Archives for posts with tag: coping

self careA few weeks ago, I started this post by writing:

“I am eating cold chicken fried rice out of the carry-out carton and watching flight tracker, which has suddenly and mysteriously changed my son’s arrival time from 9:30pm to 3:40am. He is on his way back to school for his final semester. And then … who knows?

“He says that the underclassmen have learned that “What are you going to do after you graduate?”  is the worst possible question to ask a senior. I suspect he told me that preemptively, in case I had planned to ask him That Question. I hadn’t. When he has firm plans or good news, he’ll tell me. Meanwhile, I believe that he has ideas brewing and interesting options ahead. He is resourceful and creative and I trust him to take good care of himself and his future.”

Now it’s almost March and I am thinking again about taking care of oneself. I spent time with a dear friend (DF) who had had a painful health scare and had decided to go vegan as a result. It wasn’t easy but DF was committed and is now feeling good, feeling healthy, and is hopeful that this will be life-prolonging as well as life-improving. DF talked about veganism not as a prison or punishment but as a choice DF makes every day to “take care of myself.”  Veganism is also in line with DF’s belief system.

I was very happy to see DF feeling great and doing so well. At the same time, I am aware that I usually recoil when someone says “take care of [one]self.” Usually a recoil is a sign that something has crossed a boundary or triggered a sense of violation for me, so I spent the next couple of days thinking about how and why I could be so happy about the idea of DF and my son “taking care of” themselves, when often those words make me want to scream and shake someone. After some thought, I concluded 1) that context matters and 2) that biased assumptions, hierarchy, judgment, paternalism, and lack of respect for others’ autonomy are often involved in the making of such statements.

Regarding context, it matters whether someone is talking about themselves (“I am taking care of myself by doing such-and-such”)  or whether they are speaking of someone else, as in “I wish he would take better care of himself” or “She should take care of herself.” DF had identified some priorities  and is taking specific steps to honor those priorities. DF is deciding for DF what DF wants, needs, values, and is willing and able to do, and then is choosing each day to act on those.  I find that inspiring and admirable and not at all triggering.  All too often, though, I hear people making the second kind of statement about someone else and about what that other person could or should be doing. That’s what activates my scream-and-murder impulse.

It used to be that when I’d hear that gendered phrase about some woman not “taking care of herself,” it referred to her physical appearance and her failure or refusal to follow social norms involving makeup, hair, and clothing. It was often linked to another homicide-worthy phrase, “letting herself go.”  These things were almost never said about men. They indicate a willingness and desire and assumed right on the part of the speaker to judge another person and to find them inferior on the basis of appearance and behavior. These statements also represent moral judgments, because if a woman is not doing what she “should,” then it must surely indicate a moral lapse (such as laziness) or faulty judgment or improper socialization (in which case the blame extends to the previous generation, particularly the ever-problematic Mom). In each case the speaker is placing hirself on higher ground than the person being discussed. In each case the speaker is assuming to know better than the person being discussed  what the person being discussed needs.

Now when I hear that someone is not “taking care of herself,”  it’s often a statement about weight or body shape  and their presumed connections to health.  Again, the phrase is applied more often and more heavily to women than to men, and again the speaker is assuming superiority (physical, mental and moral), a right to judge,  and better knowledge of what the other person needs. Most of western society seems to believe that large body size is itself proof of “bad” habits or behaviors, that fat people must surely eat too much (all the time!), must never exercise (or they wouldn’t be fat!), and must certainly be walking time bombs set to explode and die at any moment. Being fat, then, is evidence of failure to “take care of yourself.” Bring on the concern trolls.

In addition to being monumentally arrogant and irritating to a mandatory-throat-punch degree,  these statements are often based in ignorance or denial of scientific findings or the actual behaviors of the person in question, and they display a harmful paternalism which cements a social hierarchy holding fat people down. Worse still, these statements deny fat people’s – particularly fat women’s – autonomy. Having a thin body does not confer super-powers of judgment or omniscience or moral strength, and having a fat body does not require anyone to forfeit basic rights. Fat people don’t need anyone to tell them that they are fat; they know. They don’t need unsolicited advice on what or how much to eat or how and when to move (especially from people who don’t know them well enough to know how they DO eat or how they DO move). Fat people don’t benefit from bullying, ridicule, shaming, or hateful assumptions from biased idiots. And most importantly, a fat person doesn’t need someone else to define their self-care needs and goals. Like everyone else, fat people get to decide these for themselves.

