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The Interdisciplinary Work of Lyss England

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“I texted my friend to say I wanted to talk with them about something and it made them really anxious and now they want an apology.”

It’s never fun to get those texts or to be the person who genuinely just wants to have a conversation and finds out someone was distressed by their message. We’ve all been there, probably on either side at some point or another. Whether in romantic relationships, friendships, or even professional relationships, our actions affect one another.

If you’re a person with anxiety, you can probably relate even more. Catastrophizing is a thing we do by definition, and “Hey dude, can we talk when you get off work?” can quickly turn into “Hey dude, I think you totally suck and I don’t want to be friends with you anymore ’cause you’re the worst”.

This  fear relies on the concept that things are being done to us, and that means that we have no control over our experience. By giving into this fear (which, yeah, is real and uncomfortable), we allow ourselves to give any power we do have over our reactions away. And then our fear is enforced. It’s also a way we tend to avoid accountability for our uncomfortable feelings. If we can blame someone else instead of taking ownership for ourselves, that’s a lot easier in the short term. This then allows us to justify our feelings, which are often unavoidable within ourselves, rather than just giving ourselves permission to feel them. I wrote about this before when I wrote about escaping and preventing toxic communities:

Escaping and preventing toxic communities comes down to changing our perspectives from “they did this to me and this feels awful” to “this happened and it feels awful because I’m perceiving it as something that was done TO me that I have no control over.”. The reality is that you do have control over what you do with your hurt. Sure, communicating to the person you felt hurt by may be helpful, but what will be really helpful is you changing your perception (and thus, your reality) of the hurtful thing. It’s not about ignoring the hurt or “choosing not to feel it”. I mean, that sounds nice, but we all know it’s not that simple. It’s about feeling it and acknowledging that it probably had nothing to do with you and everything to do with the other person/people. What is yours is your reaction. When we accept people for where they are at, it makes for far healthier and happier interpersonal relationships. And when we can’t reconcile where someone’s at with the reality we’re choosing to actively build for ourselves, we get to choose the context in which we relate to that person.

This works on a smaller level than just in the context of community-building. It also works in individual relationships. So here are three easy steps for what to do when someone makes you feel bad:

1. Readjust your paradigm.

Did someone make you feel some way? Or are you feeling someway about something what happened?

2. Take back your power.

Once you’ve shifted your paradigm to a place where you’re recognizing that you have control over your reaction rather than simply being a passive recipient of something someone else does to you, you’ll find you have a lot more choice over how you respond. No, this isn’t a magical anxiety cure- but it does help.  A lot. This is the time to make an in-the-moment decision about what’s going to happen for you. Sometimes, (okay, a lot of the time) that reaction is emotional and it’s totally okay to let yourself feel it. But don’t act on it immediately. Take a breath and give yourself a little time and gentleness to feel what you need to feel.

3. Make a decision about how you want to react.

Sometimes people do things that violate our boundaries, which is one of the most common reasons we end up getting in our feels. The good news is that we’re in control of our boundaries and we can shift them as we need to. Although emotions aren’t always negotiable, actions (and reactions) are. And it can feel really empowering to choose who you want in your life and the context that you choose to have them. Sometimes it’s worth the work to communicate about your boundaries and to negotiate your interactions with people, and sometimes it’s not. The cool thing is that it’s your choice.

I’ve mentioned that emotions aren’t always negotiable, especially for people living with anxiety disorders, but I also need to acknowledge that we live in a social world where so much is out of control. The way our disabled bodies operate in a late-capitalist system, the way race affects peoples’ experiences, the way our gender dictates literally how much we will be paid or how likely we are so be raped… We don’t have control over those things. And I want to be very clear that I am not talking about systemic violence in the rest of this post. It’s also well worth noting that people have the choice to use whatever privilege they may have to hold some space for oppressed people’s reactions for being oppressed. That shit is real.

What this post is about is about how we do our best to operate within this world and how we can tangibly go about standing in our power when we do have control over what happens. Because that’s real too. And all of these things can exist simultaneously.

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aka. “Acknowledging autonomy as a means of building healthier communities”

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(image shows myself and my best friend, Luna the shepherd dog, in an open field surrounded by trees, representing simultaneous autonomy and interconnection).

Can you think of a time in your life where you wanted to be part of a community of people who you grew close with, even loved? Where you put a lot of time and energy into creating that community with some sort of shared goal or intention? Me too.

I’ve been a part of theatre communities where we worked on shows together, activist communities where the shared goal is dismantling rape culture or working towards environmental sustainability, and casual communities where the goal is simply to be friends. Sometimes this more casual community building looks like a group who gets together to share meals or to work together in a garden. Sometimes, like many people in my generation, this means online group chats.

