The Lessons of Mass Transit

My bus was late today. No big deal, right? Buses are late all the time. This morning was different though. I walked up to the bus stop, and there was a man waiting for the bus. He was Hispanic, and had a number of prominent tattoos. He was also not wearing nearly enough against the cold Minnesota air. Conclusion: homeless or can’t afford jacket.

I’m generally a fairly anti-social person, and so I sidled up to the bus stop quietly, pulling out my bus card and looking at the ground. As I did so, he asked me the time. I checked and answered, thinking he would stop talking. Instead, he struck up a conversation: when does the bus come? Where are you going? Do you speak Spanish? Eventually he ended up telling me about his failed marriage and his time in prison. Part of me was desperate for the bus to show up already because I am not a happy person before my morning coffee, but the longer we talked, the more I realized that I was grateful for the chance to simply be with someone I wouldn’t normally be with.

To be perfectly honest with myself, I judged this man unsafe when I first saw him. I judged him as someone I did not want to converse with. Because of mass transit, I was forced to rethink that judgment. I was forced to be kind to someone, to listen to someone, to share myself with someone. It wasn’t a big interaction, 15 minutes at most. But I’m grateful for it. I heard an experience that I would never have heard otherwise. I gained a perspective that otherwise would have been lost to me. And these things are not small. I exist in a world of great privilege, with other individuals who are well-educated and well-off. I want to have the best understanding possible of those who don’t live in that world, and this moment was illuminating for me.

This person was real. He had stories. He was vulnerable. He just wanted someone to listen, and that was all I could offer him at that moment. I hope that it was enough.

This to me is the most important benefit of mass transit. It removes you from your insulated world and requires you to exist in the world with all the other individuals that exist around you. We live segregated lives. Oftentimes they are self-segregated, but we spend our lives around people who are like us. Particularly for those who are wealthy enough to buy cars, we rarely venture into places that are full of people of color or people in poverty. When we walk past them on the street, our eyes slide by them. We avoid.

When you are travelling with someone, you cannot avoid them. Oh sure, you can put in headphones or read a book, but you cannot stop seeing them. You can’t stop seeing the person who is talking to themself, or the mother who is hitting her child, or the people yelling at each other. You can’t stop seeing the gentle father, or the man who just wants to talk, or the kind person who gives up their seat for the elderly. These things happen and you experience them. You have conversations with these people and you begin to feel the shape of their lives barely forming beyond your ability to understand it. You are challenged by the actual existence, the actual humanity in front of you, of those people who are different from you.

You might be afraid. You might be disgusted. Or you might allow yourself to be challenged to imagine the rich complexity of how they live entirely apart from you. You cannot hide from the nasty things in life when they are invading all your senses: the poverty, the homelessness, the desperation in people’s eyes.

This, I think, is why so many people are opposed to using public transit. Yes, it can be a hassle, and yes, it can be slow, but in reality, many of us don’t want to mingle. We don’t want to get “dirty”. We are afraid of the lives we don’t want to see.

So as Thanksgiving looms, I am thankful that I am forced to see things. I am thankful that each day as I bus to work, in a job whose explicit purpose is to fight poverty, I see what I am fighting. I see the people behind that title. I am forced to accept those people in my space. I am thankful that they are there, that I can hear them and that in some places, they will not be ignored.

In Defense of Monogamy

Most of you might think that monogamy needs no defense: it’s the norm. Most people are monogamous, and polyamory or open relationships are still considered bad or screwed up in some way. In general, I agree with you. In mainstream culture, monogamy is living a fine and boisterous life.

However within certain strains of atheist, feminist, and social justice communities, monogamy has a really bad reputation. It’s understandable that many people who are poly or open feel like they need to defend their lifestyle. It’s understandable that they’re angry. But what isn’t understandable is the bizarre bashing of the entire concept of monogamy.

There are blog posts out there that suggest that monogamy is necessarily non-egalitarian. There are people who have suggested that the only reason monogamy still exists is because of religion. Monogamy is considered backwards, overly traditional, conservative, religiously motivated and stifling by many people who are poly or people who profess to be forward thinking. It’s almost considered a brand of shame to be monogamous: you probably aren’t very liberal, you’re probably really repressed, and your sex life must suck.

