How do you feel right now? Angry, mad, enraged? Sad, abandoned, ignored? Maybe fearful, anxious and overwhelmed? Whatever it is, Bria Royal’s Pocket Healing Zines ask you to pause, breathe and say out loud: “Right now, I feel _______.”
Royal (Comm ‘16) calls her wallet-sized pamphlet “My Unapologetic Emotional Awareness Guide” and offers it for free on her website. It’s meant to give marginalized communities the chance to work through “moments of overwhelming emotion,” a tool to let readers confront adversity head-on.
Royal has been diagnosed as bipolar, a disorder she says limits her ability to give to social justice movements in physical ways, such as marching in the streets. Instead, her art is her mode of resistance. Royal hopes her zines can help others find better methods of self-care, or the practices people use to ensure their well-being. Toward the end of the zine, she offers some examples: taking a nap, cooking from scratch, coloring, making some noise, even sexual fantasies. The guide concludes with four blank boxes for readers to fill in with their own ideas.
“I know what seeing what my self-care practice looks like might help someone else figure out what their self-care practice wants to look like,” she says.
West Side: One of Chicago's three major sections. It comprises areas including West Town, Lawndale, Garfield Park and Humbolt Park, among others.
The concept for her self-care zine series came to her while she was taking psychology classes and seeing a therapist at Northwestern University. Though she was thankful to be exposed to so many mental health resources, she felt that they were too individual-focused. In contrast, the Afroindigenous spiritual practices she learned growing up on Chicago’s West Side taught her to see her well-being as connected to the health of her community.
“I wanted to make those contents [of the zines] a little more community-focused, putting into practice the restorative justice and transformative justice things I was talking about outside of class,” Royal says. “I wanted to integrate those components a little bit better, but in a way that’s accessible to anyone.”
She hopes her art will empower others to seek support from their communities, an aim that directly challenges the isolating tendency to treat mental health struggles as a personal problem on Northwestern’s campus. Now graduated, Royal, who is Afro-Latina, works with For the People Artists Collective, a radical Chicago-based group of artists of color ”actively envisioning a world without prisons or police.” Her involvement in activist communities pushed her to reconsider how mental health is traditionally understood, and the friendships she’s cultivated through protests and organizing have helped constitute a support system.
At Northwestern, Royal learned how much she needed her friends in order to survive the pressure of school, especially during the quarter she dropped most of her classes and went home with two weeks remaining. This support system is crucial to Royal’s version of self-care; her zine asks readers to write down friends they may turn to in these kinds of difficult situations.
Two people Royal would have contacted are Weinberg fourth year Angel Ayon and Weinberg junior Marvin Sanchez. Over the past few years, their friendships grew from the organizing, protesting and educational work they have done together with different campus social justice groups.
MEChA: Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán is a national chicanx student group with an NU chapter. The Chicanx Movement works to achieve Mexican American empowerment.
Ayon, who uses they/them/their pronouns, identifies as a queer Chicanx, a political identity for a person of Mexican descent invested in indigenous politics. On campus, they have organized with MEChA and Students for Justice in Palestine, two of the key groups involved with the NU Divest campaign.
In Winter Quarter 2015, NU Divest successfully pressured ASG to pass a resolution urging the university to divest from any holdings tied to corporations that profit from business operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. But after, Ayon took a medical leave of absence near the end of the next quarter to escape a campus they described as “toxic.” They returned for Fall Quarter 2015.
Back at Northwestern, Ayon keeps Royal’s zines on their bookshelf and uses them while journaling. “Bria just went and put everything that no one’s been able to articulate in those,” they say. “How did this mini zine just fuck us all up?”
Unshackle NU: A 2016 campaign that called for Northwestern to divest from companies that profit from mass incarceration.
Sanchez, who identifies as Latino, has been involved in a number of social justice organizations. During the Unshackle NU campaign, he led a presentation on immigrant detention centers, and worked on its marketing and design team with Royal. He is also involved with MEChA and is the special projects coordinator for Alianza, a role he stepped back from last Spring Quarter and then returned to in the fall.
Allianza: Northwestern's Latinx student alliance.
In separate interviews, NBN talked to these three activists about their individual mental health experiences and their approaches to taking care of themselves. While their experiences and opinions are solely their own, they challenge the norm that a “successful” Northwestern student must feel overwhelmed and isolated and, most of all, constantly productive. Certain themes emerged: the importance of support systems, the willingness to step back, a focus on healing. Their work as activists engages a community, and so do their approaches to self-care.
