[CW: ableism, mental health]
“How are you?”
I rehearsed the words, over and over. I needed to convince my friends that I was just fine. I didn’t want them to know that I’d just spent the last 3 months crying nonstop, or that passive ideation was increasingly a familiar friend. I needed to hide my erratic sleep schedule, and how much adulting I was simply incapable of doing because every moment felt like swimming through honey.
Perhaps, I was scared to admit that I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was.
As the eldest daughter of an immigrant family, my job was to be strong, smart, and capable. Somehow, I was supposed to help with my siblings, run errands, get perfect grades, be the perfect career woman… flawlessly put together the whole time.
I’d always been the 乖孩子 (the good, obedient child) who made my parents’ lives easier. Along the way, I’d learned to be expert at anticipating family needs, intuiting all of the ways I could help, and delighting in the endorphins when I pleased them. I sought the feeling of being useful and capable, and the ways I felt needed and noticed when I delivered. I internalized this idea that my worth was in my ability to perform, to fulfill the different obligations that somehow made me wanted, made me valuable.
Conversely, I believed that if I wasn’t productive and accomplishing anything, I wasn’t worth anything.
For a while, that belief served as a mostly-harmless unexamined pillar of my identity. I kept performing as the 乖孩子, accomplished in my career and attentive to my family. Then, my mental health got worse. The bad days and nights went from a few nights a month to basically every day, even when it felt like I was checking off the “standard” self-care boxes: sleep, exercise, hydration… Time passed in a fog of tears, façades, and hiding my chapped nose (from crying all night) with Vaseline and foundation.
On bad nights, the voice in my head increased in volume, and started drawing corollaries to the belief that my worth was in my ability to get shit done.
“If all you’re capable of is crying, then maybe you’re useless. Maybe… you’re not worth the space you take up and the resources you use.”
The thing is, those are words I’d never say to my family, biological or chosen. Or anyone, for that matter. This is what I believe, and have said over and over as I walk through life with those I love.
“Your existence is beautiful and holy, because you are, not because of anything you accomplish or do. God sees and loves you. I see and love you.”
To say or believe otherwise is to buy into the lies of capitalism and utilitarianism. God loves us because we exist, not because we somehow “add value” or “provide a good return-on-investment”.
I had to learn to say those words to myself and to believe them when my friends said as much. I had to believe that I was worth loving even when I couldn’t care for my friends the way I wanted, couldn’t leave the house to go to a protest, couldn’t get out of bed for church, and couldn’t even return a text.
I had this ableist narrative in my head that by not naming my pain, I could avoid being “high-maintenance” or “needy,” descriptors I had always tried to avoid. I was afraid that naming my pain would make me weak and less-than. I was scared that I couldn’t be useful to my community. And if I couldn’t bring value to a community, then what use was I anyways?
I had to learn to believe that God’s love, and the love of my chosen family, is not dependent on whether or not I am an investment with a good return.
If I’m honest, there’s a lot of days I still don’t believe that my worth isn’t in what I do. At least now I know that it’s a lie- a lie that I’ve learned from our social and economic systems that oppress, exploit, and kill. And I know what I want to believe about myself, and about others.
Today, I feel like I did when I was first learning to read: building a vocabulary, mapping words onto reality. I’m learning to map words onto my lived experience, and then to use those words to be honest with those around me.
“How are you?”
“Today’s been hard.”
In your image, we are all beautifully and wonderfully made. May we know each day that we are valued and cared for simply because we are, not because of anything that we accomplish or do. May we care for our neighbors simply because they are.
Forgive us for the ways that we see those around us as a burden, and show us how to love abundantly and hopefully in practical, everyday ways. Forgive us for the ways we chase efficiency and productivity over dignity, humanity, and care.
In a world that seeks to value us for the ways we can be exploited for profit, grant us the courage and imagination to act as if each one of us matters, just as we are.
- NAMI provides good medical information about mental health
- Ring theory is a primer on caring for people without increasing their mental load
- The Nap Ministry is an Instagram account that invites us to understand rest as resistance, reparations, and liberation
- Give yourself permission to believe that you are valuable and loved, no matter what you accomplish or get done.
- Look for ableist assumptions in your communities and friend groups: whether it’s in the activities you choose, or the unspoken rules about who is included. Can you make sure that everyone feels included and cared for?
- Advocate against legislation and policy grounded in (among other things) ableism, whether it’s work requirements for SNAP or lack of appropriate accommodation in the workplace or school.