I have news: monogamy can be feminist. Monogamy can be practiced happily and healthily by atheists in a completely non-religious way. Monogamy can be a choice that fully recognizes and respects the needs and desires of both parties. Monogamy can even do all these things if the two parties have mutually agreed upon rules about what they are and are not comfortable with in their monogamy. Boundaries are not non-egalitarian.

People have different sexual impulses. Most of us understand this, but in practice it’s easy to become defensive of our own choice when someone else says they prefer a different choice. What is it about monogamy that is so upsetting to many people, and what’s wrong with those arguments? Why is monogamy a valid life choice?

One of the arguments against monogamy is that it’s unnatural and restricting. Many people who are poly or open can’t imagine being satisfied with one partner, so they generalize and assume that all people cannot be happy with one partner. The way that monogamy is constructed in our society is certainly far from natural, in that it generally requires a particular narrative, but monogamy in and of itself does not have to be unnatural.

It’s fairly simple to look at animals and see that there’s a number of animals who pair-bond without any societal influences. There’s nothing inherently stifling to one’s sex drive to stay with the same partner for your entire life. We don’t know much about what the human sex drive looks like without any societal influence (hint: we never will because it’s impossible to study that), but we can see that monogamy exists in a variety of ways and places and thus there is no a priori reason to label it as unnatural.

Others say that monogamy will just never work because everyone will wander or want something different. However there are many people (myself included) who crave the things that monogamy provides and have little to no desire for the positive things that polyamory provides. Monogamy provides a great deal of consistency, which is a fairly basic human drive. It also prioritizes a very deep relationship with one individual over more relationships with more people. There are many people who prefer this style of relating: I would rather have one or two incredibly close friends than a variety of decent friends. It’s significantly easier to reach that level of deep connection when you focus your attention on one person for an extended length of time. Finally, polyamory or an open relationship requires a great deal of trust for more people, as well as balancing of time, energy, money and resources. Some of us just want things to be as simple as possible and having less people involved is simpler. I have never had a desire to move away from monogamy because its positives are two important to me.

My least favorite argument against monogamy is that it’s selfish. Interestingly, this is a claim that’s been leveled against polyamory as well. Perhaps we all want to think of our choices as selfless, but if I could make one request of the world it would be to stop calling other people’s sexual choices selfish.

The reason that some people call monogamy selfish is because they say it places your jealousy or discomfort over your partner’s interests, desires, and happiness. This is an extremely worrying argument to me.  It implies that we should ignore or minimize any pain or discomfort we have so that our partner can do things that make them happy. It sounds disturbingly like rape apologetics to me. In reality, if our emotions are telling us that something is wrong, that something has crossed our boundaries, that we’re unhappy or distressed, or that we’re anxious and afraid, we should listen to them. We all have the right to take care of our emotions in the ways we need to, and if that means asking your partner to stop doing something that’s making you unhappy, then that’s ok.

Emotions are not trite, unimportant things. I know someone who has had a PTSD related panic attack after being triggered by her boyfriend being with another girl, and his response was that she was being selfish asking him to be monogamous while she dealt with her PTSD. Emotions are serious, and the distress we feel over some jealousies is very real and very painful. Asking people to prioritize their partner’s physical enjoyment over their own mental health is a dangerous road to take.

In conjunction with the selfish argument is the idea that relationships shouldn’t have rules or limits for our partner because that limits them in a selfish way. I call bollocks. In every relationship, we have some rules that we set. If you prefer to call them boundaries instead of rules, then whatever floats your boat, but we all have the right to lay down certain behaviors as unacceptable because they hurt us.

We ask our partner to respect our feelings and desires, and in turn we do our best to respect theirs. These do not limit us in a negative way, they keep us from hurting the other person. They are good restrictions. I have some extremely hard and fast rules in my relationship. My boyfriend is not allowed to hit me. My boyfriend is not allowed to yell at me. One of these rules happens to be that he won’t sleep with another person, or I won’t date him anymore because that would hurt me deeply. I’m sure he has similar rules. These are not negative rules. They are expectations that the other person will respect me and my boundaries. They indicate self-respect. ANY relationship we’re in, romantic or not, has these expectations of good behavior and respect. Some people may prefer not to make them explicit because they think it’s stifling, but I simply find that it makes everything more clear.