For Members Only: Northwestern's Black student alliance.
AA: At the beginning of each year Alianza and For Members Only have their own first-year welcoming and give advice to the first years. There’s always some upperclassmen that’s like, “Take care of yourself, cause things are going to get hard.” It’s both a warning, but it’s also a “I’m not going to tell you how hard it’s actually going to be, but I’m letting you know that it’s going to be hard.”
BR: The school is very active in perpetuating a system in which students are expected to stretch themselves until they break, and once the students the break, this university is not accountable.
MS: There’s this inherent shame [at Northwestern] in saying “I’m not OK.”
While student activist organizations are as demanding as any club, they recognize a need for mental wellness.
MS: I would definitely say that people do think about mental health when people are organizing, and people in these spaces think about and talk about actively, at times, the mental exhaustion that can occur when you are actively organizing.
BR: I think in particular with students of color or people who come from groups that are marginalized by their identity, there’s a big emphasis on interdependency that runs counter to the independence that’s promoted by the university, by society, by capitalism, that “look out for yourself only” kind of attitude.
MS: Doing organizing work is very mentally exhausting, so sometimes you’re removing something that’s causing you toxicity. I think sometimes people read activist spaces as pure spaces, and that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes an activist space can become toxic, and your removing yourself from it for your own safety is a form of self-care.
BR: There can be times where it feels like I missed an action, all of a sudden I feel like I’m not contributing to the movement anymore. We need to make more diverse ways to make people feel like they’re a part of the movement and feel like they’re moving the movement forward, because not everybody can be out in the streets for hours and hours every time something happens.
MS: I think stepping away is a form of self-care, because it’s saying that I’m not OK. Instead of pushing myself through a very agonizing thing and compromising my own health, I’m gonna remove myself from the situation so I can fully take care of myself better, so that I can listen to what my body needs, what my mind needs.
BR: I’d get involved in groups where if somebody didn’t respond to a Doodle, then everyone’s, all of a sudden, angry. Now we’re starting to realize our first response shouldn’t be, “Why isn’t this person contributing? We have all this work to do.” I think now our first response is “OK, is this person OK? This isn’t really like them. What’s happening that might make this overwhelming for this person?”
AA: Someone was like, “Hey, you talk a whole lot about self-care, but I don’t see you practicing it anymore.” And I was just like, “You’re right, I haven’t.” In my year to take care of myself and center me, I haven’t been practicing it. How do I be out here preaching to others if I’m not doing it?
BR: We’ve realized we will not win if we’re all dead, if we’re not taking care of each other. It’s important for people to realize that it’s difficult work and to not pretend it’s not. If we’re not alive, we can’t achieve anything.
This sense of community emerged from and as a reaction to their upbringing.
MS: At the end of the day, it’s a hard thing to help and say I need help. I will attribute that a lot to my upbringing, and how a lot of Latinx families stress this kind of pride that you don’t need anybody, that you can do this yourself.
BR: Living on the West Side of Chicago ... there was definitely these norms in our community around being hard, around hiding your emotions and basically not giving your emotions time to marinate or even communicating them to other people. If you’re going through something, you’re kind of expected to figure it out. It sounds very harsh, but looking back it was definitely evident that those were survival mechanisms. That defensiveness was a survival strategy for where we grew up.
MS: I come from a working class family from southern California, and mental health isn’t necessarily talked about. I had never seen a therapist, never really understood what anxiety or depression were. So for me, when things started to happen to me, and I started to understand I wasn’t OK, I didn’t really know where to turn to.
I feel like a big chunk of my trauma and things that I have to work through is wrapped up in my identity, so for me when I was talking with that [Northwestern] therapist it was difficult to divulge very intimate things that happened based off my ethnicity, my race, my socioeconomic status.
AA: I was definitely raised with this motherly, nurturing role that we see of moms taking care of everyone else and never taking care of themselves. I’ve always prided myself in being that mothering friend that always has my friend’s backs.
I put everyone’s self-care above my own, so these past three years, I’d go from one friend to one friend to one friend every day. I wasn’t doing my homework because my friends were struggling and they needed someone to talk to.