Can you think of a time where you felt let down by your community? Maybe you were going through something really tough and craved the support of the community you’ve worked hard to build. Maybe you felt ignored or under appreciated. I can relate. It’s really easy when we feel this way in our communities to chalk it up to “toxic communities” and honestly, that’s the script that is growing to dominate a lot of modern thought around social justice. But I think that this is an oversimplification at best, and, more honestly, actively detrimental to the overall goal of community care and individual wellness that social justice aims to work towards.

Community building as a concept is complicated and I see a lot of discussion around some of the key pieces these days. Things like self-care, balancing emotional labour, and accountability. While it’s exciting that these discussions are happening at all, and it’s to be expected that thinkers will stumble their ways through these complex and imperfect topics, I, a white, queer, disabled woman who lives with CPTSD, am increasingly finding that the shallow way we discuss this stuff is more harmful than helpful.

Basically, what I’m asserting here is that the problem isn’t that we are building toxic communities, it’s that we are empowering individuals to engage in behaviours that are toxic to themselves, and thus, toxic when it comes to building healthier communities. We mistake enabling self-harming behaviours for care in attempt to acknowledge that the violence perpetrated against marginalized people is real and unfair. However, by encouraging a victim mindset, we effectively marginalize people who have been affected by systemic violence even further.

I don’t believe that it is my job (or my business) to dictate how anyone else chooses to cope with or react to their experiences in the world. I believe that is up to each individual, and that building healthier communities relies on each individual to do their own work. It’s easier, when we have experienced trauma and/or violence to follow scripts where we validate one another’s pain (effectively playing in to the same power dynamics we claim to be working to dismantle) rather than addressing and taking ownership for our own experiences and subsequent (re)actions.

What it comes down to for me, as an individual, is this: do I want to commit to my trauma and live in it, or do I want to live my best life where I acknowledge my trauma without allowing it to control my life?

In the context of a society where there are unequal distributions of power, I would agree that it’s true that one cannot fully control what happens to them or every event of their lives, but what one can control is how they choose to respond to what happens. When it comes to community building, when we are all so committed to living in our own emotional shit, we tend to project that on to other people in our community.

For me, my dissatisfaction in communities I’ve experienced as toxic has a lot less to do with anyone else’s actions but my own dissatisfaction with myself. This results in me being so wrapped up in how worthless I feel (because trauma stuff) and feeling so bad about how I’m not feeling cared for by my community that I’m not being a good community member either. I’m not actually taking care of myself in a deep way either. I’m just wallowing in my own shit. Living there. Committing to it. It’s a lot easier to chalk my feelings up to other peoples’ actions rather than taking ownership for my own and doing something to actively work with whatever it is I’m going through. It keeps me trapped in my own shit.

Escaping and preventing toxic communities comes down to changing our perspectives from “they did this to me and this feels awful” to “this happened and it feels awful because I’m perceiving it as something that was done TO me that I have no control over.”. The reality is that you do have control over what you do with your hurt. Sure, communicating to the person you felt hurt by may be helpful, but what will be really helpful is you changing your perception (and thus, your reality) of the hurtful thing. It’s not about ignoring the hurt or “choosing not to feel it”. I mean, that sounds nice, but we all know it’s not that simple. It’s about feeling it and acknowledging that it probably had nothing to do with you and everything to do with the other person/people. What is yours is your reaction. When we accept people for where they are at, it makes for far healthier and happier interpersonal relationships. And when we can’t reconcile where someone’s at with the reality we’re choosing to actively build for ourselves, we get to choose the context in which you relate to that person.

This isn’t to say that we should stick around people who contribute to us feeling bad or who we don’t ultimately feel are conducive to our journey in wellness. It’s also not about anyone being “at fault”. It’s never so simple as a simple perpetrator/victim dynamic. We are all hurt beings in some way, we are all trying to stumble our way to happiness and fulfillment. But what I think we, as social justice oriented thinkers and carers, would benefit from is actually acknowledging the role of autonomy in community building.

(Big thanks to Sabrina Scott and Susan Kesper for taking the time to provide feedback on this piece and supporting me in making it better!)

 

 

 

 

 

Content: mental illness, mood disorders, mania, depression, anxiety, smoking, cannabis, xanax, blood, suicide attempt, suicide threat, hospitalization, self harm, parent death, friendship

 

For years before we met, people told me I would love you. So many of our mutual friends used to tell me about how similar we were, with so many mutual interests and mutual mental health issues. And when we finally met, we connected instantly. I remember sitting on the bed in the spare bedroom of my apartment, window wide open, chain-smoking cigarettes and exchanging stories about the fucked up things that had happened to us, fucked up things we had done, and weird shit we experienced. You intermittently popped Xanex, while I packed bong bowl after bong bowl of Indica strains. We had some overlapping clinical diagnoses, and some similar but different ones too. I could see myself in you, like a mirror image. After twenty-something years of feeling isolated and loved by my other friends, but never really seen, you saw me.

