Self-Care Tips For Folks Who Struggle With Codependency

Please note that I am not a mental health professional – just someone with a hell of a lot of lived experience – and this advice should never act as a substitute for professional medical advice.

codependency

I put every egg I had into one basket: My tumultuous relationship.

My Struggles With Codependency

I’ve never talked about this publicly before – maybe because it’s just so highly stigmatized in our society – but I have struggled throughout my life with entering into codependent relationships.

Codependency has been defined a lot of different ways (and often in ways that further stigmatize people with mental health struggles).

I prefer to define it as a relationship in which a partner becomes a substitute for healthier coping strategies. By being an individual’s sole source of support and caregiving, they interfere with their partner’s ability to be self-reliant and adaptive in the face of stress.

It creates a dysfunctional dynamic in which one partner is seen as “rescuing” the other partner. Love between those partners ultimately becomes defined on the basis of either providing or receiving assistance/support. Psychology Today has a great article about it if you want more information.

My therapist once described it very simply as “putting all your eggs in one basket.” 

When I was sixteen and struggling with bipolar disorder and anxiety, I put every egg I had into one basket – a tumultuous relationship with a boy I went to high school with.

My (untreated, undiagnosed) mental illness was running rampant in my life. I was experiencing extreme highs and lows, dissociation, panic attacks, self-harm, and suicidality.

And descending from the heavens, in my mind, was this guy who loved me despite it all and carried me through.

I not only perceived him as being the one who saved me from myself, but I saw him as loving me when I was inherently unlovable. This created a dysfunctional dynamic in which I relied on him to help me adapt to my illness, rather than seeking out adequate treatment, expanding my support networks, developing new coping strategies, and creating a practice of self-care.

If I was depressed, anxious, upset, you name it – I was calling him with the expectation that, no matter where he was or what he was doing, he would talk me through it. I became so dependent on him that I didn’t know how to survive without him.

Similarly, he also struggled with depression, and sometimes these roles would shift. I would become his one and only support. I would drop everything to be there for him. I would sacrifice my own sanity just to give him something or someone to lean on.

At some point or another, I realized that I had lost touch with nearly every friend I had because I was so invested in this one relationship. And worse yet – when I realized this, it hardly seemed to matter.

And thus our unsustainable, chaotic relationship became both our saving grace and the very thing that drove us mad. Because without adequate coping strategies and resilience, the burden was placed on our relationship.

Towards the end of our relationship – an end that we both could see coming from a mile away – he told me that he had considered, many times, breaking up with me, but felt that he couldn’t.

When asked why, he simply said, “I couldn’t break up with you. You would go off the deep end.”

That was my wake up call. I ended the relationship immediately, never looking back, and I made a promise to myself: Never again did I want to be in a relationship in which my partner felt manipulated, unintentionally or otherwise, into staying with me out of fear that I could not survive without them.

I’m not ashamed to say that codependency is something that I struggled with and, at times, still do. It makes perfect sense that, in the face of trauma and difficulty, I adapted the only way I knew how. It’s completely understandable; I have a lot of compassion for myself in this way.

But now that I know better, I work diligently to ensure that my relationships are healthy, and that I’m able to take care of myself instead of using my relationships to avoid confronting my mental illnesses.

By no means should we shame ourselves for the coping strategies we created when we didn’t know better – every one of us, especially those of us with trauma, has created maladaptive ways of dealing with stress.

But we owe it to ourselves and the folks that we love to work on it, especially because codependency can do real harm to both ourselves and our partners (and some of these relationships can become abusive – a real risk that we must be honest with ourselves about and be accountable for).

For me, my healing process began with self-care.

 

How Self-Care Helped Me Shift Away From Codependency

A practice of self-care can be absolutely radical for folks who struggle with codependency as their coping strategy. The idea that we can rely on ourselves to deal with stress and trauma runs completely counter to everything we’ve learned to do over the years.

In my community, we talk about a “radical practice of self-care.” It’s the idea that an intentional effort to nurture and affirm ourselves can be immensely helpful for our mental health, transformative in a world that tells us that putting ourselves first is a selfish act, and psychologically necessary as we endure the injustices of this world.

It’s pretty fucking awesome if you ask me.

But too often, we don’t acknowledge that for some of us, self-care is not only radical – it’s actually tremendously difficult and even painful if our only coping strategy involves, quite literally, the opposite of self-care.

For folks who struggle with codependency, I want to acknowledge and validate that this shit is hard for us. Self-care goes against everything we know.

So let me say it loud and clear: I get it. Codependency comes from a place of hurt and fear. Carrying that around day in and day out is not easy. And so I validate that, completely.

It’s not just about learning to take care of ourselves. It’s not just about reading a good book when we’re sad, or taking a walk to clear our heads. For us, dealing with stress is never that simple.

Self-care for people with codependent patterns is also about unlearning these maladaptive behaviors that, for many of us, have developed over the course of years and even decades.

These coping mechanisms can be so ingrained that it makes us behave and react in ways that we find difficult and even impossible to control. For us, the stakes with self-care are much, much higher.

If this is your struggle, I’m here to say that I totally know those feelings. And I want this conversation to be a safe space in which I can encourage you to take baby steps towards shifting away from codependency and, instead, developing a practice of self-care that can work for you.

Self-care has helped to empower me to take control over my own mental health, my own happiness, and begin to find new tools to call upon when I’m encountering a stressor in my life. It’s helped to bring more balance into both my own life and into my relationships.

And best of all, it’s helped me to feel confident that I can survive on my own. My well-being no longer depends on whether or not someone is there to support me or rescue me. I have been able to let go of the fear that everything will fall apart if my partner isn’t there.

That peace of mind – the assurance that I will be okay – is the reason why I believe that we need conversations like this. No one should have to live with the absolute terror that their world will fall apart unless that certain someone is there to take care of them.

You can take care of you. And while friends, partners, family, and community can be a part of that care, they aren’t the only tool that you have. It’s empowering to know that you are in the driver’s seat of your own healing.

 

My Self-Care Tips For Folks Struggling With Codependency

This is, of course, just the beginning of a larger conversation. But I want to offer some quick tips that you can walk away with, right now, to begin your practice of self-care.

