Love Thyself: Why Self-Care is a Radical Notion

The most important thing anyone can do for the world is to take care of themselves.

In my experience, this has been particularly hard to grasp and accept for women, particularly women of color. It can be almost unthinkable for a woman to put herself before all her obligations and check in with herself about what part of her needs nourishing. In the United States, there is a culture of excess stress and pressure. Of unreasonable demands on the human psyche that quite frankly border on psychotic.

The effects of 80-hour work weeks, juggling family schedules, worries about financial stability drives many Americans to the other extreme of excessive alcohol, tobacco and drug use as well as other self-destructive behaviors begging for us to take a break. This is further compounded by status in society and where one lies on the totem pole of power and privilege – the lower on the pole you are, the more stressed out you are likely to be by the oppression of ideologies out of your control. In other words, the trauma of poverty, racism and sexism adds a whole other layer of injury to an already stressful life for the average woman of color like me.

During my doula training about two years ago, my mentor was passionate about self-care as birth professionals. I learned through the extensive training how helping women in childbirth is a journey into the unconscious memories and views on birth. We spoke a lot about how to sustain ourselves during the labor, the importance of debriefing and decompressing afterwards and how to maintain healthy boundaries with the women we serve to avoid being burned out. It was after this experience that I began to understand how important taking care of one’s self was.

The necessity to take care of my self became a priority after having my foundation rocked by sexual abuse, family strife and personal growing pains in the last several years. I began to understand that my mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health needed support for all the work I was doing with women’s empowerment, my writing and birth professional work. I learned tools that would facilitate a healthier relationship with my self. Therapy has been one of my most helpful resources. Taking care of my self became processing and unloading things I never could bring myself to talk about, as I saw how they were hurting me to remain silent about them.

Self-care has required me to look at all the ways I am promoting and maintaining my overall health. It has entailed a deep level of self-inquiry about where I lack love for my self and why I don’t think I deserve to take care of my self. It’s something I’ve learned vicariously through growing up in the world. That somehow, taking a mental health day off from my work, deciding to dedicate time to therapy sessions, booking yoga sessions, eating organic foods and setting limits for my interactions with people was selfish. As a Latina, my status in society has made me feel guilty for wanting to attend to myself first. With the burden of less economic opportunities and the notion that women are supposed to bend over backwards for everyone but themselves, I didn’t feel that I had the time or the luxury to focus solely on my well being.

I have quickly learned that if I am not okay, I cannot help anyone. The quicker I deteriorate healthwise, the more likely it is that my work will come crumbling down with it. While I have continued to learn how to employ a healthy lifestyle, it is out of the awareness that I need to serve myself to serve others to the best of my ability. To serve myself is radical – it is getting right to the root of the issues in this world. For all of us are sick with the disease of fear and suffering expounded on us daily and generationally passed on from mother to daughter. Incorporating self-care into our conversations around empowering women could lead to more women releasing and breaking the silences that keep them paralyzed if we can come to an understanding that we must heal ourselves before healing the world.

Coming Into The World In Violence

Arrive in pain. Sign papers. Strip down to a thin little gown. Hook you up to machines that beep loudly and irritatingly so. Stab you in the arm with a needle for an I.V. because you can’t eat for 8+ hours and they need to make sure they can give you drugs at a moment’s notice. Stay in bed. Do not get up unless you ask permission. Vaginal exams that can potentially introduce infection (as if the contractions were not painful enough). A swarm of people you don’t know witnessing you in your most vulnerable state. Lay on your back. Open your legs. Put them on stirrups. They push the pitocin because you’re not going fast enough, cue the intensity of your contractions skyrocketing. Person you’ve never met before is between your legs, giving you orders on how to deliver this child. Push on command. The inaudible sound of scissors unnecessarily cutting a perineum. Push on command in a room full of spectators wishing you’d hurry up and give birth already. Pull baby out. Suction its mouth and nose upon arrival. Cut the cord prematurely. Show you what the baby looks like. Take the baby away to be weighed, poked, prodded. At some point, sign more paperwork while you’re trying to breastfeed.Welcome to motherhood.

Currently, this scene is incredibly common in many hospitals across the world. From my experience, there are varying levels of how intense this plays out to be. After the 5 births I have attended as a doula, I made a decision to never give birth in a hospital ever in my life unless it was a dire emergency. Hospitals have never been one of my favorite places in the world. how can it be? It is full of sick and dying people. Why on earth would i want to give birth in an environment like that? Furthermore, Why do I want my child to come into the world so violently?

It is hard to have ‘birth’ and ‘violence’ in the same sentence and yet, in a country where it’s more dangerous to give birth  than in 49 other countries, the violence and death is real. African-American women are at almost four times greater risk than Caucasian women. A safe pregnancy is a human right for every woman regardless of race or income. From my experience, this disproportional rate of risk for African-American women grows to include all and any marginalized women in this country. On a similar scale, the infant mortality rate for marginalized women in the United States is just as despicable.  I often pose the question: what message are we sending future generations by bringing them into the world like this? What is happening around the world to birthing mothers is nothing short of mental and physical coercion and abuse.