Finally, many people seem to assume that no one would choose monogamy because they really want it. Lots of people assume that the only reason people are monogamous is because of jealousy, or an attempt to control, or the desire to take an exclusive place in their partner’s life. Interestingly, none of these are reasons that I am monogamous. I am monogamous because I see absolutely no appeal in being poly. Sex holds little to no appeal to me, particularly not sex with new people as I’m very shy about my body. I’m quite happy having one partner. I have no desire for anything more. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything at all. I get a great deal of happiness and fulfillment from my current relationship and I couldn’t ask for anything more. I am built perfectly for monogamy. I am good at focusing on one person and one person alone. I’m bad at managing multiple people’s needs at once. I prefer having one person to fall back on. I really like the consistency of one person. Monogamy is good for me as a person. It has nothing to do with religion, with tradition, with social expectations, and it certainly doesn’t have to do with fear of societal retribution.

There is no best or even necessarily better relationship set up. Having different boundaries in your relationship doesn’t mean someone else’s boundaries are bad or inappropriate. We’re all built different, so our relationships should be too.

Coming Home and Going Out

One of the things that was really nice about my VISTA PSO training is that I’m among like-minded people. I have “found my people” if you will. These are people who use words like intersectionality and privilege in everyday conversations, people who are committing a year to service, people who are social justice minded and educated. And oh boy does it feel good to be around them. These kinds of experiences can be great, but they can also be a bit dangerous for social justice advocates, or those who want to make a difference in the world. What do I mean? Well, you can become complacent.

 

Let’s break it down. When you find your people, you can feel a lot of relief. Particularly if you’re a social justicey person you might be used to doing Racism or Feminism 101 every day. Every interaction might feel a bit hostile. People call you uptight, and they don’t understand your passions. So when you finally find people who are like you, it feels like coming home. Barriers fall, conversations are easier, there are common cultural touchstones. Here are the people you don’t have to argue with! It’s so relaxing! You feel loved and safe, you feel like the world’s finally ok.

 

But here’s the problem: the world hasn’t changed, only your situation has. These kinds of communities can become a siren song that lures you away from the rest of the world and the projects you used to be so passionate about. It can easily turn into the classic social justice circle: everyone hangs out and talks, but no one does anything. It can lead to complacency, and I’ve found can even result in discomfort around anyone whose priorities and thoughts don’t match your own. You become too comfortable. You rest on your laurels. You forget why these people made you so happy in the first place: because you want the whole world to be like this. You may start to resent the rest of the world for not being like this. This is a problem if you want to be an effective advocate for change. When you find home you don’t always want to leave.

 

And so as per usual, I find myself advocating a carefully chosen balance. If you are lucky enough to find a community that makes you feel safe and secure, that is GREAT. It is essential to have a place to relax and recharge if you want to be an effective advocate or even just an effective human being. But when you find yourself beginning to slip away from the things that were important to you in the past, it is important to plan out how you want to continue to engage. Forcing yourself into situations that might make you uncomfortable for a time can be a good thing. Adding activities like volunteering, writing, or going to rallies onto your calendar and asking your friends to help you stick to them is crucial. Sometimes you may have to leave your happy comfort bubble, but it’s worth it. With some careful effort you can be revitalized through a safe and comforting community while still staying in touch with the reality you want to change.

Lady Anger: A Radical Act?

I rarely get angry. Let me rephrase: I rarely get angry with people who aren’t myself. I get frustrated, I get annoyed, I get upset, I get hurt…but rarely do I get that special hot sensation that tells you someone has gone too far. Rarely do I feel like screaming or hitting something or storming off. And yet there have absolutely been times when it was appropriate and perhaps even necessary for me to feel anger. There are people who have treated me poorly, people who have insulted me, people who have seriously hurt me and breached my boundaries. And yet I cannot bring myself to feel anger.

