Boots

This is the second of a series about Kesha’s new album Rainbow. For the first post, click here.

Boots seems to be out of place in Rainbow. It doesn’t address the past, pain, or moving forward. But listening to Boots feels delightfully powerful to me. After sexual assault, it’s easy to feel like your sexuality, and especially your joy in your own body and sexuality has been stolen. I’ve known too many people who before sexual assault were joyfully, intensely sexual, and their sex life was a major part of their identity. Following assault, they have described the experience as “I don’t know how to do it anymore.” There’s insecurity, fear, and a sense that the ability to enjoy their own body has been taken away.

Which is why I love Boots.

Kesha has always been an artist who is unabashedly hedonistic. Her earlier albums were about drinking, partying, and sexing. Typically these topics have been reserved for male artists, and one of the reasons I love Kesha is that she isn’t afraid to say “yes I party and I have a good time, and you still need my consent.” Boots feels like a return to some essential parts of Kesha. I’m glad that Rainbow is a more mature album overall, and I think it’s got a lot more depth, but Kesha also strikes me as a simply joyful and fun loving human being (check out little Kesha’s dance moves in the Learn to Let Go video for reference). One of the hardest things about depression and trauma is finding things that make you joyful, reclaiming things in an untainted way.

Boots to me is that anthem. It’s the recognition that Kesha is still a sexual being and someone who is happily so. It feels so wonderfully joyful to have a song on this album about healing in which she reclaims her sexuality. When assault can rob someone of their connection to their body, can leave them with PTSD, can mean that sex more often than not ends in tears or flashbacks, a song that finds joy again is so powerful.

Even more importantly, when she made her accusations there were some folks who decided to make a big deal out of the fact that she sang about partying and sex. That doesn’t fucking matter. She can love sex and still be assaulted. She does not have to be some kind of “gold star” victim to be a victim, and this song in context shows that she is not willing to give up her open, loud sexuality just to get people on her side.

In this respect, one line sticks out to me: “If you can’t handle these claws you don’t get this kitty.” I’ve seen friends criticize this kind of sentiment as a way for excusing bad behavior, but in this particular album it doesn’t read that way. Claws are associated with aggression, fighting back, defending yourself, and the kitty language has some obvious parallels to pussy and sex. To me this line reads as a message to people who want to ignore her boundaries; you do not get her body if you are not willing to respect her boundaries. I hear Kesha saying “I will fight back if you try to take what’s not yours.” In the middle of a song about reclaiming sexuality, that is a fucking anthem. It’s a slap in the face to Dr. Buttface.

My final impression of Boots is the recognition that not all of healing is painful or difficult. Some days you feel joyful. You find people that make you feel better. It might be simply be a distraction, and that’s ok. Feeling good sometimes is HUGE, and it doesn’t invalidate that you might be depressed or that you’re really struggling. It feels so good within this album to have a moment of unabashed sensuality. It’s a good reminder to all of us who have been hurt that our bodies don’t have to be dangerous or feel broken. It’s possible to reclaim them. And that is fucking awesome.

Kesha’s Rainbow is Life

I don’t know that I’ve mentioned this here on the blog before, but I adore Kesha. Her music was something my husband and I bonded over right away, and she’s held a special place in my heart since then. During the shit show with Dr. Assface (I refuse to write or say his real name), I grew to feel a particular kind of fondness for her. I was proud of her for standing up for herself and fighting for herself. And I was beyond sad when I thought that she might never release music again.

Last week Kesha released her first new album in 5 years. It’s almost unbelievable that she still has a career after that long away. And while I loved Kesha’s music before, her new album has brought something new and much deeper to the table, so much so that I have found the album as a whole to be completely transformative, an anthem for survivors, and honestly my favorite piece of media to come out in years. Beyond the album itself, Kesha has been releasing essays that go with many of her songs. She also has taken an interesting approach to the release itself, putting out 4 singles with videos before the album dropped, which totals a full third of the album available before the official release date.

As an intertextual piece of media, Kesha has created an amazing summation of the experience of healing from abuse. It’s been quite a while since I’ve really dug into a text and I am 100% obsessed with this album, so for this week, hopefully as a small spot of light in an otherwise dumpster fire trash pile of a time, I’m going to be breaking down the album, analyzing some of the lyrics, and talking about how it exemplifies the experience of a survivor.

Today I’m going to start by talking about some elements of the album as a whole, and for the next week or so I’m going to delve into specific songs. Let’s do it!