 

1. Seek out a therapist.

I realize that this isn’t accessible to everyone, but if it’s possible, a counselor or therapist can be absolutely invaluable in helping you to cultivate resilience as you unlearn codependency.

 

2. Bookmark this self-care guide and USE IT.

If you get nothing else from the article but this link, I’ll still be happy.

I love this guide because it feels conversational. It’s exactly like having a friend or partner there to walk you through what you need to do to be well, except it requires no one but yourself to actually use.

It’s basically an interactive quiz that gives you advice on how to react to stress. By using it often, you gradually learn healthy ways to respond when you are struggling with a trigger or episode.

As far as I know, the only time it involves another person is if you indicate that you are lonely, in which it encourages you to reach out. All the other advice can be put into motion on your own. This is great for those of us who are working towards being more self-reliant.

I keep it in my bookmark tabs so I see it every time I open my browser. And I use it. Often. Like, literally every time I’m upset.

 

3. Create a Self-Care First Aid Kit

I encourage anyone, codependent or otherwise, to get an old box or container of some kind and put together a “feel good” kit for those inevitable shit days.

Some suggestions on what you could include: A bottle of your favorite scented lotion or bath product to lather up with, a favorite upbeat album to dance to, a favorite movie with a bag of microwavable popcorn, a stuffed animal to cuddle with when it gets rough, a book that makes you laugh when you read it, a box of tissues for when you’re crying, a super soft pair of socks that make you feel cozy, a candle or incense you could light, a crisis hotline number if you feel you might hurt yourself (even if you don’t think you’ll need it, please include it), and a list of phone numbers for three friends or family members that you can call (not including the partner or individual you have a dependent relationship with).

You don’t have to go out and buy these things – they can be items you already have on hand or you can ask if any friends have items they might donate. The idea is that if you keep these things in one place, they’ll be easy to access and you’ll be more likely to use them.

 

4. Seek Out More Resources On Self-Care

I personally believe that you can never have too many articles, print-offs, and videos on self-care. The more ideas and suggestions, the better!

I wrote another guide that talks about self-care for folks with anxiety, which included my favorite video on self-care by my lovely friend Melissa Fabello (seriously, watch the video, it’s required). Everyday Feminism has another great self-care guide if you’re looking for more general guidance.

If you struggle with mental illness or with your mental health in general, print off this list of affirmations. I wrote them just for you and I want you to read them. Often.

Lastly, there are entire communities online dedicated to radical self-care. Some are specific to fat folks, queer folks, people of color (fun fact: radical self-care originated from women activists of color), etc etc.

My favorite place to find these communities happens to be on Tumblr, but you can find them on many of your favorite platforms. Don’t be afraid to investigate and find a community that works for you!

 

5. Realize That Unlearning This Takes Time

Be gentle with yourself. For many, codependency emerged as a survival strategy in the face of neglect, trauma, or illness. It is important to be compassionate with yourself and honor the journey you are on, however slow the pace may be.

It is a tremendous thing to be self-aware in the face of codependent behaviors, and to choose another path. That is an incredibly brave thing to do.

I believe in you and I’m proud of you. Please know that healing from the trauma that comes with codependency is not only possible – but it’s something that you are absolutely worthy and deserving of.

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How Mental Illness Changed the Way I Feel About Birthdays

birthdaycake

In my mind, celebrating the day I was born didn’t seem like a huge priority. In a way, you could say I’m making up for lost time.

Today I turned 24 years old (this is the point where half of my readers are like, WHAT, since I don’t think I’ve posted my age publicly until now – you’re welcome).

I know a lot of people who don’t make a huge deal out of their birthdays. They see it as just another day of the year. They don’t go out of their way to tell anyone. They stay in, enjoy a glass of wine, watch a movie, and fall asleep with the television on.

More power to them – really, whatever floats your boat – but I am definitely not one of those people.

I savor all the well wishes, the cards, the hugs, the birthday cake emojis. I buy myself a cake and a present; one year, I even sent myself a couple of e-cards (at the bottom it read “Love, You” – yes, I realize how weird this sounds) so I would have something fun to wake up to.

I stalk my Facebook wall, starting right at midnight, and revel in the outpouring of love and affirmation. I loudly tell waitstaff at restaurants that it’s my birthday with the hopes that they’ll sing a song.

But contrary to what it seems, I’m not actually a brat.

In fact, I didn’t always behave this way on my birthday. My birthdays used to be quiet. When I was no longer a kid and I was expected to organize my own party, they largely slid by, mostly unnoticed.

In my mind, celebrating the day I was born didn’t seem like a huge priority. In a way, you could say that I’m making up for lost time.

The thing about being a teenager in the throes of mental illness is that it was difficult, if not impossible, to motivate me to care about the fact that I was a year older.

To me, it was just a reminder that I had spent yet another year struggling without making any progress. You could say it was a new year, and you could even put it on a card and wrap it in a “happy occasion” bow, but to me, it felt insignificant.

The years all blended together underneath this dark cloud of bipolar and anxiety and they were rendered meaningless in the fog.

My birthdays as a teen went something like this:

  1. Resenting how damn cold Michigan is in late November. Resenting not having an earlier birthday so I could at least enjoy some sunshine on what was supposed to be “my day.” Sometimes this also meant staring angrily out the window at the snow on the ground.
  2. Wondering if any of my friends would remember (mind you, this was before Facebook was so popular). Being amazed when a few actually did.
  3. Eating carrot cake with my family (my mother makes a carrot cake that is out of this world, so I requested it every year).
  4. Going to bed and imagining a parallel universe where I actually did something important on my birthday.

Truthfully, I think that when you’re in survival mode, the idea of celebrating the fact that you exist seems so asinine when you spend more days than not wishing you didn’t exist.

When my mental health started to rebound, though – therapy, meds, rinse, repeat – I started to feel differently about birthdays.

The first birthday I can remember feeling distinctly different about was my 20th birthday. I remember thinking about how, when I was younger and deeply depressed, I had never imagined myself getting any older than 18. Turning that corner and getting into my twenties felt like a huge accomplishment.

It was a revelation. It was like unlocking a bonus level or discovering a sequel when you thought the book series had ended. I felt like I had cheated death – like I was living when I wasn’t really supposed to be.

