Notes on My Non-Linear Healing Process

Rationality and Irrationality

I suspect that wanting to live—wanting anything at all, just wanting—is a human default. It does (or should) come as normally as breathing. According to this line of reasoning, a mentally healthy human being shouldn’t need a reason to want to live. There’s a reason why survival instinct is called what it is. A desire to live is thoughtless; instinctive.

As I progress in my journey of recovering from mental illness, the thoughts in the paragraph above have been foremost in my mind. The healthier I seem to get, the more I seem to want to live. When I am healthy, I wake up and do things, without necessarily contemplating the futility of it all. And when I do consider the futility of it all, I almost instinctively brush those thoughts aside and continue to do life.

The most fascinating thing about my fluctuation between good and ill health is that in each condition, I continue to think the way I’ve thought for ages. Most things about life as it is, I still consider to be largely meaningless, unnecessarily stressful, and stuff I simply do not want to have to deal with. I’m still frequently baffled as to why Someone thought it was a good idea to put me, alive, into this world. In other words, I don’t consider the sentiments of my mentally unhealthy mind to be the results of irrationality. Most of its reasoning still makes very good sense to me. The difference is that, when I am more healthy than unhealthy, those very good reasons have much less weight on me, in my day-to-day life. After all, many people who aren’t depressed are also not under any illusions that this world is in good, perfectly acceptable condition. So, no, I don’t consider my unhealthy mind to be mostly-irrational. If anything, maintaining the desire to live is one of the most irrational things a human being in this world can do.

 

The Function of Desire

On the subject of “wanting” and how thoroughly it can just vanish: In my healthy states, I find myself wanting something considerably frivolous—a high-spec Microsoft Surface, complete with a Surface Pen. I don’t need these objects—but I want them badly. Badly enough that I wake up in the morning, think about how I can’t yet afford them, and thus find motivation to go to work so that, sometime in the future, I might be able to. This deep desire for an object as otherwise insignificant as a fancy, underrated computer, is one of the main things I use to confirm that I am alive and (close to) mentally healthy. Because when I am unhealthy, there is absolutely nothing that I want—besides nonexistence or death, I suppose—however desirable my healthy mind considers it to be.

For example, a couple of months ago, a significant paid performance opportunity came my way. It ended up not pulling through—but for the period I thought it would, in working towards it, going to meetings, etc., I felt no positive emotions towards the opportunity. In fact, in that period, I frequently woke up in tears and confessed repeatedly to my relatives that I didn’t want to live anymore (which is nothing new to them, anyway). To put this into better context—and here, the post Work, Worth and Wages might be useful—I’ve spent so much of the past few years worrying that, as an artist, especially in Ghana, significant paid opportunities would never come my way. And here I was in 2019 with offers almost bombarding me successively, and I didn’t want any of it, even though I had been wanting this very thing for half of my life. That was one of the most obvious indicators that mentally, I was far, far gone.

 

Re-Learning What Healthy Looks Like on Me

On how I personally distinguish between good and ill health: If you had asked me, six months ago, if I thought I was ill, mentally or physically, I might have said no. I even admit to having published a blog post last year to that effect. My reasoning, which I still consider legitimate, was the rationality behind many of the thoughts and sentiments behind my depression and even suicidality. The world is and was trash, my friendships were indeed breaking apart, my academics were legitimately stressing me out, my relationship with my family was in shambles, etc. Verifiable facts. It’s a similar phenomenon with my body. After being plagued with chronic headaches since age twelve, and the various physical malfunctions I’d become used to and exhausted of at the same time, I suppose I came to regard these things as a kind of Akotowaa default. You know, when you’ve been sick for so long, you start believing your sick state is your natural state?

Sometime in January, I started taking two types of regular medication: vitamin supplements—to help with my lack of energy problem—and anti-depressants. Alongside these, I began cognitive behavioral therapy sessions with a qualified, Christian, Ghanaian woman. (This combination of my therapist’s identities is very important to me.) At the beginning of this treatment journey, there were a few things my professionals made clear to me:

  1. Anti-depressants don’t necessarily start doing what they’re supposed to do until about two weeks after you’ve started taking them. (The side-effects, however, begin immediately.)
  2. For a case like mine, anti-depressants wouldn’t be enough to set me on a meaningfully progressive trajectory. I would need cognitive behavioral therapy as well. Likewise, therapy alone wasn’t guaranteed to have much of an effect on me if my biological and neurological problems remained untreated. So, neither the medication nor therapy could be taken in isolation; I needed both.
  3. My healing process was supposed to be a general upward trend, but it was almost certain to be non-linear. This meant that I would be getting better slowly, but each day would not automatically be better than the last. I would still be experiencing bad spells and relapses, but the hope was that a bad spell this week, for example, would be less bad than a bad spell from two weeks ago.