The hospital staff can be offensive, pushy, mean, violent even. I have heard of obstetricians scare mothers into procedures that are unnecessary. This is an abuse of power to reach what sinister end? To be done with a birth so that a doctor can go play golf? Mind you, I’ve been at a birth for 12+ hours, I can understand the desire for it to be over, yet I am aware that it’s not about me, it’s about the woman and the child. Not only has the world forgotten that, it is also in many instances more concerned with how much money can be made off the birth. A cesarean section, pitocin, an epidural and all other interventions are things that add up on a hospital bill. Furthermore, just thinking about a C-section makes me cringe. In an emergency situation, they are absolutely important but other than that, it is violent. To cut someone up for no reason is unacceptable.

We are the only mammals that choose to give birth in such a public and often disempowering way. the rest of the animal kingdom tends to be very private when they give birth. We have been convinced that home birth is dangerous and that the only safe way to give birth is in a hospital, which is only an idea that is younger than the history of women giving birth in the world. The secret to why many women end up feeling safer in a hospital is due to the underlying notion that a woman’s body is dangerous, and therefore, childbirth is dangerous. It too may as well be a sickness that should be monitored and controlled.

Furthermore, to whisk the baby away for any reason after birth can cause more damage than many of us are aware of. Skin to skin contact is not just a luxury or a new trendy thing to do – it is one of the single most important experiences for a mother and her child. On a physiological level, the baby’s temperature is more stable and more normal because the mother’s own body can regulate this. The baby’s natural habitat is its mother’s body, so naturally the baby’s heart and breathing rate are also more stable, as it is accustomed to its mother’s rhythm. Something else I learned along the way is that skin to skin contact allows the baby to be colonized by the same bacteria as the mother. This coupled with breastfeeding, are essential to building the baby’s immunity. In contrast, a baby’s skin and digestive system in an incubator is susceptible to bacteria that is foreign and possibly harmful in the long run.

Lastly, babies are incredibly impressionable. It has felt everything their mother has felt for 9 months before experiencing a hospital birth. If the adults in the room are in a state of panic, anxiety and fear, what are the implications for how this child’s life is set up to be? For adults, anxiety has been normalized. For a baby, the hormones that shoot through you when you are anxious can prove to be toxic. Once a child is separated from their mother, they are in a state of anxiety. This can only set the stage for a traumatic life, which is what we are being born into in the world. I know I can cover much more in this post but I wanted to find a way to drive the point home that we are coming into the world violently, and this must end.

Violence & Silence: The Gravity

Today is the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women. In 1999, the UN General Assembly designated November 25th as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Violence against women and girls is a problem of pandemic proportions. At least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime – with the abuser usually someone known to her. Women’s activists have marked November 25th as a day against violence since 1981. The date commemorates the brutal assassination of the three Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic, in 1960 on orders of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961).

As an African woman with roots in the Dominican Republic, the story of Las Mariposas has had a great deal of significance to me. Reading “In The Time of The Butterflies” brought me to tears as I imagined the oppression these women were fighting against under the dictatorship at the time. It angered me to no end learning about how Trujillo exercised his power over women’s bodies, taking whatever women he desired and antagonizing those who would not comply. How he prohibited Minerva Mirabal from advancing in her career because she rejected his physical advances. These women were so brave in the face of death.

It is a story like this that reminds me that there is much work to be done in this world. Women are suffering from devastating amounts of violence both in this country and worldwide. I know how hard it can be to listen to horror stories of what happens to women on a daily, minute to minute basis. I’m aware of those who use the word “feminist” like it’s a bad thing. I feel that when it became personal and I experienced violence in my life, I could no longer wave away the gravity of how violence is perpetuated against women verbally, emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.

It is this gravity that makes me come off as “too serious” when I fail to find humor in a rape joke or I go on incessantly about ending violence against women and the strong hold patriarchy has on the world. Rape is no laughing matter. There is nothing funny about being penetrated against your will. Those memories are horrible. The effects can be devastating. The world is essentially waging a femicide. Any attempt to wipe out a group of people is no laughing matter. We exist in cultures where domestic and sexual violence are normalized, and the ones who suffer are expected to be silent about it. Often, the fear of annihilation and death is enough to silence millions.

This is incredibly serious. It is time to take serious measures.

If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it. – Zora Neale Hurston

 

Heal Thy Self: Healing From Anxiety and Depression Pt. 2

From my own experience, it rings true for me that your soul will seek out what it needs for its journey in your body. Whether or not we recognize that is another story. I have found that the healing journey to wholeness begins before we are aware of it. It gets kicked into high gear and rises from its dormancy when we decide to be a part of the conversation.

