Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Failure, Individualism, and the Complexities of Self-Care

CN: Mental health, bulimia

Failure and the self

We exist in a moment where threats are immediate, physical and existential. Lives are often materially precarious, and all of us have a precarious hold on the continuation of life itself. And yet in this moment, it is the self that we are fixated by. From climate change to mental and physical health, it is on the individual to alter its self, to change. Be it bamboo toothbrushes or facemasks or calorie deficits, solutions are sought in individual acts of self-conduct, discipline or care. This narrative operates on a particular conception of self, which imagines us to be isolated and autonomous. Atomized projects of unrelenting self-improvement, always facing expectation, and so always, at some level, failing.

How is it that we decontextualize a proliferation in mental health issues from the individualisation and aggrandisation of the self? What if it is the self, or rather a particular conceptualising of the self, that aggravates rather than soothes anxieties and sadness in the first instance?

A particular understanding of what self is, as independent, and closed, denies us our spongy realities. Social, historical, and political impressions or violences are woven into our-selves as if they are our own failures. We are thought of as without history, moving only forward: we exist only in the immediate term, and in an (imagined) future, where we must be better.

My own eating disorder was very much tied to a visceral fear of failing: failure to be thin, failure to be feminine, failure to be acceptable, likeable, loveable. A care of the self, an obsession with the self, that destroyed My Self, physically and emotionally.

And yet, this is not really my own fault. These failures coalesce with modes of femininity and acceptability, external to myself, that I felt I could not reproduce, at least not in Acceptable ways. A crushing and simultaneous weight of gaze and isolation. Caught, enwrapped, in an isolated existence, a bounded one, it’s walls growing thicker as I grew thinner. Alone, and yet always before a cruel kaleidoscope of expectations, set externally, without my consent. A sad, perverted course of self-care, desperate to reproduce something palatable, something pretty.

What does it mean to be not enough. To who do we owe our not-enoughness. What gender demands, what capitalism demands, is pretty, productive, and small. A slimmed down, simmered down, streamlined Me. I am a project for continuous improvement.

Not the messy scribbly thing which spills out and into the world, horizontally rather than forward. Which affects and is affected by others in ways that are leaky and chaotic. Which has histories, that are entangled in other histories.

Who and what demands that I be better, look better. And who and what told me that this was a plan of my own making.

I do not want to be in the business, and it is a business, of believing that I am never quite enough. That I am always falling short of being the best version of my self. That I am always, somehow, failing.

Within a collective chaos, we are enchanted by the Individual, by the Self, by competition between selves. And then blame the self, who must be both source and cure for its own downfall.

The constant shaping of ourselves as definitive individuals, as On Our Own, binds us to our own shortcomings, attaches us to a climbing wall with no support equipment. No one there to catch your fall. And you got yourself up there, anyway.

It is not oneself, but The Self, as an idea uttered into absolute centrality, that I think agitates particular expressions of illness.*

It is not selfish, to be caught up in the self. We are products of an ideology that told us to do so, and then blames us for getting stuck.


It is no small thing that in 1987, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher declared that “there’s no such thing as society.” Uttered into existence, and forcefully enacted through policy, our interdependence was (and continues to be) denied.

And what is left but oneself, a Self, which must locate itself as the cause of, and solution to, its problems.

There are material facts: the neoliberalisation of the world has increased inequality globally, and poverty is a significant risk factor for mental ill health. But we are also left with an ontological isolation, and a sometimes maddening introspection. What are the effects (and affects) of atomisation, on mental health day-to-day? We are governed by expectation, yet imagined as autonomous and isolated. Disciplining ourselves in accordance with ideals we did not produce, and disciplining ourselves again when we do not fit them. Self-creation, self-improvement, self-sabotage.


It is interesting that “self-care” has become the common sense antidote to mental ill health. Ill me is always stuck on, in, my own Self. That’s a form of self-care, a crafting of the self, a drawing up of its drawbridges. Except here it looks ugly and sad. I imagine myself connected to others only by comparison, by competition.

During each and every episode of depression, anxiety, and disordered eating, I have been consumed by my self, and it’s failure to meet expectations.

And so it seems funny that we should begin and end at self-care, when thinking about how to fix things. My fear is that a well-intentioned eruption of self-care discourse ends up subscribing to, rather than dismantling, the very same fixation with the self that can be so damaging in the first instance. It follows a particular conception of self, of fixing ones-self, which chimes a familiar neoliberal logic. It is the self- on it’s own- which needs focus, needs crafting, needs improving.