We both lived with mood disorders, eating disorders, anxiety disorders. We were tattooed smokers, self-harmers, daughters of long-dead mothers. We both loved sex and the occasional drug binge. We both had wonderful, long-term, committed partners. We both longed to be well while simutanteously accepting that mental illness was a permanent part of our lives that we couldn’t help but romanticize and struggle with and commit to in our own ways.

I remember asking you what to do when you inevitably became manic. We made safety plans. I remember you asking me what to do when I inevitably self-harmed. We made crisis plans. I remember discussing how much we should discuss our weight and our eating habits. We made resource lists.

And then the time came when I looked into your eyes and it wasn’t you, it was this live wire, electric version of you. You started lying to me about things like if you were using or if you were hanging out with people who you knew I knew used. And then you told me about things and acted in ways that weren’t in line with the way I knew you wanted to be and I fought my way in to advocate for you as well as I could while trying to keep you relatively safe.

And then a time came where I was so depressed and had been texting you about it that you broke into my apartment early in the morning, nearly in tears, to find that I was still alive after all.

And then there were all those times I drove you to the hospital, or offered to drive you to the hospital because that was the only way you felt you could be okay.

And then there was the time where I told you about that really bizarre recurring experience I have that 99% of people don’t know I have that only you can even begin to understand. Because you’ve been through it too.

And then there was that time where you told me that you hated me and wanted to kill me. You told me I was faking my mood disorder and that if I saw you on the street, I’d better run, because you were going to kill me. But the moment I looked you in the eye, I knew it wasn’t you. It was that live wire version of you again.

And there were times where we both told each other that we couldn’t be there for each other all the time, that we needed to focus more exclusively on taking care of ourselves.

And then there was that time that your partner called me to tell me I needed to come over because our worst fear had come true and I made it around the corner just in time to watch as the paramedics wheeled your seizing body on a stretcher from your apartment into the ambulance. And I stayed back while your partner spoke to the cops and cleaned up the bloody vomit on the kitchen wall and went with your partner to the hospital where they told us they needed to take you to a bigger hospital. And then, when your stepmom called me at work the next day to tell me to come say goodbye, I raced to the hospital from work to slip my hand in your limp hand and and sang you Bad Religion songs.

“There will be sorrow no more”.

That last thing nearly ruined our friendship. But it didn’t. It took time and space. It took me adjusting my expectations and you forgiving yourself. And I am so beyond grateful that you lived. And even though we both know that we will both continue to struggle from time to time, the history of our own lives and of our friendship proves that no state is permanent. It will always end. There will always be another time for us to sit on the bed, drinking tea, and smoking, and laughing way too loudly. Because we see each other. And we’re learning to navigate what it means to be a mentally ill person with a mentally ill best friend. And that’s a pretty magical kind of friendship.

Dear you,

This isn’t the first time I’ve written to you. But here I am, addressing my anger. I”m angry that you can’t seem to comprehend the effect you have on the people around you. I’m angry that you make decisions that hurt me over and over and over. I’m angry to have found out how many truths you withheld from me when here I was thinking we were best friends. I told you everything. I made myself vulnerable to you in such a real way, and when I did that, you said it was too much for you. And then I removed any responsibility from you to care for me and you go and try and bail in a big way. The biggest way.

I guess there it is. I’m angry that you tried to leave, even after I thought I had managed my expectations in a way that was more reasonable (if unbalanced). I didn’t do a good enough job of managing my expectations. It turns out you are not capable of being held accountable for any of your actions after all. Because you’re unwell. I don’t know if that’s inherently true, but I do know that it is your truth. And that I need to accept it as my own truth.

I guess the reason I’m still angry if because you made me feel less alone. I knew that you could relate to all the weird shit I experience that most people don’t. I thought you were committed to managing it. Living with it. Not letting it be who you are. But I guess it is. At least now.

The good news is that this anger gives me the ability to do-over what I was too young to do the first time someone I loved this much bailed. To manage my grief so that I feel it and address it and accept it without letting it scar me the way it did when she left. Or when I perceived her as leaving.

I know now that she never really left, her soul just isn’t in her body in this world. I know that she’s alive in the curve where my leg meets my torso and in the smooth black stones that line the bottom of Lake Ontario.

I feel so grateful to be alive. This is different. I can’t change your choices. All I can do is accept them. Accept you as you choose to be.

Love, tenderness, acceptance, devastation,
Lyss