This Bi Life: Holiday Self-Care Puerto Rico

12/9/16

The holiday season is tough for anyone who struggles with mental illness, chronic illness, and the all-too frequent occurrence of identity policing from one’s extended family. To be a person with multiple marginalized identities during the holiday season is, in my experience, to feel like a moving target that has to simultaneously walk on eggshells and try to avoid being hit. Due to the frequent erasure of bisexuality, even in communities that strive for inclusivity, coming out as bi in a world where many devalue and disregard our identity is a challenge.

Our identities as bi and queer are often associated with shame, riddled with misunderstanding as far as the general public is concerned, seen as a “phase” or a temporary youthful indiscretion, and in many cases completely ignored or erased. Thus, seeing extended family members who may hold one or all of these views about bisexuality can be a huge source of stress. This is especially true when generational differences, political differences and religion are involved.

As such, the concept of coming out to my Abuela and Abuelo is daunting and terrifying. This December, I’ll be in Puerto Rico for almost a month staying with my family there. I’m not as worried about being out to my younger family members, who I am sure will stumble across this article in due time. I know that’s an age bias on my part that I recognize and need to work on; there are plenty of people in their 80’s, like my grandparents are, who are all in for equality. I need to give my own grandparents a chance to accept me, even though it might be daunting.

I do not live in Puerto Rico, where almost all of my dad’s side of the family lives, though I can glean from resources and talking to my primos/as that conversations about LGBTQIA+ rights are fairly taboo, and perception of LGBTQIA+ people is not always overwhelmingly positive. I think many of us who are latinx have to grapple with bridging the gap between culture and sexuality. I only specify latinx folks because that’s where my experience is. I imagine that for most POC, there is always a cultural/racial factor to other parts of our identities. It’s a lot to balance, and there’s a brilliant piece that covers what I’m talking about in much greater depth here.

My Abuela is happiest when she is creating something for other people whom she has invited into her home. Whether she’s creating environment, food, conversation, or just expressions of love, she thrives off of the presence of her family. My Abuelo, who has just recently undergone treatment for stage 4 colon cancer, is a natural born comedian. He strives to make people laugh, even if they’re laughing because they are uncomfortable. That said, both are very traditional, very Catholic, and may not be too keen on the idea of their granddaughter dating people of all genders.

In some ways, I struggle with my identity because I am terrified that my abuelos will be disappointed in me, will believe the stigma and stereotypes over my experience. Being closeted creates additional stress during the holidays, especially for folks whose homes will not be safe for them if they come out. I’m quite privileged to know that I’ll have a safe place to live regardless of what happens, and that the large majority of my family is on my side. That said, even visiting extended family and friends around the country causes me some stress. I am always self-editing, hiding, diverting attention away from me, etc. I’m a really high-anxiety person, and that just gets worse with the pressure of Western culture’s “holiday cheer.”

How can we combat this stress? For those of us who are not out to our extended families, how do we avoid the potential for extra anxiety in trying to protect ourselves and our identities? Especially in light of recent events, (see: the presidential candidate most likely to usher in the apocalypse being elected) self care is crucial. Here are some ways that you can practice self-care this holiday season and beyond.

1. Take Breaks and Rest

You are not obligated to dedicate 100% of your emotional energy to participating in every single family gathering and event. If you feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or just need a break, give yourself a chance to take a step back. Your mental health is important, and you deserve to recharge. Resting can mean literally removing yourself from situations, or it can be as subtle as not taking part in a conversation around the table. Whatever ‘rest’ means to you, do it often. We are on the precipice of a revolution. Being part of that means we need all the strength we can get.

Something else I want to touch on when it comes to resting; people may try to shame you for taking care of yourself. Do your best to channel any guilt you feel into something positive for yourself. I feel guilty at the drop of a hat, not sure if it’s just a personality trait or if there’s something wrong with my brain. At any rate, lately I’ve been feeling pretty ill and depressed. I’m lucky to have a really supportive partner who never shames me, but a lot of my peers and acquaintances don’t understand chronic illness and depression. So when they make comments like “don’t you think you’d feel better if you came out to the bar?” or “not socializing is probably the reason you’re depressed,” I instantly feel like the most awful friend in the world. To combat this overwhelming guilt, I started creating again. Writing, singing, and working on comedy material have been my key to overcoming guilt about choosing to take care of myself.

You can be a wonderful child, parent, sibling, aunt/uncle, and friend without costing yourself spoons of emotional labor. It’s hard to prioritize ourselves, but sometimes it’s necessary. That brings me to the second self care tip…

2. Work on Saying No

This one’s challenging, because disappointing family and friends can be extremely daunting. That said, there’s no reason to commit to an event or party where you know you’ll feel out of place or isolated. Don’t go to family dinner if you know your homophobic family member is going to be there. This doesn’t only go for family dinners or gatherings, this goes for parties or work events, too. If you know the event will be in a place you won’t feel safe or with people you don’t know, don’t go.

Instead, organize parties and events with people who you trust, who you know share a common goal and outlook. I worked for a company whose owner was very, very conservative for a while. Any events that took place outside of just keeping my head down and working were not events I took part in. You do not have to compromise your safety and/or comfort for the happiness or satisfaction of other people.

3. Rely On Likeminded Family/Friends For Support and Comfort

My mother is the most intelligent, thoughtful, accepting, open, and, frankly, liberal person I know. I trust her implicitly. She was the first person I came out to, the first person who told me that the white girls at school teasing me for my hair didn’t know shit, the first person to validate me when I needed a diagnosis for my chronic pain… I could go on. Rely on the people you know love you and the people you love to get through this season.

Reliance is hard, especially in a world where many people don’t accept us. When I say ‘us,’ I don’t just mean cisgender bi/queer folks like myself. I mean anyone with a marginalized identity or multiple marginalized identities. “Who can I trust?” is a question that’s been on my mind since well before the election, but especially post-bigot election. The people you surround yourself with are your chosen family. Trust the people who have been by your side unwaveringly, and know that it’s okay to need support. Self care is not selfish.

Similarly, giving support and comfort can be just as helpful as receiving it. Maybe your friend or close coworker needs to know that they can prioritize self-care. You can make an enormous difference in someone else’s day, week, month, or even their entire life just by letting them know you are present for them.

American ideas about the ‘holiday season’ encourage a rhetoric of frenzy, of money spending, expensive meals, and exhaustion. This is all in the name of “upholding tradition.” I’d like to think the goal of the holidays was to encourage togetherness and unity; but that message is often lost. Keep yourself separate from the ‘holiday panic’ that usually strikes from late November to early January. Also remember- you don’t have to celebrate anything you don’t want to celebrate. You are not obligated to subject yourself to pain or judgement for the benefit of other people.

Finally, I will leave you with this: your identity is valid. You don’t need me to tell you that, but sometimes it’s nice to hear anyway. Your existence is valid. You do not deserve to be shamed, afraid, or targeted. Take care of yourself during the holidays. You do deserve safety, privacy, and a community that supports you.

Madelaine Figueroa
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Madelaine Figueroa is a Latina performer, student, writer, and activist. She aims to bring more awareness to pro-intersectional feminism and the importance of environmental advocacy. She generally enjoys analyzing and discussing multi-generational feminist media, literature, and theory. Her current topics of interest include but are not limited to gender, race, class, disability, mental illness, politics, and all forms of media. She is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in Social Sciences. Follow her @madfigz