All of these things turned out to be perfectly accurate projections—which is not to say that the forewarnings significantly reduced my panic, doubt and discouragement during bad spells and relapses. But, for now, I want to focus on my reaction to the physical transformations I went through when the meds at last started doing what they were supposed to do. That is, after the first two weeks of taking them.

Those second two weeks of being on medication, I experienced literally the highest level of physical health I had ever experienced in six or seven years. Chronic headaches and photosensitivity, in particular, have plagued me since adolescence began. But the third week into being on medication, I started a new TV series, which I quickly descended into binge-watching. Note that I have never, since 2012, been able to watch things—even movies at the cinema, or projections during classes—without consequences on my eyes and head. So, imagine my surprise when I carelessly got into the habit of watching six to seven 45-minute episodes a day, expecting to be crippled by migraines before bedtime, and instead… Nothing.

I don’t think there are words to properly articulate my wonder. I went twenty-one days (I counted) without a headache, even though it seemed I was doing almost everything in my power to self-sabotage, at least, according to the patterns of my body which I had gotten used to after seven years.

In those weeks, I literally could not believe the state of my health. Not only were my screen habits not severely affecting my health (I say “severely” because I still got occasionally dry-eyed), but I also felt baselessly happy and full of energy for a majority of the days. I’m not exaggerating when I say I felt like a completely different person. This healthy person, I assumed, is what I could have been several years ago, had depression not interrupted my growth.

But it was also jarring and terrifying to experience this bout of high health. For one thing, I began wondering if anything I thought I knew about myself was true. How much of what I thought constituted my personality was actually a side-effect of depression? Am I even introverted? Or has it always just been depression sapping my energy when I’m around people? Do I really have extra-sensitive eyes, or was it just chemical imbalances in my brain mimicking the photosensitivity effect? (And so on.) Among the few, few things that remained constant was that I still had a great love for good stories, storytelling, and lexivism.

Another negative effect of my good health spell was a certain rage. Rage at depression for stealing the entirety of my teenage years. What a waste of the woman I could have grown into by now! What a useless forfeit of all I could have achieved, with a healthy mind and body at fifteen, seventeen, nineteen… Yeah, I think I’m still quite mad about this one. I don’t appreciate how much of my life I feel I have lost.

The point, however, is that, now that I know what healthy feels like, it’s that much more obvious to me that I haven’t been healthy for the past few years, no matter what I have said in previous blog posts. I said those things because I didn’t understand what healthy looked like on me. Now, I do.

The further consequence of understanding my health is a general inability to continue accepting my moments of ill health as my default. (I say “general” because, when I’m depressed, my thoughts tend to return to the idea of me as a permanently-damaged being.) A few weeks ago, I realized something so powerfully striking that I had to write it down: “The sick version of me is not the final version of me.” It’s much easier to recognize depression as an affliction that I have, as opposed to a part of my makeup. My therapist was invaluable in helping me digest this one. Now, it’s easier to recognize my moments of ill health as just those—moments. In no way permanent. Because I’m recovering, however winding this process may be. I’ve decided that being depressed is not my purpose in life; therefore, I cannot stay in it.

NonLinearHealingProcess

 

Non-Linearity in an Upward Trend

More on non-linearity: If you’re quite bad at athletics like I am, this analogy might make more sense to you.

You have a lap to run, around a track. You go on your marks with full vim, ready to tear the track up. Go! The whistle blows, you start sprinting. This is easy, you’re going to get to the finish line in a breeze. Less than halfway, and your breath is already giving out. You get slower and rockier, your body unable to keep up the pace. You fear you might stop altogether. But you don’t stop. You don’t return to the speed you started with, either, because you don’t have the strength for that. As you approach the finish line, you’re sort-of-jogging at the only pace your body seems able to go at without stopping altogether. But it’s fine because at least you’re stable now. Though you may still stumble, you’re not as erratic as you were in the middle, nor as fast and unsustainable as you were in the beginning. You hope, with a little more time and practice at running laps, that the speed at which you started will one day become your stable pace.

