The Trouble With “Safe Spaces”

Most of the people who have stumbled their way to my blog have probably heard the term “safe space” before. The concept is relatively simple — a safe, inclusive space without discrimination that provides support to those who need it most. But while it sounds great in theory, it is endlessly problematic in practise.

I have never seen a safe space work as intended. My experience has been with safe spaces for LGBTQ people, and those who struggle with disability, mental illness, and/or trauma. In many cases, there has been overlap between these categories.

Safe spaces are riddled with logistical problems, starting with the fact that everyone’s idea of what constitutes a “safe space” will be different. The way the space is moderated or run is another issue, and one that frequently sounds the death knell for the effort, as hosts lean more towards a model that establishes them as authority figures rather than leaders, and creates an uneven power differential among a group of people who, often, have suffered poor treatment or even abuse at the hands of those in power. For a safe space to function properly, everyone must be treated as an equal, and conflicts need to be managed and resolved from a place of mutual respect — otherwise, one or more members walk away feeling like a scolded child, which leads to resentment and distrust.

The other major issue safe spaces face is trying to balance the individual needs of members with the safety of the group as a whole. This gets harder to do the larger a group grows — but no one wants to turn away someone seeking a safe space. As a result, they often buckle under their own weight as interpersonal conflicts simmer, and those who feel wronged have to be civil and make nice with people they want nothing to do with.

Individuals seeking safe spaces walk in with a number of needs, behavioural quirks, and issues unique to them. This can make them tricky to accommodate, and even downright frustrating at times. No one wants to violate the premise of a safe space by asking them to stop doing that thing that’s annoying everyone, but at the same time, truly disruptive or distressing behaviour has to be addressed. The fact that someone is working at a disadvantage does not give them the right to upset or harm others without second thought. Managing those kinds of situations is difficult, and is when respect and a lack of judgement become invaluable.

No talk of safe spaces would be complete without mentioning triggers. Triggers are topics, experiences, memories, and/or words/phrases that cause deep distress to the person encountering them. Distress severe enough that it impacts their ability to function. Those of us who have them have to deal with accusations of “oversensitivity” often, which is profoundly unfair. No one wants to live their worst memories over and over again, and wishing to avoid being forced to do so is understandable, not oversensitive.

The trouble with triggers comes in when you have a moderate to large group of people who have a various assortment of them. Trying to keep everyone safe becomes a priority, but is one I have never seen achieved. One of three things tends to happen:

  1. Someone is told that they cannot speak about their experiences/ seek support or must leave the safe space because they are triggering others. While avoiding hurting others is important, there is an undertone of shame to this approach that defeats the purpose of a safe space, because it requires censorship. It also sends the message that your emotions and experiences are so ugly that they should not be spoken of, which is not only problematic, but deeply painful, possibly even (re-)traumatizing
  2. Someone has to leave to protect themselves, because they are constantly being exposed to triggering material/talk
  3. Infighting over the validity of triggers and individuals’ right to speak about their experiences and seek support cause the group to fracture into smaller subgroups, or for the safe space to cease existing altogether

I don’t have any neat, tidy solutions to this problem, probably because any effective solution will need to be multifaceted. What I do know is that identifying the issues with safe spaces is the first step towards working out how to solve them. And, really, it’s important that we do. People need to be able to share what their lives are and have been, and seek needed support in a way that isn’t strictly clinical (counselling, therapy). A support network made up of friends and/or family is absolutely vital when dealing with any number of issues that might drive someone to seek a safe space, because the goal is not to stay in counselling/therapy forever. Ideally, there are people in our lives who can and will help us if we tell them how.

~

I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

 

Well, This Sucks

So . . . shitty news. Specifically, on the writing front.

Turd the First: the publisher I submitted my novel to sent me a rejection letter last week. They were pretty awesome about it, made it clear that it probably wasn’t because I suck at what I do, but it was still a form-letter and it absolutely sucks.

I’m still hurting about this one. I wrote that novel specifically for this open call. I knew it was kind of a long shot, but still. I hoped.

Regardless, I’m not giving up on it. I’ll need some time to feel shitty about it, but then I plan on re-reading, revising if needed, and sending it somewhere else. Maybe some other publisher will be interested in it. I can’t say “it doesn’t hurt to try” because, actually, it does hurt, but I’m gonna try anyway.

Turd the Second: apparently Torquere LLC, the publisher that first told me “yes” and published my short story “Closer”, is going under. There has been a lot of talk over several months that’s made me uneasy, but I chose to have faith in the owners and editors. I decided to move forward with the contract I signed. It turns out that that was probably a mistake.