 

When I do get the first glimmers of anger, I feel intense amounts of guilt. My first instinct is to then turn the anger in on myself: I should be angry at myself for being so horrible as to be angry with another person. Why is it that I feel anger is an inappropriate, dangerous, and harmful emotion?

 

Feeling anger while female, particularly while white and female, is a difficult task in America. While we are not necessarily trained in gender roles as actively as we might have been in the past, women who express anger are quickly branded as harpies, bitches, shrews, or just crazy. When we see our mothers get angry, the reactions from those around them illustrate that female anger is dangerous, out of control, unacceptable. When I see a woman who is angry, my first instinct is that she is hurting someone. I know that this is inappropriate and patently false, but I cannot help myself from feeling that first flash of hurt.

 

Anger is often viewed as the domain of men. Anger is associated with strength and with power. We view anger as something that acts upon the world, rather than a passive emotion that reacts (like sadness or fear). We still associate masculine things with action. Because of this association, women are rarely viewed as angry, and when women clearly try to act angrily they are seen as acting inappropriately in some fashion because they are acting contrary to the gender role we expect to see them in. Interestingly, all emotions are actually reactions to our interpretations of situations, and all emotions can lead to actions, however anger is associated with activity far more than most other emotions. Keeping women on the passive side of the gender dichotomy not only leaves them oppressed by society, but it leaves them oppressed by their own emotions.

 

In many cases, women change their anger into another emotion: fear, shame, guilt, or self-hatred. These emotions are incredibly difficult to then deal with because they are not truly linked to any event in the external world: they’re simply reactions to an internal emotion. When an emotion is logically linked to an external situation or event, there are ways to change, leave, or accept that situation. When an emotion is a tenuous secondary reaction to any situation that might make you feel angry, it’s much harder to resolve.

 

Cutting off an entire realm of emotions is never particularly good for any human mind. Our emotions are incredibly helpful: each one of them is designed to tell us something about a situation. Anger in a healthy and appropriate form will tell you that someone has crossed a boundary, that you or someone you care about is being hurt, or that a goal is being blocked. This is important and useful information for you to have. Anger also motivates us to action. If we refuse to get angry when things we care about truly are being taken from us, we’re telling ourselves that we don’t deserve those things, or that we don’t actually care about those things. It may even illustrate a lack of self-respect to not feel any anger in an appropriate situation. When we don’t have anger, we aren’t highly motivated to rectify the problem: if someone punches us and we simply don’t care, we aren’t likely to pursue legal action, tell them to stop, or get the hell out of there. Our very emotions aid in our oppression.

 

Lately, I’ve been practicing letting myself feel angry. When something happens that I don’t like, I let myself entertain feelings of anger, of wanting to explode. I even go so far as to tell people that I don’t accept the kind of behavior they just acted out. My anger helps me to recognize that I deserve things. Ladies…let’s feel angry?

Consent is Not Just Sexy

One of the favorite slogans of the sex positive crowd is that consent is sexy. Now in certain contexts this absolutely can be true (imagine someone screaming in ecstasy “Yes!”), but in other contexts wherein consent is not particularly sexy at all it can be just as important. Generally we relegate the concept of consent to sexual situations. However there are all sorts of situations in which people need our consent to use, touch, or otherwise interact with our bodies. Our time, our energy, our thoughts, our bodies: these things are our own, regardless of the context in which someone is asking for them. It doesn’t matter whether the context is sexual or not, we need to respect people’s rights to say no when we ask them for the use of their bodies.

 

This morning I read an article about swing dancing and consent. This is one community where people are encouraged to say yes all the time no matter what their reservations might be. Because it is not considered sexualized, it’s rude or unfriendly to say no to something. Well that’s just downright silly to me. Each of us has the right to do what we choose with our bodies at any time. Sometimes this may mean bursting another person’s bubble, but we still do not owe that individual anything.

