How to Heal: Self-care, health and wellness in the era of Trump and attacks on our civil rights.
This is a guest blog post by LTA board member Cody Smith, MA, LPC.
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 therapist, it concerns me that self-care is one of those phrases that gets bandied about carelessly and is now used to describe everything from bath bombs to overpriced salads at chain restaurants. Truly caring for oneself goes a bit deeper. It’s not that treating yourself to such things is inherently bad for you or meaningless, but personally, it takes more than a pedicure to shake my existential dread at the next horribly transphobic message issued by the White House and spread all over the media like so much icing on a really bigoted cupcake that no one wants to eat. As much as I would like to tell all of the lovely trans people that I know both personally and professionally that it’s all going to be okay, I know that I can’t do that. I’d be lying. Because it’s not really okay. Having the federal government repeatedly attempt to enact policies that would deprive us of our most basic human rights is downright terrifying. I can’t fault anyone for being upset about that. It upsets me too.
When all of these things start to get to me, which happens even to professional therapists, I try to lean on a few things to help me get through it. This is where we talk about what self-care really means. When I work with clients on these aspects of their lives, these concepts can sometimes be difficult to grasp and so I find metaphor to be a particularly useful tool. My favorite metaphor for self-care is as follows. If you’ve ever been on a plane or even seen a movie where someone is on a plane, you’ve likely noticed that the flight attendants always do pre-flight announcements. One of those things that they always say is that in the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop down from the overhead compartments and that you should put your own oxygen mask on first before attempting to help the person next to you. Why is this? It seems only natural to do the selfless thing and put our needs on the back burner and help others before taking care of ourselves. The reason that flight attendants have to say these things is that it is substantially more likely that bad things will happen to both of you, unless one person secures their own oxygen mask first before helping the other. This illustrates the fundamental truth about self-care as well as caring for others. If you aren’t taking care of yourself you likely won’t be very effective at helping others anyway.
This was a very difficult lesson for me to learn both personally and professionally. I was already a practicing therapist and working in the mental health field prior to transitioning. In those early days of my career, as is common among people in so-called helping professions, I wanted to get out there and save the world. I wanted to help everyone with everything and fix all of the problems. It took me years to really learn that I could not in fact save everyone or fix all of the problems, and more to the point, I couldn’t really be of much help to anyone if I wasn’t taking care of myself. This is one of the major factors in my decision to medically and socially transition. If I was going to be in a position to help clients that came to me for help with their problems, I first had to deal with my own. Learning how to care for myself was perhaps the most valuable thing I have learned both as a therapist and as a human being.
At this point I’d like to talk about some of the skills I’ve learned along the way that help us take care of ourselves, especially when things get difficult. The first and most basic thing we can all do for ourselves in at least some way is taking care of our physical bodies. This can mean many different things depending on the person and not all of these will apply to everyone. Physical self-care might take the form of exercise, eating healthier food, cutting down on substance use, not isolating ourselves in our bedrooms for days at a time, getting involved in a creative activity such as art, music, or dance, etc. For many of us this involves changing aspects of our physical presentation, clothing, grooming, or hormones. Even something so simple as going outside and walking around the block a couple of times will literally alter your brain chemistry a tiny bit and help you feel a tiny bit better.
Secondly, let’s talk about compartmentalization. This is another one of those words you’ve probably heard somewhere before, it’s a vitally important skill in these days of constant connectedness and endless and increasingly distressing alerts that pop up on our phones and news feeds every ten minutes. This sort of hyper-stimulation that we are all experiencing tends to lead to an overwhelming sense of fatigue and the feeling that there is nothing we can do to stem the ever-growing tide of awful coming from all directions. Compartmentalization is something I picked up working in inpatient psychiatric hospitals, which can be very high-stress environments for many reasons that are not worth getting into at the moment. In order to maintain any level of effectiveness at that job I had to learn how to let the events of the day go when I walked out the door to go home. I made a conscious effort to leave all that stress and tension at the hospital and not think about it until I clocked in the next day. In the spirit of this practice, we can use this skill to limit our exposure to these distressing news alerts.
It sometimes feels like we must catch every headline, tweet, or news alert, but this sort of constant vigilance leads to profound physical and mental consequences and eventually burnout. If we get burned out we are not going to be very effective at helping anyone else or standing up to the rising tide of bigoted and transphobic policies this administration is desperately trying to push. It’s ok to turn your phone off sometimes. It’s okay to not check your social media for a day. It’s ok not to catch every provocative tweet or leaked memo. It’s ok to take time away from these things to recharge your own batteries. It is vital that we rest and take time away sometimes because this is likely going to be a long fight.
Thirdly we should talk about the voices in our heads. I’m not talking about schizophrenia, I’m talking about the running dialogue with ourselves we all have inside of our heads. How you talk to yourself is one of the most important aspects of mental health. For too many of us the tone of this dialogue is often critical, harsh, and judgmental. Changing how we talk to ourselves, changing the tone of our internal dialogue to a more positive one has a profound effect on our wellbeing both physically and mentally. Quite a few of us in the trans community deal with dysphoria which is often expressed in our internal dialogue (you’re not pretty/handsome enough, you’ll never pass, you’re too tall or short, etc.) A lot of these things are values that society has programmed into us and we have had to overcome them, to de-program ourselves of these messages to make coming out and/or transitioning a real possibility. We live in a society that is still coming to terms with the fact that trans people exist and often it seems as though parts of society don’t want us to exist at all. Coming out, transitioning, enjoying our lives, and being ourselves in such a society is nothing short of a radical act of self-love.
Lastly, I want to mention the importance of community. This is what LTA strives to provide for trans folks all across Louisiana. Being trans can often be an isolating experience. An unfortunate number of us lose friends, family, and even jobs when we transition. We face discrimination, bigotry, and transphobia every time we dare to walk out our front doors, and more recently from the president himself. Through all of these things we must connect with one another and use our community as a source of strength and resilience. We must call on one another when we need help. We must be there for our trans siblings when they need help. But we cannot do it alone. We must do it together. We owe that much to our courageous transcestors who paved the way for us.
The knowledge that we have a strong and vibrant community full of amazing, talented, capable, and motivated trans folks that is growing and getting stronger despite being situated in one of the reddest of red states in the deep south is inspiring to me. Times are hard for us. There’s no denying that. But even in the face of such opposition we stand together to support one another. The value of that cannot be overstated. Above all, we must care for and be kind to ourselves and one another because we exist in a society that is not going to do those things for us.