. It was a relief to feel like I didn’t have to tend to anything for once, not even to myself. For the truth was that even in my personal life, I felt like I was accountable to something greater than me, that I was being constantly critiqued by some removed, eldritch manifestation of myself: a hypothetical version of me who is prettier, more talented, a Renaissance woman at her minimum and a goddess come alive, a girl that could have flowered in more auspicious circumstances and, I believed, if I had put in more work. In daily life, I felt like I had to pay homage to this apparition, no matter how tangential her existence was to my actual reality. It never escaped me that the streets that I walked could’ve beheld her more graceful stride, that my friends could've enjoyed her more magnetic presence, that the hobbies and skills that I nursed could’ve been sublime in her hands instead of nascent in mine. That was my self-care, groveling like a zealot at the base of this effigy whom I felt I disrespected every time I was less than perfect.
With quarantine, it seemed, came a novel privacy, a sudden irrelevance of these considerations. Being inside, in a vacuum for once, I felt like I was finally free to exist apart from the gaze of this idealized version of me. I felt like I no longer had anything to prove, or even if I did, that I didn’t have the means to prove it anymore. The problem with this kind of severance, though, is that unless it is carefully planned for, there is no alternate structure in place to hold onto. Like the main character in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I found myself as drained by the particulars of life as before, just more passive and listless. The effigy, contrary to my expectations, remained lurking in some barely subterranean part of me, waiting to unleash her pent-up wrath at my willful laziness once the world’s gears turned again, once I resumed living the life she could’ve lived better again. And then I realized that that would be no life for me to come back to after quarantine, that that was no way to care for myself. All this time, I had been practicing a masochistic self-idolatry so taxing that I jumped at the first chance for an alternative, even if it meant being constantly half-asleep and blank. I deserved, and still deserve, better than that. So if not those two options, what is true self-care meant to look like?
As I do with almost everything else in matters of ideology, I defer to the guidance of BIPOC women. In the 1960s, Black feminists started to conceive of self-care as a survivalist technique to withstand a caustic sociopolitical climate, a function irremovable from and necessitated by the systemic oppression that beleaguered and continues to beleaguer minority groups. As Audre Lorde famously articulated, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Her circumstances informed her motivations. Audre Lorde was Black, woman, lesbian; she could not have supplied or been served by a concept of self-care that didn’t include these integral aspects of her identity. Around the same time, French philosopher Michel Foucault introduced his own version of self-care into society, synthesized from a heritage of Greco-Roman ideologies and so made the case that it is a timeless human need. The intertwined contributions of these thinkers to the discourse of self-care gave rise to today’s most popular iteration of the term, one that professes to the urgency of Black feminist consciousness and the timelessness of Foucault but finds itself vulnerable to caricature. The problem lies when the rhetoric of timelessness is used to excess, as a weapon rather than an aid: not as a way to recontextualize self-care, to render it of utility even outside the context of Black second-wave feminism, but instead to fully uproot it from its origins. This is why in May, in the midst of my stupor, I felt somehow justified in not keeping up with current politics and complacent with performative activism, conditions that I would’ve found execrable in myself not even six months earlier. This is why, in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the main character thinks it’s okay to Karen at the pharmacy when she goes to pick up her medications. Self-care, in this distorted definition, seems to encourage indulgence and insularity operating under the pretense of self-preservation, immutable without considering time and context. But Audre Lorde and her contemporaries did not aim to champion or even condone insularity. They did not have the luxury to; in the 1960s, Black feminists persisted not just through the tumult of the civil rights movement but also in the white-dominated space of mainstream second-wave feminism. Audre Lorde, in particular, was punctuated further by her abject lesbianism. Mere existence made these women conspicuous, exposed to the relentless criticism of their times and left to recuperate themselves in the aftermath. Thus, true self-care emerges, not as a way out of reality but as a way through it, as an insistent and constant reclamation of character even when outside forces threaten to break it. It becomes clear that self-care was never meant to excuse someone from going through the particulars of daily life. It is a way of reassuring someone, rather, that even out of life’s darkness and despair, out of a sleepy brown shade settling like a blanket, they will emerge alive, awake, in awe.