You can care about social justice and care about your own happiness, too.

It feels strange to write a headline like this.

On the one hand, maybe it should be obvious — we all deserve to have joy, pursue meaningful connections and experiences, and invest in our own mental health. But somewhere along the way, I think I forgot what it meant to be happy just for the sake of it. And based on the burnout I’ve seen, I don’t think I’m the only one.

I was talking to my online therapist recently about how (yet again) a post about sexual assault on my Facebook feed had triggered my obsessive-compulsive disorder. When he gently suggested I take a deeper look at my social media usage, the conversation that ensued drudged up a lot of intense realizations about how I view happiness and self-care.

Namely, that I wasn’t giving myself permission to unplug, because I viewed that as betraying my values.

I realized through this process that very rarely do I do much of anything just for my own happiness. Blogging was an opportunity to support folks in my community. Self-care was a chance to “fix” my mental health so I could do more work. Most of my correspondences online had become me trying to support folks through crises or trauma. My social media was an endless stream of injustice and calls to action.

Every single thing that I did — what I read, what I watched, what I said, what I wrote — became an endless pursuit of doing better, doing more. 

If it wasn’t in service of other people, it simply didn’t have much value, and I didn’t prioritize it.

Last year, I noticed a number of things about myself. For one, I was lonely and burnt out. When I wasn’t working my day job at Everyday Feminism (which involved deep dives into the trauma of marginalized folks), I was either consumed by the news cycle, writing about social issues, opening my own wounds to educate others, or working really f*cking hard to support other folks in the community who were burning out for all the same reasons.

For a while, it was a running joke that I didn’t know how to have fun. “What’s fun?” I used to laugh.

Because when you understand the full extent of injustice in a system like this, fun can feel selfish, trivial, useless. It never seemed important enough. Meanwhile, I bounced in and out of intensive psychiatric programs, with my clinicians shouting after me, “Wait! Slow down? Maybe take more time?”

Even as I write this, I’m riddled with guilt. How many folks get the privilege of uplifting folks in their community on this kind of scale? How many folks get the chance to devote themselves to world-changing work? And most importantly, as an editor, I’ve had the privilege of holding space for so many experiences, stories, traumas… how could I take that for granted?

To be clear, I’ve found so much joy, meaning, and fulfillment in the work. But I have to wonder: When did I decide that my own happiness and wholeness — just for the sake of it, and just for myself — was too self-involved? When did I decide that taking care of myself was not just selfish, but unnecessary?

I’ve shared the “self-care isn’t selfish” memes countless times, and yet here I am, struggling to give myself permission to be happy.

After my second psychiatric hospitalization in the beginning of 2017, it became clear that my time working at Everyday Feminism was done. Walking away from that work was gut-wrenching. I had a lot of late night conversations with my partner, wondering how I could’ve “ruined” an opportunity like that.

Rather than listening to my body — which had been telling me for months, unequivocally, that the work wasn’t sustainable — I spiraled. I began questioning my dedication, questioning my investment, questioning my values. What kind of person has an opportunity to do such important work and, instead, loses their mind, drinks to excess, winds up institutionalized, and then walks away?

For a long time, I thought that my breakdown was my own fault, some kind of indication that I was ungrateful or selfish or incompetent, or that I wasn’t committed enough to my activism.

Here I had an opportunity to make an impact and I’d come undone. It was a dedication issue, I thought, I’m just not trying hard enough.

There’s a larger conversation to be had about the ways in which we fail to support folks doing this work. Structurally, so much social justice activism in underfunded, underpaid. And things like call-out culture can skirt the line, at times, between being necessary vehicles for accountability and being outright dehumanizing. This is all made worse with harassment and doxxing for those of us who primarily do this work online.

All of that makes it challenging to do this work and remain whole, to say the least.

But it also comes down to a very prevalent idea: that we must dedicate ourselves to this work at all times, and that joy is an afterthought, certainly not a priority.

There’s a level of perfectionism in the work that can be toxic. The reality is, there will always be more to do. There will always be more to read. There will always be more pain, more work, more need. And caring deeply about everything and everyone, you can get caught up in this unhealthy cycle of prioritizing everyone else at the expense of yourself.

This year it finally reached a point where I felt like digital activism was the only thing I really knew how to do. It eclipsed my entire identity, my entire self.

And when you determine that your only value is in what you can provide other people, you lose yourself.

After my hospitalization, I had to begin rebuilding my life. I started to wonder who I was in the absence of the work. What did I like? What did I enjoy? What interested me, excited me, energized me?

