In Fariha Róisín's new book, "Who Is Wellness For?," the multidisciplinary artist examines all the ways in which "wellness" is appropriated while describing her own relationship to the health industry and how she found her road to healing. The below excerpt includes two sections from the chapter "Introduction to Radical Self-Care," where Róisín describes learning to claim self-care — and the barriers she had to confront in order to do so.
When I began therapy, I had to be reminded over and over again that I had ownership over my life. I didn't realize that I was living in perpetual fear, that my anxiety about something going wrong, about someone hurting me, accusing me of something I hadn't done, was a form of PTSD. It took me a long time to realize a constant slow panic was a sign of distress and therefore a sign of something deeper at play. When I was a child, I just presumed I was an abomination. In "Dreaming the Dark," Starhawk writes, "Psychologists have constructed a myth that somewhere there exists some state of health which is the norm, meaning that most people presumably are in that state, and those who are anxious, depressed, neurotic, distressed, or generally unhappy are deviant." That's exactly it — I presumed I was deviant.
Finally understanding that I had to give words to all these things and let them sit in my system giving my cells the lifeblood they had been starved of for so long, allowing myself to claim the space that I had never been given, was a difficult point to arrive at, and I wonder if it's a place of constant arrival. Every day I gain further clarity of myself and my body's alchemy — all its mysteries and wonder understanding that healing or wellness is not a stagnant state. For some of us with bodies in revolt, it is a state of unraveling that's necessary for the rebraiding to occur and reoccur. Life is an upward motion dance, and along with that, I've realized, wellness is, too. I used to get so upset by the slowness of my path, at how difficult it is to be in my body after all these years of trying. The work is glacial; it's punishing, too. The only thing that has taught me any calm is to surrender. To embrace all of it and let it unfold as it must.
"If you are struggling to practice self-care," disability rights activist Mia Mingus writes in "The Four Parts of Accountability," "You will inevitably have to confront why you consistently put yourself last. In the example of self-care, you may need to let go of somethings or say 'no' to something or someone; you may need to assess how you spend your time and why you make space for things that are not what you ultimately want to prioritize. Transforming your behavior is hard work and is easier done with support. Find people in your life with whom you can talk about your accountability, mistakes, things you're ashamed of or feel guilty about, things you need to apologize for, or times when you weren't your best self."
On a trip to New York many years ago while I was still living in Montreal, I bought a little red book from a shop in the West Village with the word Ideal on the cover stamped in gold. I still have this book, and years later, I still write my dreams and aspirations, with the new moon, in there. My first entry, etching in my needs, I conceptualized my ideal life: regular massages, acupuncture, and an Ayurvedic doctor. A decade later, I have finally achieved the inherent rhythm I sought back then, in my early twenties, when I was just starting to understand the edges of my body. It's humbling to know that the self hate wouldn't just dissipate, that I would have to begin to confront it. I knew it had something to do with needing to love myself.
Throughout the years, I'd notice that I felt the most embodied after random massage work. The regularity of bodywork significantly helped me work in the journey of liking myself — the somatic healing surfaced a deep reverence I had never had for my body. It's as if the touch of someone else's hand was a way to soothe me into existence, a way to counteract all the violence that hit my body. I had often felt too shell-shocked by the world, because my initial entry point into life was so much devastation that I was forever in the folds of the fear that beckoned me as a child. To get out of that trauma state, or to not always adapt and fall into that trauma state, requires continued resolve. I started to also see how many of us believe things like acupuncture or massage were extra, and therefore unnecessary, as we've silently taught to be callous with our own bodies, and thus somatic needs.
I began to see how much shame there was in claiming care, or even stating a need for it. We have all accepted the failure of the status quo . . . but what about the bodies, like mine, where this lack of care could be lethal? For me, the work had to be done, otherwise I'd die. I think I would've killed myself from the pain and the misery of physical discomfort. I had no choice but to begin to heal somatically, which required a regularity of touch, of care. During the pandemic, this was immensely difficult, but the clarity of the time gave me conviction to claim myself more ardently. After a conversation with my friend, where we acknowledged our own chronic body pain, we began to dream of the possibilities of affordable care. What if everyone could afford a weekly massage? Weekly acupuncture? Why weren't these things more accessible to those who needed the most, across class lines! Why is caring for yourself your own responsibility? And, in the revolution, wasn't there immense possibility to re-envision what real care could look like, for all?
I didn't understand that an expert therapist could know how to unravel you slowly so that you could begin to see yourself less fragmented. Early on, when I kept telling my therapist that I wanted to be better, she asked if what I really meant was that I wanted to be whole. I knew there was a lot that was in the dark; I knew that from the signs of death and decay on my body. There have been many times in my life that I have felt hanging between portals, life or death, who knows — the underworld, or here — and I was spending more time in a deep psychic space, those treacherous planes. At a certain point, I realized I didn't want to be sad anymore. I had to understand how to harness the nectar of life, the one I had tasted, that I knew existed. To save myself.
You know how enforcing a good habit or breaking a bad one makes you feel alive? Well, self-care feels like that for me. A chance to choose myself again and again. For so many of us, accessing ourselves means breaking down the tunnels of cement we've placed between us and our own internal knowing. Some of us as children are punished when we ask for care, and many of us are admonished by our parents in times of need. Our desires are met with annoyance as opposed to openness and gentleness. Every child deserves to understand that their words and requirements have meaning and value. When you are made to feel small, or punished, especially when you ask for something, then you begin to absorb everyone else's needs, just like you've taught your skin to harden so you don't feel the hits anymore. Just like you've dulled your nervous system so that shrillness doesn't penetrate you anymore. Numbness is a survival tactic.
From the book "Who Is Wellness For?" by Fariha Róisín. Copyright © 2022 by Fariha Róisín. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.