That initial speed is kind of how my body reacted to being put on new medication—the second two weeks. New chemicals had been introduced into my body and my brain was fired up by them. Three weeks without a headache? Unheard of, in this body. But after that, my brain and body were like, “You know what? We actually can’t keep this up. We’re going to stop now, sorry.” Then I returned to chronic tiredness, and random bursts of energy, then back to tiredness. The erratic part of the lap. Now, I feel like I’m stabilizing better, somewhere at a fraction of the initial splendid health. I’m doing life almost—but not quite—like a functional human being, on most days. I’m certainly more productive than I was four months ago. But my mind and body are still swift to let me know when I’m overextending. The migraines from going too long without food, the incapacitation when I worked too much the previous day, the occasional carelessness that brings my anxiety back…

With fair frequency, I have moments of clarity. Quite often, recently, I have been able to find so much joy in personal writing projects. My desire for and pleasure derived from work, both paid and unpaid, has made me think back often to the essay, “Why Work?” by Dorothy Sayers (which is possibly the best essay I have ever read). She says in it, among many other things,

“[…] work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”

I’m still slow at most things, which can be crippling and discouraging at times, simply because the world feels so fast to me. It’s a difficult—yet somehow, increasingly easier—thing to accept that the speed at which I think I should be running, in order to be properly aligned with this world, might never be sustainable for me, and thus never achievable if I want to avoid completely wrecking myself. Another difficult prospect to accept is that I might have to be on medication for a long, long time. The future of my health is just so uncertain. Maybe I’ll stop needing the extra help soon. But… maybe I won’t. I don’t think I’m in a hurry anymore to get off it. I also think and hope that if I do get off, and subsequently experience a grave relapse, I won’t throw a fit if I have to get back on drugs.

C’est la vie, I suppose. Personally, I just want to write lit things.

-Akotowaa

Terror + Taking A Semester Off

At six years old, I wrote my first end-of-term examination of primary school, in Class 1. I emerged with the overall first position in my class. The same happened the term after that and the term after that. Then throughout Class 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Form 1, and two out of three semesters of Form 2 (the term I wasn’t first, I was second) before I transferred schools. Altogether, I’d been overall first 23 times, which is wild to me whenever I think about it now. My intense experience of the effects of ranked success at a young age didn’t leave me unscarred.

When I was 10 years old, my father enrolled me in a graphic design course over the long vac. Four times each week, I was taking lessons on Photoshop, Illustrator, CorelDraw and more, and all my classmates were adults between their twenties and forties. During one class break, I was talking to one of them, a man probably in his thirties. He expressed how impressed he was with my intelligence and my ability to keep up with the course. During that conversation, I remember telling him my fears that all my “smartness” was a succession of flukes with an expiry date, and that one day my ability to succeed with barely any effort would just… stop. He said it wouldn’t. I didn’t believe him.

That was a smart move, because it happened a few years later.

Starting approximately from my first year in high school, my ability to succeed with minimal effort began trickling away. I’d always known theoretically that this would happen, but as it was happening, I couldn’t help but feel defective. No logic could explain the sudden intensity of my struggle to me. In the transition from one level of formal education to the next, I’d lost my superpowers.

I don’t think I’ve ever regained them or that I ever will.

So far, I have spent five semesters in tertiary/higher education institutions. Four out of five have been difficult and depressing. For three out of five, I have been some degree of suicidal. The most recent semester, which began in July 2018 and ended in November of the same year, and which I spent in Cape Town, South Africa, was psychologically the worst of them all.

When I express statements like this to my mother, she always wants to narrow the problem down to something specific, logical and straightforward enough to attack. Trying to make her sufficiently understand me is always difficult, but in this season, it seemed particularly impossible to give her anything close to what she wanted to hear.

The combined elements that made up my Cape Town semester suggested that it should have been my most enjoyable one yet. I had escaped America—the country that had been trying to suffocate me—and was back on my own continent. I was living with—or a handful of minutes away from—my best friend in the whole world. I mostly enjoyed the subject matter of my classes and admired my professors. I had a wonderful mid-semester break trip to another African country. I was financially secure. I should have been killin’ it.