The thing that strikes me first and most intensely about Rainbow and the accompanying essays are not what Kesha says, but what she doesn’t say. Kesha’s album comes after a very long and very public trial with Dr. Douchecanoe, but nowhere in her album does she mention him, sexual assault, a trial, or anything else that could be seen as a particular that points towards the whole business. She doesn’t even reference the experience in anything that could be considered a “direct” way. The two places that stand out the most to me as Kesha pointing towards Dr. Luke are the entirely of “Praying” (which lyrically is simply a song about one person who feels another person has wronged them), and in the essay about “Woman”, when she writes “I really have to thank Stephen Wrabel and Drew Pearson for helping me through the past few years and making writing songs a beautiful thing again. Both of those men made my art/work safe and fun, and every session with the two of them was so healing.”

I’ll dig into deeper depth on that last comment when I write about woman, but what strikes me about all this is how careful Kesha is being. Perhaps it’s unintentional, but the whole business reads like a manual on how to avoid charges of libel, and that to me is such a deep part of the modern woman’s experience of sexual assault. The ways that Kesha talks around her assault are just as telling as what she says. Women today have more freedom to talk about sexual assault, but they are only allowed to do so in an abstract way. “I was sexually assaulted,” is an acceptable, poignant, personal story. “He sexually assaulted me,” is cause for a lawsuit. Within the context that we ALL know who Kesha is talking about, and the subject matter of much of the album makes it less a capitulation to these pressures and more an in-joke in which we are all aware what she’s really saying, but she’s playing by the “rules”. And for those women who have not been able to speak up about their abuse or assault, it feels to me like an affirmation: you still deserve your healing. There are still ways to heal. There are ways to move forward and those of us who have been there will support you.

This odd tension in the album exemplifies to me the expectations of how women are supposed to deal with sexual assault, and the challenges it can present.

Which brings me to the overall theme of the album: healing. It’s named after a song whose lyrics say that you will find a rainbow. By itself, that message seems trite and almost dismissive of the real pain of sufferers. But the reason this album is so successful to me is its diversity. Rainbow covers a surprising array of musical styles, from horns heavy “Woman”, to the simple and indie feeling “Dinosaur,” all the way through a country duet with Dolly Parton. Each of these songs alone does not paint a full picture of trauma and recovery. However that seems like an important recognition to me: no single emotion or reaction is enough to encapsulate someone’s experience of trauma. That’s why Kesha required a full album plus essays. Each piece is a very real experience, whether that’s forgiving the person who hurt you, hating the person who hurt you, feeling proud of yourself, or fulfilling childhood dreams. An individual person can feel all of these things, or different people could experience their trauma in all of these different ways, and nothing about any of these experiences in invalid or incorrect.

Everyone reacts to trauma or assault differently. It would have been easy for Kesha to create an album that spoke only about her experiences. However she created something that made space for all the reactions someone could have, and beyond that, it recognized the long path its taken for her to get to where she is. By opening up about the variety of her experiences, and not creating a pretty picture for us all to see now that she’s healthy again, she opened the door to validating thousands of other experiences.

The format and styling of the album overall give an important picture of sexual assault, but there’s one additional element that I think is important, and that’s Kesha’s choice to write and publish essays about four of her singles as well as short paragraphs on every track. I’m going to do a longer post just on how fascinating that is as a medium choice, but for now I want to point out how that experience of feeling, then stepping back and analyzing your feelings, is so common for people who are struggling with trauma, depression, or anxiety. The sense of distance from yourself, combined with the need to question everything and provide evidence for everything feels so familiar to me, especially when I think about my own experiences with sexual assault.

Again, I’m not sure that Kesha did that intentionally, but her choice of a dual medium is a brilliant mirror of what the experience of recovery can feel like. Interacting with an album that validates my experiences, talks openly about emotions, engages in a realistic way with assault and trauma, and ends feeling uplifting is so powerful to me. Seeing a woman who was supposed to shut up and go away come back and create amazing art that not only blows everyone away but also quietly thumbs its nose at her abuser is truly amazing. I can’t say enough about how powerful Rainbow is for me. I suggest you give it a listen.

Do I Get to Be Queer?

I am on the asexual spectrum. I’m not sure if there’s a great word for me. I’ve slipped in and out of demisexual, but it’s never felt 100% correct. My sexuality is a flitting thing: it comes and goes as it pleases, often with no rhyme or reason. One day I’ll feel sexual attraction to my fiance in a perfectly normal fashion, the next it will disappear for a month, two months, six months.