I have to wonder, how many of us working towards social justice don’t actually have answers to those questions outside of activism? Because my answers before would’ve all circled back to one thing: helping people. But if everything I do is for someone else, it can only be sustained for so long.

So I changed careers and found an unexpected joy in telling a different kind of story. I blogged when I felt called to, about what felt meaningful in the moment, instead of repeatedly opening my own wounds every week. I let myself blog about things that made me happy, too. I enlisted some help in managing my growing Facebook community, and gave myself permission to unplug.

And I started doing a heck of a lot of therapy. Because when we confuse total self-sacrifice for social justice, that’s a wound we immediately need to tend to.

I’ve started going outside. Drinking coffee. Laughing. Reading books. Letting myself get lost in articles about interior design and street style. I got a cat (he’s perfect). I meditate sometimes. I’ve started picking up the phone and calling friends. I completely overhauled my social media (I’ll write about how next week, if you’re wondering) to be a lot less triggering.

Through this process, I’ve realized that by abandoning my own happiness, I had also destroyed my capacity to meaningfully support others.

The reality is, social justice isn’t an all-or-nothing equation of either being committed or complicit, informed or uninformed. It’s all a process, and one that we can invest in while also investing in ourselves.

And if there’s no room for joy? It simply isn’t just. We all deserve to be well, to be whole. And if we don’t protect our own heart when we do this work, we deny ourselves the very thing we’re fighting for.

There are very good reasons to be angry. There are very good reasons to be furious, devastated, even unhinged in light of the world that we live in. But that makes it all the more pertinent, I think, to take care of ourselves, and to ensure that we’re prioritizing joy.

We can’t let injustice consume us to the point where we’ve lost everything that makes life meaningful and worth living.

Being joyful in the face of injustice is not a betrayal to the movement or to those who are struggling. It’s a loyalty to yourself, affirming your right — and by extension, everyone’s right — to wholeness.

Human beings need connection, fulfillment, and joy. So I ask you very sincerely: When’s the last time you gave that to yourself?

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No, Cis People, Being Trans Is Not a Self-Esteem Issue

“I have a lot of sympathy for transgender people,” someone once told me. “I know a little something about what it’s like to hate yourself, to hate your body.”

I can appreciate when cis folks (who haven’t lived the trans experience) try to create bridges of understanding and empathy with trans people. I think flexing those muscles and building on your compassion is an important part of solidarity.

However, when those attempts miss the point – and ultimately uphold stereotypes that harm trans people – it warrants a serious discussion about how exactly cis people have come to understand trans people.

The “self-hating trans person” trope is widely used as a point of reference for cis people and fuels a lot of misunderstanding around the trans experience. In a nutshell, it’s assumed that what makes a person transgender is that they hate themselves, hate the bodies they inhabit, and thus transition because they don’t like themselves.

Simply put, the idea that being transgender is a “self-esteem” problem just isn’t true.

Which isn’t to say that self-hatred isn’t an experience for some trans people.

Struggles with mental health are a staggering reality for us. But this narrative around the “self-hating trans person” is a false one. It oversimplifies and misrepresents the experiences of most trans people.

I want to unpack, in more detail, exactly why this trope is so harmful.

Here are four reasons why this myth needs to be put to rest – and the real harm it does when we perpetuate it.

1. It Ignores the Impact of Systemic Oppression

A lot of the pain that trans folks suffer is at the hands of an oppressive system, and it has nothing to do with the feelings we have about ourselves personally.

When we diminish the struggles of trans people as a personal problem, we completely neglect the systemic forces that cause immense suffering.

The state of transgender folks’ mental health is dire, but it’s not necessarily because we’re transgender.

When we’re hated by the culture at large, have our rights routinely denied, face the looming threat of violence and even death, struggle to access adequate healthcare, and are ostracized by our communities, how can we be expected to feel positively about our transitions and ourselves?

The transgender struggle is not just one of self-hatred – it’s one of trans-antagonism, and existing in a world that doesn’t recognize our humanity. Too often, that dehumanization becomes an internalized struggle, and we begin to hate ourselves not because we’re transgender, but because we’re taught from a young age to relate to ourselves in a violent way.

However, if you equate being transgender with being self-hating, as if it’s a natural condition of our lives, you overwrite the systemic origins of our suffering.

And in doing so, there is no accountability to create a world that is safe and affirming for trans people. It’s reduced to a personal issue with us, rather than a systemic issue that cisgender people must take responsibility for.