Instead, I wanted to kill myself.

There was the stuff I was relatively used to: days of immobility, not being able to shower or get out of bed. Constant crying. Interspersed insomnia and hypersomnia. Normal. A lot of things were relatively new: the violent and spontaneous effects social media had on me and my consequent, too-frequent deactivation (software, databases and algorithms didn’t take kindly to my erraticism, I can tell you that); trying to cut myself open with blades; feeling a terrifyingly clear division between two internal personas like a schizophrenic Jekyll-Hyde experience. But I still think the most awful new thing was my sudden inability to write.

I wish I could explain how deep and jarring this was. Writing, for quite a while now, has kept me alive. No matter how low I’ve gone, I’ve always been able to write. It’s been my anchor in nearly every storm. Many times, I can’t even pray, and when I can, I do so in writing. Naturally, not being able to write scared the living daylights out of me. I couldn’t help but conclude that if the spirit of writing had left me, then my breath and sanity were certain to follow. If they wouldn’t do so on their own, I was invested in making it happen myself. I decided I never wanted to see a day of 2019; I had to make sure I died before January.

My academic life during my Cape Town semester was difficult and challenging and brought me immense anxiety. I was late on a few papers, missed a lot of classes, spent inordinate amounts of time trying to just comprehend homework instructions, and had all but given up by exam time—but even I could tell that my reactions to my academic difficulties were disproportionate to the true intensity of the difficulties.

It was about school, but at the same time, it wasn’t. I just wanted to not be alive anymore. I wanted to quit everything. Including struggling so hard to succeed in an academic system I thought was BS anyway. Including trying to build a life of future stability for myself when I had already decided there was no point to my existence. But there were, in fact, real reasons why school seemed to be making me crazier than most of the other factors in my life.

Most of it goes back to my childhood and everything I have internalized about academic success, its role in my life and future, how it factors into my parents’ and other relatives’ pride in me, how deeply ingrained it is into my perception of my own self-worth. I was terrified—no, petrified—of failure, and I still am.

Above all, it is the mechanics of my upbringing that keeps doing me in. It often feels like there’s robotic programming within me that determines what I will do even if I don’t believe in what I’m doing, even if I don’t want to do it. It determines how I feel no matter how much my mental perception stands in opposition. I know that academic success doesn’t dictate my worth as a human being. But the mechanics of my programming render me unable to be any type of relaxed when I’m not executing, or at least attempting to execute, stellar performance. I can fix my mind, with as much determination as possible, that I’m not going to let some measly assignment stress me out—but mechanics make my whole body tense up when a deadline approaches, drive me to harm myself if need be, just to get the work done in the end. Mechanics have me constantly performing even when I want to let go, then constantly feeling wretched for performing because with all the counteracting evidence, how will I ever get people to believe that I’m not doing okay?

Add this all to my many other struggles. Anxiety, my relationship with suffering, my friendship struggles and heartbreaks, my relationship with my body, my refusal to take care of myself… I was tired, and the world/my life felt far too much for me. It was as if everything crescendoed into cacophony in my ear. I knew what I needed, if there was any hope of recovering my health or will to live, was for everything to stop so that I could work through things, a step at a time, without the anxiety-inducing threats of deadlines or mandated tasks. I was already dying, but school was accelerating the process several-fold. I knew, without having to be told, that if I simply powered on, attempted to “weather the storm,” or “hang in there,” and try to finish school uninterrupted, I would soon succeed in killing myself. Without a doubt. It was clear to me that my life was at stake—but would it be clear to anyone else? (The people responsible for paying my school fees, for instance.)

 

“How can I fail?”

I asked this question several times to myself and aloud, in the presence of my best friend. I just couldn’t fathom it. Me and failure? The two just didn’t go together. If I failed, my world would end. I felt like I would rather kill myself than fail—even if I believed that giving myself permission to fail was probably the only way I’d be able to make it through my Cape Town semester. I was burned out, but I had to make it out alive, to crawl out of the fire on my hands and knees. If I could just survive, giving up the worry that I had to be stellar, giving up the anxiety about how much money I’d be wasting if this semester ended up counting for nothing, giving up the notion that I was worth nothing if I couldn’t ace my damn semester abroad. I was so high-strung, I had to release pressure and relax—which meant not taking the “necessity” to succeed as seriously as I did. It meant giving myself permission to fail, if I just couldn’t do what was demanded of me without permanent damage to myself. But the thought of failure elicited a visceral and violent reaction from me. I might start heaving whenever I thought about it.