It’s stressful, and I have yet to encounter a community that describes quite this experience or gives a name to it. I find that particularly difficult. It makes it feel as if my sexuality isn’t real. I still have not entirely convinced myself that I get to claim the word asexual, even though it’s fairly clear when I look at my life and my patterns, I am definitely not allosexual.

Which makes it even harder to talk about the word queer, or about being in the LGBTQIA+ community.

I consider myself an ally. I don’t like to use that word very often because if I have to tell someone I’m an ally I’m really not doing it right, but I think it’s important in this context to recognize that I explicitly think of myself as an outsider when it comes to queer spaces. When I go to gay clubs or pride, I only go with queer friends, and actively identify myself as a straight, cis person: I try not to talk too much, and to be in the background. I think of myself as a guest.

But here’s the thing: I don’t have a sexuality that fits into the norm. My sexuality has very directly impacted my life in ways that led to sexual assault, breakups, and dismissal by the people I love most. I very much struggle with the idea that oppression is what makes someone queer: if a gay person grew up in an accepting family and never experienced bullying, harassment, or cruelty because of their sexuality, they would still be gay. They would still be a part of the queer community. So I struggle to understand what exactly defines queerness, and who gets to decide what groups are part of that umbrella.

The best I can understand is that queerness has to do with disrupting the status quo. And as far as that is concerned, my sexuality certainly fits. It fits enough that it has disrupted every relationship I have ever been in. It disrupts enough that I have had a therapist ask me if it was maybe actually just my mental illness not my sexuality.

So why do I not feel comfortable identifying as such? Why do I still feel like an outsider at Pride, or other gay/queer spaces?

The question of whether or not asexuality fits under the queer umbrella is fairly hotly debated, with some people suggesting that aces don’t experience enough oppression to count and ace people suggesting that they feel alienated by mainstream conceptions of sexuality and would like a safe space to come together, just as other LGBT folks do.

I see a few reasons why aces SHOULD fit in queer spaces, as well as a few reasons why many queer spaces aren’t a good fit. Because I am constitutionally incapable of letting any question about my identity be until I’ve driven it into the dirt, I’m going to spend some time detailing those reasons, and the best definitions of “queer” as I understand them, to better get to the bottom of why I feel like I don’t get to claim that label and to understand if I should.

Let’s start at the end and work our way back: what IS queer?

There isn’t a single, great definition of queerness. But most definitions are explicit in saying that queerness is political. Nadia Cho suggests “Being queer is first and foremost a state of mind. It is a worldview characterized by acceptance, through which one embraces and validates all the unique, unconventional ways that individuals express themselves, particularly with respect to gender and sexual orientation.” Under this definition, anyone who actively embraces alternative genders and sexualities or who identifies as an outside the mainstream gender or sexuality, could be queer.

The Unitarian Universalist Association gives a breakdown of quite a few potential definitions:

-being attracted to more than one gender
-not fitting cultural norms with regard to sexuality/gender
-non-heterosexual
-transgressive or challenging the status quo

Pflag suggests that “queer” means a nonbinary gender or sexuality.

Historically, queer was a slur, which means that for many people using it as an identifier today is all about reclamation. Some people focus on that element: on the oppression of it. I see three major definitions of “queer”: outside the norm (which some people define as heterosexual and cis), challenging the status quo, and oppressed with regards to sexuality or gender.

There are certainly some of these that don’t make sense with asexuality. Asexuality has nothing to do with being nonbinary, or with being attracted to more than one gender (although someone might experience romantic attraction or a gender identity in these ways and be asexual). I will suggest that these definitions don’t encompass all the identities we typically consider “queer”: for example we often include trans individuals under the queer umbrella, and that does not necessarily make someone nonbinary or attracted to more than one gender. However if we really do want to define queer by either of these definitions, then it would make sense for asexuality not to fall under that label.

Another reason that aces often don’t fit in queer spaces is that queer spaces can often be incredibly sexualized: Pride is often all about embracing sex and sexiness, queer people tend to gather in clubs, or at drag events. What aces need from their safe spaces isn’t always what gay, lesbian, bi, and pan folks need. Instead of wanting a place to express their sexuality, they often want somewhere that they can feel safe from sexuality. I’m not sure that this means aces aren’t queer, but it does mean that we need our own unique spaces.