“Taking care of ourselves” comes in many forms, some with a big social stamp of approval, and others discounted, dismissed, or invisible to society and those who would judge. The assumption that there is a fixed, finite one-size-fits-all set of ways to care for oneself is harmful and flat out wrong. For someone suffering from depression, getting out of bed and showering can be a major self-care accomplishment.  For a disabled person, successful rationing of spoons can mean the difference between a bearable day and a nightmarish one. For anyone of any size who struggles with disordered eating, learning to listen to one’s body and eat without shame or guilt is a huge self-care victory. And for members of socially-despised groups (including but not limited to fat people), getting through a day without succumbing to self-hatred is a triumph, and whatever you need to do to get there  is self-care.

Nobody else knows as well as each of us what we need and value. Nobody else lives in our skin and experiences our lives and our unique challenges. Nobody else gets to define our self-care for us, and nobody else gets a vote in how we are doing on that. We don’t owe anyone explanation or “perfection” or “health,” and we certainly don’t owe anyone anything that interferes with our autonomy. In my presence, then, you can safely say “I take care of myself by…” followed by pretty much anything you want that doesn’t involve infringing on another person’s rights.  I cannot guarantee your safety, however, if you try to tell me how I or anyone else should take care of ourselves. People who say such things in my presence tend to need a lot more care afterward themselves.






the path ahead

This past summer with W was wonderful. We hung around town most of the time but made a couple of trips to Asheville NC and to Washington DC.  One trip was to visit cousins I hadn’t seen in 25 years … a side of the family W had never met at all.  He fit right in with them and it truly did feel like a warm family gathering instead of a meeting with near-strangers. What a lovely fun smart humorous bunch of people. ❤

W spent the last 2-3 weeks of summer with his dad before going back to campus.  Suddenly my house was too quiet again. Suddenly I was talking to the cats about things that probably don’t interest cats at all, such as what household supplies I need from the grocery, and how @#$&ing stupid and obscenely wasteful the tenure application process is here. I’m pretty sure that these talks did increase the cats’ vocabulary, and I’m just as certain that they will not be able to show off those new words in polite company.

After a week or so back at campus, W called and stated, “I have decided that I am not busy enough.” I’m thinking, You take a full course load, work all the hours you’re allowed at your work/study job, are an orientation leader for new freshmen, are in student government, and host prospective freshmen several times a year. Plus you have 50,000 events you attend and people you hang out with. How could you not be ‘busy enough’?  After I stopped laughing, W said that he was going to become a tour guide for families visiting campus and he was going to try out for an a capella group and … a couple of other things I can’t remember.  Sure enough, he went through the tour guide training and a capella tryout, in addition to setting up meetings to talk with the internship office about summer opportunities  and the study abroad office about the trip he hopes to take next school year.  He was not accepted into the a capella group, but that turned out to be a good thing because he had discovered that he had more affinity for the campus players improv-like theatre troupe and joined them instead.  One of the troupe leaders sent out a message asking members how they identify and what roles they would be willing to play. One of W’s friends responded, “I am a banana.”  W’s response was, “I identify as a man, but I am willing to play anything including an amorphous asexual blob, should that need arise.”  Another of W’s friends wrote, “Please don’t make me a Nazi again.”      Obviously, this is the perfect group for W.

In that phone call I told W I felt as if he were expanding before my very eyes, still using the familiar tools and abilities I’d always known he had while also pulling out new and unique and unexpected tools from heretofore hidden compartments. I told him it was a pretty neat thing to see.

Later I examined my own life and found it wanting. Do I have hidden tools? Are they rusting away in there? Once the madhouse rush of W’s leaving and my tenure application process and the semester start was past, life settled back into a pretty empty-seeming pattern. Classes are going well … and that’s pretty much all I do now. I did try out a new church a couple of weeks ago – it’s tiny and meets twice a month in a youth center in the hills – and the people were very nice but for the most part way older than me and retired. I have friends I go out with occasionally. I have stacked my language books on the floor in my room so that I can begin to recover my Spanish and German skills. Occasionally I eye the saxophone case in the corner; the other day I went so far as to imagine assembling the instrument and bellowing out a few dreadful scales. I am sure that I can become the next Clarence Clemons if I try, despite that one time when a little neighbor boy (who had the misfortune to walk by my house with his daddy when I was practicing) shrieked ‘Daddy, what IS it?!’   

