By Nicole Le Blanc
“But I gotta get up, I gotta, gotta, gotta get up…” Jill Scott sings sweetly to me, rousing me from the world of dreams. The sun is rising, rays of light penetrating cotton candy clouds. As I lay there, I know that before I do anything…if I am going to make it through the day…I must meditate. It has become my daily (ok, for the most part daily) practice. One of the tools in my “Nicole’s Holistic Wellness” kit. As a self-identified black, queer, woman, it took me some time to realize that if I was going to embrace these identities and face the world head-on every day, it was crucial that I start figuring out how to take care of me. To make sure that at the end of each day, no matter what has transpired, that I am whole. Just as I know that it is essential for my well-being, I know that it is essential for the well-being of other LGBTQ self-identified women of color.
Over the past few years there has been a significant increase (although still limited) in the visibility of the LGBTQ community within the media due largely to debates over the legalization of LGBTQ marriage (reference: Utah gay-marriage ban) and anti-queer bullying/hate crimes (think: Christian Howard’s brutal attack). Much of the mainstream conversations on the LGBTQ community have centered on back-breaking challenges, exclusionary laws and social practices. Unfortunately, not enough of the conversation has centered on the physical, mental and emotional well-being of those within the LGBTQ community. While it is important and necessary to have critical dialogue surrounding the challenges and discriminatory practices we face, it is imperative that we also create the space to discuss our overall wellness and what steps to take to elevate our well-being in the face of the adversities we experience.
According to studies presented by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), those within the LGBTQ community are two and a half times more likely to experience anxiety, depression and substance abuse than their cisgender heterosexual counterparts. NAMI also states that a 2010 survey revealed that 41% of trans individuals have attempted suicide. The 2012 Obstacles and Opportunities: Ensuring Health and Wellness Report states that LGBTQ families not only suffer from reduced access to health insurance, but increased health disparities. Additionally, the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA) has identified areas such as breast cancer, depression/anxiety, and alcohol/substances use, to be not only of common concern, but of high risk among lesbians. However, even among these advocates of LGBTQ health there has been limited discussion and coverage on health in relation to being a person of color (POC), a self-identified woman and LGBTQ.
The little conversation that has centered on health in relation to the LGBTQ community has been severely compartmentalized, with physical health taking the spotlight. This is not to say that physical health is not important, but that when we think of health, we need to think of holistic wellness. What do I mean? I mean that holistic wellness is a dynamic, multi-faceted process that encompasses not just physical health, but spiritual health, emotional health, social health, and occupational health (just to name a few); with each of these components impacting on each other. In other words, thinking about the wellness of the whole person and not just pieces of the person. The World Health Organization (WHO) got it right when they proposed in 1948 that “health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease.”
The triple (and more) layer of being a POC, LGBTQ and a self-identified woman has a very real impact on one’s lived reality and well-being. Very rarely is voice given to the psychological, emotional, spiritual impact in experiencing and witnessing vicious attacks, such as the 2013 murder of Islan Nettles. An act of murder that occurred precisely as a result of being a person of color, LGBTQ and a self-identified woman.* Even if we do not personally know Ms. Nettles, as individuals with those three identities bearing witness, what toll is taken on our whole being? What do we do as an individual and community to restore, rejuvenate, and heal our entirety? As a part of the LGBTQ family, a person of color, and self-identified woman, I want to see us collectively create safe spaces/communities that addresses questions such as these, paving the way towards the enhancement of our holistic wellness. With the difficulties that we endure it is vital. With open and honest discourse, each of us can start the process of living healthier, more vibrant, well-balanced lives. In turn, this allows us to move forward in such things as developing healthy, meaningful relationships with self and others, overcoming emotional obstacles, awaken ourselves energetically and spiritually, delving further into nutrition and what we put into our bodies, and how we can maximize our full potential as living beings. We need to take the stressors of life and turn them into positive energy to fuel us on our journey.