Looking at that number as it shifted from 19 to 20, I had this sense that my being alive was a tremendous accomplishment; my birthday stood as a reminder of the resilience it took to keep living, to keep fighting, to stay.

That year, I actually did celebrate for the first time in a long time. Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, radical faerie extraordinaire, had a show in Ann Arbor. I went with a new friend of mine – a new friend I would eventually start dating a couple months later. It was a magical evening.

I realized that night something that had never really occurred to me before: I had a future.

And if that future involved radical transgender performance artists and some cute queer who buys me coffee on my birthday, I suspected that my future might not be so bad (spoiler alert: the cute queer who bought me coffee that night was also the cute queer who I married three years later).

Life didn’t stop at 18. And if I could live to be 20, maybe I could live to be 25, or 30, or… wow, is there really life after 30? They tell you life is short and that you should never assume you have more time, but the thought that I could live another decade, another two decades, even more – that thought shook me to my core.

Finally reaching my twenties made me feel like I had a whole new lease on life – and that’s when my obsession with birthdays really began.

I’m a big believer in making a huge fuss out of your birthday, but it’s not because I’m self-absorbed (okay, I may be a little self-absorbed – I am a blogger, after all).

It’s because I love any and every excuse to celebrate the fact that we’re still here. When somebody says “Happy Birthday” to me, what this translates to in my mind is, “Hey, kid, you made it. You’re alive.”

Still being here – which, when I was younger, was never something I imagined – is a big fucking deal. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t make it another day, let alone another five, ten years.

This year is the most important year yet. I am 24, and my first major depressive episode happened when I was 14. I look back at where I was ten years ago – ten years, can you believe that? – and I’m amazed.

Ten years ago, I didn’t think I would make it through geometry class, let alone grow up to be an actual adult (another spoiler alert: taxes are terrible, paying rent is painful, but being an adult is, all in all, the best thing ever and totally worth the wait).

Ten years later, I did make it through geometry. And not only that, but I survived many depressive episodes (and manic ones, too). I graduated from high school – hell, I graduated from college. I came out as transgender. I moved across the country to California, I got married, I started my career as a writer-

Hold up, y’all, as a writer. Which is its own bucket of “what the actual fuck” because when I was 14, I refused to show my writing to anyone because I was embarrassed and afraid that I wasn’t good enough.

Can you imagine what teenage Sam would have to say about all this?

Birthdays, for me, are the one day of the year where I have an undeniable excuse to celebrate everything that I’ve overcome to reach this stage in my life.

And, yes, while I believe that we should dabble in self-love and affirmation every day of the year, there’s something magical about getting older that makes those affirmations feel so much more meaningful.

Ten years ago I never imagined that this was my future. Hell, what future, I never imagined a future! I didn’t know that, on the other side of all of that pain, there were was something worth waiting for.

I realize that birthday cake emojis or balloons are not remarkable in themselves. I know that to most people, cards and parties and waiters singing songs are all superficial things to care about.

But they all remind me of perhaps the most tremendous thing I’ve learned in my 24 years on this planet: You just never know.

Every single time I claimed to know what the future had in store, I was wrong. 

And never in my life have I been so happy, so glad to be wrong. It’s a kind of “wrong” that’s worth celebrating.

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9 Affirmations You Deserve to Receive If You Have a Mental Illness

Originally posted at Everyday Feminism and shared here with permission.

The image features two people smiling at each other - one holding a coffee cup, the other holding a book.

“You are doing a good job.”

I remember the first time my therapist told me, “Sam, you’re doing a good job.”

I remember how overwhelmed with emotion I was. I had worked so hard to keep myself steady and had spent so much time just trying to survive, but I never got any credit for this invisible battle that I was fighting every single day.

For a moment, I couldn’t catch my breath as I repeated the phrase – you are doing a good job – in my head a few more times.

When she saw me – really looked at me and saw my pain, my struggle, my willpower – I felt like my whole soul was being nourished. I was being given something I didn’t even know that I needed until that moment: validation.

People with mental illness don’t get enough credit, enough affirmations, enough love. More often than not, the words we get can feel a little hollow.

In a world that tries to tell us that we are too crazy, too much – in a world that says we are less than in so many ways – I just wanted someone to say to me, “You are exactly enough, and yes, I see how hard you’re fighting.”

If you’re anything like me, sometimes you need someone to acknowledge you, especially when things get tough. So here are some of the affirmations that I wished I had, and that every person with a mental illness (or illnesses!) deserves.

1. You Are Worthy of Love

Yes, even on your worst days, you are absolutely worthy of love, care, and compassion.

Sometimes it can feel like the folks in our lives are doing us a favor by loving us, but this stems from a really problematic idea that we aren’t worthy of love in the first place.

Bullshit. We are. Struggling with our mental health doesn’t make us unlovable, no matter what our exes or so-called friends say.

That’s not to say that we’re perfect. No one is. But perfection is not a requirement for love. We have trauma to work through by virtue of the difficult journey that we’ve been on. But many of us, whether we have a mental illness or not, have things that we need to work on.

Just because you’ve got work to do, it doesn’t mean that you should deny yourself love, or goodness, or happiness.

Mental illness does not make you unlovable. Mental illness does not mean that anyone who loves you is doing you a favor. Mental illness is just one layer of a complicated, beautiful, and whole person.

2. You Are Enough

Struggling with your mental health can sometimes make you feel inadequate as a person, like this so-called weakness makes you less than everybody else. If you’ve ever felt that way, I’m here to tell you something: You are absolutely, positively enough – exactly as you are.

No matter where you are in your recovery, no matter what struggle you’re dealing with, and no matter how many times you’ve broken down, I need you to know that you are enough. You don’t need to do anything extra or change who you are to be worthy of good things in your life.

Mental illness doesn’t mean that you’re somehow less important, less worthy, or less remarkable than other people.

I find myself beating myself up at times, wondering why I can’t get my shit together, wondering if these disorders say something about my character. I wonder if it’s a sign that I’m defective somehow. I wonder if it says something about my shortcomings. I wonder if my mental illnesses are a shortcoming.