This morning, I woke up and was like, “Fuck, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go to class, and I have this interview, I have to get up.” And I’m in the shower, and I broke down. I broke down ‘cause all the negative self-thoughts came, and then I was like, I’m crying in the shower, literally stereotypically-ass crying, and then I was just like, “I need to make a change. You are worth it, and you need to change your life. You are worth it.”... It gets me out of that negative space.
MS: You’re kind of in this weird place where you’re struggling. I always characterize it as where I’m drowning and I don’t know what to do, and then on top of drowning you feel too ashamed to call out for help, you know?
BR: We treat issues that people face with mental health, or the harm that they’ve experienced and the healing they need after that harm as their special case, like it was a cut instead of a disease, and an entire body is meant to run that way.
MS: A lot of things in my life are always double-edged swords, Northwestern definitely being one of them. It definitely has opened things up that I had shut closed, and it has also provided me some added trauma that I’ve had to navigate, but it’s also forced me to really take a step back, look at myself and say, “OK, how do I get better, and how do I start this?”
So in my experience, that’s been one of the hardest parts, just letting folks know, “Hey, I’m not OK, I need to step out, I can’t do this right now.”
AA: So my favorite form of self-care is breathing, just breathing. Stopping and realizing, “hey, you’re here, you’re alive, slow down. slow down, what’s going on? Today’s been hard. Okay. What are you going to do about it? You can’t do nothing about it right now? Fine. Close your eyes, take three big breaths, and just sit. Just feel, and sit.”
I have a little bottle of essential oils. Grapefruit, citruses are really good for depression. Grapefruit is my favorite. Once I smell some grapefruit, I just perk up. So my favorite blend is a rosemary-grapefruit-orange blend. Part of divestment, and my depression, is I started forgetting things. Like, I don’t remember yesterday. I don’t remember a few hours ago. I just don’t form memories anymore. So the grapefruit will get me out of it and calm me down, but the rosemary will help me remember things. It switches me from being on autopilot to intentional things, and that’s what my self-care is all about – love, and being intentional, and being an active participant in life.
comic series: Black Girl Mania "explores issues in mental health and bipolar disorder through the mind of Géminis, a world renowned platanera living in the soon-to-be future."
BR: With self-care, for me it’s mainly about love being turned inward, and just expressing unconditional love for yourself. It’s not just mental even, it’s physical, it’s all aspects of my health.
I write a comic series about being bipolar, and that brings comedy into it almost. I’m OK laughing at myself sometimes. I need to laugh at myself sometimes. Like I need that tension relief, you know? I make animations and things like that, which kind of get at my more personal things and connecting it right back to the community.
MS: A lot of my self-care is doing things that are not necessarily productive in any form, just giving myself space to kind of step back in, recenter myself, refocus myself, enjoy things that I want to enjoy.
When I’m stressed out, I take a shower, because for me warm running water makes me feel better, or I’ll take a shower and I’ll wrap up in blankets and watch a movie. I think self-care is doing something I enjoy, with no strings attached.
A big part of my self-care comes in the form of anti-productivity, because I feel like at Northwestern, and in bigger societies when we think of universities, there’s always this need to be productive. Everything needs to yield some type of productivity.
BR: Sometimes, you know, it’s a fine line between self-care and indulgence, and I question my self-care practices all the time. Like, yeah, I smoke weed. We do all these things to self-medicate ourselves, whether that’s binge watching Netflix or whatever your indulgence is.
MS: In all those situations that I’ve been in activist communities, I never felt like if I left like I was going to get in trouble, or there was going to be a consequence if I was trying to take care of myself. I’ve never seen a situation in which somebody stepped out and somebody else was like, “you’re not committed” or shamed them for not participating in the ways they expect them to.
I think a lot of work in healing is allowing yourself humanity and allowing yourself to feel like a human being. You’re a human being and just because you have mental health issues, just because you’re not performing at your peak, doesn’t mean that you’re any less valuable or any less intelligent.
AA: My success as a self-care advocate is truly building community and loving on the people around you. I feel like a lot of people feel like they don’t have friends, or they have people around them but they’re not their friends. But you can love on strangers. My life is based in love, and taking care of others.
BR: I have been harmed, and I’ve also caused harm, but all harm is deserving of healing. It’s kind of an affirmation I’ve been promoting.
Editor's note Nov. 22, 2016: In the print edition of the magazine, this article included illustrated portraits of its subjects. Through those portraits, we misrepresented the individuals portrayed in this story. NBN regrets this error and removed the portraits from this online edition.