Activities undertaken deliberately to improve and maintain our own mental, physical, or emotional health
At first, the term made me cringe. The concept felt too obvious to need a moniker, and this one- “self-care”- seemed bland, easily co-opted by consumerism, and ready ammunition for the assault on millenials as sensitive and self-centered. Surrounded by gym adverts and diet fads, we already acknowledge, however implicitly or ineptly, the importance of maintaining one’s own health. So why draw attention to it? Surely the “oxygen mask on an airplane” parable is both blunt and common enough to preclude the creation of a buzzword. Take care of yourself so that you can then take care of others. Got it? Move on.
But perhaps the better cliché is Audre Lorde’s quote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (A Burst of Light). In this framing, championed by the civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the mid-late 20th century, emphasizing self-care becomes not indulgent but essential, a way to take ownership of your health and well-being in a system that disproportionately allocated resources to the majority. I say allocated, but these past systemic disparities are certainly not dead; in many cases they are not even past.
My fellow Corps members and I encounter inequality in health and healthcare constantly as our patients struggle with lack of transportation, with demanding work schedules, with spotty or no insurance coverage, or simply with the cracks in a healthcare system that was never really meant for easy navigation. Many of these struggles stem from underlying social factors (poverty, race, education, support systems) that must be tackled from multiple different sides if we’re looking to impactfully reduce inequality in healthcare and in the broader social context.
If I’ve learned nothing else from this year, it’s that there are amazing organizations and people out there doing just that.
For just one example, my own host organization- the Jacksonville Speech & Hearing Center- is a nonprofit dedicated to providing the highest-quality speech-language pathology and audiology services to absolutely everyone in the community, regardless of the ability or inability to pay. Like so many of my fellow members’ organizations, we look to improve quality of life through easy access to quality healthcare, but we can’t do it alone. First we need patients to be concerned or proactive enough about their health to see a primary care physician, or to see us directly, and here is where I truly see the importance of self-care.
Ultimately, as effective and balanced as the healthcare system becomes, it can never be as attuned to your well-being as you are. We know our health- physical, mental, emotional- because we live it, and so often we need to make it a priority before others can. The reality is that I need to realize I have an issue before I can go looking for the resources to combat it. Then, armed with patience and experience, I can most effectively go out and share those resources with those who, for reasons ranging from mental health to age to lack of knowledge, are struggling at that moment to care for themselves. Self-care is not self-reliance. It’s also not solipsism, not escapism, not anything quite that simple. It’s balance, between your needs and others, between escape and reality, between asserting control and taking advice.
I still struggle with this idea that care is not zero-sum, and to be honest I still don’t love the term “self-care”. However, I appreciate the idea, and it really is important to promote. So I serve at my host site. I connect others with resources they can use to improve their own health. Then I go home. I run. I read. I learn French. I finally make that dentist appointment. Not to meet any expectations, or because this will help me better the world, but because these actions make me a happier, healthier person. And isn’t that what we want for everyone?
This blog post was written by NHC FL AmeriCorps member, Maddie Pruhs.
Maddie serves at Jacksonville Speech and Hearing Center as an Outreach Coordinator.