But you and I are not defective. We are just people, with our own unique journeys and the struggles it took to get here.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

3. You Are Strong (Even On the Days When It Doesn’t Feel Like It)

You’re fucking tough. You know how I know that? You’re still here.

Don’t believe me? It’s summed up best by this Mary Anne Radmacher quote:

“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’”

Every day that you choose to keep fighting is a testament to your strength. Every day that you keep trying, even when everything in you is resisting, is proof of your courage.

Every small victory – getting out of bed, making that phone call, preparing a meal, doing a load of laundry – is yet another example of how strong you are, despite the relentless grip of mental illness.

Give yourself some credit. You deserve it.

4. You Are Not Damaged Goods

Back when I was dating and I wasn’t open about my anxiety or bipolar, I felt like I was carrying around an enormously shameful secret. I felt like I was defective and that, sooner or later, the people that I cared about were going to discover that I, Sam Dylan Finch, was “damaged goods.”

But here’s what I’ve learned: Every one of us, in some way, is “damaged.” And moreover, those struggles, while they may have shaped who we’ve become, are not the entirety of who we are.

And whatever those struggles might be, they certainly don’t depreciate our value. We aren’t meat sitting in a freezer, slowly expiring until we’re tossed aside. We’re people – people that, like anyone else, have had our fair share of challenges to get to where we are today.

Anyone who says we’re less valuable because we’ve struggled in the past does not deserve a place in our present.

Besides, let’s be real. Deciding that someone is less worthwhile because of their disability? That says more about their lack of compassion than it does your value as a person, no?

5. You Don’t Need to Run Away

Sometimes when I’m scared that I’m too much of a burden for the people that love me, I feel this intense urge to just run away.

To turn off my phone, catch the next train and take it up the coast, to don a red trench coat and disappear a la Carmen San Diego. (Yes, this is a fantasy that has run through my head many, many times – and yes, I own the red coat.)

Years ago, I used to disappear abruptly for a day or two, sometimes even weeks at a time, much to the distress of my loved ones. I believed that I just wasn’t good company. I thought I only deserved to have friends when I was feeling good, and if I wasn’t, I deserved to be alone.

Let me save you the time (and money): You don’t need to run away. You are not a burden.

Your friends are your friends because they care about you, not because you’re a circus performer that exists solely for their entertainment. Friends are there on your good days, your bad days, and all the days in-between.

And it’s their responsibility to make sure they’re taking care of themselves, and that they communicate when they need space. It’s your responsibility to trust that, if they need space, they’ll take it.

Instead of running away, just be open about how you’ve been feeling. Give your friends the chance to prove you wrong or to take a step back if they need it. You don’t need to run away just to see who’s going to follow – all you need to do is tell them what’s really going on.

You’re not a burden. You’re a human being who has struggles from time to time. That doesn’t make you undeserving of friendship – if anything that means you need your friends now more than ever.

If your friend was going through a difficult time, I imagine you’d do your best to stand by them. Why is it so hard to believe that someone would do the same for you?

6. You Didn’t Do Anything to Deserve This

Sometimes my twisted bipolar brain would convince me that I somehow brought these illnesses onto myself, or did something to make them happen.

Gentle reminder: It’s not your fault.

And again, for emphasis: It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.

If you had caused this, wouldn’t you have done everything in your power to undo it? Wouldn’t you change this if you could? And wouldn’t you have done that already?

I don’t know why mental illness likes to tell so many lies (what a jerk, right?), but take it from someone who knows: Mental illness doesn’t happen because an individual magically makes it so. It’s a complex combination of psychological, social, and biological factors.

Nothing you did on its own created this monster, I promise. Your first diet or binge didn’t “cause” your eating disorder. Your first cut didn’t “cause” your depression. Your disorganization didn’t “cause” your anxiety.

A dysfunctional response to stress is evidence that the problem existed long before you responded to it. Okay?

So don’t dwell on what you could’ve, should’ve, would’ve done. Instead, focus on your recovery. Be kind to yourself and be gentle.

7. Do Something Nice for Yourself

Self-care is vital. And if you aren’t making time for yourself, it’s time to make time.

Setting aside an intentional moment or two to nourish and take care of yourself isn’t just a luxury – it’s necessary for our mental health.

I wrote an article specifically about self-care for folks with anxiety, talking about how self-care is one tool that I use to help manage the distress that accompanies generalized anxiety, and what steps I take to practice self-care as a person with mental illness.

For many folks with mental illness, self-care is an invaluable coping tool to keep ourselves afloat.

You deserve nice things. You deserve to treat yourself and nurture yourself. The everyday wear and tear that comes with mental illness means that we have to invest in ourselves and our wellbeing. We need to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves to mitigate the impact that mental illness can have on our health.

And yes, even when we’re feeling great, we have to keep investing in our self-care to keep it that way.

Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s necessary. And if you haven’t been putting in the time, now is as good a time as any.

If you aren’t sure where to start, check out this amazing video and take a look at this list of articles here at Everyday Feminism!

8. You Don’t Have to Pretend to Be Okay

I spent so much time trying to hide what I was going through. I locked myself away and I kept people at an arm’s distance for so many years; I thought that I was protecting the people I loved, but in reality, I was hurting us both.

I was hurting them because, in truth, they wanted to help me. They were more hurt that I didn’t trust them or ask them for help when I needed it. And I was hurting myself because it meant that I was battling these illnesses alone – something that I just couldn’t do by myself, no matter how hard I tried.

I’m going to issue a challenge to you: Stop pretending to be okay when you aren’t. You don’t need to be “okay” all the time or even most of the time.

I’m giving you permission to struggle. I’m giving you permission to be sad. I’m giving you permission to be angry. Feel whatever it is you’re feeling, and let the people in your life who want to be there for you actually be there.

Let people in. It’s okay to not be okay. You don’t have to do this alone.

9. You’re Doing a Good Job

You knew I was going to say it, and here it is: Yes, you’re doing a good job.

Living with mental illness(es) can be hard work. And we seldom get any credit for the work that goes into keeping ourselves alive.

On the outside, it seems like what we’re doing is very simple – getting out of bed, cooking ourselves a meal, and maybe dragging ourselves to work. But with disabilities like ours, simple tasks can require a monumental effort.

