Caring for Oneself Is Not Optional

Photo Sarah Whiting

Every fall, we made a family trip to Itasca State Park to take in the leaves, ride bikes, camp and hike. There is just something so healing about being in nature. The sounds of the wind, and the shift in seasons always bring this sense of renewal to my spirit. A few years ago, we were on one of those trips. I remember the day like it was yesterday. We rented bikes to take in the beauty of the park. It was a gorgeous sunny day. I struggled to pedal, but blamed lack of exercise as the culprit. As we progressed, I began to feel fatigued, out of breath, and dizzy. I thought I was dehydrated. We paused to snack. 

We jumped on the trail again. As we continued, I felt worse. Eventually it seemed like I would pass out, so I stopped abruptly and yelled for the group to stop. These symptoms were new to me. After I was able to stand up, we walked our bikes back to the campground. 

Days later, I returned to work as a college administrator, filled with student appointments, addressing emergencies, and providing support and leadership to a wonderful team. While my work was flexible, I also tended to have 10-hour days, and worked evenings and weekends. If I was the on-call person, and we had an emergency on campus, my family could expect me to be gone for days. 

I have always prided myself on having lots of energy. I was once that active student leader who grew up to be that active professional who loved all that a college campus offered. For six years I had been working full-time, attending a doctoral program, and taking care of a family. 

I loved it. I was living my passion and making a difference in education. So, I rested and slowed down a bit when I felt tired, but not too much. Caring for myself was optional. 

I grew up in a low-income family, so the idea of resting was not native to me. My mother worked three jobs to keep a roof over our heads. Self-care was something someone with money got to do. Not us. We did not have that luxury.

My exhaustion continued to worsen, and my doctors could not find anything wrong with me. 

That spring, I could see the finish line to completing my doctorate. In May, I was hooded in front of many of my students, but most importantly, in front of my daughter. It was the third best day of my life, after her birth and getting married to my partner, Chris. After I completed the degree, I figured I would regain strength and get back to a regular schedule. Then I was sure the symptoms would go away. 

Months later, I received a call from a friend who encouraged me to apply for a job at a college in the Twin Cities. I had always wanted to move there. This was an exciting opportunity. Within 30 days we had sold our house, bought a new one in St Paul, and I started a new job alongside dedicated professionals with a deep passion for social justice education. I had found my tribe! 

The first year was intense. The level of busyness and pace at this college was different from other campuses I had been on. I got on that fast train and never stopped. 

My body started to hit a new level of exhaustion. I began seeing doctors again. This time my hemoglobin and Vitamin D were incredibly low. I started taking supplements and assumed that in a few months I would be good to go. 

Another year passed. My body stopped absorbing nutrients. My mind began to get foggy. My energy level was at a record low. I was not as sharp as I had always been. In March 2017, I finally had an answer. I had Celiac disease. 

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body has an inflammatory reaction to the consumption of wheat, rye and barley. It is often hereditary and at its worst can prevent the absorption of nutrients, among other symptoms. 

By the time I received the diagnosis, I was completely debilitated. I could not walk more than 10 minutes without feeling weak and dizzy. I lost the ability to complete sentences and kept forgetting what I was doing. I had limited my evening and weekend work hours, but it was not enough. 
What next? I asked myself. Will I need to leave a job I loved, and a career I worked so hard to have? 

Eventually, I knew the answer. Slowing down was no longer sufficient. I needed to stop altogether if I wanted to give my body time to heal. 
The idea of walking away from a 20-year career hit me hard. I grieved the loss all summer. 

Being Able to Walk Away

My partner Chris and I have always been very careful with financial decisions. I have several rules that I thought every woman-identified person should have:

Rule #1: Have a “Kiss My Ass” account
A colleague many years ago introduced me to the idea that, in order for us to do our justice work fearlessly, we need to actively build a savings account. In that way, when the day came to stand for your ethics and principles, and you needed to go elsewhere, we could say ‘kiss my ass’ to an employer.

Rule #2: The One Box Rule
If I ever needed to make a quick exit, I didn’t want to need a U-haul to clear things out of my office. I wanted to be able to always fit into one box anything I needed for a quick stage exit.

Rule #3: Live like a minimalist
My partner and I rarely splurge. Our go-to question has always been: Could we afford this if we only had one income? This kept us honest and real about our purchases. We wanted to budget for flexibility. 

Thanks to these lifelong rules, I was able to quickly change gears. 

The “Class System” Narrative

For many people, the ability to pause would be ideal. However, I have struggled with the decision. I have been working since I was 15. My childhood family’s financial struggles became a big part of my identity. I was one of those who fit the narrative we like to hear of the poor person rising from the ashes to a middle-class house and lifestyle because I “worked hard.” 

Trust me, I know the narrative, and I did not want to play into that, but the reality is that I felt like I was emotionally trapped into this “class” story we have. 
The grief that came over me about stepping back had everything to do with past financial insecurities and a nice dose of classism. I was also reluctant to depend on my partner — that narrative about giving away my independence, my power. 

What would it mean for me, a woman of color, to actually pause? None of the women around me ever paused — they couldn’t afford to. There is always one more job to keep up with, bills to pay, rent due, children to raise, elders to care for. Many of them couldn’t afford to get a cold without the threat of losing their jobs. Let’s be real. 

Then there is the sexism, racism, homophobia — the systems keeping women tired, sick, in dead-end jobs, oppressed, abused. Produce, produce, produce. Who am I to rest? Who made me special?

I prayed over this decision to step back, meditated, and called on my grandmother’s spirit, the Universe, and my ancestors to guide me. I needed permission to rest. 

One night, my grandmother came to me in a dream. She was quiet and sat next to me on the bed. She took my hand and said, “rest is a gift.” I woke up abruptly. 

My heart was heavy all day. What did she mean? It felt like guilt and shame wrapped in a bath bomb. 

Then it clicked. If capitalism is one of the many ways I am conditioned to believe that I’m not worthy of self-care, my grandma told me otherwise. I was being given a gift. I could dare to rest, not just for myself, but for my mother, my grandmothers, and others. 

What if self-care and the act of resting is an act of resistance? A resistance that pushes back on this culture of doing more with, and for, less — of playing small, of fitting into a limiting box, of producing until we can no longer stand, and then you better do it again tomorrow and the next day. 

What if I welcomed the gift of rest? What perspectives would I gain? What would I uncover? What could I teach my daughter? 

So, I submitted my resignation and recently began a journey of self-care. Since then I have gained the gift of time. Time with my daughter, my partner, my friends — and time with projects that I am passionate about. I began to say yes to myself.

That is part of the new consulting plan for my future. Helping women ask questions like: What if you said yes to yourself today? What would you gain? What new gifts and perspectives would you allow to emerge and grow? In what ways do you play small and believe that this is all there is — that somehow you don’t deserve to experience joy and health? 

If you stopped to listen to your body — which is your individualized storyteller — what would it say? 

The process of restoring soul is how we tell ourselves that we deserve to heal.

Aida Martinez-Freeman is a social justice educator, consultant, trainer and life coach. She is committed to engaging in critical conversations, and strategic planning that transforms self, community and institutions into more equitable space to live and work in.