By KB Brookins
In March of 2022, I experienced the most dangerous wellness decline that I’d felt in years. I was traveling a lot for work, which disrupted my eating, sleeping, and exercise routines. I was clocking in over twelve hours of screen time looking at the many ways Texas, the state I live in, hates trans people like me. I was also experiencing anti-fat and anti-Black sentiments online, at doctor’s offices, and in any interaction where I had to present my ID. “Put a shirt on” and “what is your birth sex” and “well if they just cooperated” crowded my mind and body so intensely that I couldn’t focus or pour time into anything I once loved. My on-and-off back pain was on more often. All of a sudden, self-sabotage was muscle memory.
I felt so grimy that I began to loathe myself. Something had to give.
Joy is such an abstract term on its own, but here’s what I’ve learned to associate it with: good food, good time spent with my chosen family, the feeling after a good exercise, writing until I’ve discovered something beautiful, laughing so hard that my body vibrates a little, and safety. When joy is in my life—ideally, all of these things at once—I feel less like this life is too much to handle.
I tried to remember when I’d felt those things within the past month. Surprisingly, there weren’t many instances, if any at all. While reflecting, I also realized that joy had been missing in my life for a long time. For the better half of a decade actually. I’d made a habit out of having small joy—one piece at a time, at best.
Over the pandemic, the effects of anxiety and depression have increased by 25% worldwide, but because we live in a country that prioritizes production over wellness I hadn’t had time to think about how the chaos of a health crisis affected me. Trans people have higher rates of mental health woes than our cis counterparts, simply due to the overwhelming amount of discrimination that we face on a daily basis. On any given day, when I have to interact with people outside of my chosen family, I am deadnamed, misgendered, or my transness is seen as a problem. Because of these daily stressors, I made a habit of accepting crumbs and not listening to my body when it needed to take a break, stretch, eat, or sleep. My stress manifested in the ways that I let self-care tasks fall by the wayside, in hopes of appeasing some person, project, or deadline.
I was driving myself closer to an eternal deadline. Again, something had to give.
And so it did. For the first time, I asked myself about the root causes of why I made a life out of not listening to my body. Was it an amalgamation of the isms and phobias I’d experienced? Was it a fear of trying something and failing? Was it something else that I couldn’t figure out on my own? It is important, and healthy, to explore root causes. Not in a self-loathing way, but as a check-in, an effort to better understand yourself. That way, there are more solutions and the solutions actually work long-term.
I was brutally honest with my therapist and told her that life was feeling a little more impossible than usual. We made a list of tasks that prioritized what might bring more joy in my life and alleviate my feelings of physical and spiritual bloatedness. This included going to the gym, interacting more with nature, and—especially so—listening to my body when it needs something. I took those tasks one day at a time, and I didn’t start them all at once. This required me to learn how to prioritize my healing and joy like I—for years—prioritized everything else.
When I’ve found myself depleted of joy in other moments of my life, I stayed in my bed between the same four walls all day. So as my first task, my therapist suggested I do the opposite of that: get up and leave the house.
Since I was so depleted of joy and finding it hard to travel far from my house, I made a compromise to walk around my neighborhood a couple of days a week. To make this habit easier to establish, I included my partner on these walks. When we’d walk, my partner would point to trees and tell me their names, or we’d both look them up on iNaturalist. We’d touch the leaves with our hands, pick from the native mulberry trees that grew in our Texas backyard, and make nicknames for some of our favorites—calling the Hackberry “acne tree” and the lantana “lego flowers.”
In order to form this habit, I had to re-learn listening to my body. When I felt that urge to stay in bed all day, I had to instead force myself to do the opposite. I tried, failed, and tried again for weeks, but around week five it started to stick. Not only do I feel more joy—I feel like I can breathe better (turns out, that’s backed by science). I now turn to walking when I’m sad, mad, or even happily ebbing in between tasks. When possible, I take meetings while on walks. Seeing green things makes my days more wonderful. It’s been a great way for me to get out of my head, into my body, and outside of the stress of living as a Black trans person in this world.
My second task required me to name the anti-fatness that has kept me and other fat folks I love from the gym for years. So much of gym culture is the fear of being fat, and when you are already fat within a gym setting doors there is an unspoken fear that you will be ridiculed. Too many times I’ve gone to a gym and felt judgmental eyes on me. So for years, I resigned to the belief that it was not a space for me.
Working up the courage to work out in a public space is not easy, but for me, it’s been worth it and some.
I applied for a scholarship with a gym called Liberation Barbell and was luckily given a free membership for three months—February to April. Simultaneously, I was in physical therapy for my back disability. During that time, I learned basic weight-lifting skills in a body size-inclusive environment. I also learned cardio and strength exercises to strengthen my muscles. The biggest reward was to see the weight that I could carry with my back, arms, and legs increase week to week. I give so much credit to Liberation and physical therapy for lifting my fear of body movement off of my body. It has turned into a central part of my self-care, and I am better for it.
Last, but surely not least, I had to learn how to listen to my body when it needs something. Too often, fat/trans/Black folks are taught to ignore our natural instincts—for food, water, a bathroom break, or a nap—because something else is “more important.” So when I needed a break, I took one. When my back started hurting from slouching toward a computer screen, I stretched and fixed my posture. When I had extra energy that I needed to offload, I went on nature walks. When I was angry, I did some cardio exercises and clocked out of social media.
Over five or so weeks of doing one task, then two tasks, then all three, I felt physically and mentally healthier. It wasn’t a perfect fix by any means, but it was significant enough to make the pain I used to feel every day happen much less often. With these changes, I had more emotional capacity to hang out with friends and show up for my community via artivism. Putting time into what I needed made room for the most joy I’ve ever felt. I’m not perfect, but I am better.
For too long, trans folks have been taught to disconnect from our bodies. Listening, taking care of, and celebrating this Black, trans, fat, disabled body is an act of defiance within itself. When occupying a state that would rather me go without sports, gender-affirming care, or a slew of other rights, it is vital for me to do what is best for my health. These days, staying offline long enough to live my happiest trans life and liking what I see in the mirror comes easier.
When trans people are healthy, our liberation is more possible; we have more, so we can share more. When I think of a trans future, I think of healthy, happy trans people in a world that wants them that way. If nothing else, we deserve that.
Featured Image by Anete Lusina.
KB (they/them) is a poet, essayist, and cultural worker from Texas. They are the author of How To Identify Yourself with a Wound (Kallisto Gaia Press, 2022) and Freedom House (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2023). Follow them online at @earthtokb on all platforms.