I see that effort. I know that it’s hard work. And I want to tell you that you’re doing a good job. You’re doing an amazing job. Despite every obstacle that is standing in your way, you’re still doing the best that you can.

I am so, so proud of you for the work that you do, day in and day out, to keep going.

If I could, I’d teleport over to you right now and give you a trophy. I’d also bake you a cake. And then we’d watch Netflix together – because who has the energy for anything else?

I know that it might not always seem like you’re making much progress, especially on the days when you can’t do much other than sleep (I’ve been there, trust me). But even on those days, knowing what you’re up against, it’s a miracle that you’re still around and I’m so happy that you’re here.

Keep taking it one day at a time. And every step of the way, don’t forget to pause and acknowledge the hard work that you’ve done to get where you are.

If you can’t, just tweet me and I’ll do it for you (seriously).

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A Love Letter to Anyone and Everyone with a Mental Illness

loveletterConfession: Sometimes I feel unlovable. Sometimes I feel unworthy.

Sometimes I look at the scattered marbles strewn across my mind and think to myself, “Who could love something so disassembled, something so broken?”

In this society, we are taught that the worst thing for a lover to be is “crazy,” and that being “crazy” makes us deserving of our loneliness and our longing.

To be “crazy” is to be unworthy, to be unwanted.

Confession: Sometimes I want to run away. Sometimes, even after getting married and even after a thousand “I love you, I need you, I want you’s” – written, spoken, texted, felt – I fantasize about taking the train as far away as I can go, up the coast where no one can find me.

Sometimes in our desperation, we isolate ourselves, fearful of what it means to be seen, to be visible, to be known.

Confession: I am often afraid that having bipolar disorder means that, if someone gets too close, they’ll get burned.

But then my lover holds me and I see that they are still whole – not a single burn, or scar, or wound – and I realize this impulse to run is yet another lie, another deception of a disorder known for its deceiving.

Maybe you are like me. Maybe you are afraid, too.

Confession: We are, and have always been, staggeringly, astonishingly, magnificently beautiful and worthy of good things.

You and I – we deserve good things. We deserve love. We deserve happiness and we are worthy of the people who make us happy.

The gears of our minds may turn a little differently, but it makes us no less worthy of that happiness than anyone else.

Whenever I feel that instinct to run or to hide, I affirm myself as an act of resistance.

And I put passion into my resistance, I resist with my whole being. When I hear the dark voice, echoing from the corner of my mind, telling me that I am not enough – I straighten my spine, curl my fists and say, “No. I have always been enough.”

Because, confession: We are enough.

Which is not to say that we don’t make mistakes, which is not to say that we are perfect, which is not to say that we have arrived at our destination, exactly as we’d like to be.

But we are human.

So long as we are committed to being the best versions of ourselves that we can be, and so long as we hold ourselves accountable as we go along, we should be gentle with ourselves.

Gentle, like putting a bandage on a hurting child; gentle, like placing a baby bird back into the nest. We should be tender with ourselves, we should be soft, we should be kind – we deserve no less than kindness, especially when we are sore, especially when we are hurting, especially when we are lonely.

Mental illness can make us so sore. Sometimes we resist love because we are hurting, because we only know what it means to hurt.

But there are other ways of being.

Confession: Kindness is difficult when we are acutely aware of our shortcomings.

So every day, I practice. I write love letters to myself. I remind myself of when I’ve done something good. I light candles for myself. I take long showers and afternoon naps. I go to the beach and dig my feet into the sand. I drink lots of water. I smell the roses and the eucalyptus and the daisies.

And at first, I didn’t know how to be nice to myself. I’d spent years practicing the exact opposite. I knew all my worst mistakes by heart. I could rehearse every imperfection. It wasn’t difficult to pick myself apart.

Sometimes, though, we must do the more difficult things because they are also the most important.

In a world that tries to reduce you to “crazy” – a world that tries to tell you that you are inherently flawed – it is necessary to do everything you can to build yourself up.

It is powerful to be loving in a world that tells you that you should not be loved.

Because, confession: Letting yourself love and be loved is a radical act.

Which is to say, you are enough in this moment and you always were.

Which is to say, mental illness does not make us damaged goods.

Which is to say, mental illness is a part of us but it is certainly not all of us.

We are not enough “in spite of,” we are not enough “all things considered.” We are enough, full stop, human in every sense of the word.

We are bright, we are luminous.

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8 Things Non-Binary People Need to Know

The image features the non-binary pride flag.

The non-binary pride flag, via Gender Wiki

Coming out as genderqueer and non-binary was this big, beautiful, scary thing for me. I didn’t know what exactly I was moving towards – I only sensed that I was moving in the right direction.

Navigating something as complicated as gender with just my intuition was like running through a corn maze at night. There were a lot of dead ends. There were a lot of bumps and bruises. And it was, at times, totally exhausting.

There’s so much that I wish I had known when I started transitioning that I simply wasn’t able to find. There’s a lot of validation that we all need, but fail to get.

The internet is still tripping about our existence, so there are plenty of articles about what we are and there’s lots of 101. But our lives exist beyond 101. We need something more than that.

That is why, this week, I wanted to write an article – by a non-binary person, for non-binary people – about the important stuff that we need to hear but often don’t.

If you don’t identify as non-binary, you should read this anyway. You’ll learn something, I promise.

So to the non-binary folks out there, here are eight things that I really, really need you to know:

 

 

  1. You don’t have to be certain and yes, you can change your mind.

People assume because of my confidence or something that I have a very clear idea of what I’m doing.

Haha, that’s funny.

Do I want testosterone? No clue. Do I want top surgery? Uh, maybe? Do I want a more fluid presentation or a decidedly “masculine one”? Ask me again later.

I’m the magic 8 ball of gender. You can ask me the same question ten times and you’ll get at least five different answers.

I don’t know what I want. For a while, though, I felt like I needed to know exactly what I wanted, and I spent too much time agonizing over it. I wish I hadn’t. I wish someone had given me permission to be confused, to be unsure, to be afraid.

You don’t have to be sure about your (a)gender, your presentation, or what steps, if any, you’re going to take. And guess what? You can change your mind! You can change your mind as many times as you’d like, and you are still valid in every single way.