I have practiced self-care in ways that are nice, palatable, bloggable. And I have cared for my self in ways that are dangerous and disturbing: my methods unacceptable to the world, but the results often desirable.
Our bodies, particularly women’s bodies, are open to public discourse. We are told how the self should conduct and care for its-self, but we are left to fix our bodies in the quiet. In the quiet, the private space of a bathroom for example, self-care practices can become ugly, irregular, unpalatable. I would become a head-over-the-toilet Frankenstein’s monster creation, wishing itself towards all I have ever been told my body should be.

As disordered eating lessened it’s grip, I swapped bulimia, starvation and diet milkshakes for a fix all do-it-yourself cure to sadness. Face masks. £7 a pot Lush facemasks. If only I could craft myself, care for my self, produce a polished self, looking better, being better, perhaps I could be fixed.

But old traumas and new upsets crashed over my head in angry waves I couldn’t stand up to. And when the thick green paste would still mix with my tears, I was forced to face things that were more than me, more than how I presented to the world in that moment, messier than facing forward. These tears had a history and a sociality and could not be wiped entirely by finding new ways to cultivate self-improvement.

With No Such Thing As Society, failure is all yours. When failure and success, or even Being Ok, are two sides of the same coin, self-care narratives can subscribe to much the same thinking. Not only that, they might too intensify our-selves as bounded and separate. The Self swells in size, and so too do its flaws for inspection.

Making sure our bodies are well fed, well rested, and out of harm's way is a fundamental prerequisite for our own wellbeing. Self-care can be survival practice.

Black lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde (1988) said quite rightly that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Claiming that you matter is survival work for people who have been systematically denigrated.

But #Selfcare as a practice of self-examination and self-improvement, proliferating on social media in the last three years through fitness accounts, corporate branding, and skincare rituals, is the opposite of political warfare. It is a reproduction of the dominant political order, which seeks to produce self-reliance and self-governance, whilst breaking down ideas of society and collective responsibility.

This form of self-care can quickly go awry. A fixation on the self very easily produces yet another pattern of expectation and failure. And what good is there in delineating all responsibility to be better and get better, to oneself, when an enlarged view of the self might actually be damaging? It feels as though we are premising the solution on emboldening what is sometimes the problem.

A tangible example, in relation to eating disorder self-help “recovery”, is the popular move from thinness to #fitness. A new manifestation of an old not-enoughness; not damaging physically but fed and sustained by the same proximity to an imagined failure, by the same external expectations absorbed as our own.

And I buy into it all. I still believe that there is a better, truer version of my (physical) self. She exists in old photographs where my waist is slimmer and my arms and legs are thin. She exists in imaginings where I superimpose a vague essence of me onto the bodies of fitness models, who promise me in earnest that if only I push myself, practice, be vigilant, then that imagining will actualise.

New narratives

The self is not immediate or universal. It has a history and a politics. Much like the soul, it has no tangible form. When, for example, does a child recognise itself as a self, as more than an extension of its primary caregiver? Or, what about the diverse ways personhood is understood globally? What about cultures where we are not imagined as “unique entities” at all, but a composite of all our relationships (Strathern 1988.)

The narrative of self we are sold is an idea: we are self-creations, atomised. Seperate and self-possessed. We have little or no history beyond a pattern of our own actions, and we must always be facing forward.

Careful self reflection is not a terrible thing, nor is sometimes looking to be better. But only when I place my-self in its proper history, can this be healing.

Care for the self, but know it is situated. Know it has a history. Know it is fiercely interconnected. Know it is porous. Know it is desperately trying to meet expectations that it did not really choose.

When I situate my self as interconnected, inextricably tied to and a composite of a web of relations, my relationship with expectation shifts. My self, on its own, is not all that’s left to blame, to scrutinise, to unpick, to obsessively try and improve, or lament if it does not. I am part of others and they are part of me. It was and is an idea of Self, which inherits “outside” expectations and writes them into its own walls, to obsess over, that so often traps me in the dark.

So I don’t think we should do away with self-care, but I do believe in rejecting the dominant (neoliberal) narrative of what self is.

Fixing the self cannot depend only upon enlarging it for inspection, and isolating it from the conditions of its production. We inherit expectations, traumas, histories. We are continuously shaped, formed, pushed and pulled by our contact with the world.

Self-help as a singular solution depends on a false meritocracy; a falsehood which pretends we are singularly the creators of all our own successes and “failures”.

We are not the sole architects of our selves. We spill into the world in ways that are complex, and move through it with a plasticity that is denied by an idea of self that is contained, independent and entirely self-possessed and self-crafting.

