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At the Root of Self Care is Honoring Community

As oppressed people, we’ve learned so much from our upbringing — how to be resilient, creative, courageous, and independent. Oftentimes we were forced to be strong. Aside from us often making the best out of every situation, we have inherited powerful sentiments that have made life difficult. One of the most harmful sentiments that has been  passed down is fear. Fear of speaking up, fear of rising up, and fear of breaking away from the trauma inflicted on them. Many Dalit and other oppressed minorities experience  fear, anxiety, guilt, depression, and sorrow on a daily basis.

Instead of sensationalizing this violence inflicted on Dalit people, how can we glorify the strength and resilience of our community? Why must we constantly be at the forefront of anti-caste dialogue, fighting, and working all the time? Why does taking a step back and looking at the progress we have made sound so peculiar and unthinkable? I believe part of honoring our communities is the concept of self care.

Many say there is no time to sit idly by while our siblings and community are still being oppressed, that we must keep working until all of us are free. And while this might be true to an extent, there are deeper things at play. Unlike the individualistic idea of Western thinking, the collective holds more importance than the individual in South Asian culture. I believe that we can come together and combat this oppressive nature of mental health and self-care.

Self-care is a foreign concept in many of our South Asian cultures. Many of us do not have the time or privilege to be “kind” and take care of ourselves in healthy ways. When you add caste and class into this equation, it becomes even more complicated. The intergenerational trauma we carry from our ancestors becomes a heavy burden to hold that requires us to be compassionate and patient with ourselves.

But whether we have the social and economic capital to access or not,  this practice of self-care is almost impossible for us to imagine.

The lack of mental health care for Dalits and the lack of data and knowledge around this topic makes it even more challenging to combat. In 2018, Amnesty International found that 65% of reported hate crimes in India were against Dalits. This high rate of atrocities and the inadequate support Dalits receive make it impossible for us to seek care. Because there is no investment in healthy Dalit women, we face additional barriers in accessing mental health care. Even if we do have this access, there is discrimination from medical professionals. In Karnataka medical settings, there is a common joke about women who come in with vague complaints of body aches and fatigue. These women who come from a lower class and often Dalit and Adavisi communities are often labelled with MKKS syndrome (mai kai kal susthu) that translates to body hand leg fatigue. With this label, these women are considered “bogus patients” and are sent off with unhelpful and generic advice.

If Dalit and Adavisi people are facing this discrimination, how can we expect to get the help we deserve?

As a Dalit queer (yet to come out as trans) person, seeking mental health care was the last thing on my mind. I read about self care in my social work postgraduate literature class but it was never something I considered to apply in my own life. I viewed it as something only privileged people were able to access. What struck me as even more sad was that I did not know how to take care of myself and my mental health. With little to no exposure to mental health practices, I looked at this concept in a complete theoretical sense, something very distant for me to ever experience.

When I was getting my postgraduate degree, I knew the most needed action at the time was to stop pursuing said degree. I wanted to stay in academia so desperately that I neglected all the signs of my deteriorating mental health. Feeling disconnected and numb, I made the painful decision to take time for myself and take a break from everything.

I remember feeling the guilt I had for having access to adequate mental health care. I did not feel deserving enough to receive it. It was a tough few months where I was coming into terms with my worth and what I could do to feel connected and healthy. I gradually learned that there isn’t a set standard of things that we can do for self-care. By trying out different things and learning about how my mind and body works, I found a few techniques that best helped me stay grounded in the present and let go of my anxieties — even if just temporarily. My discovery of alternate body therapies, along with mainstream talk therapy and bio-medicine started my journey of authentic healing and liberation. Things like journaling and shiatsu made a difference for me to connect with myself and process what was happening.

From my journey, I’m learning that before we can look out for each other, we must look out for ourselves. It is not only exhausting, but hurtful to not take care of ourselves. We walk around with suppressed trauma and emotions, just waiting to release it out to the world.

If we take care of ourselves, only then can we care for others in a healthy and safe way. And at a time where there is this capitalistic need to succeed, we need to look out for each other without hostility and resistance.

Moving beyond survival into thriving requires that we take care of ourselves and each other. We can do this by listening to one another and learning from our struggles and triumphs through collective healing practices, prioritizing ourselves, and expanding our consciousness. By shifting our attention and energy away from the violence and placing it mindfully on solutions and transformation, I hope we can go beyond survival and aim to thrive in whatever we decide to do.