Take your time. Gender is not a race to the finish line; gender is not a competition that you can win or lose. It’s your personal journey, and you can take as much time as you need.

 

  1. You are valid, and you are doing it “right.”

Regardless of what you do, regardless of what choices you make, your identity and your gender (or lack thereof) is 100% valid.

There is no right or wrong way to do gender. And yet there were times when I didn’t feel “trans enough,” times when others questioned my transness, or times when I was excluded because I didn’t fit into this box of what it means to be “trans.”

Others will gender police you, even other trans people, or try to push you back into those boxes – but I want you to know that when they do, they are in the wrong, not you.

You are enough. Always.

 

 

  1. You deserve respect – so don’t apologize for demanding it.

I spent a lot of time apologizing when I asked people to use my pronouns. And that was a ridiculous thing for me to do in hindsight.

I deserve respect; I shouldn’t be misgendered, I shouldn’t be excluded, I shouldn’t be made to feel unsafe. So asking people to respect me should never have been something I apologized for – and you shouldn’t apologize, either.

People will, at some point or another, make you feel like your identity is some kind of burden on others, or that they’re doing you a favor by treating you like a human being. But you don’t need to kiss anyone’s ass just because they treated you the way that you should be treated.

And your identity is not a burden – society’s strict adherence to the binary, and failure to recognize and affirm you – is the real burden here.

The constant misgendering, microaggressions, harassment and even violence that we face as non-binary is a burden that far exceeds what anyone who calls YOUR identity a burden will ever experience.

You deserve respect without pandering, without begging, without people asking for cookies or pats on the back. You deserve respect, period.

 

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

I know firsthand, from being in the community and connected with you all, that NB folks often grapple with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. And because we’re afraid of being misgendered and we’re afraid of having our identities dismantled or interrogated, we’re less likely to seek help.

I didn’t come out as trans to my therapist until much later in our time together, because I was afraid of being forced into an educator role in a situation where I was supposed to be the client. I silently and needlessly suffered from gender dysphoria because of that fear.

If you are struggling with your mental health or with dysphoria, ask for help. Please, please, ask for help. I know it can be uncomfortable to be put on the spot, and I know misgendering, especially by so-called professionals, can be grueling. But your mental health is important, and if you need help, it’s important that you get it.

Seek out a therapist. Seek out a healer. Seek out a support group or an online community.

And don’t settle for lousy care – if you aren’t getting what you need, keep looking. You are worth it.

 

  1. Your body is a non-binary body, no matter what it looks like.

When I was trying to get an idea of what I, as non-binary, wanted to look like, I couldn’t help but notice that there was an abundance of thin, traditionally masculine, able-bodied white people without a single curve to be found that were being advertised as androgynous bodies.

There weren’t any bodies that looked like mine.

But here’s the truth: You can be fat and curvy and be androgynous. You can be a person of color and, undoubtedly, be neutrois. You can have boobs and be transmasculine.

What makes a body non-binary is not what it looks like – it’s the person that lives in that body, and identifies that way.

If you feel pressure to pass, to conform, to look a certain way just to feel valid as your gender, I hope you know that your body is a valid non-binary body no matter what shape or form it takes.

 

  1. External validation is great, but self-love is revolutionary.

It’s powerful when we receive validation from others. But I wish someone had reminded me a little earlier on how important self-love is, too.

Over at Everyday Feminism, I wrote a little about the importance of self-love as trans folks.

The gist of it: As we weather microaggressions and dysphoria and oppression, we need to take care of ourselves.

The act of loving ourselves in a society which seldom acknowledges us or affirms us is politically powerful, and psychologically necessary.

While it’s important that those around us respect us, it’s equally important that we put in the work and respect ourselves.

How often are you practicing self-care and self-love? If it’s not often, it might be time to reevaluate your priorities – and put yourself first for a change.

 

  1. You are not alone.

It can feel that way, to be sure. The loneliness is compounded because most folks still cannot see us the way that we see ourselves. It’s complicated to exist outside of what most people have never been asked to imagine.

Yes, being non-binary can be a lonely road.

But it’s worth remembering that you are not the only non-binary person in this world. NB folks have existed everywhere, across cultures and across time. You are not alone in your feelings, experiences, and fears.

If you are feeling isolated, there are so many resources (and more resources, and more), as well as online communities that are waiting for you. And you can come exactly as you are – you don’t need to be out, and you don’t need to be certain.

Sometimes it helps to know that you’re not the only one going through this.

 

  1. Your voice is important, and you deserve a seat at the table.

Your experiences of marginalization, oppression, and fear are important. And every community that you are a part of – whether you’re a person of color, a person with a disability, working class, atheist – should be including you, and valuing your unique contributions.

We are too often pushed to the margins, both in the trans community but also in other communities that we are a part of.

And I want to remind you that your voice is important to all of those conversations – you should never be excluded from any discussion that you are personally connected to.

As an atheist who is also non-binary, for example, I often wonder why the most vocal and visible atheists at conferences, panels, and events are white, cishet men.

Similarly, when transgender folks are talking about transphobia, are they including non-binary people? Why or why not?

It can sometimes feel like we don’t belong in these communities, despite identifying so strongly with them. But your perspective is important, and you should have a seat at the table in every discussion in which you have something at stake.

If you’re being pushed out, don’t apologize for pushing back. Spaces that do not succeed in including you need to confront their failures – especially those spaces that present themselves as being socially just.

* * *

There is so much that I wish someone had told me when I first came out.

In the beginning, it felt as if I was completely in the dark – and I withstood abuse, aggression, and loneliness that, in hindsight, I didn’t deserve.

Sometimes I was convinced I was doing something wrong because I was unsure.

Sometimes I let others step on me because I didn’t feel worthy.

Sometimes I settled for disrespect because I thought respect was too much to ask for.

Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t “enough.”

Sometimes I felt alone and I was afraid to ask for help.

Sometimes I hated my body because I thought it wasn’t an “androgynous body.”

Sometimes I thought the validation of others was more important than how I felt about myself.

Sometimes I let others exclude me because I thought I had to wait my turn.

This was my early experience of life as a non-binary person. It was difficult, and scary, and oppressive. And while in some ways things have remained the same, thankfully most things have improved a lot.