Our selves need caring for, but this is not a healing we can find (solely) in skin peels and fitness apps. Caring for our selves doesn’t have to mean subscribing to a new or intensified pattern of expectation. Because getting lost in ones self, in this way, can go terribly awry.

*There are many illnesses (ones I have less direct experience of), sometimes deemed “less palatable”, for which this explanation is oversimplified and/or insufficient.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

On growing up around illness

CN: bipolar, mania, trauma, suicide, sexual abuse, sexual assault

“We need to talk about mental health” is a kind of strapline that has attached itself to newspaper articles, activist campaigns and public health messages. It rolls off the tongue of liberals and progressives like a cult slogan. But what that actually means, and what it means practically and emotionally to experience mental illness, in the self and in others, is often left desert and unexplored.

My grandma and I once joked that there wasn’t a mental illness out there that our family hadn’t mastered. You name it, we’ve probably felt it, touched it, lived it. Parents, grandparents, uncles, self and siblings, my family tree is a tightly stitched patchwork of losses and gains and misadventure; branches on both sides twisted into form by their contact with precarity.

The 3 months my dad spent living in a tent in my uncle’s garden, as he cried on my 9 year old shoulders- whilst not quite the suburban white leather sofa lifestyle I dreamed of- were formative of a deep and affective bond. From a very young age, we had built up a shared capacity for mutual support: I would spend years feeling able to cry on his shoulder, whenever I needed to.

I don’t need to share physical space with my dad to track his highs. Wherever I am, I’ll receive a paragraph over Facebook messenger, likely in all capital letters, expressing how much he LOVES ME MORE THAN RASPBERRIES AND CHOCOLATE AND RAINBOWS. These are welcomed, and though I know it might be a tiring period for those in his immediate vicinity, it is also full of colour and ideas and laughter.

Those months are a whirlwind of intensity and excitement and exhaustion. Of wonderful hours brainstorming by his side in wild hours of mania. Help with homework from someone in the midst of a manic episode, though knackering, is more often than not frantically fun and creative. Sometimes his bipolar spending has left him without money to buy milk for a week. Thankfully for us, there’s always been a patient grandma or mum at the end of the phone to patch up the pieces.

Trauma travels and it permeates. There are living tissues of the past which you come to appropriate and approximate. It’s relational, and wraps a thick web around people far beyond the trauma spot. My grandad committed suicide when my dad was 11, almost 10 years before I was born. And yet, dulled and softened, that trauma touched me. When you’re 12 or 13, and can only imagine life reproducing itself along straight lines, that word bipolar comes to mean a particular expectation, of loss and of death. You fear, wrongly, that your own dad has a fast approaching expiry date.

My sisters and I- experiencing much of this together- have a thick, steady and unmovable closeness. But knowing your sister is in pain, and not knowing how to reach her, can be impossibly heartbreaking. Realising that you can never know what the world feels like for her, and knowing she wants to be out of that world, out of her skin, produces a kind of physical pain I can’t quite describe. You desperately want to stabilise things, make her world right, make life more liveable, and you can’t. Never ever a burden, but always on your mind.

There have been some really very dark moments, the kind that haunt you. When you ‘lose’ someone, not because they die but because they turn into someone else, turn you into something sexual, and shift not only your relationship with them but your relationship with all things and all people for a very long time, illness in the family can feel earth shattering. For years your family works tirelessly to protect you- from fairy book monsters, alleyway creatures, and ITV Drama villains. No one imagines that- through the channel of illness- unwanted sexual advances will creep inside the familiar, into the body of a person you once loved and admired. We expect people that hurt us to be 2D people, with none of the thinking, feeling, affective properties embodied in a family member. We want someone to blame, but sometimes the perpetrator is just ill and lost. That’s a difficult thing to reconcile.

What my experience of illness has given me, I think, is a great capacity for empathy. And this is true of all my immediate family. You learn that when somebody says they can’t do something, like get out of bed or get dressed, they really mean it.

My family are in general creative, empathetic, courageous and innovative people, working out new ways of being with themselves, of being with each other, of making things work. I have nothing but admiration, particularly for those matriarchs who have had to hold things still, often without time or space for their own crashes and falls.

It took me a long time to realise that there’s no shame in illness. But whether it’s chemicals or contact that means we’re all a bit mad and sad, I have never felt lacking in love or support. A tapestry of challenges and successes, of those around me overcoming, or at least dealing with adversity wherever they face it.