The day I texted my parents an essay explaining that I couldn’t take it anymore, I wanted to kill myself because I was already dying, and that I refused to go back to school the next semester, fear of failure was all I could think about. I kept wondering how my grandparents would react, if or how to explain to them what was happening to me. I thought about the consequences of possibly having my graduation date pushed back and what it would feel like to watch the people I’d started school with graduate and leave me. I thought about what it meant that I, and not them, was suffering to this extent, why I needed a resting/healing period and they could just carry on uninterrupted.

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But then I was (and am) also afraid of rest. I don’t even know how to do rest.

The fear of failure is pervasive. It influences your relationships with time and with productivity. I always feel like I should be doing something “productive”, no matter my state of health. I’m not yet good at respecting my tiredness. Rest makes me feel like I am wasting my life and failing at something, and so even doing nothing gives me anxiety. (Highly ironic, since, when my life feels overwhelming, nothing is all I want to do.) The idea of taking a semester off terrified me partly because it meant resting, which, to me, was synonymous with being on the straight path to failure.

Even before I came back home, I knew that the concept of rest would be difficult for many family members and people back home to understand. I was perfectly right. “So, are you going to be taking classes at the University of Ghana?” “Are you going to find a job?” “Are you going to set up a business project?” “What are you going to be doing?” Every time I get asked any of these questions, I go into a slight panic. I want to scream, “I know how to keep myself busy, okay? Why can’t I just exist without all this wahala?” (How I’ve wished there was a way out of existence.)

Things have been relatively manageable at home over the Christmas + New Year break, because it’s a legitimate break. But when February comes and I’m still in Accra, dealing with the comments and questions might get harder. I feel the pressure of needing something more than “trying to stay alive” as a valid explanation for what I’m doing while off school. The pressure is murderous.

During the pre-decision, decision and now post-decision seasons, I’ve been wrestling with triggers about the value of my life. Are my life and health worth these attempts to preserve them? Shortly after I set my decision in stone, I was speaking to my favorite cousin, who said to me that he was happy it was just a break, that I hadn’t decided to quit school entirely—because he knew the value of a degree and how stressful my life would be without one. I have no doubts at all that he meant well (how could he not?) and was only trying to be helpful, but his “advice” felt so dreadfully violent to me that I began to cry when he gave it. Did he not fully understand that I was very ready to straight-up kill myself, or that trying to live this perfect, prescribed life would kill me? For me, his advice was just further “proof” that high performance and avoidance of failure were more important than my literal presence on this earth. I couldn’t be a Failure + Alive. My only options were to either be an Achiever + Alive, or just Dead (from trying to achieve).

Even after I’d declared my decision to my parents, I spent several days and weeks wondering if I was making the right one. And then, if I concluded that it was the right decision, I would be angry at myself for not being healthy enough to just go back to school and finish, like a normal person. In any case, my doubts about whether time off was necessary were cleared when my body tried to finish me in December. If I wanted to keep my life, powering on stolidly was not an option.

So, this is where I am now. In Accra, wrestling with rest. Watching my colleagues return to the groove of academic life. Trying to want to be alive. Knowing that my path is the correct one and yet still being uncomfortable with the fact of that. And writing, always writing, because this is how I know how to stay alive. The terror hasn’t gone away, but the acceptance will soon, I hope, be loud enough to drown it out.

-Akotowaa

Self-Care: The Thing I Wish Was A Myth (But It Really, Really Isn’t).

In January of 2018, I was experiencing heartache—but I can’t remember what for. I do remember being freshly back on campus after the Christmas break and crying so hard in my dorm room that my chest physically started to hurt. It was bizarre and alarming. Someone online told me they had experienced a similar sensation and had had to get their heart physically checked.

I remember thinking, if heartbreak were to leave the realm of the purely metaphorical, this is what it would feel like. In that moment, I felt in danger of dying alone in my room if my heart suddenly gave out—and I panicked. I had such limited communication with nearly everyone in my life. I often immersed myself in isolation. I had no roommate. Who would know if there was an emergency? Who would care? And who would help?

