Be true to who you are—not who your family and community expect you to be—and practice authenticity, the greatest act of self-care.
The World Health Organization defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care provider.”
While I accept this definition, I also admit that I’ve engaged in plenty of self-destructive behaviors in misguided attempts to please my family and my community—most notably around my mental health. I didn’t report my first hallucinations to anyone, for example, because I feared being labeled “crazy” and deemed a failure. As a result, I spent a decade misdiagnosed with unipolar depression, often on medication that exacerbated my bipolar disorder. For years, I minimized all my psychiatric symptoms, fearing what they would mean for my family and community—and ignoring how they were debilitating me.
From this, I learned an invaluable lesson: the greatest act of self-care is the one that allows you to be true to who you are—not to who your family and community expect you to be. For me, this meant dropping the irrational shame surrounding my bipolar I diagnosis, and using my experience to improve my family’s and my community’s understanding of mental health conditions.
When I began to write and speak publicly about having bipolar disorder, I did so with little family or community support. All the people who loved me most, with one glaring exception, encouraged me to keep quiet.
That glaring exception was my husband, the only member of my family whom I had chosen. Because he came from a different family and community, and because he was carefully selected by me, he was able to provide the support and encouragement that people within my ancestral family and community simply couldn’t.
My Iranian-American family and community are wonderful, but because they’ve experienced discrimination on account of their backgrounds, they didn’t want me to do anything that might invite further discrimination into my life.
But my husband doesn’t know me as a collection of “minority” labels ripe for discrimination. He knows me only as the woman he married, the woman who thrives on speaking up when others insist on staying silent. So he pushed me to speak up—or as he put it, to “do Melody.”
Of course, we’re not all activists and we’re not all Melody (thank God!), so I’m not suggesting that we all sing our diagnoses from the rooftops. Rather, I’m suggesting that an essential aspect of self-care is choosing to surround yourself with people who know what matters most to you and will push you to honor that, whatever it happens to be. We all get lost from time to time, and in those moments, it helps to have people around who can not only tell us where we’ve been, but also remind us where we want to go.
Choosing your family—and by extension, your community—is an intensely powerful act of self-care. No matter how much we may want to, we simply cannot promote and maintain health—or prevent disease and cope with illness and disability—alone.
We need family, and we need community. And it’s no secret that there is no such thing as a perfect family or community, so it’s up to us to fill the gaps and build the families and communities we need and deserve.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t do this unless we’re severely persecuted by our families of origin—which may partly explain why the LGBTQ community is way ahead of the curve here. That said, we can all benefit from building strong and diverse chosen families. Being faithful to who we are is the best way to do it.
I’ve been writing and speaking openly about my experiences with bipolar disorder for more than a decade now, and as a result of being faithful to who I am by refusing to be quiet about what matters to me, I now have a remarkable extended chosen family of other mental health advocates and survivors. Keeping their company helps keep me well, which makes them a vital part of my self-care strategy. And they assure me this isn’t a one-way street, as they insist that keeping my company helps keep them well too. Together, we’ve found our tribe, and every day our patient presence reminds us that there’s nothing selfish about self-care.
Printed as “Flight of Ideas: Authenticity as an Act of Self-Care,” Spring 2019
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