Probably most families tend to colour and scribble outside the lines. I know that my experiences are not extreme, or unique. I think almost everybody has a story, or several. My advice to anyone in contact with mental illness is to reflect on how it has affected them, shaped them, contoured relationships: thinking, talking, beyond a copied and pasted Facebook status, beyond sharing an article on “why it’s good to talk”. Speak to others, if you can, or speak to yourself, record yourself, listen to yourself. It turns the good bits and the shit bits into a genealogy, a retelling of the past to unmask something about the present. Those horrible and hurtful moments, become a miscellaneous part of the way you have come orientate the world.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Travelling in Recovery



This summer I was fortunate enough to be offered a teaching position in China, which became the financial springboard for a further spectacular 3 months of travel. The most fantastic opportunity of my life has also been maybe one of the most difficult.

Travelling East Asia is paradise for food lovers, but can slip and twist into a dystopic nightmare when you are a food-lover-come-bulimic-in-remission. Hot and buttery banana pancakes, sweet coffee with condensed milk, soft and sticky noodles, cloying and honeyed sticky rice, gooey and gelatinous dumplings, hot and sour soups, nutty and oily curries. An incalculable sensory landscape that has sometimes been bittersweet. 

For three months I have slurped and munched and chewed through the most wonderful myriad of colour and flavour and texture. Augustus Gloop loose in the chocolate factory looks feeble by comparison. But Augustus and I share the condition of having gotten stuck. One minute I'm promising myself no restrictions, the next I'm plotting and scheming meals to miss, carbs to cut, and conscious of the familiar feeling of sick rising in my throat. 

I tread this endless and exhausting oscillating movement, desperate to navigate a space in-between. For a person who is publicly very scatty, privately I meticulously plan each cycle of food consumption and expulsion with surgical care. With no space or time to plan, I was propelled forward into an assault of feasting and snacking and gorging. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. 

I watched bits of my body switch from hard to soft, and wept and mourned their transition. Six years of purging and restriction means my body clings to food quicker than most, my metabolism slowed by my own mistreatment.The strange pattern- that collapses the distinction between my mind and body- triggers involuntary vomiting each time I dwell on policing my intake, or on my changing shape. 

"You have to get comfortable in feeling uncomfortable" insists my remarkable and eternally patient friend. I repeat this to myself over and over. Moment to moment my mind and reflection shift. I smile at my softer stomach, my thicker thighs, and then suddenly catch myself from a different angle and feel as though the world is crashing in around my head.

This point is made again and again, but eating disorders do not just thrive in bodies that are thin, they continue to live and feast in bodies of all shapes and sizes. 

I made promise after promise, to direct myself toward thinness, or to direct myself to recovery- all hollow. I could only extend into space as a deviant scribble, a betrayal to both sides of my conflicted self.

My lovely friend watches my feeble attempts at being better, hearing me slip back into my old disordered lexis, where normality is defined by restrictions. Then she makes me do something very difficult. She makes me sit and be with my lowest self. Rip it open, face it, feel it. 

My second year of university was coloured by my worst relapse since I was very ill during my A levels. I felt absolutely unreachable. I have the most wonderful group of supportive friends and yet, lots of the of the time, felt utterly and impenetrably alone. 

And so there we sat, in a coffee shop in Vietnam, tears streaming down my face, recalling all of it. The isolation, the sneaking off after meals, the crying, the cramps, the foggyness, the exhaustion, the total neglect of the subject that I love. 

She made me call a spade a spade-  and pushed me to stare that spade in the face. I think I owe her- quite literally- my life. (Thank you.)

I am used to matching pictures of my skinny self with romance, and validation, and worth. The reaction- as my body slims- is always positive. I tangle well-intended compliments into a monster mandate to validate my own nasty habits. 

But for the first time in my life I can say with conviction that I want to be better more than I want to be skinny.

I've posted bikini pictures- admittedly well-angled- but nonetheless markedly different from the image I've so long been chasing of my 15 year old twiggy self. 

I'm eating desserts when I want to, eating bread because I like it, eating sugar because I like it (something that I've told myself I hate for too long.) And when I feel food come up, I focus all my energy on keeping it down, rather than succumbing to its force.

I have to consciously and constantly tell myself off- talking back to the voice that has for so long told me that I'm not enough, that I need to "earn" basic sustenance. 

At the end of my self-indulgent gap yah enlightenment, I am happier and heavier and ready to face the illness I've been running from for years. I don't know quite how to love my body yet, how to stop seeing change as flawed, but I'm getting there slowly. 

I still have daily wobbles- but that's all they are- momentary wobbles, in what is actually a very real and meaningful recovery. 

Failure, Individualism, and the Complexities of Self-Care

CN: Mental health, bulimia Failure and the self We exist in a moment where threats are immediate, physical and existential. Lives...