As whatever I was suffering heartache from refused to subside and the physical chest pains continued, I decided it was time for a physical check-up. I hadn’t had one in a while and I just wanted to make sure nothing else strange was happening with my body. The doctors told me that physically, I really was mostly fine.

Emotions—like heartbreak and sadness—aren’t the only things that manifest physically for me. My anxiety does as well—and I often get anxious about the most miniscule things. Like replying texts or waiting for people I’m supposed to be meeting. My body will tense up and it will feel like all my muscles are clenched. My heart rate will speed up, I may start sweating. But it’s essentially the muscles that suffer the brunt of the mess. My shoulders, arms, chest. Tense as tightened ropes. It exhausts my body in a tangible way, no matter how psychological my anxiety itself may be. It’s terrifying.

I thought no year could be worse for my mental health than 2016, but 2018 proved to me that I don’t have to die just to visit hell. I have never, never wanted to kill myself as much as I have between those twelve months, and I’ve never tried to hurt myself as deliberately as I have within this time either. It’s felt like pain after trauma after heartbreak after pain. Everything has been more complicated than it ever was before.

In the middle of the year, I started experiencing sensations in my head that I couldn’t explain. It often felt like my head had lost balance and that my nerves were malfunctioning so I couldn’t lie, sit or stand still; I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t concentrate on any task. I don’t know what a stroke feels like, but I was convinced I was about to have one. I panicked every time my parents left me at home alone and my brother wasn’t around. If I had a medical emergency, who would help? And why couldn’t anything logically explain what was happening in my head?

My mother took me to get a far-too-expensive series of thorough medical checkups. Aside slight anaemia, there was absolutely nothing wrong with me. This was becoming a pattern; me being convinced I was about to die, and then proof arising that there was “nothing wrong with me.”

On Monday, 24th December 2018, I had a long day where events seemed particularly designed to trigger my anxiety and irritation. I had maxed myself out during the weekend as well, attending way too many events and having my introvert self be constantly surrounded by people—almost always an anxiety-inducing phenomenon for me. Both at home (you know how Christmas time is with African families and how it is when your house is the host venue for festivities) and out of the house. So, on Monday, after several things that were supposed to go according to plan did not, I just broke.

It was chest pains again. Dull but deep. And persistent. That night, when the pains started, I thought I was going to die, again. I felt like I was suffocating, but nothing seemed to be evidently suffocating me. Slight movements seemed to trigger chest pangs. I went to bed in pain, in too awful of a mental state to even browse myself to sleep with my phone. The pain didn’t relent. I wondered if I’d wake up the next morning. If I did wake up, though, I expected that the pain would have faded.

I woke up the next morning and the pain was the same. Aside the chest aches, there was pain throughout my back, from my neck to my lower back. Then I developed a migraine which, despite frequent doses of painkillers, refused to completely vanish for about four days.

I was incapacitated, nearly bedridden, under a body-imposed house arrest for several days, and by the third day, it was already clear to me that my physical breakdown was a result of not having taken care of myself. Throughout the year, everything that had stressed me out, whether psychological or physical, I had essentially pushed aside after it happened, tried to ignore and forget my pain rather than heal it. I’d tried to proceed with my life as normally as I possibly could with the pain in the background.

At the end of the worst year of my life, my body was having no more nonsense. It was as if it was saying to me: You don’t even have to try committing suicide, sis, I’ll kill you on your mind’s behalf.

My mother, worried, got my uncle, who is a heart surgeon, to carry out a cardiac ultrasound on me just in case. Yup, you guessed it—nothing wrong with my damn heart. My uncle’s hypothesis was that the ache was from my muscles, not my organ. That wasn’t hard to believe at all. I knew my muscles stored stress. It wasn’t surprising that at least twelve months of stored stress was now trying to take me out.

 

I’ve been thinking about self-care lately. Until very recently, nearly every time I have read the term, it has been with a tone of disdain. I considered it that thing which those Instagrammers with pristine and minimalistic photo-grids are always on about. And the poets whose micro-poetry posts get thousands of likes. And the life coach-ish people whose professional skill sets I’m never quite certain about. An empty phrase that sounds nice but means nothing. I thought of “self-care” as a myth. I wish it was a myth. I know (now) that it is not.