 

Another area that this has been explored before is in the relationships between gay men and straight women. Fairly often, gay men feel entitled to the bodies of straight women, and brush away complaints about groping or touching with “I’m not attracted to you, it didn’t mean anything”. Other people have explained better than I have what’s wrong with this attitude, but suffice it to say that someone still has a right to their own space and autonomy regardless of their relationship with the person who is touching them.

 

Beyond these two areas, many people today get the message that it’s inappropriate to say no. You owe your time and energy to someone else if they ask for it. You owe them a handshake or a hug or a kiss because it’s the socially appropriate thing to do. If your friend wants to go out you should. If your dad wants you to help him paint the house, you should. However in all arenas of life, our time, our bodies, and our autonomy are our own. You get to say no. It is allowed. You don’t necessarily need a really good reason that the other person can readily understand.

 

Now many people are worried about being polite or kind. It’s easy to interpret this kind of advice as telling people to be a complete jerk and blow everybody off all the time because you want to be lazy and never give back. That is not what this reminder is. This is a reminder that at no point in your life are you obligated to give yourself in any way to another person. You may still want to choose to give people your time, energy, hugs, dances, or sexytimes because you care about them, you’d enjoy it, you want to help them out, or they’ve helped you in the past. In addition, it’s not generally conducive to relationships to never give any piece of yourself. So if you’re motivated to be social in any way, you will likely give some. But you never have to, even with your friends, even when social rules dictate it.

 

Consent is for all times. It’s not just sexy, it’s also respectful, it’s also necessary, it’s also affording each individual their rights to autonomy and choice in all walks of life. And consent is for anything that involves me changing around my body and life for you.

Support Is a Two Way Street

Over the weekend I was on a panel for FtBCON about supporting individuals with mental illness. It was really fun to participate in, and I feel like I got some good insight from others, as well as solidified some of my own feelings about what’s helpful and what’s not, but there’s one thing that I feel is extremely important about supporting someone with mental illness that we didn’t touch on at all (it was a one hour panel, there’s only so much we can do). But I think that this topic is something that we need to talk about because it will make life easier for support people, it will reduce some of the guilt and shame for people with MI, and generally it will strengthen and solidify relationships to last beyond the end of an MI.

 

Support is a two way street.

 

Ok, obvious thing is obvious, but many people, particularly support people, forget this. Any relationship you’re in requires a give and take of support and being supported. This is true EVEN if the person you’re in a relationship with has a mental or physical illness and needs more support than the average bear. A lot of the time support people think that they can’t burden their friend/family member/lover with any more troubles, and so they keep all their own difficulties to themselves. They want to protect their loved one. They think it’s showing that they care: they will take care of you through anything, but they won’t ask anything in return.

 

Unfortunately this tactic will make both parties feel like shit. First and foremost, a relationship with someone with an MI is a relationship, and any time you have massive inequalities in a relationship, that relationship is likely to not work or to lead to unhappiness. In very few other circumstances would it be considered acceptable to treat one party like a child and expect to be able to have an adult relationship.

 

If you try to protect the other person and you don’t allow them to offer support, both people will end up hurt in some fashion. It will make the support person resentful, afraid, and give them feelings of complete responsibility for the other person. It leads to lots of burnout and means that in the long run your relationship is likely to fall apart because the only thing sustaining it is sympathy or “fixing”. And from the perspective of the person with the disease, it feels incredibly condescending, isolating, and lonely. You never really get to hear about the other person. You don’t get to feel useful. You feel like you’re less than the other person or a drain on them. You feel like you’re ruining their life, or like they don’t actually want to be around you but they feel obligated. You feel like they don’t trust you to be adult or helpful or positive. It’s horrible.

 

Support people: you are allowed to make requests, set boundaries, and ask for support with someone who has a mental illness. Not only are you allowed, but you should. Being a support person is HARD work and if you aren’t willing to take care of yourself and be open and communicative about how you need to take care of yourself, it will not work. If the other person repeatedly makes demands that are too much for you or that you feel are enabling them, you are allowed to say no. If you’re having a horrible day, you’re allowed to call them and ask if you can vent or hang out or go to the movies. However just like any other relationship, you need to remember that when you do these things you should be gentle and validating of the other person.