The definition where the rubber seems to meet the road for many people is “oppressed with regards to gender or sexuality.” Many people who use the word queer have expressed frustration with the idea that aces could be part of their community when asexual people don’t experience the same oppression that trans, gay, bi, and lesbian folks do. And this is where we can talk facts instead of just debating which meaning seems or feels best to us.

Asexual people have and do experience oppression. Our identities are invalidated, called fake, mocked, and ignored, often by people who claim to be progressive. More often than not, asexual people are told they’re broken, sick, or need therapy (and yes, saying that someone’s sexuality is an illness is definitely oppressive). We’re erased from media, from sex education, from discussions of diversity. We’re told we’ll never be happy and that no one will want us if we won’t have sex. If you believe that oppression is only when someone’s rights are taken away, then I suppose aces aren’t oppressed, but if you think the systematic erasure and dehumanization of a group isn’t oppression I don’t really know what to do with you.

Worse, it’s absolutely an ace experience to receive threats, abuse, rape, or violence because of our sexual orientation. Saying no to sex can be dangerous, especially if someone thinks that your reason for saying no isn’t good enough. I know very few aces who haven’t experienced some form of violence or abuse because of their orientation.

Beyond all of this, no personal individual has to experience oppression in order to be queer. There are white, rich, cis, gay men who have never encountered discrimination in their personal lives but no one is denying their right to be a part of the community. Oppression simply doesn’t make sense as a litmus test.

So how DO aces fit into the queer community?

Well I’d say the biggest and most obvious way is that they’re a sexual minority, and just as non hetero or cis identities challenge the status quo, so do non allo identities. Compulsory sexuality is a huge part of how society today understands relationships and sexuality, and it is deeply tied to heteronormativity and monosexuality. When you live an identity that questions whether sex is a necessity for a happy and fulfilled life, you challenge the status quo. Asexuality certainly fits outside the mainstream understanding of sex and sexual identities, I would suggest even more than gay or lesbian identities (many people still don’t even know what asexuality is or believe it exists). If queerness is about being different, well asexuality DEFINITELY fits.

And as an ace, the most important reason that I want to be a part of the queer community is because I want a community where I don’t feel like an outsider, where I don’t feel judged, or where I don’t feel that others think I’m broken. Obviously queer communities aren’t perfect and may still act negatively towards aces, but the idea of having a connection with other people who feel that their sexuality is different sounds very important and positive to me. Aces, as a minority community have said that they want to feel that sense of belonging, and that sounds important to me.

At the end of all this, I still don’t feel as if I should make a strong statement about whether asexuality fits within the queer spectrum, because I am cis and hetero. What I will say is that I can’t fully understand arguments against it, and I do see a benefit to including it. If the queer community wants me, I’d be happy to be a part of it.

What Would You Change About Perceptions of Sex?

I was recording a podcast last week (shoutout Hypotheticast!) and we got into one of the most interesting questions I’ve ever heard regarding sex: if you could change something about the way society perceives or approaches sex, what would it be?

If you want to hear my first thoughts, check out the Hypotheticast in a few weeks and listen to me talk about things! But because the ‘cast is supposed to be quick, fun type things, I had more thoughts and I wanted to share them here.

There are a few nice, obvious answers to this: virginity as a construct, the idea that sex has to be just two people or PIV sex, the idea that sex is something you can take from another person…but boy oh boy do I have a lot of thoughts about the ways that queer, kinky, polyamorous, and asexual communities can really expand our definitions of sex and I want to get all the way into it here.

The many problems with the concept of virginity have been discussed ad nauseum on other parts of the internet, but I do think that the pervasiveness of “virginity” points towards a larger attitude about sex that I truly hate. This attitude is summed up by the statement “sex is a threshold”. I touch on this in the podcast, but I want to get into more depth here, because I think that this attitude, that sex is a line and when you pass it everything changes, extends into almost every realm of sex.

It’s easy to see what I’m talking about when we look at virginity: there’s before you have sex and after you have sex. Supposedly (especially for women) this is a huge change in your life that makes you into a totally different person, or changes your worth or purity, or marks a big moment in your life. But the idea that sex changes everything extends far beyond that.

As I mention in the podcast there is something called the relationship escalator, so called because you can only go one direction. Sex is a huge part of this; once you have sex with someone, many people believe that it changes the relationship forever. You can never go back to NOT having sex without it being a big damn deal (a breakup or something similar).