Self-care, in my opinion, is not done justice by the definition of “taking care of yourself.” Unless the last word in there is italicized: taking care of yourself. That involves developing a deep understanding of yourself and acting accordingly, in the way that best keeps you, as an individual, healthy. You can’t get anywhere useful if you try caring for yourself without understanding yourself, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you understand yourself and refuse to care for yourself accordingly. The latter is something I’m guiltier of than anyone else I know.

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I recently wrote about My Faith + My Body, the anger I feel towards my body for being “badly designed”; the flaws within which keep me from being able to function at others’ capacities, whether it’s because of my photosensitivity, easy fatigue, chronic migraine, or whatever. Even though I long ago acknowledged that this is how my body works, I kept berating myself for not being able to keep up with the world, with other people, and with my own life. When so many others around me are doing much more than me, so much more efficiently and tirelessly, it’s nearly impossible not to see myself as inferior because I’m designed differently.

In reaction to the sense of inferiority, I tend to deliberately ignore my design and attribute everything “wrong with me” to laziness and indiscipline. Then I put more on my plate than I can handle—even as the world has already handed me a very full one—and then I try to operate at a pace and capacity I was never meant to. How can I not crash, then, mentally and physically? I’m not a superhero and I can’t do everything. I can’t even do what the average person can do.

My body’s design isn’t the only thing I handle badly. I wrote in On Suffering about how I’ve punished myself for the state of my mental health. I’ve written in How Do You Want to Be Loved? about how I’ve allowed disasters in my personal relationships to pile up and affect me brutally. I’ve written in There Is No Prototype on how I’ve embarrassed myself through a refusal to acknowledge my own uniqueness. It is this same kind of refusal that has landed me in these quasi-medical emergencies throughout the year.

I am slow with many things. I often berate myself for it even though I know—have even put the line in a poem once—that slow is not equal to stupid. Slow is an adjective, not a value judgment, and I wish I would start acting like I believe it, because I know that as of now, “SLOW” is the way my life demands to be lived.

Self-care through knowledge of self is important to me because it’s the only way I’ll recognize how to reject generic advice. I tend to ignore the way my specific body, mind and emotions work in favor of the lie that if I only work hard and/or train at XYZ pace recommended by the internet/some person who doesn’t know how my body/mind works, I’ll reach where someone else has reached. (When the actual fact is, if I follow the unspecialized advice I’m recommended, I might die.) No doubt a different person, when given the very same advice, may follow it and thrive. (Make no mistake, this makes me angry. I want to be able to thrive the “normal” way.) But trying to keep up with everyone and everything is what lands me in the kinds of medical conundrums described above.

I want and am slowly trying to commit to caring for myself in the specific ways my mind, body and emotions demand to be cared for. I recognize and fear that one of the hardest parts of my journey is going to struggling with other people not understanding my lifestyle choices or the motives behind them. If I listen to my body and stay at home when all my friends are going out, how would this affect my relationships with them? Will they never extend their invitations again? Will they begin to consider me the kind of friend they can only text but never hang out with in person? Will they harbor secret thoughts that I hate them? If I take three days to respond to texts, will they get anxious that they’ve said something wrong? Or get fed up and simply quit texting me? When I deactivate from all the platforms on which I’m usually reachable, will they think I intentionally tried to cut them off? If I stay at home for days on end, will my parents think I’m lazy? If I go half a week without seeing my grandparents, will I receive a lecture for being intentionally rude?

The list of questions that trap me in fear goes on. They’re also not purely hypothetical; nearly every single one of them has happened before. Such sentiments already have been expressed by the people in my life, and I wasn’t even trying to take care of myself at those times.

Being a human being with my specific design is difficult. But if I’m determined to keep myself alive, if I truly believe in Life Over Everything, there are storms I will have to brave. I’m not looking forward to it. I wish my self-care practice didn’t have to be as complicated as situations currently demand—but I simply can’t see a way around it. On a day-to-day basis, I’m constantly having to check in with myself, to intake or eliminate substances from my body, to regulate phone, screen and internet usage, monitor sleep and socialization, exercise, take time off from school, see therapists and doctors regularly, do all these self-care practices that I’ve usually neglected, just so I don’t die.

I haven’t yet reached the point where I am not resentful that I have to take much more pronounced self-care measures than most people I know (I just want to be normal, for God’s sake!), but I hope I get there soon. I hope I get there soon.

-Akotowaa