No One Owes You Time

I’ve seen a few articles floating around about how Snake People are bad friends/people/relationship havers because they RSVP ‘maybe’ too much and they blow off plans by saying they’re too busy. Essentially, many of the posts about new social norms suggest that Snake People don’t prioritize their relationships and often telegraph that they don’t care about friends and family by saying they’re busy, by saying ‘maybe’ (and waiting to see if other plans come up), or by forgetting about plans.

I understand this frustration. I’m often the one in my group of friends that’s wrangling everyone together and it’s no fun at all. But I also understand that I am not the #1 priority of everyone that I know and care about. It’s incredibly self absorbed to assume that other people should always make time for you or that they will always know ahead of time whether they’ll be healthy, have energy, or not be dealing with a crisis.

No one likes flaking on another person. I am guilty of often flaking, and I feel awful every time I do it. So why do I continue to do it? Because I know that I am in full control of how I spend my time, and that I get to balance my needs and priorities against the needs and priorities of the people around me.

No matter how close we are, there is no point at which you have a right to my time and energy. That may sound harsh, and in practice there are repercussions to cutting someone off in that way, but every time another person chooses to spend their time with you, they are giving you something because they want to, not because they have to. There is no “you didn’t spend time with me” police that will come and discipline them or drag them to your side when they haven’t spent enough time with you. Everyone’s time is their own to use as they decide.

When someone else tells you that they’re busy it does in fact mean that they have prioritized something else over you. And that’s ok. We’re fine with this if it’s work or some kind of other Serious Obligation, but for some reason self care never rates high enough to be considered a priority. There are things in people’s lives that need to happen, like sleeping and eating and earning a paycheck and fulfilling the art/exercise/hobby needs and sometimes just being alone. Of course friends are in the mix, but simply because hanging out involves another person does not give it Ultimate Power over scheduling. Making plans with another person adds a fair amount of weight to following through on those plans, and the gift that your friends gives you when they ask to see you adds weigh to their request. But it’s never a guarantee.

I understand how frustrating it is to get a clear blow off when someone says maybe or changes plans at the last minute. But instead of blaming awful, selfish Snake People, I’m far more inclined to blame a culture that makes open conversation about mental health and well-being taboo.

Imagine this: you make plans to go see a movie with your friend and they text you day of and say they’re sick and can’t make it. Is your first instinct that they’re a flakey awful person, or that they’re sick and should take care of themselves? Most likely the second, although there are well documented instances of people being shit to individuals with chronic physical illnesses as well as mental ones.

But if you change that scenario to texting the day of to tell your friend that you’re having a small attack of the jerkbrains, or you just don’t feel up to leaving the house, you’ll get thinkpieces about the selfishness of Snake People. Even worse if you say that you’re not feeling up to it and then go do something that you are feeling up to, like being with a close family member, or spending a low key hour or two with a partner. Or if you aren’t sure whether you’ll have the energy and answer with a “maybe,” only to later decide you can’t quite make it happen.

Today I responded to an offer to hang out with “I’m kinda sick today but I’d like to make it. I’ll do my best, but I might be asleep.” Most people understand that this is me openly letting someone else know that I have a higher priority in my life, but that if possible I’ll put them up there. Most people aren’t offended, because we know that health and safety should be people’s top priorities (and for the people who don’t get that, fie on thee I say!).

I do have some friends who understand openness around mental health well enough that I can let them know I’m having a rough day and I might try to make it to see them, but I might need to stay home. And that is my right. My friends also have the right to get annoyed or stop trusting my plans if I do this repeatedly and flippantly. What’s important is that we can talk openly about what we want out of our relationship and our lives. What’s important is that  each of us has the right to set their own set of priorities.

I think that most non snake people would be surprised to find how highly many people my age prioritize relationships and friends, and how often we do make time or drop everything to see our people. But our friends also show respect and care for us by understanding that they are not the only things in our lives. And the more open we can be about why we need to prioritize something else (such as because of mental health or chronic illness), and the more people are willing to negotiate, the better relationships will be.

 

*My Google Chrome extension that changes the word m illenials to Snake People apparently works in post, which is why this post refers repeatedly to Snake People. I see it as an improvement.

Before and After Stories: Time and Social Justice

What do narratives about trans* people, fat people, neurodiverse people, immigrants, and chronically ill people have in common? Yes they are all narratives about oppressed groups of people, but what sets these sorts of narratives apart from the narratives we hear about people of color or women? These stories almost always neatly fall into the narrative of before and after stories, with the before identity being the oppressed identity.

We rarely think about time in relation to social justice. Generally we view oppressed individuals as having characteristics or traits that don’t disappear with time. We may think about how these traits fit into categories, systems, treatment, prejudices, and the like, but we rarely think about how they change with time, or how the concepts of change and time are used as oppressive tools by majorities that wish these minorities to disappear. Oftentimes these stories are told as a journey with a movement from bad to good.  The acceptability of these minorities is often tied to time, and where they are in relation to a journey or a movement in time.