In fact we’re so obsessed with how sex changes a relationship that we have whole stand up routines about when you should have sex for the first time (is it three dates? first date??), we make snap judgments about people who have sex on the first date, there are tons of tropes about men who will disappear once they get sex, and entire segments of our population are convinced that if you have sex before marriage then you have sinned. Many people who don’t think that are even willing to concede that you should be very very careful about who you have sex with, because having sex will create a deep, emotional bond or make the relationship inherently more serious. Wowsers, apparently one activity completely changes relationships in a way that no other activity does.

In addition to the way that we see sex within any individual relationship, we also see it as a bar that determines which of our relationships are important and which are not. Sex supposedly makes a relationship more important. Relationships in which we have sex are seen as more serious, and are supposed to take more of your time and attention than relationships that don’t include sex. It’s a threshold that determines whether a relationship is real or not.

Sex is seen as a threshold and once you’ve passed it you can’t go back.

Tied into this is the idea that romance and sex are inextricably linked, and in some cases even the same thing. When we’re talking about attraction, many people think that there’s just one type and that it encompasses both sexual and romantic attraction. In reality those are two different things. One is the desire to have sex with someone. The other is those happy warm butterfly feelings you get when you just want to be around someone. But for many people this threshold view of sex includes the idea that romance needs sex, and that until it includes sex it’s not real or legitimate. It also implies that if you have a romantic relationship with someone you WANT sex with someone, and your relationship will be aiming towards sex.

Unfortunately, none of this is really how human beings actually work.

Sometimes we have sex with someone and then realize hey, this doesn’t work for me, and want to go back to being friends. Some people are asexual and have fulfilled romantic relationships that don’t include sex. For some people, the most important relationship in their life is entirely platonic and will never include sex: it might be a friend. And in fact there are other elements of a relationship that will often determine how important it is than whether you’re having sex. Sure, for some people sex is a sign of commitment, but it’s a pretty limited view of humans to assume that all of us connect with each other in exactly the same way. I for example become far more committed if I have long conversations with someone than if I have sex with them. Some people even manage to have sex with multiple people without it becoming a big concern about who is their One (polyamory is real y’all).

People have all different reactions to having sex. For some people it can change relationships in a big way. But for other people it really doesn’t, and putting this hyper focus on sex in relationships rather than letting people figure out for themselves what really makes relationships for them can give people tons of hang ups. It means that sex becomes a huge, scary thing and we become VERY concerned about who is having sex with whom when really it’s nobody’s business. It also limits the ways that we can organize our relationships. People have the ability to have so many different types of relationships, but when we make sex a marker like this, we tell people that there is one type of relationship that should be the most important. In my experience, when society says that there is one way to live your life that is acceptable or “normal”, a lot of people who don’t naturally work that way end up screwed over.

We also have lots of weird ideas about how much sex people should be having. We assume that everyone wants sex, or that everyone SHOULD want sex (if you don’t then there’s probably something wrong with you, you’re sick or traumatized or repressed), but at the same time we seem to believe that the more partners you have, the less important each one is. There’s a lot to unpack there. First, not everyone has the same physical relationship with sex. Some people have low libidos, some people have high libidos. Some people have been raped or traumatized by sex and feel pretty uncomfortable with it. Some people orgasm a lot and others don’t. Not everyone wants sex, and the divide is not along gender lines as many people think. Asexual people are real, and they don’t feel sexual attraction at all. Some of them are sex repulsed, or simply not interested in sex. Many people assume that sex is always better than no sex: sex is inherently good. That’s just not true. Sex can be a negative or neutral experience for all sorts of reasons.

The other major problem with statements about how much sex we should be having and with how many different people is the idea that if you do something with more people, it becomes less meaningful. I have news for you friends: I could pet every cat in the world, and it would not make my cuddles with my sweet, dear, departed Sid Vicious any less precious. Giving your time and attention to someone isn’t diminished because you also care about other people. In some ways this harkens back to the threshold view of sex: you’re supposed to have one relationship of the sex/romantic type, and it is the most important one. If you move two relationships up to that point, then neither one is the most important. Neither is getting its due. But literally all of that is bullshit. There is no reason that sex is the one type of romantic that needs to be exclusive. There’s no reason that of all the things in the world, sex is the only one that gets worse if you share (no friends, that’s chicken pox). And let’s be honest, there is something weird and arbitrary about saying that everyone loves fucking but you should only love fucking one person or it’s BAD AND WRONG.

