I lost the TV remote the second day my partner was out of town. I’m hopeless at finding things, even when they’re in front of my face, so I gave up looking and resigned myself to reading books instead.
I’ve been caring for our dogs the best I can. Taking them out four times a day, feeding them twice, making sure their water bowls are full, being the sole recipient of all their licking, nudging, touching, all while doing these basic care tasks for myself, too, and getting work done — it very quickly becomes overwhelming.
My motivation slipped away from me, my routine slid ever so quickly into the ocean, and after four days alone, I felt that organ-dragging, soul-exhaustion feeling, and couldn’t get out of bed.
It used to be a fixture of my daily life, but it’s been a long time since I felt it — I’ve realized that it creeps in when I try to do too much on my own.
I did try, though, in my 20’s, because everybody says it’s the thing you’re supposed to do. Be independent. Don’t need anybody. Take care of yourself. I was that person who was perpetually in a long-term relationship, and I thought I should see what it was like to be “single” and “free” (should being the operative word here).
I tried this in several different living situations, in several different cities, but I kept finding my soul dragging so hard that all I could do when I didn’t have to work was check out stacks of books from the library and retreat to bed again, subsisting for days off a pot of mashed potatoes (my depression food).
Eventually these single-and-working-full-time years of my life culminated in so much distress I was given a psychiatric diagnosis, but I look back and understand that my suffering was mostly the consequence of lacking support, specifically, the kind of 24/7 support you get from family, or a live-in partner. Care.
Mostly this kind of need is frowned upon in American culture. A lot of people call it co-dependency, although that’s a bastardization of the term. “Co-dependent” originated in the world of alcoholism, which was clinically called “chemical dependency”.
In the 80’s, clinicians realized that the partners of alcoholics required some kind of support too, so they started calling them “co-chemically dependent”. Co-dependent, for short. Now, since it’s been run through the linguistic washing machine of pop culture, it’s often used to mean “needing another person too much”, but that’s not necessarily unhealthy.
If your relationship is making both of you happier, then why is it wrong to need each other? How did independence become the mark of a “healthy” human, when our species literally only got this far through social cooperation?
My brother has higher support needs than me — he lives with my parents, and they worry about what will happen to him when they’re gone. It’s the biggest fear for most parents of autistic people, and I suspect a huge driver of the Autism Mom obsession with cure (something my own mother, thankfully, never bought into).
I don’t worry about him though, because the answer has always been obvious to me. My brother and I will grow old together, tinkering with train sets and watching our birdhouses through binoculars.
He is a part of every long-term plan for my life I’ve ever had, ones that will include an expansive, chosen family, that will look different to the American nuclear ideal. I don’t expect him to learn how to live alone, and I don’t expect that for myself anymore either.
There’s no shame in needing care, but of course, we do feel ashamed of it anyway. I feel my own internal critic eye-rolling as I write this, telling me to suck it up, that I shouldn’t be so tired just doing basic tasks, that other people have it worse.
These are things I’ve been told all my life, a cultural indoctrination that led me to ignore my own needs and to dismiss the needs of others. We live in a careless world, as The Care Collective write in their manifesto:
After all, the archetypal neoliberal subject is the entrepreneurial individual whose only relationship to other people is competitive self-enhancement. And the dominant model of social organisation that has emerged is one of competition rather than co-operation. Neoliberalism, in other words, has neither an effective practice of, nor a vocabulary for, care.
The book moves in scale from the personal all the way out to the planetary, illustrating how “our capacities to care are interdependent and cannot be realised in an uncaring world.”
All capitalism offers us here is self-care, something many of us find impossible. Often I care for myself through caring for my partner — when they’re not here, I stop cooking meals, I let the dishes pile up, I ignore the trash. It just seems kind of pointless when I don’t have anyone to do it for but myself.
The fact that it’s easier to do tasks for others than it is for ourselves is a very common refrain in neurodivergent spaces, and I wonder if, rather than being some odd truth of neurodivergence, it is instead an expression of how odd the capitalist notion of self-care really is.
It’s an “industry which relegates care to something we are supposed to buy for ourselves on a personal basis,” as the Care Collective writes, one that arose from an economy built on individualism and alienation.
Maybe it’s not weird at all that we care for ourselves through caring for each other, maybe it’s just human. We are needy, we are vulnerable, we are interdependent. Without care, we wither.
this is awesome, but i think includes a common misunderstanding around the term "co-dependency" which I think should be framed less around "needing someone else" and more around abandoning your own self, needs, boundaries, for another person's needs/comfort. There is such a thing as co-dependency that is truly toxic and I have soooo struggled with it. Its about insecurity, about needing to feel "needed" because you don't know unconditional love, its about control. My mantra that I have to always remind myself in my battle against co-dependency is: "Before I am your daughter, your sister, your aunt, niece, or cousin, I am my own person, and I will not set fire to myself to keep you warm.". That's what it feels like — sacrificing yourself and losing yourself in another person... not just needing them, but needing them to be ok/happy at your own expense.
Wow. Wowowowowowow. Since I first moved out of my parents' house, I've had this negative conception of myself for not being able to take care of myself when I'm left alone. One day alone can be a heavenly recharge. Any more than that and I fall apart real quick. I'm 36 and I've never lived alone, nor wanted to. After college, I intentionally sought out a house with a co-op vibe where we all cooked together most nights, and since then have always lived with romantic partners - for a couple of months, I even lived with an ex as a roommate and moved a new partner in at the same time. I have also always fantasized about living multigenerationally. I would love to live with my dad and stepmom, but they seem to think I'm joking whenever I bring it up. Like they can't believe I could possibly want that.
It's wild now to have read this essay and realize that I thought of myself as sort of pitiful and incompetent for so strongly needing to live with others. I internally framed it as needing eyes on me all the time so that I wouldn't shame myself with my worst behavior.
And all of this despite the fact that I have a strong academic interest in economies of care! I was holding simultaneously the intellectual knowledge of the importance of care, and the emotional knowledge of being pathetic for needing it on a personal, daily level.
Thank you for this reframing. I'll be thinking about it for a long time.