Kristin tweets at @kristincraiglai and blogs at ShutUpLucille.com She is also a feminist life coach practising in Toronto.
I have a hard time saying that I’m disabled. I feel like that’s a term I’m not allowed to use, like I’m not disabled enough to use the term without being told off for co-opting a marginalized identity. I imagine that many people living with mental illness have similar internal struggles. But if you were to ask me how my mental illnesses (C-PTSD, social anxiety and depression) restrict my ability to function in the world I would tell you that I have to think carefully about the probability of being triggered before I go anywhere unfamiliar. I would tell you that I often have to suss out where I will run and hide if I get triggered or overwhelmed. I would explain that I have to bring a collection of items out with me in the hopes that they could help ground me in the event of an “episode”. I would also tell you that I am constantly assessing new acquaintances for how safe I think they are. If I have a breakdown will they get impatient or irritated with me? Will they be compassionate? Will they condescend to me and treat me like an injured kitten? Will they try to solve all my problems by offering insultingly obvious advice? Or will they just ignore it because my mental illness makes them uncomfortable? It’s not always easy to tell and I’ve been surprised more than once by a “friend’s” lack of compassion. As for work, how many work places are truly willing to accommodate an employee who sometimes has to call in triggered? How many employers would even hire someone if they knew that they had a history of mental illness? And who’s going to give me the flexibility I need to be able to attend appointments necessary for my treatment?
The one place I feel like I should be able to feel relatively safe, relatively supported, is in a feminist space. Especially when that space includes a diverse group of women who come from an intersectional perspective. To be clear, when I say safe in this context, I don’t mean I’ll never get triggered, I mean that if I do get triggered I will be supported with some degree of compassion. My experience, however, has told me that that is not a realistic expectation.
A while back I was part of a feminist discussion group that met monthly in people’s homes for feminist dialogue and potluck snacks. This group was my first bid in a long time to make some “real life” connections with like minded people in my own community. Having that space to go once a month was invaluable as a way, not only to connect with other women, but to feel like I was still a part of the world. I’d been living in the city for 10 years and had barely managed to make any friends due largely to my social anxiety.
It wasn’t all that unusual for me to get triggered at these meetings. Whether by the content of the discussion or by the presence of an abrasive personality (aka defensive White Feminist™). Usually when I felt it coming on I would quietly leave the room to cry in the hallway or the bathroom. There were times when no one seemed to notice, there were times when someone would take some time to sit with me but there was no consistency and I didn’t feel able to ask for help because I didn’t want to be a disruption.
The last meeting I attended was terrible. Something was said at the beginning that triggered me into dissociation. I hunkered down in the corner of the couch with my hood up, hearing everyone but unable to speak, make eye contact or tolerate any kind of physical contact. I felt like I was observing from somewhere deep inside of myself, trapped and unable to engage with the world around me. At some point I heard someone say something else triggering and I had to retreat to the bathroom. I spent 20 minutes in the dark digging my nails into my arm. Eventually I returned to my corner of the couch but I still couldn’t really speak. At the end of the meeting there were a few perfunctory “are you okay?”s but I couldn’t explain myself or even talk about it. On the way home I managed a rant and some conversation with my friend who had driven me but I was still very much not okay when I got home.
Unable to go to bed I logged onto Twitter and subtweeted about the comment that had sent me over the edge. In seconds the coordinator of the group was asking me what I was on about. I tried to explain and there was some back and forth before she said, “It’s my job to make sure the meeting is good for everyone, I can’t spend all of my time taking care of the needs of one person.” The implication was that I was being selfish and self-absorbed. It also felt like she was telling me that I was too disruptive to the meetings. When I asked her if she was saying that she didn’t want me to come any more she back pedalled but she never treated me the same after that and I could never shake the feeling that she didn’t want me at the meetings. In the end I was effectively frozen out and I have now lost what was once something I looked forward to all month.
This incident got me thinking about what it means for a feminist space to be truly accessible. Most people have at least a general idea of what it means to be accessible for people with physical disabilities (and our group rarely met those standards because we met in people’s homes) but few think about what it means to be accessible to people who are neuro-atypical whether they be on the autistic spectrum, have mental illness or have some other kind of disability that originates in the brain. I can only speak to my own experience which is that of someone who can get easily triggered into a panic attack, dissociated state or emotional overwhelm.
I think there is a perception that I expect every one to drop everything to take care of me when I’m triggered. This is not what I want, I do not want my issues to be the focus of everyone’s attention. I do not want to feel like I’m ruining it for everyone or like I’m the resident basket case. What I want is to be in a space where we openly acknowledge my mental illness without feeling like everyone is either pitying or judging me. I don’t think there is one simple answer to how to make a feminist space accessible to those of us with mental illness because we all need different things, and sometimes what we need depends on what kind of reaction we’re having. When I’m having an anxiety attack or falling down the emotional rabbit hole it helps me to be touched or hugged, but when I’m dissociated touching me is the worst thing you could do.
At the beginning of my trauma therapy group we had the mandatory talk about ground rules. There was already a basic set of rules in place, the standard stuff around respect and confidentiality, but the facilitators also opened it up for us to talk about any other ground rule we might want to add specific to the needs of the people in the group. This was one of the best things about the group. Aside from a few physical needs, most of the conversation was about making the group as supportive as possible. We talked about how we wanted to deal with it if we got triggered, some said to never touch them, others (like myself) said we would like to be touched if we were crying. We even discussed what other rooms someone could use to have some quiet and privacy if that was what they needed. It was such a relief to be in a place where we could talk in a matter-of-fact way about our individual needs without being expected to justify why we had those needs. There is no reason why feminist spaces couldn’t incorporate this kind of approach into their policies. It wouldn’t necessarily look exactly the same but it would create a space where people could talk openly about their needs and safely expect those needs to be taken seriously and without pity. Only then can the group figure out what the best way to accommodate the needs of the members in a way that doesn’t overly disrupt the activities of the group.
This kind of process is especially vital in feminist spaces because so many women have a history of trauma and/or mental illness. The likelihood of any feminist group not having members who are dealing with mental illness is slim. This being the case, it is incumbent upon us to find ways to be truly inclusive and accessible without putting all of the onus on the individual to self-identify and ask for help. If everyone is given the chance to raise their own concerns then no one person is required to single themselves out. If we can’t find ways to foster real inclusivity we lose vital voices and perspectives and fail to practice that intersectionality we all talk so much about.