I wish someone had stepped in to let me know that I was worthy of respect, worthy of love and support; I wish someone had told me that there was no right or wrong way to be non-binary, as long as I was being myself.

Most of all, I wish I had realized sooner that I wasn’t alone in everything I was going through.

I hope that my words can offer some comfort and validation, and act as reminders of how deeply worthwhile and important you are. In a society which tries so hard to erase us, it can be easy to forget.

I wish you, and all of my non-binary siblings a safe, healthy, and beautiful journey as you explore your (a)gender. Please know that I am with you every step of the way!

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A Guide to Self-Care for People with Anxiety

The image features a metal case, presumably a first aid kit, with the words "SELF CARE" on top.

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

[The image features a metal case, presumably a first aid kit, with the words “SELF CARE” on top.]

 

Holy anxiety, batman. If there’s one thing readers want to hear more about, it’s my experiences with anxiety — namely, how I cope with it. It seems like a lot of us are still trying to navigate this tricky condition.

Therapy and medication can help, but a lot of how I manage my anxiety is based on a regular, consistent practice of self-care.

I think that self-care — defined as intentional actions taken to improve one’s sense of well-being — has made a significant difference in my overall mood, and has been especially helpful in dealing with my anxiety.

While the ups and downs that come with anxiety are not always within our control, there are a lot of things we can do to impact our mood and make the wave a little easier to ride. It’s not about getting rid of anxiety altogether — it’s about changing the way we respond to anxiety to lessen the impact.

So when I start to feel anxious, here’s what I do, step by step:

 

 

Step 1: ENGAGE with what’s making you anxious.

Okay, so your gut is probably telling you to run for the hills. Engaging with what’s making you anxious is probably the LAST thing you want to do. I know that my personal tendency is to avoid what makes me anxious.

But often times, we need to engage with our anxiety, because avoidance can make it worse.

A great way to do this is to write down what’s making you anxious in one column, and on the other column, write one thing you could do to make this situation less stressful or more manageable.

Here’s an example:

I’m anxious about writing my annotations paper.

– I could read over the handouts to get a better idea of how to complete the assignment.

I’m anxious about taking the train to Walnut Creek.

– I could listen to music on the train or ask a friend to go with me.

Most of the time, the steps I come up with are reasonable and helpful. Part of what makes me freak out is feeling that I have no control or ability to impact the situation — but when I write down steps that I can take, I feel as though I have a little more agency.

But if there’s a problem and I can’t figure out any steps to take, I know that it’s probably time to seek out a therapist, counselor, healer, or trusted friend to brainstorm some solutions.

Once I’ve written out what’s making me anxious and I’ve come up with one idea that could, at the very least, make things a little easier, I take my notebook and I put it aside. I then move onto the next step.

 

 

Step 2: DISTRACT yourself and give yourself a break.

For me, I know that once I’ve engaged with my anxiety, I need a break so I can steady myself. Once I’ve put the notebook on my bookshelf, I start looking for some healthy distractions to stabilize my mood.

What works for me may be different than what works for you. I like to watch something that will make me laugh on Netflix. I also like to play Nintendo, particularly games that are less action-based and aren’t particularly demanding (in case you’re wondering, this includes Mario Party, Animal Crossing, and a variety of puzzle games). I like to read a fantasy novel, or color in a coloring book, or bake a new recipe.

My favorite distractions will transport me to a new reality (television, video games, books), particularly if it involves roleplaying (which is why I pick up the Nintendo most often). I especially like distractions that utilize my imagination because they seem to distract me the most.

The key is to find things that are distracting without any triggers. I find that the internet is full of triggers for me, so I tend to avoid it when I’m taking care of myself. We should always be looking for healthy distractions — activities that bring you down a notch — instead of unhealthy distractions, which may numb you for a moment but create more stress or consequences down the line.

Once I’m distracted and feeling less frazzled, I go onto the next step…

 

 

Step 3: RELAX in a calming environment.

Hold on. What’s the difference between a distraction and something that relaxes? Distractions are things that take me out of my head, out of my body, and neutralize my mood. Relaxing, on the other hand, will place me back in my body, and help me to feel good again.

After I’ve distracted myself enough, I seek out a relaxing activity that engages my body. For some folks, it’s a guided meditation while they’re laying in bed, and for others, it’s a stroll through their favorite bookstore or park.

Visualize a place that makes you feel safe, and imagine something soothing that you could do in that space. Find something that makes your body feel less heavy — something that involves good smells, good tastes, good feelings.

Decide if that place is indoors or outdoors, at home or away. Decide if it involves people or if it’s something you do by yourself.

I’ve learned overtime that my safe space is a hot shower, maybe with cinnamon incense burning or my favorite soap from LUSH.

Why distract before relaxing? If I’m too anxious and I just jump in the shower, I spend more time thinking about what I’m anxious about than actually relaxing in the space. I need to bring the stakes down a little bit before I can actually relax. Distractions get me to a more neutral place so I can actually relax when it’s time to do so.

Your self-care regimen will probably look different from mine. But once you figure out what distracts you and what relaxes you, be sure to write it down to remember later on.

 

 

Step 4: If needed, REACH OUT for support.

If you haven’t already, it might be a good idea to seek out support from a friend, a loved one, a therapist, a healer. Simply going it alone is not always an effective way of caring for ourselves, and we often need the support of others to manage our anxiety.

When you’re asking for someone’s support or help, I recommend being upfront and using an “I feel and I need” statement to directly communicate your needs.

For example:

I felt so anxious earlier, and I need someone to listen. Can we talk?

I feel so paranoid right now, and I might need a new dose on this medication. Can we make an appointment?

I feel really stressed about this assignment and need some clarity. Can you help me understand it better?

I feel depressed, and I might need a therapist. Can you recommend one?

Articulating what you’re feeling, what you need, and a concrete step that you can take together can help make the conversation a productive one. Remember that people are not mind-readers, and the best way to getting what you need is to ask for it.

By asking the person if they can help, you also ensure that they are not taking on a stress that they can’t handle. You’re giving them permission to opt in, or opt out.

If you aren’t sure what you’re feeling or what you need, you can also say so. “I’m not sure what I’m feeling right now and I’m not sure what I need right now, but I thought that we could talk.” We can’t always articulate our anxiety, but talking through it with someone can still be helpful.

