Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
As a feminist, I have learnt the values of strength and bravery – to fight all odds and come/move forward. Whenever I have been depressed I have told myself to be strong and fight the odds. As an activist, one thing I’ve learnt is to help others. To be present for others, and to be strong enough to counsel people when they need me.
However, of late I have been thinking about why there is so much focus on being strong, being perfect, or being available to everyone who is in need. Haven’t we realised that by endorsing all these qualities we have somehow forgotten to talk about being vulnerable? The vulnerability that some of us in the feminist movement have been rejecting for centuries, does it give us some power, some breathing space in our lives – lives fraught with fights for justice, surrounded by rationality? Does our rational mind give leverage to the fact that we also live with irrationality, with messiness? Do we have space to acknowledge this without being judged?
It’s hard to articulate how it feels to mourn the death of someone you loved, or to mourn a breakup with a lover when you are expected to operate in your professional and personal life as a functional human. Within a span of six months, two horrible incidents happened in my life: first, my partner of six years broke up with me, and then, my mother passed away.
When my live-in partner broke up with me, I had friends telling me how love is not forever and that I should move on. Queer theory reasons that monogamous romantic and sexual relationships are heteronormative, and that to be a perfect queer person I need to not give too much importance to love relationships. During our breakup I was expected to behave rationally and to move on. To be honest, I wanted to slap everyone who suggested that I be strong and move on. I was miserable and I wanted to express that for some time. My work suffered, my health suffered, and I suffered.
My relationship with my mother was not very smooth. We had had many rough patches, but she and I were, in some way, close. Because she was suffering from a terminal illness, we had known she was going to die, but her death broke me, tore me apart. Again, back at home I was expected to act ‘normal’, and as the eldest daughter, to take care of my father. Then too, I wanted to slap everyone!
So, I want to talk about two issues here – first, the right to be vulnerable, and second, the right to self-care.
Why vulnerability though, when for ages some of us who are part of the feminist movement and the queer movement have critiqued it? We have asked our clients, survivors of violence, to be strong and independent. But accepting that you are vulnerable is a strength nothing can combat! Because to access mental health care, we need to at least acknowledge that we are vulnerable. Every one of us needs the space to feel sad, to feel jealous, or to feel useless, because those are real feelings, and we are all social beings. We are socialised to be jealous, to be possessive about our romantic-sexual partners, and sometimes we end up feeling jealous and possessive. And only if we acknowledge these vulnerabilities do we get to talk about self-care.
Self-care is preservation of the self; it is love towards oneself, and it’s a rebellion against the patriarchal and globalised world that constantly validates a busy and a competitive life. Modern women are expected to be superwomen. Look at the advertisements on Indian television these days. A woman who works outside and inside the home is highly appreciated. These women are presented as if they do not need rest or self-care at all!
Often, when we use the word self-care, it is mistaken as being selfish. But self-care is not being selfish, it’s about caring for oneself – the self that we tend to ignore so many times! I am not an expert on self-care, but I can share what I have done in the recent past to take care of my self:
- Put myself first. Yes, that’s my first rule. Nothing is more important than me.
- Say “no”. In self-defence classes, including the feminist ones, we teach people to say “no” to violence. Well, here “no” is a little different. It means saying “no” to things that you think you can’t handle even if it means helping someone. It’s about drawing personal boundaries.
- It is important to know that I might not need the same thing in every circumstance. Sometimes, I might want to go out with friends, and sometimes I love to be alone and do nothing. Yes, literally nothing productive, and I know it’s okay. I don’t need to be perfect or productive all the time.
- Weed out the negative people from my life. Yes, it is very important. We don’t need to put up with people, even friends, who are more negative than positive. Don’t be scared to weed them out. Trust me, I did it and I am very happy.
- Acknowledge my right to be vulnerable and make mistakes. I have every right to make mistakes in my life and also to be vulnerable. I can cry whenever I want to and I don’t need anyone to tell me to be strong.
Mental health is also closely related to the ways in which our sexual desires are shaped. Queer people might go through several mental health issues because of the stigma attached to the identity of being queer. That requires a whole lot of discussion, and I am sure several people have already spoken about this. So, here I am going to focus on the impact of mental health on one’s sexuality, and this excludes sexual orientation.
First and foremost, women with mental health issues are at times not regarded as sexually fit or desirable. In mental health institutions, women are kept as prisoners without thinking of them as sexual beings, with their hair chopped off, made to wear shapeless clothes, and there is no question of talking about desire with them. Intimacy is an important part of sexuality. Sometimes a simple touch can satiate your skin’s hunger. A hug can take the pain away. But how much importance is given to intimacy when it comes to mental health issues?
When I was diagnosed with mental illness, my every act was scrutinised and ‘diagnosed’ by my romantic/sexual partners as being abnormal, extreme, or as something to be taken care of. Most of the time, the medicines made me numb. I could hardly be sexually aroused anymore. It took me a long time to get wet and be ready for sex with my partners. At times, I remember trying extra hard to pleasure them. And sometimes, I would suddenly be dying to have sex with them. It came as a shock to them because they would not get that the same woman who was disinterested in sex now really wanted it! When I spoke to my psychiatrist about it he did not consider it to be an important issue. And when my menstrual periods stopped for many months, I had hot flushes and cramps. That too, was not regarded as important by him. To be honest, with the cocktail of chemicals being popped inside you, you completely lose control of your body and mind.
For women with children and for disabled people, the feminist movement has been asking for flexible and supportive working conditions. I think one other area where many of us need to have provisions is support for people with mental health issues. It is time to talk about mental health and self-care as a feminist issue. It is indeed a rebellion against the patriarchal structure that does not want women to be thinking about themselves. They have to be always available to others. Maybe it’s time for us to take control of our minds the way we have started taking control of our bodies.
Illustration by Warwick Goble