This makes me feel absolutely heartsick. I feel like I was taken advantage of, because I was so very, very new to the publishing world. This, combined with the rejection, has me wondering if my dream of being a writer is laughable. The idea of submitting my works to other publishers and finding out later that they’re untrustworthy is not only exhausting, it’s disheartening.

I don’t know what, exactly, my next move will be here. I’ve contacted someone in the industry with experience, and plan on reaching out to others. I’m going to try and get more information before deciding what my next move is. The only thing I know for sure, though, is that I won’t stop writing. I can’t. I’m simply not capable of it.

I might, however, take a bit of a break from it. Just for a little while. Maybe. More because I have a lot of other things going on in my life right now — upcoming holidays, the anniversary of Motherunit’s expiration, sorting out my health — than because of this whole debacle, but still. Putting pressure on myself to write when I’m overtaxed and my heart isn’t in it is a bad idea.

~

I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

 

Confession #83:

I don’t like chess. I learned how to play as a child, and played a lot for a couple of years, but other people ruined it for me. Chess—for whatever reason—was seen as THE measuring stick for intelligence, and I was a baby genius, so the assumption was that I’d be an amazing chess player. Truth is, I was and am a decent player, but it’s not hard to be better than me. I’m a reactionary player. In my family, Fatherbot and Will are the chess whizzes, the ones with the heads for strategy, and I’ll always play a game with them if they ask, because I know I can count on them to not be dicks about it. I’ve never had an issue with losing a game to someone—my problem was when my opponent rubbed my face in my loss, mocking me, deriding my intelligence, and screaming across the playground and/or classroom to get the other kids (and sometimes the teacher) to join them in shitting on me. My other problem was in winning against anyone who wasn’t in my family or my babysitter—because if I won, I was a stuck-up bitch who thought she was better than everyone else. You can see how that would be shitty for an eight-year-old.

Chess is, first and last, a GAME. It’s supposed to be fun. But when losing came with a serving of three days’ bullying, and winning brought on mass cold-shouldering, it quickly lost its appeal.
~
I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

Hello, September

This is the first August I can remember where I haven’t spent the last half of the month gearing up for a new school year.

No restocking pens, paperclips, highlighters and sticky notes. No scrambling to buy textbooks. No having to reorganize my desk, taking it from Creative Mode to Academic Mode. No recalibrating my sleep schedule. No class conflicts and grad requirements to work with and around. No bad-professor-dodging. No cancelling my birthday because of exams. No pre-emptive stress over reading lists and assignment deadlines.

It feels strange. Good, in a way. Light. But hollow, too. Because this was my life’s primary structure and mode of organization for years and years. It was never easy, but there was something reassuring in having a definite measuring stick for success, in being able to know exactly what was required of me. It didn’t make it any easier to do what was required, didn’t lessen the toll on my mind or body, but at least I didn’t have the stress/fear of the unknown to deal with, too.

I’m trying to find a new way to structure my life. I know that, for a lot of people, that’s work. I’ve gotten news that I’m being published (OMG!!!) so my writing career is taking off, but I know that won’t pay the bills right now (and might not ever). I have some other opportunities that I’m looking into, and have gotten stuck playing the waiting game on, but there are things to consider on the work front that scare me.

Things like: How will I be able to hold a job when my health, physical and mental, is still unstable? How will I find a job that I can do with my limitations, and how do I hold onto it? What if I can’t work full-time? How will I support myself? What if I can’t ever work full-time?

And, because our culture is so, so bad about tying your identity to your work, your ability to be productive, I have to battle self-doubt on top of all those other things. Even knowing logically that I have worth as a person whether I can work or not doesn’t stop the emotional part of me from whispering that no one will want to be with, love, or be friends with a useless, disabled lesbian. It doesn’t stop the nagging questions of “How dependent will I have to be on others? How dependent am I allowed to be before I’m a burden? Who would be willing to shoulder that burden? How could I possibly be okay with being a burden on my loved ones?” from creeping up on me.

That kind of thought process is toxic, and I know it. It is also, unfortunately, incredibly difficult to root out. Knowing that it’s utter bullshit, that it’s capitalism telling me I have to be a successful, economically-productive individual to have worth; that it’s the decades of abuse undercutting my sense of self; that it’s my anxiety and mental illness trying to tear me down doesn’t make it go away or hurt any less.