Basically if I could change one thing about how society perceives sex, I would make it less important. Sure, sex is cool. But we create this whole mythos around it. It becomes so intensely important to us: we make moral judgments about it, we want to know who’s having sex with whom, we worry we’re not having enough sex or about sex addiction. It’s just one activity that people can do together out of hundreds of thousands of possibilities. Let’s just all calm down. It doesn’t matter that much.

Trauma is Not What Makes us Autistic

I’d like to start this post by noting that while I mention ABA and the controversy over ABA, I hope that folks don’t focus exclusively on that as the point of this post.

There’s something that’s been festering in the back of my mind for a long time, a discontent with the autistic self advocacy community, a feeling that I do not belong there and that I cannot relate to many of the concerns of other autistics. I’ve never been able to put my finger on why I don’t feel quite right before. Until just this moment, when I saw a title of a talk that posited Trauma is an essential part of Autistic Identity.

And there it was. There was what I was missing. The bullying, the ABA, the mockery…when I read posts from other self advocates or talk to them in person, I find that they focus in a big way on traumatic experiences, often experiences in which they felt deeply othered by parents, peers, or teachers. Their way of being was seen as bad, and that is what has led to their advocacy.

Now I want to be very clear: talking about histories of trauma is important. Recognizing shared traumas is important. However what concerns me is making trauma a marker of identity. Trauma is not what makes us autistic. It is not an intrinsic part of being autistic. Ideally it’s something that we wouldn’t have to live with. And I have seen it used as a gatekeeping mechanism that says “if you don’t claim trauma as part of your history, you don’t get to talk about autism. You don’t get to talk about ABA. You must let the Real Autistics talk.”

In other areas I’ve seen suffering become a way to gatekeep. You’re not really queer if you’re not oppressed. You’re not really black if you can pass. In the asexual community, there have been discussions of whether we “count” as queer/LGBTQ because we haven’t experienced the same oppression that gay, trans, lesbian, or bi folks have. I’ve had little patience for it in other places, and in this case I finally feel as if I’m part of the “insiders” and can speak up without speaking over.

Maybe I don’t have to say this, but it absolutely is damaging when someone gets cut out of a community because they haven’t experienced “enough” oppression. It reminds me of people with eating disorders who believe they don’t deserve help because they aren’t “sick enough”. Everyone deserves to feel as if they are part of a community, and even if compared to other people in your community you’ve had a relatively easy go of it, you still deserve the support of knowing you’re not alone.¬†All autistics experience ableism.¬†Whether we have had a history of abuse or not, we all need a place to go that is understanding and welcoming. We all need to be able to talk about our experiences.

But beyond damaging the people who get cut out of the community or told that they need to shut up about their experiences, I think it does a disservice to people who are entangling their basic identity with trauma. I say this as someone who has a very deep relationship with mental illness and trauma, someone who knows what it’s like to be massively affected by negative experiences, and to feel that my identity has been altered at a basic level by the negative experiences I’ve had. But I firmly believe that entangling your basic identity with trauma limits your potential to actually move on and grow. It limits your ability to add other elements to your identity.

That sounds abstract. But when I was in the very deepest parts of my mental illness I rarely thought of myself as anything but anorexic. If someone asked me who I was or what I did or about myself, my first thought was “anorexic”. It was the default identity I had, and when I wasn’t sure about something, I would typically take the perspective of anorexic to understand it. That limited my ability to assimilate new information, it meant that when things challenged a perspective forged in pain, I discarded that new information. If trauma is always at the forefront of your mind, that is the lens through which you view the world. You see everything as a threat. It often means that if someone disagrees with you, you label them immediately as “source of trauma”. That does a lot of damage to you because you don’t get to see new perspectives, hear new information, and grow. You’re completely stuck with your brain still processing trauma over and over again.

Now all of this isn’t to say “oh it’s super easy to stop existing in a place of trauma”. That shit takes hard work. But right now what I’m seeing is that “trauma” as an identity and a perspective is being glorified among autistic self advocates. And it’s sad to me, because that is where I see the root of a lot of anger, fear, and confusion. If you’re not a part of the autism community right now, you may not know that there is some serious beef between parents of autistic kids/providers/teachers and autistic adults. I think there’s good reason for some of this beef, but in many cases you end up with people who have the same goal yelling at each other and feeling attacked. I’m concerned that the mindset of trauma is leading to it.

