I was a freshman in college the first time I heard the phrase self-care. Another shining gem handed to me between acronyms and language with which I was able to better name oppressive structures. Its novelty wore off quickly. The first thing I understood about self-care was that not only is it permissible but also healthy to indulge in doing things purely for oneself. The second thing I realized about self-care was its implicit isolation. Knowing my own tendency to detach when I need support most, it was immediately clear that this would not work for me. That was frightening.  

I never heard or read any critique of self care and though in part I understand why, I wonder why we are not more critical. I question why we are unable to notice how the emphasis on self care can be dangerous to those for whom it is foreign and impractical.

I appreciate self care as a mode of affirmation, in the work it does to allow us to believe we do deserve care, in the way it challenges the notion that we must always keep it together. And yet, I do not see it as a survival tactic, I challenge the notion that self care is the solution to protecting our well being.

I find myself at the end of a downward spiral more often than I am comfortable admitting, but I don’t read self-care articles in these moments. Do not heed advice from friends that begin and end with self and care. When I read these articles it is with a sense of removal. A nod of my head over a morning latte, a thankfulness that these may be the words that give another day to fellow black folks and/or women of color. And, they very well may — I certainly hope that in times of need, these words deliver. That, however, has not been my experience.

As a Black woman, I was never taught to care for myself: in practice nor in acceptability. I was not raised with an unshakable sense of self-worth that respected and valued my fragility as on par with my ability to perform. To take time from the task at hand meant to decrease my odds at executing with perfection. This is to say: The idea of doing something for myself was silly at best, it did not align with my end goals, the success I would be praised for. Being okay was a given, not a triumph and there was no time to waste. I did not know enough to care for myself, and so certainly I did not know how.

What I was not taught and would never practice I could not learn. I did not understand that loving myself was crucial to survival. I knew not what this looked like in practice. I know not what this looks like in practice.

I am confident that I am not the only one for whom self-care articles are nice in principle, but irrelevant in reality. What exactly are we left with if we do not know how to take care of ourselves? What if mental illness, depression, anxiety or otherwise, renders us unable to care for ourselves? What of survival then? When we are sent links or final words that say I can see you’re in need of care. So take care of that. On your own. What then? What are we left with in a time of need when we are alone and expected to heal in isolation?

If you ask me, solitary revitalization is superhuman. It is yet another expectation that we can do more than we were built for. How can we, as black women, take care of yet another body as if we haven’t already been taxed with taking care of everyone else’s? It is the insistence that when things are bad we must fix them ourselves that has left the burden once again upon us.

Self-care has given us something we are not often or readily afforded — the privilege to not be okay, but only to the extent that we do so alone and on our own time. To embrace this weakness where the world cannot see us. To resurface, having made use of resource articles, and face the world whole once again. We are still expected to appear unbroken — healed without fracture.

We are not equipped to say let us grieve, let us care, let us heal together.

The idea of community care is a concept that I’ve passed back in forth in conversation with friends, but never something I had a solid model for. For months I have been able to pinpoint where self care begins to fail me — it looks like advice left on a welcome mat, door swinging shut, a friend no longer obligated to return. The closing of an article and the loss as to how I integrate it into my own life. The crushing reality when everything is awful and I’m not okay and no one is there to help me heal. I am left with self and an inability to care.

Still, I had no real vision of what community care might look like. How we could take care of one another — the people who looked like us and hurt like us — in a way that lifted us all in unison, no burden falling too heavily on one of us. I had no concept of what something like this could look like. Until last month. Until I set foot in an auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio surrounded by black bodies, black faces, black minds, and absorbed the magic that was the Movement for Black Lives Convening.

I had the kind of chills that began at the crown of my head and then were everywhere, sending visible shivers down the length of my arms, through each toe, standing in that auditorium as I chanted in unison with 1,499 other voices our lives matter. For the first time in a long time I was hopeful, the Movement for Black Lives planted within me the potential for something other than black death — black liberation. I was witness to the way black love is capable of radiating within spaces, the way black voices are intended to be amplified.

This was what it felt like to be healed. To be cared for in a space with others loving themselves and loving each other. This is what community care could look like. Mourning the losses of our siblings, hearing the tributes given by their families, recognizing in real time the ways we were failing the trans folks in our community, we were brought together in pain, but our desire to live brought us time and time again to our feet, voices reverberating in unison, fists raised into the air. That was what it felt like to be healed.

As I thought about my place in this movement, how I would carry forward my flame, commit to breaking as many links as possible in the chains that keep us bound, I returned, as I often do, to words. It is a powerful thing to rearrange symbols that can change the world.

To function within these systems is to understand that they were built to exclude people like me, to negate our right to exist as human and that history will be written as such. To exist, and to be Black, and to be woman is to be born to defy these systems. Is, to me, in part, to pick up a pen and write our own stories. To pen this article not as something to be used in solitude, but as a reminder to us all: in order to break our chains we must be careful not to overlook anyone in the face of injustice.

This includes those who fail to meet the standard of self-care. Those to whom those words look like a closed door, the back of a friends head, sources of strength turning away in times of need. We must not overlook those who cannot care for themselves, who will only self-destruct in the face of isolation.

And, while I am still unsure what it might look like to create more and more frequent spaces like these, ones surging with collective power, a power that can tend to us all, I am sure that we need them. I am sure that we cannot present self care as the only way to endure. We must hurt together in order to heal together. And we must heal together in order to heal.

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