All I can do in those moments is remind myself that:
1) I have people who love me so, so much, and in a variety of ways;
2) I have been working towards better health and stability for about 2 years now, and my efforts have started to pay off;
3) I am trying to pursue work, but have to wait and see if things fall into place—and it’s not my fault if they don’t;
4) My limits are not my fault;
5) Human beings are inherently social creatures, and we all need to be taken care of sometimes, no matter our age or level of ability;
6) I am trying, and that counts;
7) My limits are still not my fault.
~
I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

“Victim” vs. “Survivor”

I don’t like the word “victim”. Mostly because I don’t like the connotations—the dictionary definition is “a person harmed, injured, or killed as the result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.” But when people talk about victims, they aren’t just talking about a person who was hurt or killed. They’re talking about the hurt, the death, the tragedy that made the victim. The word conjures a certain image of frailty, of brokenness.

And that’s not fair.

The word “victim” is appropriate in some cases and some contexts. The justice system and academia uses it in a precise way. In the dictionary-definition way. But all of that gets twisted round by how the media and people on the street use it. Social workers, support groups, and counsellors of all stripes encourage people who have been victimized not to adopt the label of “victim” because of the connotations attached. Because of the way it can warp your perceptions and expectations of yourself.

The word most commonly used to replace “victim” is “survivor”—if, of course, the person did live through the incident in question. But I don’t think “survivor” is a great word, either. It’s definitely better, because it emphasizes the fact that it was an incident you lived through, and is a positive trait when turned into an “I am” statement. But it still focusses on the wrong thing, in my opinion, because it puts the emphasis on the incident, on the trauma, and less about moving on from it. Because, yes, it is undeniably powerful to say “I’m a survivor, I lived through this”, but we deserve more than just survival. We deserve to heal. To live. To have our lives defined by more than just our trauma.

When I talk about what happened to me, I don’t use those words. I talk about things that happened to me. Or things that someone did. I don’t dance around words like “abuse”, “assault”, or “afraid”. I use them if and when they are appropriate to describe my experience. But “victim” isn’t appropriate. Not for me. And neither, really, is “survivor”. Depending on what I’m describing, I might use “target”. As in, “I was the target of a hate crime”. Which I was. But my word choice there makes what happened about the person who did it, rather than about me, and my trauma, and whatever I “must’ve done” to bring it on myself. It argues that the important part of that sentence, the takeaway point, is not that I was confronted with unnecessary violence and hatred, but that someone felt the need to subject a complete stranger to violent hatred for no good reason. It makes it about the person who did something wrong, and the fact that it was wrong, rather than glorifying my pain.

Because I’m not interested in living in the past, inside all the hurt that others have heaped on my head. It was bad enough to experience the first time. I don’t want to give the people who hurt me the satisfaction of crippling me forever. I want to find a way to be happy. To do things that are meaningful. To grow and learn and love and live as fully as I can.

I’m not a victim. I’m not a survivor. I’m a person.

~

I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

 

Living in a Zombie Apocalypse

I have joked with certain friends and mental health professionals that anxiety and depression are the “sad puppies” of mental illness. I say this not to demean the challenges they present to those living with them, but because they are rooted in human emotions—grief, and fear, sadness, hopelessness and desperation, insecurity and desire for approval. And because they are emotions, they are relatable—they are things that most people can understand, if you explain it to them. If they’re willing to listen. And because of that, they have become the face of mental health campaigns. They’re like the puppies the SPCA uses in their ads.

Educational campaigns most often use statistics for depression and anxiety when trying to raise awareness. They talk about how those who suffer from mental illness are non-violent, that we’re much more likely to be victims of violence than we are to perpetrate it against someone else. And those things are true. But they are not the whole truth.

There are mental illnesses that are much scarier. Things like schizophrenia and schizoid disorders, personality disorders, PTSD. Those are much more frightening because they impact other people. They aren’t rooted in simple emotions that are universal and easy to understand. They are isolating. They’re terrifying to live with. And, sometimes, it means that the people who have them seem or do pose a danger to the people around them. And the important thing to remember in that case is that, often, it’s not their fault.

I have, among other things, PTSD—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m 24 years old and I’ve been living with this for the better part of a decade. I’m not going to recount how I developed PTSD, because it’s a long, horrible soap opera of a story. And it’s not the important part.

The important bit, the part that I really want people to understand, is what it feels like to live with it. Because my brain is not the same as other brains. For me, living with mental illness isn’t about stress management or emotional regulation. It’s not about taking medication or having someone to talk to. Living with PTSD is like living in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Nothing, nobody, and nowhere is safe. If someone isn’t a zombie and looking to kill you outright, they’re a fellow survivor, and they want something from you. They will use you, and manipulate you until they get what they want from you. So, until you know what they want from you, you’re not safe and you can’t trust them.