For example, many autistic adults experienced abuse in the form of “treatment” in their childhood. ABA has been and often still is incredibly abusive. As a response to those experiences, some autistic adults now say that all neurotypical parents of autistic children are abusive and all ABA is abusive. Let’s focus particularly on the first one, because I think it’s a more obvious example of what I’m talking about. I think most of us can find easy counterexamples to the statement “all NT parents of autistic children are abusive”. That’s an all or nothing statement that allows for no nuance and not only is fairly aggressive, but also shuts down and silences experiences of autistics who lived a different life. It says that a few people’s trauma is the final word on an issue.

And it concerns me because I have seen folks use their history of trauma to tell other autistics to shut up and sit down. I have seen the community condone that behavior and focus almost exclusively on trauma in a way that says these all or nothing, black and white statements are not only ok, but they’re important and necessary. There is no attempt to move beyond the hurt that was experienced, but rather a valorizing of those who have experienced trauma and a deference to every word they say.

Just because you have an experience doesn’t mean it’s true for everyone. And just because you are autistic and have experienced trauma does not mean people are not allowed to disagree with you. There is nothing bold and brave about holding tight to your pain and ignoring all new information. And as autistics, we should do better. We should know that we need to work on nuanced thinking because we tend towards black and white. We should know that we can struggle with theory of mind, and so we should work particularly hard to understand experiences (especially those of other autistics) that are different from our own. And if another autistic comes forward and says “hey, this wasn’t abusive for me”, we shouldn’t accuse them of lying or ostracize them. We’re losing valuable information about the breadth of experiences within autism.

There is no benefit to holding up a bar that says “you must be this traumatized to enter autistic spaces”. We can and should do better.

My Friend is Depressed. What Do I Do?

It’s not uncommon for friends and family of mine to come to me with questions about mental health, support, and services. Recently, I’ve had a couple of people ask about how they can support someone with depression, anxiety, or another mental illness. Specifically, what do you do when you have a friend or family member who is really struggling and doesn’t know what to do. I hope to put together some ideas for folks who themselves are in the spiraling downwards stage of depression and link that here, so that you can pass it along if you’re worried about a friend, but in the meantime, how do you encourage someone to get help and support them in making healthy decisions when they can barely get out of bed?

Before I begin, these are suggestions. They are based on my experience of depression and what I found helpful. Everyone who deals with mental illness is different. If possible, ask your friend what would be helpful for them, and always check in to see if what you’re doing works for them. This one’s going to be a long one because I want to throw out a bunch of options for people to work with. You don’t have to try all of these things, but maybe try one a week.

So here are a few things you can do to support someone who’s in a nastybad place.

  1. Be Honest

One of the things that was very frustrating to me about being incredibly sick was the way that people would dance around the topic. Very few people said to me straight to my face “You have an eating disorder. I’m worried about you. I want you to be healthy. What can I do?” It’s refreshing when someone says what they mean. It doesn’t have to sound like an after school special either. Use the language you normally would use, whether that’s “Hey I see that the jerkbrains have you down right now,” or “You seem really unhappy lately.” Whatever you do, don’t try to manipulate the person into health or sneak your support in without making sure they want it. Even if they are sick, they’re an adult, and they deserve the loudest voice in their treatment.

2. Be Proactive

It’s very common for supportive family and friends to ask “how can I help?” This comes from a very understandable place. You want to be helpful, you’re not sure what they want or what you can do, so you ask. Unfortunately, one of the things that is most overwhelming about being incredibly depressed/anxious is that you often have NO idea what will help. So instead of asking a really wide open question like that, I’d recommend making specific suggestions. Something like “Would you like me to make you food? I can make a sandwich or a salad.” “Does it feel better to talk about it or be distracted?” “I’d like to come over and see how you are today. Is that ok?” Depression is exhausting and makes every decision feel impossible. Keep the decisions as small as possible: yes or no, this or that. Don’t wait for them to give you an idea of how to help, come up with one yourself.

As a sidenote, this is a great way to help someone with things you think would be good for them. From the outside, it’s easy to look at someone who’s seriously depressed and think that they should eat better, go outside, move their body, leave the house…the list goes on and on. That can be incredibly difficult to do when you’re depressed. So instead of simply telling them that they should, help them. Offer to make them a meal, suggest you take a walk together, ask them to meet up for coffee (you could even say you’ll pick them up and carpool together to decrease the barriers they face). If you can think of something that is getting in their way that you could do for them, do it. This might sound infantilizing, but it’s just like any other acute illness. They’re spending all their energy fighting: you’re giving them a little bit of space to breathe.

