Self-Care As a Form of Activism

By: Melissa Barker Illustration: Ruby Taylor

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I first walked into SoulCycle on a rainy February morning. I had been feeling down, uninspired, and altogether stuck. A friend of mine suggested I try a SoulCycle class, so on a whim I went to my local studio. My first class was a blur of upbeat music and my instructor’s vibrant purple hair (Hey, Liam!). I walked out of my class feeling inspired, alive and hooked; I instantly knew I had found a safe haven for my tired body to heal.

I had been an avid SoulCyclist for seven months when two words changed my healing trajectory and ended my own personal silence: #MeToo. I still remember posting the hashtag on my personal Instagram account; flurried with fear and self-doubt yet spurred by something deeper. I refused to be silent any longer.

In the months after joining the #MeToo movement I continued to turn to SoulCycle as a place for my body to find healing. Our bodies are our homes. They carry us through day to day- moment to moment and it will do all that it can to keep us alive. My body had carried around years of unaddressed abuse and pain- doing all that it could to shelter me from my past. In SoulCycle, I would find pockets of pain stored away in my body. A challenging hill or a set of sprints would activate memories of my own trauma- flooding my system with flashbacks to the pain my body had endured. But I was able to meet these painful moments and face them rather than suppress them. I found an external outlet- a channel- for moving the energy, the dark memories, the hurt that was too hard to name.

I had known for years that I was a survivor of domestic and sexual assault but something was shifting in me. I was finding my voice- I was finding a way to name what I had lived through- and every time I got on that bike I was able to embrace more of myself. Soon I realized I had been living a fragmented life- one where I kept parts of my soul hidden from view...whole sections of my life I had tried to erase. It was a cold rainy morning when I sat down to write- words came to me with an ease I had not experienced. A part of myself rushed forward demanding to be heard- so I let her take the lead and speak.

This is part of my story.

As a single mother on welfare, I was proud to attend UC Berkeley only to fall prey to a system that is plagued with sexual harassment and assault. During a time that was full of personal and academic growth, I faced the unimaginable on my college campus - I was assaulted, harassed, and stalked by my then boyfriend, a Ph.D. candidate in the anthropology department. Someone who, when I spoke out against him, used all the power he had to silence me, to threaten me, and to do all that he could for me to “know my place.”

My assailant did not see the woman he was torturing, only himself. Furthermore, the campus leadership turned a blind eye and that’s when the panic attacks struck and the fear paralyzed me, leaving me helpless and unable to move. I was labeled as, stressed, crazy, or, my personal favorite, “just another single mom doing too much.”

I suffered in isolation doing all I could to quell my own demons and surviving the only way I knew how: by putting away parts of myself and deeply internalizing my trauma. A few years later, the same man that assaulted me was arrested for sexual assault on the same campus; this time he assaulted one of his students.

It has taken years for me to unravel the pieces of my own story, to take a brave hard look at it and acknowledge that I deserve to live a full life, not one shadowed by fear and shame. SoulCycle has served as a safe space for me to do some of this deep healing. Through each twist and turn, a moment of joy and challenge and accomplishment and failure, I have come to intimately know myself. I have come to know my capacity for tremendous power and fragility, for doubt and radiant optimism.

I was in my third class at SoulCycle when the dam broke. Head hung low, body working, with sweat dripping down my face, I felt the warmth of my tears streaming down my cheeks. I felt the sweet release of no longer needing to hold back the pieces of myself that I had so quietly stored away. Pedaling, stroke by stroke, I was coming back to myself - finding the divine in me, reconvening with my own light.

On the outset it’s hard to see the scars I carry yet I occupy a body that has not always been seen nor treated as my own, living with a diagnosis of PTSD from the trauma I have endured.

In SoulCycle, amongst strangers, I found myself.

Each time I enter a class, is a moment in which I am actively giving back to myself. In these darkly-lit rooms, I have found my own light. SoulCycle has given me the confidence to show up for myself; each turn on my bike represents a commitment to my self-love, growth, and expansion. Every time I turn my resistance knob I know I’m actively practicing the act of self-care; transmuting trauma from my physical body, moving past a place of victimhood and into a place where I’m thriving.

For me, SoulCycle has played a pivotal role in my self-healing and normalizing how to love myself - scars and all. It was in SoulCycle that I began to visualize my next steps: founding the Phoenix Project, a social impact startup that supports survivors of sexual assault and violence with messages of self-love & healing.

My healing journey has taught me many important lessons, the most important of them being that self-care is not selfish, it is a necessity in this world.

By investing in my own healing, I have come to know that I am so much more than my story, I am a proud survivor.

I am the phoenix rising from the ashes…

Laying claim over my body, my soul, my mind, and my heart.

Faithfully, I am showing up for myself and my healing, an act that is truly one of activism in a world that often defies my very existence.

Today, take a moment for yourself and your healing, this is something that can truly change the world. May we all heal together, wherever and whoever we are.