I began at age 6, when I would immerse myself in my own mind. I talked to myself a lot (probably just as much as I do now). It was in being alone, away from my siblings and cousins at times, that I found peace. It wasn’t always peace and yet, I still preferred it. I remember a year after that, a journal was introduced to me by my 2nd grade teacher, Ms. Flores. Around the same time, I began to make a home at the Morrison-Soundview Library. I would go there and read everything I desired. I had received tools to cope with reality and I loved them fiercely. I still do.

I remember that putting my legs up against the wall felt really good. It wasn’t until I started doing yoga years after that I realized my body was using a yogic asana to sooth myself as a young girl. I loved swings and rocking chairs; I have learned along the way that rocking is a self-soothing mechanism. It stimulates the balance mechanism of the inner ear. Often, it is a memory from being rocked back and forth in our mother’s wombs and being rocked to sleep after birth.

This brings me to one of the ultimate healing tools – music. I love rock music. I discovered it in high school. Knowing what I know now about the rocking back and forth, I can understand why a multitude of people, including myself, rhythmically rock back and forth when we listen to this music. Aside from that, music has always had a way to put into words emotions that I often could not. Sound and vibration has a healing effect on us.

Yoga is an integral part of my healing from anxiety. I have been able to learn how to practice disengaging from my mental monkey chatter and be more present. It is a daily practice and being a yoga student for the last 6 years has been fruitful. Coupled with that is meditation – the process of breathing and turning my gaze inward. Meditation helps to relax me and clear my mind, returning to my breath. It has helped me figure out complex emotions and situations, and has aided in studying and confronting depression.

The concept of using my hands to heal others has always been of interest to me. Learning about Reiki and going on to receive attunements resonated deeply with me. Reiki, the word, is Japanese. The two Japanese kanji that it is written in means ‘spiritual energy’. Reiki is a simple and natural method of spiritual healing and self-improvement that everyone can use if they are open to it. It is an ancient technique for stress reduction, relaxation and numerous other things. Reiki is transmitted by a “laying on of hands” and is based on the idea that “life force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy. Reiki aids in restoring the vitality of one’s life force energy for overall well-being. I use Reiki to balance my chakras and my emotions. I find that placing my hands vibrating with soothing healing energy on my stomach and heart, my anxiety eases as I focus on my breath.

The Wisdom Wheel is a cousin in the great family of the worlds’ wheels. It is related to North and South American medicine wheels, the Hindu chakravartin ‘wheel of law’ and the Chinese lo pan compasses. It is an 1,000 Day Journey. Cynthia Davidson developed the Wisdom Wheel after a long career in global management development and executive education. Each Wisdom Wheel is created with 36 stones. The 36 words on these stones represent Universal Laws, also known as Natural and/or Spiritual Laws. Together they identify the common ground of values which unite all cultures, creeds and countries. Meditating and writing about each law and the daily wisdom I receive from Cynthia’s journals (sent in subscription form to my email) has helped deepen my understanding of Self. Getting to know my Self better and better has meant understanding what triggers and causes my anxiety.

During my time at Casa Atabex Ache, I was introduced to the technique of emotional release work.  In a nutshell, it is the concept that to be able to heal deeply from internalized oppression and trauma, we must release it from our physical bodies. Doing this work helped to shake up and unblock things that I learned to face. It was because of my work there that I began going to therapy. I noticed that speaking about my thoughts and emotions aided in making me present to how my trauma has manifested. Talking out my anxiety has also helped reduce it, so I enjoy my therapy sessions and utilize them as a way to get the angst out.

I discovered how food affects my mood and well-being a couple of years ago. Maintaining a balanced diet with the most organic foods I can find has especially helped in renewing my energy and making me feel grounded and centered to do the spiritual and life work I am doing. The use of herbal medicines in balancing my hormones, emotions and nutrition have proven to have soothing and healing effects. I recommend speaking to your doctor for any possibly allergies to plants.
These are the tools I have been using to keep my self balanced while growing and understanding myself. It is a work in progress, as the healing journey is for a lifetime. I encourage everyone to find the tools that best work for them. Below are useful links to some of the therapies that I have used and have heard of so that you may explore them, if you are so inclined:
  • http://www.oneyearofwritingandhealing.com/
  • http://www.yogajournal.com/for_teachers/2390
  • http://centerforreikiwellness.com/Reiki_Treats.html
  • http://www.ianwatsonseminars.com/articles/articles_files/healingprocess/emotionalrelease.html
  • http://thewisdomwheel.com/Welcome.html
  • http://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/treatment/acupuncture
  • http://altmedicine.about.com/cs/conditionsatod/a/Anxiety.htm
  • http://life.gaiam.com/article/6-alternative-treatments-anxiety-and-panic-attacks