The Antidote to Despair

I don’t know about you, but the last week and a half (the entirety of this current presidency thus far), and even the past couple of months since the election, have brought me closer and closer to feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion that previously I had been better able to keep at bay. Seeing my newsfeed filling up with story after story of injustice and trauma and an all-out assault on my values and the communities I care about seems to drain all of the fight out of me and push me right into my trauma response of choice, which is to freeze and find a way to numb the overwhelm of it all.

Self-care is and has long been vital to my survival, and recently it has become ever more so. I find that doing multiple things every day to care for my whole self (physically, emotionally, mentally, relationally, spiritually) is so important, and takes so much time and energy, and it is a privilege that I have those things (not always, but usually) to put towards the activities I need to do to keep myself as well as I can be under the circumstances.

When things are out of balance, I feel it everywhere. When my sleep is interrupted by nightmares of hiding in closets from Nazis out to get me (the second part of that dream was not untrue, but I no longer hide in the closet), when food is not interesting to me, when I spend days without reaching out to people I love and deeply connecting, when I hide inside instead of moving my body to metabolize the accumulating trauma… I hurt. I hurt in mind and body and psyche and soul. Sometimes I can’t seem to shift out of the hurting place, especially when I have to care for others. It is hard to be in deep trauma and still show up authentically and hold space for someone in labor or in my clinic room or in the operating room. It is hard and I do it, because it is part of my work and my magic in the world to show up as my whole self in spaces and give myself room to feel everything, not necessarily in that moment, but to create daily space to feel.

One of my self-care practices is to get out in nature. Because of the weather, I hadn’t gone for a hike since Christmas, but a few days ago, despite a drizzling rain, I took myself out to one of my favorite Seattle parks and wandered around, not entirely aimlessly but definitely without my usual drive to explore and move my body. I felt like I was right at the edge of despair and could tell that it would take very little to push me right into the thick of it. I searched in my awareness for some answer, some of my unique magic, that could provide a shift to bring some greater ease into this situation, and as my mind went into a state of inquiry, the question asked itself of me, “What is the antidote to despair?”

At the time I was asking myself this, I was unfamiliar with Joan Baez’s quote that would answer that question with a single word: action. She believed that moving forward and doing something would provide the shift I was looking for. And she may well be right, except that I was so overwhelmed with inertia and pain that finding actions to do felt almost impossible.

Sitting in the question, and holding it gently to my chest, I ended up on a rocky beach and found myself looking for heart-shaped stones. To my dismay, I wasn’t finding a single one. I searched and searched, and these stones that always find me easily were staying invisible on the beach. Tears began dripping down my cheeks along with the drizzle of the rain, and I squatted down by the water and let myself feel everything. “What is the antidote to despair?” I asked myself. And I instantly found my answer in the word I chose for this year: belonging.

Belonging is my antidote to despair. I brought to mind the humans that I love, by name, one by one, and as each name appeared in my mind, I noticed that my magic was returning to my body. I thought or whispered a name and a heart-shaped stone appeared on the beach. I called to mind folks I consider my chosen queer family: Dylan. Carey. Emily. Maggie. Nico. Simon. Meg. Susan. Katie. Brooke. Tasha. Maddie. So many others. I thought of my family of origin and my complex love for them. I pictured my community of midwives and nurses and physicians. I thought of all of the folks I’ve shared dances with over the past year since I started dancing. And yes, I thought of my cats.

And I whispered my own name to the stones. I meditated on what belonging deeply to myself might mean to me. I thought of how complex it is to belong in my skin, to feel at home in my body. I thought of all of the love and labor that I have put into belonging to myself, and I sent gratitude back in time to all of the iterations of me who have worked for my survival and to help me have the chance to thrive. I also sent thanks to all future selves I will become, and to the love I know they are sending back through time to me, as I do now, as part of my work in the world. I thought of all the bodies I’ve lived in already in this lifetime (young, fat, gaunt, sick, athletic, scarred, tattooed, frozen, dancing, and oh-so-queer), and how many more I might get to experience. I fell in love with my life again.

I thought of what it means to me to explore the concept of belonging while living on stolen Duwamish land, a land rightfully belonging to people who are not my ancestors. I thought of the lands my ancestors belonged to, scattered throughout northern Europe. I thought of all the heart stones I might find on the beaches and in the fields they called home, before they left to become settler colonists (some of them coming over on the Mayflower). I reflected on the violence of their actions towards Native peoples, towards people of color, especially Black people who were brought over to serve as slaves whose labor was foundational to capitalism’s beginnings. I felt into what it means to belong as a queer and gender non-confirming white person to a community of activists working to create a world where there is room for everyone to belong.

I wove for myself the fabric, the web of belonging that holds me fast in the world. By the time I left that beach (forty-four heart stones later!), my pockets were heavier than my heart was when I arrived.

As I made my way back to my car, damp and grateful, I thought how important it was that belonging is my word for 2017. This is a year that already promises a lot of intensity, with no sign of letting up. Reminding myself over and over that I belong here, in this world, at this time, is going to be vital to my well-being and indeed, to my survival.

There are other things that act as antidotes to despair for me, and I will name them in case any of them speak to you. Just the sheer act of existing as my whole self in this world that attempts to deny me that is an example of fierce defiance and resilience. My existence is resistance. Here are some of the things that help me keep existing:

Sleep: easier said than done when my nights are plagued with nightmares, but I find that if I do not sleep well, I do not function well. When I am able to allot sufficient time for resting my body and mind (quality of sleep aside), I have much more reserves to cope.

