By Florence Oulds
CN: Depression, anxiety, food
Earlier this year, I pre-ordered a copy of Ruby Tandoh & Leah Pritchard’s zine Do What You Want. I really like Ruby’s writing on food and ‘health eating’ culture, and think it’s wonderful that all of the profits from the zine go to charities like Mind, Beat, and Centre for Mental Health.
However, when the book actually arrived, and was in my hands, and was no longer the vague idea of charity and wellbeing, but instead real words, thoughts, and feelings about the practicalities and complexities of caring for yourself – I realised the book was not for me at all.
This is not a critique of Tandoh and the book’s other contributors, but of me: I can make no use of what is essentially a ‘self-care’ book, because I don’t want to care for myself.
Yes, I eat at least three meals a day, and try to get in a decent amount of fruit & veg despite my sweet tooth. I shower every day (otherwise I feel dirty) and clean my teeth twice a day. I know I need to get a good amount of sleep otherwise I’ll get ill, so I always try and prioritise that.
But, also, I really deeply hate myself and have incredibly low self-esteem.
I’ve been fairly active on Twitter and Tumblr since around 2012, and from the very beginning it’s been evident that the majority of the people in these communities that I’ve grown up with are in some way mentally ill, especially those who experience multiple intersections of oppression.
Seeing the long term effects of illness and societal pressures on lives is a complicated thing, and I don’t think I could really talk about in any succinct way, but I was very glad when I noticed a culture of self-care emerging: the people that I loved were learning that it was a good and radical thing to love themselves in very productive ways.
It’s just never been for me.
I’m a very impulsive person. Not in the sense that I will just decide to buy plane tickets to Australia or get a drunken tattoo, but when my body suddenly wants something, I give it to it because it’s easier than the constant nagging of want. When I eat something that I crave, the ‘part’ of my brain that hates my Self and my body gets to tell me that I’m a disgusting piece of shit, and I feel awful about every bite I take.
From this removed and simplified perspective, it’d be easy to say that the solution is to sever that connection between what can be viewed as the ‘illness’ and the ‘craving’, justifying the ‘natural’ wants of a body from the ‘invader’ of mental illness.
“Once you’ve ‘had’ something like this for so long, you get attached to it, and it does form part of your identity.”
But of course it’s not that simple, mostly because I’ve been living with this illness for a long time. When I was 15 or so I looked up to a lot of artists who very clearly had depression or similar issues, and the art I loved was all about that pain, and the complexity and beauty of the Self in pain. I needed that torture, and like a spoiled kid on Christmas, I got what I really wanted.
Depression, and varying states of ill-health, are things I’ve been living with for at least 5 or 6 years, and the problem I have is a very common one, that once you’ve ‘had’ something like this for so long, you get attached to it, and it does form part of your identity. The idea of changing myself from what I am now seems genuinely horrifying, even though my now means constantly feeling despair, self-hatred, and anxiety.
Part of knowing mentally ill people for so long has been learning how to care and be supportive of people, and for a long time this was the only way I could feel good about myself, which it turns out is distinctly unhealthy, as your happiness preys on others’ unhappiness. What has taken me a very long time to learn though is that if someone is ill and doesn’t want to get better, you really can’t fight them for their own health, or force them to heal in any way that they’re not comfortable and committed to.
And sometimes that person is you.
In this situation you end up living in a way that is not so much living but avoiding the worse feelings, avoiding yourself and your own issues, living for other people and what they want (or you think they want) from you. This kind of living feels inherently thin and false, as you’re aware of the great gulf beneath you but looking anywhere else but down, you’re aware of how every eye watching you must see through the thin, pathetic veil of your personality, but you are unable to meet their gaze honestly without totally falling apart.
This morning while scrolling through Tumblr I saw this post, and it was one moments where a brief piece of information finally gives voice to what you were thinking:
“not to sound like jenny holzer but instant gratification is the enemy of self care”
-Tumblr user imanes, July 7th, 2017
Aside from the hilarious notion of someone being self-conscious of their truisms because of Jenny Holzer, this really drove home for me the difference between the things I do for myself out of want or even self-pity, and the actual productive healing that self-care requires.
Overall, it’s been very easy for me to convince myself that the destructive, self-sabotaging things I do to myself are okay because they’re #SelfCare, and that’s what we’re all supposed to be doing, so instead of going to therapy, I’ll just stay at home and destroy my body.
If there’s any conclusion to this it’s that while it’s incredibly important to have a positive, present culture of self-care that acknowledges its necessity for oppressed groups in an oppressive society, we must also acknowledge that this practice in its many forms really is not for everyone, and we can’t pretend that it is.
Whether self-care is a quick band aid for a bad day or a more sustainable structure of recovery, sometimes the impetus for ‘making yourself better’ just simply does not exist.