By Sana Vasi
This views of this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Her Campus.
Content Warning: Self harm
Over the weekend, a bartender asked about the scars that encircle both my arms.
I shrugged my shoulders — universal code for “I do not discuss my personal life with strange men.” He ignored my discomfort and leaned forward, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper that seemed out of place amidst the pulsating beat of The Chainsmokers’ latest hit.
“You’re ruining God’s canvas, you know.”
Those six words prickled under my skin with an all-consuming intensity. Later that night, unable to shake loose the embarrassment and shame that accompanied the bartender’s misguided concern, I relapsed for the first time in over a month.
When I confided in a friend about my on-again, off-again relationship with the pried-open razor blades tucked between old binders in my desk drawer, her only advice was to engage in “radical self-care”—a revolutionary lifestyle rooted in the powers of positive thinking. The movement encourages others to “choose happiness,” to look inwards and reflect on their spiritual wellbeing.
Unfortunately, life is not an embroidered cliché, and clinical depression cannot be cured by pithy platitudes. I soon realized that bubble baths and red lipstick were inadequate substitutions for my self-loathing. While it is important to take a break from the stressors that permeate everyday life, it is also irresponsible to suggest that aromatherapy can alleviate the acrid reality of mental illness; reminders to breathe, to drink water, to invest in yoga classes and herbal tea did little to assuage the overwhelming urge to cut.
Misguided notions about the efficacy of the self-care movement set up unrealistic expectations for anyone suffering from mental illness. During an exceptionally low point last December, I scoured mental health advocate Gala Darling’s powder-pink website for tips to help sand away the jagged edges of my insecurities.
Most days, I either feel too much or I feel too little. Self-harm is an unhealthy compulsion, but it is also the only reliable constant in my life. Still recovering from the sharp sting of my razor blade, I bought into the glitzy façade of self-discovery and emotional enlightenment.
Instead, my depression continues to manifest itself as an amorphous combination of bitterness and anger. I vacillate between numbness and exhaustion, often within the span of several hours. On the days where I feel particularly down, my brain rebels against the idea of even getting out of bed.
While self-care is an important first step in the recovery process, the practice has been commodified to the point where it has lost all meaning. Large corporations capitalize off our unhappiness, peddling “spa days” and “body scrubs” as the cure to complex imbalances in brain chemistry. The so-called “treat yourself” crusade is steeped in privilege; in truth, many cannot afford the luxury of putting themselves first.
I am not attempting to devalue the experiences of anyone who has benefitted from this movement, and I am certainly not trying to glorify self-harm, an addictive coping mechanism that I am just now learning to let go of. As a suicide attempt survivor, I am thankful that self-care has entered mainstream discourse and popularized the phrase: “It is okay to not be okay.” However, I also recognize the fundamental drawbacks of commercializing depression and reducing treatment plans to a series of shallow, online listicles. Although I would love to spend my final semester at Occidental College binge-watching Netflix in my pajamas, I do not have time to indulge my mental illness. Even as I write this article, I can feel the half-healed scratches on my wrist dig painfully into the corner of my laptop. At the most, self-care is a temporary distraction; a way to avoid my crippling anxieties for the length of the latest Bob’s Burgers episode.
While we should not condone unhealthy behavior, we should empathize with anyone battling their inner demons. Self-care isn’t easy; rather than preaching its merits, we need to acknowledge that the movement does not work for everyone and respect the fact that there is no “right way” to cope with pain. Even on medication, my particular brand of clinical depression traps me in a perpetual cycle of doubt and antipathy. I do not always have the energy to love myself, nor do I have enough patience to prioritize my wants over my needs. Sometimes, all I can do is wait out the storm. Sometimes, that is enough.