Recently I read an article on academia.edu that explored weight loss stories and how fat individuals have subverted the before and after weight loss narrative to empower themselves. In particular, “fat” is nearly always painted as the “before” and “thin” is the desirable “after” status. I was struck with this discussion, because this same narrative is often used in eating disordered stories wherein sick is before and recovered is after. This type of narrative is applied to many kinds of individuals, and could be an interesting lens with which to understand certain tools of oppression and new ways to empower oppressed people. Let’s start by looking at what is common across many of these narratives and how they are used to create binaries and enforce the view of society that certain halves of the binaries are acceptable.

One important thing that social justice advocates often talk about is that oppressed identities are often viewed as something that should change, generally in movement towards the “normal” or acceptable identity. When we speak of the identities I mentioned above, that identity is rarely viewed as the true identity of the individual, but rather it’s seen as a layer that needs to be shed to reach the “real” person underneath. You can see this for fat people in movies like Shallow Hal, or for people who are neurodiverse when you see narratives about the disease “possessing” someone, or that “functioning” is supposed to be the end goal. Oftentimes we don’t hear people tell stories of being this identity in the present tense: you don’t hear “I am anorexic and this is what it’s like” or “I am fat and this is what it’s like”. You hear “I was a teenage anorexic” or “my weight loss story” or even “here is my journey of transition from male to female, but now I am firmly female and no longer challenge the gender binary nuh uh”.

This use of the past tense does a great deal to undermine the experiences of these individuals, because it distances them from their experiences, and paints now as reality and the past as distant unreality. We are told that these experiences don’t persist through time: that it’s “just a phase”, or not enough of who we are to continue to be a part of who we are. Particularly when an individual does change, that process and the experience of change through time are often erased by creating a simple before and after picture that does not illuminate the complex and personal procedure of change. We get a sentence as simple as “I recovered” that erases the growth, the change, and the incorporation of the past into a new identity.

These are not always the stories that individuals with oppressed identities want to tell, but they’re the frameworks that society provides for us and appear to be the narratives that society wants to hear. They require us to give up ownership of parts of our lives, to distance ourselves from what we used to be and to look down on it as miserable or wrong. This means that the ability to claim full ownership of your entire life and to see positive and negative elements across time is a great privilege.

The other element of these narratives is that you’re considered fair game for judgment, pity, and condescension when you’re on the “before” end of the spectrum, and most people assume that you’re trying to reach the “after” end of the spectrum. They view you as unfinished until you change, then they see you as complete or acceptable. If you don’t want to change, you are often labelled lazy, wrong, stubborn or broken. It’s considered tragic if you never change. These views of individuals as simply on their way to something better completely erases the day in day out experiences of time, of change as a choice, or of narratives that don’t fit this pattern. The time that you were “before” is often considered lost, and you don’t get to claim it as your own. Relapse, or change back, is completely erased. These kinds of narratives, and the dominant societal interest in the before and after narrative take away many of our choices and remind us over and over again that we are so unacceptable that we are not even real until we have changed. Our experiences are changed from “lives” into “journeys” without our consent, and we are absolutely not allowed to be in between the two poles. These identities are only acceptable if they’re in the past.

So what do we do about these narratives? Are there ways  to rewrite our oppressed identities as things that persist through time, or to subvert some of the narratives? I think there are, but they require us to be extremely vigilant about when we talk about our lives and how we talk about our lives. It’s important for us to tell true stories about our lives at all points in time. When we have an eating disorder, we need to speak up about what it’s like. When we are fat, we need to speak up about what it’s like. When we are transitioning, we need to tell that story as the here and now. But we also need to remind ourselves over and over, and remind each other, that every iteration of us is the real us. You are always you and your experiences are always valid. There is no time when you are becoming yourself. You already are. When someone else tries to paint you as changing, in flux, or incomplete, fight back against that. Remind them that YOU ARE YOU right here and right now.

Stop using the past tense. Talk about now. And beyond that, ask for services and recognition in the here and now, not for the you that you will be. Ask for adequate medical services for yourself WHEN YOU ARE FAT. Ask for respect of your voice and your opinions, support of your struggles and confusions, and good relationships WHILE YOU ARE STILL STRUGGLING WITH YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS. Finally, find ways to rework the narratives. Use a frame that doesn’t have a clean ending. Make your oppressed identity the end rather than the beginning. Parody the narratives that exist a la Judith butler. Claim your identity right here and right now in any way you can.

Our identities are not a step on the path to acceptability. They are who we are. And ya know what? They’re pretty fucking awesome in the here and now. I have an eating disorder. That’s me. Get over it.