Self Care or Survival

Growing up in the self-love, self-care era, I feel fortunate to have seen the rhetoric go from self-care as a reward to self-care as a necessity. The shift isn’t complete as of writing, so I’m going to try to walk the line of advocating for self care as survival and acknowledging the absolutely glaring privilege of spending all day at a nature wellness resort yesterday. For disabled people especially, I believe that self care is, at its core, essential to surviving as a disabled person. We are constantly asked to extend ourselves past our limits, to do more than our non-disabled peers despite our limitations! And yes, I say limitations – don’t come near me with the diverse abilities rhetoric. When we discuss reproductive labour, we explicitly ignore the labour disabled people have to put in to manage their conditions, treat their symptoms, and explain very basic concepts to their non-disabled peers (ie. why I have the right to exist as a disabled person). 

At a NEADS event I hosted recently, I asked Heather Walkus, Chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), how to avoid burnout. Her answer? You can’t! Under systemic ableism, we are pushed to the point of burnout, repeatedly, throughout our lives. Avoiding burnout requires avoiding the systemic ableism found in every aspect of our lives. Will I use this narrative to dismiss my mom when she warns me I’m going to burn out soon? Absolutely! (Sorry mom.)

It’s also worth noting that self-care is inherently subjective – it is personal and vulnerable and an expression of our basic needs. For me, self-care is about connecting with my body through face masks, long showers, yoga, and hearty meals. It’s about connecting with my spirit through spending time in nature and with music. It’s about connecting with my mind by just listening to it and exploring where my thoughts and feelings are coming from. Does anything about checking in on yourself, determining your needs, and acting on this sound like a treat? A reward? A luxury? Sometimes the last thing I want to do is sit alone with my thoughts and dive into them!

When we see self-care as a luxury or a privilege, we’re aligning ourselves with the same systems that see us as inputs in productive systems instead of humans. We’re alienating ourselves from our own bodies and needs! And, we push a classist rhetoric that poorer people can’t engage in self-care, or don’t deserve it. Are you seeing the problem here?

But here’s where I do a sharp turn and some of you fall off: yesterday was a privilege and a luxury! It was a reward! Was it still self care? Absolutely! Was it essential? Absolutely not! 

For anyone with disposable wealth and/or economic privilege, I think we’re the ones that have to do the heavy lifting when it comes to shifting the self-care narrative: we can’t act like spa days are essential to our wellbeing. We can’t use self-care as an excuse to ignore our privilege. 

Yesterday was self care + : I listened to what my body needed (a break) and I gave it what it needed (a break) – there’s just easier and more accessible ways to treat that need than disappearing from reality for a whole day to drink sangria in hot tubs. 

The concept of self care + echoes the idea of reasonable accommodation – there’s different ways to accommodate your needs, and some are more practical and just as effective as that ideal solution you have your heart set on. (Reasonable accommodations can be quite controversial – please feel free to remind me to expand on this later on!)

I spent all of yesterday at Nordik Spa in Chelsea, Quebec as a consolation prize for my arthritis relapsing. It was less pity party and more reminding my body I will do very extreme things to it to make it behave, but a consolation prize nonetheless. Despite the ever-growing list of assignments and readings and deadlines and meetings, now felt like an exceptional time to go. I was constantly exhausted, lacking enthusiasm, and my mental health has been (clearly) not the greatest lately. Did this one-day getaway cure all of that? No! Would it be reasonable to expect it to? Also no!

Even at a spa, my anxiety can know no bounds. To be fair, this was my first ever solo trip – and when my 15 minute walk to the grocery store is enough to push me into hypervigilancy, this whole “relaxation” thing did not seem attainable. To be fair, I thought my anxieties were quite reasonable: the spa is in Quebec and I’m not fluent in french, uber doesn’t operate in Chelsea, and I was a considerable distance away from my support system! Speaking of them, my support system knows how to show up – my pal from Gatineau offered to come pick me up if I got stranded, and my boyfriend had a lovely balance of enthusiastically replying to my check-in texts and letting me have some space. Once I secured an uber to take me to Chelsea (pretty much a miracle) and arrived, my reasonable anxieties faded to slightly below my baseline level of anxiousness. 

A lot of people have a lot of questions about Nordick Spa, so the disability advocacy blog will briefly be giving travel blog energy – I promise, we will return to our regular programming shortly. After I checked in, I changed into a robe, took a shower, and headed outside into the -5º Canadian winter. No one really told me what to do, so I found my way to an unintimidating sauna. What could have been a PTSD jump scare across the sauna was actually a very nice regular, also on a solo trip, who gave me plenty of reccomendations and solicited life advice. Truly a solid start, and I began to feel more comfortable with the environment (by this I mean the people, not the snow lurking on the roofs.) 