I have discovered that I am easily overwhelmed. To get around that, I think I must make things  very easy for myself, perhaps by breaking each big action down into a million ridiculously easy steps and then doing one of them at a time. Getting those language books out was a step. So was thinking seriously about the saxophone.  I need to poke around inside my battered old case of a self … to fish around to see what tools are still in working order. Impossibly tiny tweezers?  Filet knife?  Corkscrew?  Maybe they’re all in there just waiting to be used.  Next step: Choosing one of those language books and clearing workspace for it on my desk.

SeussianHair     I get to see my sweetie soon! He has just finished his freshman year and is probably in the passenger seat of a pickup truck bound for his dad’s house right now, trailing the stuffings of his dorm room behind him.

By all accounts he has had a wonderful year at THE perfect college for him. His professors have made him work and laugh and fume and think, his work/study job has taught him tele-marketable skills, and he has made friends he will keep for life. After visiting him on campus one weekend, my 17-year old niece reported that W knows everyone and that he occasionally, upon seeing someone on campus before they see him, will hide behind a tree or building, call them on their cell phones, and say in his special-creepy demon voice, “I see you…”   They respond by laughing and saying, “Oh, W…!” as if it is an everyday occurrence to receive a telephone call from an unseen creepy-stalker demon.

Some branches of my family would not find this funny or amusing at all; to them demons are very real, extremely malevolent, and omnipresent. There is no joking about demons in a world over-populated by demons.  Once, at a reunion of sorts, I learned that I had been eating eggs seasoned with exorcised salt every morning for breakfast, on account of the cook’s strong belief that demons had been singling out her family for special horrid treatment.  Upon hearing this I was speechless. I wasn’t sure whether I was being given the salt out of love and a desire to protect  or whether I myself was suspected of harboring demons.  It was probably a bit of both (I just want to go on the record here and say that I did not hiss, yowl, melt, curse, or have any head-spinning pea soupy reaction at all to said exorcised salt. In fact, I found the eggs yummy.).

That’s not to say I don’t have any demons, and this first year of W’s college adventure has certainly resurrected them for me. Sometimes I hear someone else’s voice echoing around in my head and it ain’t pretty. It is a voice from my past that has, at different times of my life, taken up residence with no invitation and no welcome, completely comfortable in its entitlement to my skull and private thoughts. This voice likes to bludgeon me into submission, drain every drop of blood and every ounce of good feeling from my heart and my veins.  An internal Dementor, I guess. It lives to make sure I know just how awful I am – worse than worthless, really, because at least worthless does no harm. What I am is vile, poisonous, contemptible, utterly unloveable and grotesquely flawed in every measurable way, a walking burden on the earth and all its occupants. I’m not sure why the voice has been around more than usual this year, but I suspect it moved in to take up the space that used to be filled by my daily interactions with W. It’s not an actual voice from my actual past  but it contains all my child-time interpretations of people’s reactions to me, and all the feelings that came from those – the observations that I used to build my sense of myself.

As you can imagine, I don’t LIKE my new roommate. In fact, I am mostly sick to death of her and desperate to evict her – as forcefully as possible – forever. Don’t know if that’s possible, but I have developed a way to keep Demonella at bay.  It involves inviting even more characters to take up residence in my head. I invented these others and I call them the protector women. They are a little younger and harder than I but fiercely loyal. They are armed with bats and are very skilled at wielding them. They lounge around being funny and sardonic until Demonella pokes her head around the door frame to say something snide; then the protector women turn to me, eyebrows raised, and ask hopefully, “You want we should shut her up?”  The protector women have a kind of working class New York accent; I don’t know where they get that but I like it.

So, demons everywhere, some good, some bad, some being dealt with. It’s okay, because Sunday is Mother’s Day and I get to bring my boy home.