After I’ve gotten some support, I move onto the last step.

 

 

Step 5: REVISIT your list.

Remember the list of stressful stuff that we created at Step 1? When you’re able to, it’s a good idea to return to that list.

Sometimes anxiety comes from feeling overwhelmed, so commit to doing just one, maybe two things on that list. I recommend starting with the easiest thing on the list to get you going. Sometimes starting is the hardest part.

It’s important to take things one step at a time. Commit to just a few steps, and see what happens. You may find that after you get going, you feel motivated to take on more. That’s great! But if not, doing just one or two things at a time will hopefully lessen the anxiety that you felt in the beginning.

 

*   *   *

A lot of folks think of self-care as a way of dealing with stress after we’ve reached our limit. However, I disagree. It should not be exclusively a crisis resource, but something that we practice regularly. I do a little distracting and relaxing every single day. I set aside an hour or so to make sure that I’m taking care of myself.

If you’re interested in more about self-care, check out this fantastic video by my good friend Melissa Fabello:

If you don’t have the time, make the time. You wouldn’t wait until your house is flooded before fixing a simple leak, right?

Our bodies and our minds undergo a lot of wear and tear, because life, my friends, can be very stressful. So do the maintenance instead of waiting for life to blow up in your face; nurture yourself and care for yourself each and every day.

Why? Because you, without a doubt, are worth it.

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More than Just Ink: How Tattoos Were a Vital Part of My Gender Transition

newtattooilo

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.


[The image features an androgynous person with light brown skin, flexing their bicep in a powerful pose. Their body has numerous tattoos, some geometric and others floral. They are wearing a chest binder.]

When I was younger, I never anticipated being the kind of person with tattoos. I have the pain tolerance of a goldfish, and I’m not exactly edgy or hip. I used to think that tattoos were reserved for rough and tough, leather-donning rock stars – which, if you couldn’t tell, I didn’t exactly fit the bill.

Yet today, I can’t imagine my body without tattoos.

I didn’t get my first tattoo until I was 21, only a few short months after I got my first chest binder. I don’t think that is a coincidence, however; my tattoos were not a random decision, but rather, born out of a need to reclaim ownership of my body.


I felt as if I only knew my body on someone else’s terms.
I had been told what a “good body” looked like. I had been told what a “woman’s body” looked like. I only knew my body in light of society’s interpretations. And that pressure to conform made me feel empty, confused, and alone.

I knew what society wanted from me. But what did I want?

At first, I didn’t know that I had a choice. But as I reached my early twenties, it became apparent that the emptiness I felt wasn’t going away. “Woman” was a label I was given, but it was never a label that I chose. I didn’t know what the alternative was, but I knew that something had to give.

It wasn’t long after that I embarked on my transition. And as I progressed, my desire to be inked grew. I fantasized about the tattoos I would have, where I would place them, and what they would mean to me.

Exerting control over my body and making it my own was a central part of not only transitioning, but tattooing as well. A tattoo became as much a necessity for me as a chest binder or masculine pronouns.

Having some sense of mastery over my own body was much-needed after years of policing from others. I could still recall the pain of being told by an ex-partner that transitioning would make me ugly and unattractive to him; being told by family that short hair would be the worst mistake I could make; insistence from others that tattoos would ruin me. With every choice I made, it was implied that I was now damaged goods, a less valuable commodity when I dared to step outside of stereotypical “womanhood” and pursue my freedom of gender expression.

I started to question who my body really belonged to.

In spite of the backlash, I pushed forward. Because my body did not exist for other people to objectify, ridicule, or appraise. The value of my body was not about to be measured by somebody else.

When I finally got my first tattoo, I felt a kind of high that I didn’t think was possible.

For too long, it felt like society had created this barrier between my body and myself – telling me what a “good” body looked like, what I should strive to become, and all of the ways that my body was not enough as it was.

I spent hours, bottle in hand, tipping it back and wondering if my body was just a mistake. I had bruised knuckles from punching a reflection that I thought I wasn’t meant to have. I spent my showers looking at the tile on the wall, straight ahead, afraid of what I would feel if I looked at myself for too long.


But as the ink made its way beneath the surface, it was as if I was taking my body back – back from unrealistic ideals, back from gendered rules and roles and expectations, back from this notion that I could never feel happy as I was.

Through the pain of that first tattoo, I felt like I’d reached a breaking point. I settled into the vibrations of the needle, the lines being drawn onto my skin, and my blood warming up in my body. I hadn’t felt this grounded inside myself before.
Before that moment, I’d never felt the gravity of my own self, the space that I occupied, the presence that I held.

I was having an uninterrupted, honest conversation with my body – a body that, for too long, I declared my enemy. Or worse, something I painfully tried to ignore, avoided looking at, avoided knowing.


My tattoo became the gateway to self-love and empowerment.

My androgynous hair, my tattooed arms, my pit hair, my nose ring, my bound chest – these were all intentional choices that I made, directly opposing conventional notions of what was “attractive” and what I should want for myself.

I was self-made. And the act of “making” myself was the best thing I ever did for myself.

tattoos

Not afraid to show off my tattoos!

[The image features the author, Sam, with his arms raised and his hands behind his head. He is a white, androgynous person with dark-rimmed glasses and short hair. On his left forearm, he has a tattoo of a fox; on his right inner-bicep, he has an intricate feather tattoo.]

When I look in the mirror now, I see a body that is undoubtedly my own. It’s not a collection of parts, not a gender that I was assigned without consent, not a compilation of failings or “not enoughs.” I no longer see a body I am resigned to having; I see a body that I chose of my own freewill.

And as a transgender person, being able to reclaim a body that I did not feel belonged to me was essential to my transition and my healing.

When I look at myself now, I see a beautiful, complicated, queer body that is remarkable in its own right.

My tattoos were born out of a powerful realization that changed my life forever: the realization that I could abandon everything I was told was unquestionable, unfathomable, and impossible. Instead, I could become the person I’d always wanted to be.

Every tattoo on my body is renewed commitment to passionately pursuing my own notions of gender, my own vision of beauty, and my own truth.

And that’s more than just ink. To me, that’s a revolutionary act.

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