After scoping out the entire resort (a practice I recommend to anyone! not just hypervigiliant 20 year-old solo travellers!) I started on thermotherapy: 15 minutes of heat followed by 10-15 seconds in cold water, followed by a rest period. It shocks your adrenaline and nervous systems – which is great because I’m all adrenaline and all nerves all of the time. Much like massage therapy, most people think thermotherapy is relaxing and relatively painless. Then again, most people ditch jumping into icy cold pools after staying the full recommended 15 minutes in a sauna getting disgustingly sweaty. I was shocked (get it) at how tired the quick hot-cold switch made me, and was introduced to the successor of the beloved heated blanket: warmed stone beds! There were also some scattered heat lamps, that made me feel a bit like a lizard or an egg. 

My favourite saunas were the Earth and Mediation saunas, my favourite place to cool off was what I lovingly called the seal tank (pictured below), and my favourite place to rest was above the Russian sauna on the heated beds. If you’re open to drinking on your self-care day, please drink sangria in a hot tub while watching the sun set over Gatineau Parc – unparalleled. I was also lucky enough to participate in the Aufguss ritual at the Finlandia sauna – which I 100% recommend. A performer comes in with essential-oil infused snowballs and glow-in-the-dark towels and dances along to a pretty decent soundtrack – and it ended up being the best performance I’ve ever seen. I also feel like we aren’t allowed to judge this one unless we’re able to dance and move towels around in a sauna without a) hitting everyone and everything and b) drowning in our own sweat. 

For food and drinks, I managed to get over the eating alone anxiety! I tested the anxiety levels with a croissant and iced tea from the Mëzz Cafe for a morning snack – when you’re eating alone in a bathrobe, I feel as though a trial run is warranted. At Restö, The PEI mussels were so good (after I panic-texted my partner to figure out how to eat them), and the wild boar ragout was enjoyably unique, if only a one time thing. The drinks were delicious, especially when in a hot tub, and got the job done. I got a little more drunk than I prefer, and my waitress at lunch was kind enough to slip me some extra bread. What can I say? Women supporting women.

Staff and the other guests seemed pretty accustomed to solo travellers, so there was only very minimal questioning looks directed my way. One couple I was talking to did ask why I was here alone, and I told them the truth: I’m in a very loving, supportive relationship, but I wanted to be alone to focus on myself and my own self care for the day. (Most people really like that answer – wait until I tell them I buy myself flowers too. )

On the PTSD front, I did pretty well! The wet sauna was so dark and full of water vapour that I couldn’t see right in front of me, and I luckily had the foresight to ask if anyone else was in the sauna so I didn’t accidentally hurt someone. SIX people responded – and they didn’t even know other people were in there! And I still sat in that room, in the dark, with people in undetermined locations, and for some reason I felt safe.

After a full 10 hours of nearly no screens (save the odd check-in for safety) and minimal brain distractions, I feel as though I sufficiently listened to my body, mind, and spirit – especially in the mediation sauna, some weird brain stuff happened in there. With the temperature dropping and the outdoors feeling more like the cold element of the thermotherapy cycle than the water, it was time to go home. For my Ottawa pals planning on going, Blue Line Taxi is used to getting passengers from Chelsea and got me home with no difficulty. When I got home, I was enjoyably exhausted and blissed out. I FaceTimed my mom to fill her in, ate peaches with my partner while giving an enthusiastic and probably incoherent recap of the day, and fell asleep relatively easily – which is saying something as of late.

But here’s the thing: the spa is inaccessible. Deeply, deeply inaccessible. Steps down to the pools, up to the front entrance, hidden behind doors I’m not supposed to go behind inaccessible. While I didn’t test it yesterday, my favourite way to gauge accessibility is to ask employees how they bring shipments in when there’s a visibly excessive amount of stairs. When it comes to shipments and baby strollers, the average non-disabled person seems to clue in pretty easily.  And I feel as though this spa’s inaccessibility is a proxy for how the wellness world seeks to promote health and wellness while alienating the people that need it most. Practically speaking, there’s no reasonable explanation to exclude disabled people so thoroughly – making up 20% of the world, we’re a stellar demographic to market to, especially when our needs are so closely aligned with the holistic/alternative wellness sector! A topic for another time, but alienating disabled people from alternative therapy forces us to remain in the medical model, and further harms multi-marginalized people who Western medicine has failed.

I’ll try not to edit this blog too much after writing. I don’t want to sound too “obliviously privileged travel vlogger with a poor grip on reality” (although my grip on reality is always relatively poor), but I also want to keep my writing as genuine as possible. I’m also trying to keep this whole blogging thing as stress-free as possible – no hustle culture allowed, only poor grammar and the occasional spelling error. 

carly fox standing in a cold pool outdoors in a bikini
in the seal tank after the Earth Sauna – probably in mini-shock