 

People with mental illness: your mental illness is not a get out of jail free card. I know that sometimes it feels like you can’t add any more onto your plate. That’s ok. That’s when you get to set your own boundaries. But you have to step up for your friends and family when you can and how you can. All of us have something that we can give to others. All of you have something about you that draws your loved ones to you. Remember that and remember that if you want to maintain a strong and healthy relationship with someone then you owe honesty, support, and respect to them.

 

One good example of this is something that is really hard for everyone: opening a dialogue and asking for more information. Support people often find themselves a little lost and confused about what’s going on in the mind of the person they love. In this case, they need something. They need more information to feel some certainty, some understanding, and to be able to help more effectively. Lots of people are afraid of doing this because they feel it might set something off. However just like the person with the MI, the support person needs to listen to their own emotion of confusion and plan out strategies for how to ask for something. In this case, they should probably alert the other person ahead of time, ask without accusation, and try to maintain a curiosity about what’s happening with the other person.

 

Oftentimes we forget that the person with the MI is learning a great deal through therapy or skills training or simply dealing with their day to day life. They pick up on lots of skills and coping mechanisms. These often involve ways to take care of themselves, particularly in a relationship. However these are skills that are generally good for everyone. Learning how to be kind and giving, learning how to hold to your values, learning how to request something, learning how to set a boundary: these are all things that we should be taught clearly as children but most of us aren’t. And so just like the individual with the illness has to learn new things, so do the support people so that they can be more effective both for themselves and for the person they’re in a relationship with. People with MI want to be able to support and help others. It helps us remember we’re not useless. Giving us clear ways to give back does a lot for us, and it will do a lot for you.

Intersectionality: Food Ethics and Mental Health

Something that has come up a great deal in my personal life recently has been people criticizing my choices in terms of eating and exercise. As you might imagine this is fairly difficult for me to hear as someone with an eating disorder, but it’s caused me to spend some time thinking about the intersections of mental health and food ethics. America as a culture does not spend a great deal of time focusing on how the way we eat and how we relate to food can affect our mood, mental health, and overall life quality. What we do spend a lot of time doing is shaming each other for our food choices: whether on the basis of health, ethics, or aesthetics. There are debates over vegetarianism and veganism, about health and obesity, and about whether people on food stamps deserve their food. What we don’t talk about is what we can do to make food an experience that enhances people’s lives.

Food is often an extremely emotional experience. It combines taste, smell, sight, and texture into what can be an extremely intense experience. However unlike most experiences that deeply engage our senses, it is something that is required of us every day. It’s easy to write it off because we spend so much time doing it. But truly good food experiences can change your life. Many people try to approach food simply as fuel for their bodies and nothing else, but food can be incredibly powerful.

Food has cultural connotations, and often it’s part of the glue that brings people together. Food can be an extremely important part of memory, and is often plays a role in memories that hold special meaning. We use it for celebrations and for rituals, as reward and punishment. For most of us, food is emotional, and for those who take all the emotion out of food, it can seem like it’s missing something. The emotions of food are part of friendships and families, and you can miss out on a lot (like a dessert with a sweetheart or a dinner with your family) if you try to excise emotion from food.

For some reason, these emotions often get ignored when we talk about how people should eat. If anything, we look on these emotions as negative: we make fun of people who “eat their feelings”. There appears to be a stereotype that having an emotional relationship with food is inherently negative. However there are absolutely healthy ways to feel emotional about food, and loving food does not mean being unhealthy. Too often we hear about health or ethical implications without any mention of the actual experiences of eating. This is not a culture that celebrates how fucking delicious it is to bite into a piece of warm chocolate cake, or how comforting it is to smell the scent of a childhood meal.

And when we’re looking at mental health, this is important because these internal experiences are often what sets someone with a mental illness apart from anyone else. When we talk about the ethics of food and the ethics of health, we often forget that the experience of food can be powerful, and that when someone has a mental illness, this is something extremely important to take into consideration. We ignore the potential emotional benefits we can gain from eating, and we ignore the potential harm that can appear when we guilt or shame someone or deprive them of food they love.

