Op-Ed: Self-care is not an indulgence

Wednesday, April 6, 2016 - 12:27pm

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” –Audre Lorde

This month, I have taken up drawing. I spend hours sketching bodies, all of which resemble myself in one way or another. I have a process: sketch, erase. Breathe. Sketch, erase. Breathe. Outline soft lead with silky black gel. Breathe. Pastels, purple on top of green. Smudge. Breathe. Smudge in white to make it lighter. Breathe. Smudge until rainbows envy the colors dyed upon my fingertips. Keep smudging until I forget to count my breaths.

When we talk about unhealthy relationships at the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, we tend to solely speak about abuse in intimate relationships. Abuse is an all-encompassing word because it can define a variety of actions. At SAPAC, we define abuse in a multitude of ways. Abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional or financial, to name a few. An action is seen as abuse when a perpetrator instills tactics to gain disproportionate power or control over their victim — I have used the word victim here because not all survive from instances of intimate partner violence. Power dynamics and abuse within IPV are specific to each partnership. Abusive relationships are complex and reflect the perpetrator’s and victim’s social identities.

Presently, society still has a difficult time identifying IPV and its complexities. However, we are beginning to make progress labelling IPV, defining the nuances and identifying the signs. Identifying abusive romantic relationships is difficult, but the conversation is in motion. That said, something we rarely ever talk about, even at SAPAC, is abuse in non-romantic relationships. When abuse happens in non-romantic relationships, society rarely defines a perpetrator’s actions as abuse. Instead, these relationships may be seen as toxic or time-consuming. It is time we change the discourse around abuse in non-romantic relationships.

Oftentimes, society views abusive relationships between friends or families as “conflicts” rather than violence. The word “violence” implies the survivor has a loss of control. The word “violence” implies the survivor cannot escape. The word “violence” implies urgency. Yet, when a non-romantic partner takes violent or abusive actions against a survivor, society often tells the survivor to work it out, apologize, let it go.

I am aware that people have off-days. Sometimes a comment can be snide or an intended joke can be stated too harshly. I do not consider these actions abusive. Rather, I am speaking to tactics that a family member or friend constantly inflicts on survivors to gain control in a relationship. I am speaking about abusive behaviors that manifest into survivors’ daily lives. I am speaking about constant language survivors cannot escape, barriers that create isolation, threats that make them chain-lock their doors, physical attacks that bruises their skin or instances of sexualized violence that are not deemed serious. We need to start analyzing and defining these harmful tactics as abusive in both romantic and non-romantic relationships. We need to legitimize the helpless, distraught or fearful feelings that survivors may have in all forms of abusive relationships.

It is important to acknowledge that people have a variety of reasons for staying in unhealthy relationships. If people do not want to end unhealthy relationships, this is their choice. As a friend and ally, there are some important ways you can support a survivor of both IPV and non-romantic relationship abuse:

1.      Demonstrate to your friend what a healthy relationship looks like by providing unconditional love and support.

2.      Listen and believe them. Validate their experiences.

3.      If they ask for resources or alternate options for their situation, brainstorm some. Create lists together.

4.      You can tell them, “I’ll be here for you if/when you are ready to leave this relationship,” but do not argue with them about what they need to do. This is their life. As their ally and friend, respect their ability to make choices.   

Most importantly, we must understand that all relationships are complex, and we must navigate them accordingly.

Recently, I have finally come to terms with identifying as being a target in an unhealthy relationship. As previously mentioned, this past semester I have taken up sketching. I do it on the days when her mental health controls my daily life. I do not blame her, but rather, I blame her unhealthy psychological state. For the past decade, I have spent much of my life trying to navigate an illness that doctors have yet to find treatment for.

In the past, I let her severe episodes control me. In the present, I am slowly learning how to take care of myself. I have come to terms with the fact that though this behavior is not her fault, it is also not my responsibility to constantly endure the attacks, threats and manipulation brought on by her psychological disorder.

Now, when an episode begins and a flood of texts pour in, instead of falling into a pit of despair as I used to, I have begun to sketch:

Pencil tracing paper, soft lead fading into coarse sheets.

You are worthless.

Black ink seeping into cracks of paper.

You don’t deserve happiness.

My breasts take on earthly hues, contrasted against my pink belly.

I don’t love you.

I am a goddess — strong and brilliant— if only on paper.

No one loves you.

Smudge the colors.

LEAVE ME ALONE.

Smudge them until my fingers bare vibrant, Aurora Borealis calluses.

YOU ARE WORTHLESS.

Keep smudging until her insults start to sound meaningless.

Through sharing my experience, I hope to convey the idea that we need to begin dialogues surrounding unhealthy, non-romantic relationships while expanding on dialogues surrounding abusive romantic relationships. The way I handle the relationship with her is unique to my personal circumstance. I do not think this should be everyone’s solution; however, I do think self-care is an important practice for everyone to indulge in. Self-care allows us to avoid burn-out from our daily stressors.

When I first began my journey of self-care, I felt guilty about diverting my attention from someone I loved dearly, but I have recently begun to accept that, to sustain my being, I must take care of myself. I need to brush off the words, bandage the emotional wounds and practice constant forgiveness.

Sketching, along with talking to my family unit, is the best way I have learned how to handle the situation, if only for a moment.

For anyone who is struggling in an unhealthy relationship, whether it is intimate or non-romantic, please know that you are worthy.

Alexis Barkin is a networking publicity activism SAPAC student volunteer co-coordinator.