3. Be Willing to Be a Normal Friend

Sometimes it’s important for you to jump in to “supporting and helping” mode. But someone who is in a crisis level of depression is still a person and still has the need for connection on a basic human level. Sometimes they want to talk about normal things or act like any other friend: they want to see a movie, they want to make a joke, they want to laugh or smile. So if they seem up for it, it can be nice to do a normal friend activity and not bring up depression for at least a little bit. If it’s possible to distract them from the overwhelming pain, that is a huge gift you can give.

4. Do the Minutiae

Most of helping someone with depression isn’t listening to them late into the night or giving them a great speech that convinces them not to hurt themselves. Most of it is actually really boring. It’s sitting with someone while they call their doctor because otherwise they won’t make an appointment. It’s checking in to see if they’ve taken their meds. It’s doing a load of laundry for them so that they don’t feel too disgusting to leave the house. If you really want to be the supportive friend, you have to truly accept that not only are you seeing them at their most vulnerable, you have to be vulnerable too. You have to be willing to get messy and be bored and do unpleasant things. It’s worth it though.

5. Accept the Awkwardness

One of the more vulnerable things in life is letting another person see you when you are really struggling with your mental health. Imagine someone seeing you when you can’t seem to dress yourself, feed yourself, wash yourself, or do other basic tasks. It’s an experience that can be embarrassing. It’s easy to feel like a child. You are witnessing someone in this situation and they are fully aware that they’re asking for help with things that seem like second nature to you. So recognize that someone is showing you an incredibly vulnerable side of themselves. You may even want to let them know that you’re aware, and that it’s OK, that they can take as much or as little time as they need to do things, and that they can ask you for anything.

6. Validate

It’s easy to see someone who’s struggling and follow your first impulse to try to make them feel better, or tell them it will be ok. What often gets forgotten is that when you’re overwhelmed by depression and anxiety, it can seem like one half of your world isn’t real. There’s such a huge disconnect between your internal emotional experience and the behaviors you witness in the rest of the world. You can feel like you’re losing your grip on reality, or like you must be making things up. It helps a lot for someone to just say “those feelings are totally real. You are not making up how bad it is. You really are fighting a hard battle, and it seriously sucks, and I’m so sorry.”

No, it doesn’t fix anything, but it is incredibly validating to hear that other people believe you, see what you’re doing, and recognize your experience as real. It helps to bridge some of those gaps between internal experience and external reality. It can particularly help if there are negative things happening in someone’s life to point out “Hey, you are not making this up. You’ve been dealing with hard things and maybe your reaction is particularly strong, but it makes complete sense to struggle with this.”

7. Walk the walk

Take care of yourself. I know in many other places in this article I’ve recommended being willing to do anything. What I mean by that is not letting pride get in the way. However you have limits too. If possible, demonstrate healthy boundaries and good self care. Saying something like “I’d really like to help out, but I can’t do x night because it’s date night. Can I help you on y night instead?” If you’re having a chat with them, it’s good to mention things you’re doing to take care of yourself, e.g. “I saw my therapist the other day and we talked through x problem.” It helps to normalize the steps that you’re asking the other person to take, and it also helps them feel less lonely. They’re not especially broken and sick. Other people are working on the same things.

8. Be Willing to Be a Safe Place

This one might be a little bit controversial, but it’s something that I think we should talk openly about. I and many of my friends who have dealt with self harm and suicidality have an intense fear of someone calling 911 on us. Especially for people who are black, autistic, trans, or another vulnerable group, interacting with the police is something to be avoided at all costs because it is dangerous. If you have a friend who has told you that they do not want to go to the ER or interact with the police, please respect that. Work with them to find other ways to keep them safe. Drive them to the ER yourself to get them stitches. Forced hospitalization is not fun for anyone, and if we can avoid it that’s great.

As a side note, one of the things that was most stressful to me when I was self harming was managing other people’s emotions about my self harm. I know that seeing someone you love injuring themselves is AWFUL. It is terrifying and it is painful. Those feelings are real. However in the moment when the person has hurt themselves is not the appropriate time to have that conversation. That’s the time when you need to be calm, ask them if they need to be cleaned up, if they need stitches or a bandage, and hold them tight. I cannot express how big of a deal it was for me when I finally met someone who reacted to my self harm in a calm manner rather than with fear and anger. There is something so validating about a person who loves you accepting that you’ve done this and still communicating that they love you. Save the fear and anger for a less charged moment.

If you have any other suggestions, feel free to drop them in comments!