Because I love you (yes, I really do!) and because wellness is an active continuous process, I want to take a moment to share with you a few tangible steps to alleviate the stress brought on by experiencing life as an LGBTQ, self-identified, POC.
1. Quiet Time: When you rise each morning, allow yourself at least 5 minutes of quiet time. During the first 4 minutes, focus on the inhalation and exhalation of your breath. Notice how it feels, the air passing through your nose and down into your lungs and then back up and out. During the last minute, as you exhale imagine all negative energy/voices (including your own)/people/circumstances exiting your body. As you inhale imagine only positive energy/voices/circumstances entering your body. Before opening your eyes, say to yourself two to three positive words for how you want the day to be (i.e., peace &and strength). This time will allow you to not only ease into your day, but set your intentions for how you would like the energy of the day to unfold.
2. Daily Love: I started this practice with myself a couple of years ago, and then incorporated it into my work with my yoga clients. It is often really hard for us to take stock of the ways in which we actually give ourselves love, especially on a daily basis. As a means of measuring the tangible ways what we do and do not do each day towards self-care and love, create a daily love chart. On this chart, list the various actions you would like to take each day towards your self-care and love. Is it reading? Meditation? Getting 7-8 hours of sleep? Drinking enough water? Eating healthy meals? Whatever it is, put it down. For each day of week, check off what you did that day on your list. The purpose of measuring is to be aware of how we are spending our days, create a list of to see what actually gets done on the road to holistic wellness.
3. Stretch: When you’re experiencing a moment of anxiety and/or stress, take a moment to do two simple stretches: neck and shoulder rotations. For neck rotations: close your eyes and drop your chin to chest. Slowly rotate your head over to one side for a 10 count, breathing in deeply as your head comes up and exhaling deeply as your head comes down. Switch sides. For shoulder rotations: let your arms relax to you sides and slowly rotate your shoulders forward for a 10 count, breathing inhaling deeply and exhaling deeply. Let your arms come to relax again at your sides, then slowly begin rotating your shoulders back so that your shoulder blades meet for a 10 count, again focusing on your breath. For most people, we tend to carry our stress/tension in our necks and backs. Through doing these two simple stretches, you start to release some of that stress, lower your blood pressure, clear your mind, slow down your breathing and open up your heart chakra.
4. Listen: At the end of each day, make the time to see where stress manifests in your body. If we listen to our bodies, we will get an idea of how we have responded to the day; pinpointing where it is in us physically that we are holding on to the stressors of the day. Laying down on your back (or sitting with your feet planted onto the ground), start to mentally scan your body from the top of your head to your feet. Breathing deeply as you go, take note of where in your body there is pain/tension/tightness. Being aware of this, will clue you into what areas of the body you need to really stretch as to not hold onto stress.
5. Give Thanks: When you finally lay down to rest for the night, take a mental inventory of what occurred throughout your day that you have to be grateful. It can be something small, such as, you were able to sit in the sun, to something larger, such as, you were able to afford food for the day. Each night, try to list five things that you are grateful for, in addition to listing five strengths that you possess. The practice of gratitude and knowing your strengths, will keep you present, keep you in a space of gratitude and keep you focused on the positive aspects of self.
Each day that we face can, and most likely will, contain challenges, be they physical, emotional, occupational or social. Hopefully, you can take some of these pointers and draw on them to prepare for whatever lies ahead.
Living in a society where the identities of being LGBTQ, POC and a self-identified woman still is not fully accepted, it is of the utmost importance that we take the time to take care of ourselves and create balance in our lives. Until the rest of society can see the amazing beauty and value in these identities, I urge us, you and I, to keep moving forward in creating safe spaces/communities that further our holistic wellness.
Nicole Le Blanc is an activist, public speaker, social science educator and yoga instructor whose mission is encompassed by service to the marginalized, disenfranchised and ostracized in society. Her vast professional and academic experiences have allowed her to become a well-respected educator in the areas of sociology, diversity training, and social justice. Read more about her work at www.AmeAiye.com.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Islan Nettles as “queer.”