You know things have gotten tricky when bathing becomes a challenge. So many of us with mental illnesses have experienced the lack of motivation to shower or brush our teeth, avoiding self-care for days at a time. It’s hard to explain to someone without a mental illness exactly why we avoid bathing, and how exactly we can tolerate the invasive thoughts wondering if we smell or if it’s noticeable how oily our hair looks. Even so, we do avoid it for days on end, only breaking after the intrusive thoughts outweigh the lack of motivation to take care of oneself.
All of these things aside, it’s another thing entirely to truly fear taking a shower every night for fear of vulnerability and exposure. On my first night in Japan, we trekked across the suburbs to a ryokan–a Japanese-style Inn. The hosts welcomed us graciously, leading most of the group into the dining area, from which an aroma arose, wafting through the air to meet my stomach in ugly disarray. The golden glow of the cheap bulbs screwed into beautiful lamps mixed with the soft tatami flooring that made me even woozier than I already was, my exhaustion hitting me like the train we had ridden on just moments before. After dinner we were supposed to take turns going in pairs into the baths–this instruction confused me at the time–to bathe and get ready for bed. We were to sleep in rooms in sets of five, separated by gender, on futons on the floor.
I, with my stomach still upset from the dizzying descent from the clouds into the airport, couldn’t even fathom eating–the very thought sent my guts churning. The smell from the dining room alone was enough to make me want to press my face into my sleeve, letting the thing cotton filter out the rich scent. I begged our group leader–think of him as a residential advisor in college dorms–to let me simply go and rest. He was very accommodating and showed no signs of hesitation as he worked on getting me into my room before everyone else. Even so, I knew that what I had just done–refused a meal from a welcoming host–was impolite to say the least. Shame filled me, but it only served to fuel my desire to sleep and escape. As I drifted into the heaviest sleep I’ve ever experienced, my only thought was: “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
I awoke to a brightly lit dawn, the sun brazenly peering in through our room’s windows. Everyone from my room slept soundly onwards as I rose, checking the time to find that it was barely 5 in the morning. Everyone had bathed the night before, and I hadn’t had the pleasure of uncovering the terror that lied within the bathroom yet. I looked through my things, making sure I had a toothbrush and change of clothes prepared for when I was ready, but I had finally heard the news. We were to bathe next to one another, on stools, naked, and then the bath was communal for after we were clean. It’s a very Japanese way of doing things, classic for hot springs as well as nightly baths.
The anxiety was overwhelming; the very idea of being so vulnerable to judgment rocked my mind into a frenzy, wondering if and how I could avoid the situation entirely. Even so, the feeling of the oil and stale air of the airplane on my skin, mixed with the sweat that had surfaced as we walked with our bags through the dusk the night before made me uncomfortable. I needed to bathe.
It was after a young woman whose name I can’t remember–a beautiful nymph of a woman, petite but perfectly proportioned with a smile that would light up any room–asked me to go with her, promising that the experience was magical. I only mention her beauty to highlight my anxiety at exposing my imperfections. I went with the flow of the moment, acting as nonchalant about the experience as she seemed to be, but inside I was quaking with anxiety, waiting for the exposure and the potential for judgment.
I think there’s something to be said about children that grew up with high expectations for themselves. I dare not use the word ‘perfectionist’ itself, but it’s the general idea of the word I’m implying. Children that spend their young years striving for perfection, and who consistently do well in school, art, and athletics are the type I’m discussing. After childhood, then, the young adult begins to fear trying new things or exposing themselves to criticism lest their streak of approval and accolades be tarnished by even slight judgment or failure.
The steam from the spring bath weighed heavily but beautifully on the air, and I felt that fear of judgment for lack of perfection bubble up from the earth just like the water flowing into the tub. Undressing, I clenched my toes against the tile flooring, finding the grooves in between each ceramic square and let the soles of my foot trace their outline, the rough texture strange against my skin. Showering while sitting on a stool can be awkward at first, but in all honesty, it lends itself to a more thorough scrub. Sitting there, water off, I scrubbed away until I could rinse myself clean and deem myself ready to soak in the tub.
I can’t say much for my experience in the baths–it was awkward and uncomfortable, but I managed to stay calm and stay still long enough to know that I had accomplished the experience at least once.
It was on this day that I found out that our dormitories also had public baths, and felt overwhelmed with a fear of anxiety at having to repeat the experience again and again.
How fondly I look back on those days now! The anxiety washed away down the drains in the floor night after night as I scrubbed. On the first day in the dorms, no one spoke a word as they washed–eyes down and bashful. As the weeks progressed, however, each of us slowly began to speak, reflecting on our days, sharing ideas, and trading arguments back-and-forth. I remember so vividly the steam surrounding each of us in a comforting embrace, at long last feeling free with our bodies to treat them as our homes and be unafraid to expose them to experiences.
Bath time became the best time–bonding time. My friend group and I would all schedule our baths around one another, yelling, “Wait for me!” down the hallway as someone grabbed their towel and headed towards the bathroom door. Gossip became most suitable for when we all soaked together in the tub, the hot water easing our aches and pains from walking the city for the entire day.
The vulnerability of the baths must seem incredibly intimidating to most Americans who haven’t experienced it, and yet I can only purport the one thing I learned from it: sometimes the most vulnerable times physically can be some of the most freeing times spiritually, forging friendships and laughter that echoes against the tiles and mirrors as the bath water steams patiently, waiting for the next to bathe.