Beyond Self-Care Bubble Baths: A Vision for Community Care

During a particularly difficult period last year, my depression made me unable to leave my apartment for three weeks straight. The takeout boxes, dirty laundry, and misery started piling up, but living alone made it so that nobody had to see me in my squalor. I was ashamed of my disorder and ashamed to ask for help; I didn’t want to burden my busy, also-struggling-in-their-own-ways friends. I didn’t reach out because I didn’t want to ask them to perform extra emotional labor. I didn’t want to be a burden.

But I need more than I can give. I am a burden. And that’s OK.

When I finally dragged myself to Facebook to post a cryptic depression-related call for help, one of the first comments I received was a link to an article entitled “How to take care of yourself when you’re in a funk.”

I wasn’t in a “funk,” I was in a battle — but regardless I gave it a read. Taking baths, sleeping well, cleaning my apartment, and going to yoga classes all seemed like great ideas, but I couldn’t do any of them. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even take care of myself.

Seemingly every week, a listicle will appear in my social media feed touting a new take on self-care. Self-care for activists, self-care for feminists, self-care for broke people, for busy people, for teachers, healers, people of color. A quick search for “self care” on Autostraddle retrieves dozens of articles. I don’t want to discount the importance of self-care; it’s so necessary and the fact that it’s becoming more mainstream is fantastic. But it isn’t perfect.

Critiques of the self-care movement abound, but self-care rhetoric isn’t problematic just because its suggestions take time and money and burden already too-full schedules, or because it assumes that our movement work is what is plaguing us rather than giving us life, or because it erases the normal day-to-day things that many disabled people already do to take care of themselves. These critiques are important, but they don’t go far enough.

If I and other people with certain disabilities are going to survive, we need care — and not from ourselves. Because when it gets really bad for me, self-care is literally impossible. In those moments, I need community care.

I need a support network of loving comrades who are willing to do the work it takes to make sure I don’t die. I need people who will check in on me and see what I really need when I make a cryptic Facebook post, not just comment with hearts and “sending positive thoughts!” messages. I need dinners made, laundry done and my apartment cleaned, rides to (and motivational support to attend) therapy.

We are taught in progressive movement to take care of each other, but the assumption is that it’s an even-sum game: I take care of you, you take care of me. I love caring for others, and do as much of it as possible: when I had money, I would donate to struggling folks in the community, buy and deliver food to sick friends, or take someone out for pampering. When I didn’t I would host folks on the couch, provide emotional labor for those who needed it, or make art and write kind things to give to others. But it’s not even. Sometimes — often — I need more care than I am able to give.

Self-care rhetoric teaches us to not be a burden on others, because it’s almost entirely focused on what we can do for ourselves. We’re taught that we have all we need, that the power for transformation and thriving is within us, just waiting to be harnessed. That we alone can beat back the demons plaguing us and come through to the other side refreshed and ready to fight again. To do everything that a self-care article suggests is impossible for most of us; doing even one thing is impossible for some of us. And in a culture that demonizes the burdensome, how plausible is reaching out and asking for help?

The term “community care” has been thrown around recently, but usually to indicate the movement work we do for each other as groups; it seems to be about “Community” writ large. “Community care” tends to focus on things like marching or rallying for political aims and more just legislation, or “how to be an ally to X community,” or working for things like better infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods. These are incredibly important. But when I think about community, I am more interested in what small-scale, interpersonal social networks can do to take care of each other. I want to see what it looks like when a community can take care of the individuals within that community, especially when those individuals can’t take care of themselves.

When I envision myself living my best life, depression isn’t a part of it. I always have the energy to feed myself. I am never chained to my bed with suicidal ideation, petting my cat because it’s the only thing that makes me want to keep living. I don’t skip my meds. I make myself healthy food and have enough money and time to get mani-pedis and I’m active in the movement and I partake in my hobbies and go out with my friends. And I can take care of myself.

But that version of my best life might be impossible. It’s entirely feasible that my brain chemistry will never change, that this spectre will always hang over my life. Given this reality, what does my best life look like?

It looks like this: I have a strong, tight-knit community of caring folks that holds me when I can’t hold myself. I have a network of people that check in on me when they realize I’m in the sunken place instead of waiting for me to reach out because I probably won’t, figure out what my needs are, and take care of them for me. Friends and comrades feed me, get me into the shower and dressed, help me look for jobs that I can handle, gift me bath bombs and tea and booze and cigarettes and herbal medicine. They donate money. And I don’t pay them back, at least not right away. And that’s OK.

Because of the pervasive stigma in our culture, bolstered by self-care rhetoric, around being a burden on others, people with disabilities are often left fending for themselves in whatever ways they can and suffering as a result. The stigma around asking for too much help is an ableist stigma that we have to break down. The societally acceptable form of the burden usually falls on “significant others” like our spouses or family members. But it can be too much for such a small group, and many of us don’t have access to significant others or family anyway. If I’m going to survive, I need a team on my side. I offer a lot to the community in other ways when I’m healthy, but even if I didn’t, I still deserve to live.

Something important I’ve realized as my depression has gotten worse is that, contrary to my shame, many members of my community are more than happy to carry that burden. After that initial Facebook comment, I started to receive messages and texts, saying “How can I best support you?” This has become my favorite question, and it’s the first one I always ask whenever someone I know is struggling. I don’t do this because I feel guilty, or feel like I need to repay them for the care they’ve given me. I do it because I want to, and it feels good, and I love my people. And sometimes, it’s the part of “movement” work that I’m best at.

My community members take care of me for the same reason: it brings them joy, it gives them purpose, and it’s maybe the only “movement” work that they are capable of, too, for whatever reason. Taking care of ourselves, surviving and thriving, as the self-care rhetoric reminds us, is a radical act. And so is taking care of each other.

Rugged, self-sufficient idealism doesn’t work for those of us with brains or bodies that require other people’s support in order to make it through this world. An over-reliance on self care reifies this American cultural touchstone rather than challenging it. We need to destigmatize burdening others, normalize asking for help, challenge ableism. A shift toward a community care model could be a means by which we can do just that. We could focus on learning “10 Ways to Take Care of Your Friends Who Are Struggling,” instead of ten ways to make our baths more relaxing.

Community care means liberation for those of us who struggle alone, fearing the burden we place on others. It means we can receive the support that we need, the support that keeps us alive. The next time someone you know is going through it, instead of telling them what they can do for themselves, try asking “How can I support you?” if you’re capable. Because if we’re all going to make it through to the other side, some of us will make our own way and others of us will make it only because of the care of others.

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