It means I’m always waiting for a zombie to come crawling around the corner or pop up when I least expect it, because even if I haven’t seen one in a long time, I know they’re out there. It means that everyone is a potential threat—a ticking zombie-bomb. It means that crowds are very difficult to tolerate, because that’s a lot of people to keep track of, a lot of maybe-zombies to worry about.

Living with PTSD means that every sense is permanently cranked up to eleven. I can’t concentrate in busy environments. I will never be able to work in a cubicle, because I’ll hear every passing footfall and my eye will be drawn by every person who walks by; because every ringing telephone and beep of the copy machine and voice will snag my attention; because my brain will always be scanning my environment for the slightest hint of danger. I will always be on zombie-watch.

It means that, sometimes, my body acts independently of my brain. Often, it feels like my brain and body each have a mind of their own. They remember different things, and they can’t talk to each other because they aren’t speaking a language the other understands. So, sometimes, my body takes over and does things that I never meant it to. Because, for whatever reason, my internal sirens and alarm bells went off and I reacted as if I was faced with zombies.

It’s my brain wanting a friendly touch, to be touched in ways that won’t hurt, and being unable to ask, or even accept it when it’s offered, because my body is so convinced that every person trying to get close is a zombie that I just. Can’t. My body flinches and moves away before the other person can make contact, and if I can’t move away fast enough, or if someone got me from behind, I have to deal with flashbacks. With feelings of fear and horror and helplessness. With memories of zombies.

Living with PTSD means knowing that my mind has broken. It’s living with the awful truth that it is capable of breaking. That sanity can only stretch so far before it snaps. There are years of my life that I can’t remember. That I may never remember.

It means insomnia and nightmares the horror industry would kill for. It means dealing with the after-effects of massive adrenaline dumps. It means never wanting to have my back to a window or door, wanting to be able to see the room, because no zombies can sneak up on me then. Leaving the house feels like walking into a war zone, like leaving the one place I know is safe. It’s willingly walking into zombie territory because I have to go to class, or the doctor’s office, or to meet a friend for coffee. And sometimes, I can’t do it. Sometimes I don’t have what it takes to set foot into Zombieland. I hate those days, and the way they make me feel.

I wish I could say that it gets better. That this is temporary; that the right medication and counselling and a good support system will get me through this. But I can’t. This isn’t going to go away. My brain is wired differently now, and there’s no way to fix that. There’s no undoing the zombie apocalypse. Medication can’t help me. Therapy can help, but it can only do so much when my PTSD was caused by a number of incidents rather than a single traumatic event.

What helps is reminding myself that PTSD is an adaptive mechanism. That because of it, I’m the cool head in a crisis. That I learned how to read people—to separate the actual zombies from the mud-caked humans. But it’s hard, because I’m not perfect, and sometimes I see zombies where there are none.

It helps to have people in my life who respect my boundaries. Who ask before they reach out to touch. People talk a lot about consent and autonomy with regard to sex, and that your body is yours, but they seem to forget that consent also means not tapping a stranger on the shoulder, because you don’t have permission to touch them. For someone with PTSD, unexpected touch can trigger all kinds of reactions. Some of them are aggressive, even violent. And it’s awful to be on the receiving end of that, but it’s even worse to be the one dishing it out. Because it’s not a choice—it’s lashing out or yelling or being crippled with fear because suddenly, there’s a zombie three inches from your face. And when the adrenaline clears, you realize that it wasn’t actually a zombie, but you can’t take back what you’ve done. So how do you explain that you were just trying to protect yourself when no one else is living in a post-apocalyptic world, and they don’t understand what you thought you needed to protect yourself from?

It helps to have a safe space to unwind in—a place that always has and always will be a zombie-free zone. It helps to have or build a tribe of people who are safe to be around, who will work with me and help me through the bad days. It helps to remind myself that, while there are zombies, they aren’t actually lurking around every corner. That, while they exist, they are much rarer than my own personal experiences have led me to expect.

I am getting better. But my world will always contain zombies—even if only in my memories.
~
I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

Words of (Not-Warped) Wisdom Pt. X

The scariest and most dangerous kind of crazy is that which closely imitates normal — until it’s too late. The only defense against that kind of crazy is to listen to your gut. That, and running as far and as fast as humanly possible.
~

I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.