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Taking care of yourself is not a luxury

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MAY 15, 2014

“What are you doing to take care of yourself this week?”

The five of us in the Tang Center support group stared at each other. At the olive green carpet. At the second hand ticking away in the wall clock. Four minutes until our weekly hour and a half together was over. This week’s conversation had been a heavy one: most of us queer womyn of color in the group were not out to our families.

Someone finally says, “I’m journaling.”

“I’m spending some time in nature. It always makes me feel better.”

“I’m going to the gym.”

Simple things, but necessary. Self-care is not indulgent or selfish or luxurious. Taking the time to decompress after a stressful exam or an argument with a housemate, the time to sip a hot, steaming cup of tea or to take a walk through the trees in the Berkeley Hills, or anything at all that helps us keep going in this pressure-cooker of a school, is essential.

Time, of course, is the last thing we have, between the weekend-long partying and weekday-long study marathons. But when we mistake our bodies and minds for little machines, when we assume we can just change the batteries when they burn out, that’s when we get ourselves in trouble. Sleep banks do not exist and we cannot make advance deposits on Monday nights before all the deadlines on Friday. (Maybe one day we’ll find brain juice in every supermarket and sleep banks on every street corner! We’ll just keep praying and innovating in the mean time.)

Self-care means checking in with ourselves, not Facebook. It means meeting up with friends for an afternoon on the Glade to chat, not texting a quick “Let’s hang out some time next week!” One of the strangest but most thought-provoking self-care questions someone once asked me was, “If you were dating yourself, what would you do for yourself right now?” Give yourself permission, especially when it comes to mental health.

Conversations around health and wellness often spotlight our bodies. Eat more vegetables. Get eight hours of sleep. Drink less caffeine and alcohol. There’s greater cultural literacy around what constitutes physical health than there is about emotional, mental and social health, and we often stigmatize the latter.

Socially, we need to connect with people who inspire us, not just those we want on our beer pong team or won’t drop us in the middle of a keg stand (I mean, that’s important and all), but we need to make friends who will laugh and cry with us, no questions asked. We need to talk about family conflicts or identity crises or self-doubt when they arise, because they do and they will. And all the co-op parties in the world will not help us through them. We need supportive environments, whatever shape and color they come in. Maybe they’re friends who are good listeners, support groups, counseling at Tang or mentors.

Consider this a battle-cry championing self-love. We knew all along it was this simple. It is. It might be easy to forget when our eyes start to glaze over from staring at the laptop screen for eight hours. Our heads start to swim, and we forget how to get out of the depths of Main Stacks.

But we can do it. Take care of ourselves, that is. Escaping Main Stacks is another issue. Good luck with that.

While different people have different coping strategies for stress, the ones that work do not cause bigger problems in the end. Drinking and partying and smoking, for example, might work for a while. Until they don’t. Hulu and Netflix are student go-tos, but the question to ask ourselves about any self-care strategy is, “Do I feel better after or even more drained?”

For me, this week has meant long stretch breaks, hitting punching bags at the gym as if my grades depended on it, a reminder on my phone that yells (with love), “Relax! You’re almost there!” at random intervals, taking the time to watch the sunset over the bay from a friend’s roof. And of course, spending too much time in front of the computer screen late into the night wringing out words by the page-ful. But if we’re running a marathon, we’re already at mile 21 out of 26. This is it.

So, what are you doing to take care of yourself this week?

Sophie Lee writes the Thursday column on health and wellness. Contact her at [email protected]

JULY 09, 2014