Now there’s one really obvious example which is eating disorders. When you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder, if you can eat a reasonable amount without feeling guilty, you do it. This is a matter of your health and potentially your life because every piece of food is a struggle. If a piece of bacon or a slice of cake is what entices you today, everyone better fuck off on telling you that you shouldn’t eat it because that piece of food could be the only thing you’re willing to eat today. This is not a choice, this is a jerkbrain doing things to you. If someone is trying to recover from an eating disorder and you try to tell them which foods are appropriate for them to eat or not to eat, all I can say to you is go fuck yourself. You’re asking that individual to put themselves in harm’s way by cutting out more food and creating new food rules. You’re asking them to prioritize something over their own safety and health. This is a clear place where food ethics need to be flexible to allow for someone’s health and happiness.

But there’s more to the intersectionality of mental health and food than just eating disorders. Because of the emotional nature of food, it can either be used as an incredibly helpful tool for managing emotions or as an intensely negative coping strategy that damages the individual. Now this is different from using food to hide from your problems, but as part of a larger program of dealing with the root causes, including good food and good food experiences in your treatment can be really useful.

I’m going to use an experience from my own life because it’s what I know best. I try my best to eat vegetarian, because ethically I feel it’s the right decision. For eating disordered reasons this isn’t always possible. However when I do eat meat I eat ethically raised meat. I have one exception to this rule. When my dad makes spaghetti sauce from his family recipe, he almost never uses ethically raised beef. I eat the spaghetti sauce anyway.

For a lot of people this looks like I’m selling out on my values. Many people have told me that it’s inappropriate and that there is no excuse for not being vegetarian or even vegan. It looks like I’m prioritizing my own enjoyment of food over the life of another being. But here’s the thing: one of the few times that I feel safe, comforted, whole, and welcomed is when I am with my family eating the same food we ate when I was little. From the perspective of someone in my position, this is far more important than you might think. My depression and anxiety are very real and very life-threatening, particularly because they come with a side-helping of self-harm. Finding moments in my life where I can qualitatively feel like an acceptable human being is extremely difficult, but very important. When I don’t have these moments I start to become dangerously depressed, sometimes to the point of suicidal ideation. Taking away my ability to share this experience with my family is taking away one of my best coping skills to keep myself from potentially putting myself into the hospital.

This is where understanding the emotional and internal experiences of food can go a long way towards understanding intersectionality and towards having compassion towards people who don’t have your privileges. It may seem insane to someone who does not have a mental illness to consider the idea that a delicious mocha could be part of combatting suicide. But when you’re in the experience, you understand that the little things are the most important. The danger of mental illness is real. Mental illnesses do lead to death, injury, and pain. When we ignore the intersectionality of mental illness and food, we go a long way towards removing some of the most basic resources that the mentally ill have.

For people not in these situations it might seem selfish to prioritize your enjoyment of a steak over the life of a cow. However one of the messages that’s incredibly difficult for those with mental illness to internalize is that our own self-care is important, and often integral to our health. Allowing ourselves to make the choice to eat something that nourishes us mentally as well as physically can be a huge step, and when we’re told to cut out many parts of our diet, we lose out on the ability to easily do this. Asking us to give up simple pleasures, or criticizing the arenas in which we can find joy is asking us to prioritize other things over our own ability to function or even our own life depending on our disease.

When you live with a mental illness, often your entire life becomes about survival. This means that choices which seem to be easy or low cost for others are choices about self-defense for us. Every time we choose something that brings us joy, support, or a feeling of safety, we are choosing our own life. When you tell a mentally ill individual that they should abandon something that helps them feel good, that they should feel guilty for eating something that makes them happy, it reinforces to us that we don’t deserve good things.

Food is incredibly personal and incredibly emotional. It can be used in intensely positive ways and intensely negative ways, and we don’t always get a choice in what foods bring up what emotions for us. For the mentally ill, this can mean that shame and guilt around food is even more damaging than it might be for any other individual, and can have serious consequences.

While many of us want to make our society better and healthier by encouraging good eating, ethical food choices, and positive food culture, it would do us good to remember that these conversations may have different consequences for someone struggling with a mental illness than for anyone else.