by Melanie Santos. photography by Taylor Hunter.
Even as I continue remembering who I am, I cannot forget the looks on their faces each time I set myself free. The sting of their stares, the thickness of the air, and the false positivity in their good wishes are braided into my psyche. They exist in the crevices of my brain, not because I invite them to, but because I am a woman of color who has uncovered her voice and now enforces her self-care. We carry the catalysts for our healing inside of us like a note to self inscribed, “don’t allow yourself to feel imprisoned ever again.”
I’ve released myself at several points of my life, each time redefining the meaning of “becoming” on my terms.
The act of becoming and what it meant for girls like me was delivered to me in a tight box at a very early age. The daughter of immigrants, I was taught about American privilege before I could spell it. I had more, so more was expected of me. I had education, medical care, and career opportunities beyond my Caribbean family’s American dreams, so I was taught to be grateful, keep my mouth shut, and work hard so I could become something worth being proud of.
I’m not at all knocking their hustle and vision. It kept me aligned. I politely assumed my position. A quarterly honor recipient, a scholarship awardee, and a matriculated trilingual foreign exchange student. I did it all, and I did it scared. I did it because it was all I knew how to do, and I did it all in lieu of the fact that I was becoming someone unsustainable.
How often do we assume positions prescribed to us simply because we are taught to take them? How often do we rip and tug at the seams of our well-being simply because we’re told they have to fit a certain way?
I was 17 when I had my first anxiety attack, and 22 by the time depression infiltrated. By 23 they were permanent fixtures, debilitating me for over a week straight with nothing but the thought of ending it all. But it wasn’t the end – it was the beginning. Unbeknownst to me, my revolution was already brewing. What looked and felt like my imminent death was the first bud in a rose bush too powerful to fathom existed within a girl like me. But alas, I bloomed.
Mental illness un-silenced me. It taught me to say no to the world and yes to myself many times over. It has incited the total deconstruction of the meaning of self-care.
Becoming. How has self-care been (re)defined in my life?
Self-care means finding a therapist you vibe with and sticking to twice-weekly sessions because you’re committed to not only staying alive but getting better. This time, not to please your family, but because you want to. It means going against the grain of cultural stigma, societal shame, the possibility of being called crazy for seeing a psychologist, and making decisions that are healthful for you.
Self-care means quitting your job after being suggested un-paid time off for your mental health. Not because you’re cared for, but because your acts of self-preservation are seen as self-indulgent. It means gladly packing up your desk with no plan for the future after being told your therapy sessions are getting in the way of your work. But you know that it's your work that’s contributing to the need for twice-weekly therapy sessions.
Self-care means resigning from a position you’ve worked years to acquire after several stress-induced hospital stays. Several stays too much. It means liberating yourself from passive-aggressive comments upon your return from maternity leave, and no longer having your healing body policed in the workplace.
Self-care means requesting a new doctor because you will not succumb to the pressures of the white patriarchal medical system and its effects on your gynecologist. You should have switched when she asked you to leave if you were serious about home birth. Self-care means deciding that you don’t want to bring humans into a world where you can’t decide how it happens if it’s inconvenient to third parties. Nonetheless be silenced by close-minded care.
Self-care means embracing that the personal is political. That loving yourself madly, truly, deeply in a brusque, subjective world is an incredible act of resistance. It means defying all odds placed against you, but knowing when it's time to rest. It’s being silent. Not because you’ve been silenced, but because you value your peace.
Melanie Santos is a New York City-based wellpreneur, writer, speaker, and intuitive creator. Her platform is focused on holding safe space for honest conversation and breaking the barriers surrounding mental, physical, and spiritual health. Her work aims to empower people to do the work, get comfortable with their shadows, invest in their wellness, and align with their highest selves.