Community: Staying in contact with the people who give meaning and purpose to my life fills me with love and oxytocin. Checking in with my loved ones whom I know are also struggling with various heavy burdens is important to me. Making some effort, daily, to reach out and love someone, whether in person or over the phone or via social media, helps keep me going.

Food: this is an edgy one for me, as my body has a complicated relationship with food (due to both allergies and chronic stomach problems from a birth defect). Choosing to eat foods that nourish me and give me energy, as well as intentionally making food and feeding others, gives me stamina. Choosing not to use food to mindlessly help numb my feelings can be hard, but it feels important to make an effort to tease those two things apart and let my feelings have space to be expressed and not conflate them with food. Letting myself be fed–in all the ways that can be interpreted–is one of my goals for this year.

Organizing: as much as I have reserves to do it, showing up in activist spaces and working with existing movements for social change and resistance helps me remember that there is work that needs me and that my voice and my efforts can create good in the world. There is a balance between exhausting myself in all the doing and letting the action feed me, but here is where I do agree with Joan Baez, that action is indeed one of the antidotes to despair. Especially getting behind efforts led by people of color, and queer and trans folks, who have been doing this work for longer than I’ve been in it, is vital.

Movement, and especially dancing: when I move my body, either on my own or in connection with another body, I get out of my head and the swirl of trauma I’ve accumulated and emotions I haven’t gotten to process and I land fully in my own skin. I feel into my strength and flexibility and resilience, qualities that fuel my ability to keep doing the work of this moment. Physical activity helps me to metabolize all of the build-up and keep it from drowning me, giving space for big feelings to come up and move their way out of my body. I deeply appreciate collapsing in a sweaty heap after a good night of dancing with folks I love.

Poetry and stories: words are my lifeline home to myself. My walls are plastered with poems that remind me where home is, what healing looks like, that I am whole, that loving is worth it, that living is worth it. “We need to share our wars,” Nayyirah Waheed said, in one of the quotes I taped above my bed. Writing and reading others’ writings keeps me going. Stories link me to the experiences of others and simultaneously help me come home again. Language is a bridge across solitudes.

Therapy: I need to have a place I can go to download and process things so I don’t only rely on my friends and loved ones to do this emotional labor for me. If I let them build up, they sink me. Having someone in my life whose job is to hold me, and who does not require any holding in return, is so necessary to my well-being. Mental illness is so highly stigmatized in the dominant US American discourse, and speaking openly about it is part of my activism.

Pleasure: living is full of pain. We know that far too well. Taking joy in the delights that also make their way into my life reminds me that living is not ALL pain. A lot of experiencing pleasure is about mindfulness; pain and pleasure often coexist, and noticing both when they arrive and when they go is one of my practices. The heat of my evening shower on my skin as I step into the water and rinse off my day is pleasure. A bite of kumquat dipped in honey and topped with a Szechuan peppercorn is pleasure. Watching the colors of the sky as the sun dips below the horizon is pleasure. Feeling a lover’s lips on my own and being aware of nothing else in the world is pleasure. Hearing a newborn’s first fierce cry, announcing their arrival onto this planet, is pleasure. Snuggling into my bed at last after a long night of being awake welcoming new people onto the planet is pleasure. Pain is mingled in each of these in different ways (the bite of the peppercorn feels different than the ache of up-all-night-babycatching exhaustion), but all of them also hold delight.

Nature: I have to go outside to stay well. I need to bury my toes in cool grass and jump into chilly lakes and feel the smoothness of stones in my palms. I need to kiss trees and tuck bits of lichen in my hair and smell the sea and let myself get lost in the wildness outside me as well as within. I need to inhale fresh oxygen and remember that I am a part of this, that I belong to the world. I need to let the crashing waves remind me where home is. I need the animals to teach me how to be. I need to wear out my body climbing trails in the middle of nowhere so I can find myself again.

Unplugging: this one is hard for me, because I feel so drawn to staying connected with what is happening in the world around me. But I have found when I am outside of cell reception range or wifi access for a day or five, I return feeling recharged. When I mindlessly scroll through a newsfeed of despair, I lean closer to that edge myself. This one is most definitely a work in progress, and I don’t often do it well, but I am committing to finding a balance between informing myself and overwhelming myself with information.

Breathing: staying in my breath helps me stay in my body. Whether through singing at the top of my lungs in the shower, or consciously slowing down my rate of breathing to quell anxiety, or moving my body hard to get my lungs going and my heart beating faster, mindfully being present in my breath brings me back to what is happening right now and diverts my attention from catastrophic thinking. Meditation also fits into this category.

There are so many other self-care strategies, so many other antidotes to despair that are possible. I am so grateful to be finding mine, and I want to be authentic in this writing and make it clear that I don’t have this all figured out, not by any means. These are things that help me survive and sometimes even thrive in the world, and they are not easy to do. Some days I want to hide in my room and eat chips and ignore my work and not talk to anyone, and that is okay. Some days, survival is my work, and I do that as best I can. Every time I choose to do something to preserve my aliveness in the world, I am part of the resistance. As Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Belonging is political warfare. Belonging is raw power. Belonging is my antidote to despair.

I would love to hear about your equivalent to heart stones. What speaks to you of belonging? What keeps you going when despair looms in close? What fuels your resistance? What reminds you that you have a home in this world?

 

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