Instead of assuming that all trans people are self-hating, the better question to consider is what kind of world we’ve created in which this kind of suffering is permitted and even expected.

2. It Imposes One Narrative onto All Trans People

This trope is a fallacy because there are plenty of trans people who don’t hate themselves. Full stop.

Our community is layered, complex. We have a variety of feelings about our identities, our bodies, and our transitions. To condense those experiences into a singular narrative and emotion does us a huge disservice: It completely erases the diverse experiences that exist within our community.

Some trans people hate their bodies, and some don’t. Some trans people hate being trans, and some take pride in it. Some trans people wish they’d been born cis, but others are glad to be trans.

There is no right or wrong way to be trans – but it’s problematic to assume all trans people share the same narrative and experience.

For me, personally, I don’t feel self-hatred in the way that cis people assume I do. I hate the ways that society has forced me to pretend to be something I’m not, and sometimes I even hate the body that obscures my truth. But I never hate myself as trans or otherwise.

I have a deep compassion and appreciation for myself and everything I’ve survived. Many trans people do.

The best way to build empathy for a trans person is to tune in when they share their experiences, and believe them when they do. Instead of relying on tropes and looking for misguided shortcuts to understand us, seek out trans people (plural!) who are willing to give you the benefit of their lived experience.

3. It Fundamentally Misunderstands Gender

Being transgender is not a self-esteem issue.

This implies that if trans people saw a therapist and worked out their feelings, their gender would somehow change, and they would magically become cis.

This just isn’t true.

When you say that transgender people just hate themselves, you overlook how truly complex gender is – and you assume that cisgender people are “right” and neutral, while transgender people are “wrong” and broken.

The trope of the “self-hating trans person” relies on one huge (and very wrong) assumption: namely, that being cis is the natural state of being that we reject out of disdain, instead of cis and trans folks’ genders being equally valid and authentic.

This completely undermines the sincerity and legitimacy of transgender experiences.

Claiming a transgender identity isn’t about rejecting the gender we were somehow meant to have because our self-esteem is too low. It’s about rejecting who we were wrongly said to be.

Being transgender is about embracing and manifesting who we actually are in a society that invalidates us, marginalizes us, and rejects us as trans. We can hate the (often violent) imposition of gender upon us without actually hating ourselves.

Gender is a deeply personal identity that we come to know throughout our lives. It’s who we are and how we relate to the world, to our bodies, to our culture, and to ourselves. The way that trans people arrive at that understanding is often very different from cis people, but it’s not inherently better or worse, and it’s certainly not flawed.

Asking to be recognized as we actually are is not an act of hatred – in fact, it’s one of the purest gestures of self-love that I know.

4. It Creates a False Parallel Between Cis and Trans Experiences

You don’t actually have to put yourselves in our shoes to have compassion for trans people.

In fact, you may never arrive at a point when you fully understand what it means to be transgender. And the sooner you can acknowledge this, the better your relationship with trans people will be.

What I dislike most about the “self-hating trans person” trope is that it assumes cis people who have struggled with their self-esteem or their bodies can understand what it feels like to be transgender. But I disagree vehemently with that conclusion.

The particular experience of being (wrongly) assigned a gender in a cisnormative, trans-hating society just isn’t the same as a cis person struggling to like certain things about themselves.

I’ve disliked my body. I’ve struggled with my self-esteem. I’ve dealt with a whole slew of negative emotions around who I am and what I look like. But those experiences, while they were difficult and raw and real, had very few (if any) similarities with my experience moving through this world as transgender.

For one, they were transient experiences that I could work through and even hide if needed. But being transgender is immutable. It doesn’t just affect how I feel on a day-to-day basis, but it impacts my access to power, safety, and resources.

It’s an inherent and complex thing about myself that extends beyond my self-esteem – it’s steeped in biological, sociological, psychological, and even spiritual understandings of myself.

When something is so deeply rooted and significant, a surface-level analysis will not suffice if you’re trying to find ways to relate and understand. The reality here is that when cisgender people are distracted by halfhearted attempts at empathy, they fail to see that being able to relate isn’t a prerequisite for solidarity, but listening is.

Cisgender people who diminish the trans experience by naming it as a simple emotion (self-hatred) – rather than acknowledging that embodied experiences of gender are much more complex – are participating in the erasure and oversimplification of the trans experience.

This trope, when employed by cisgender people, is trans-antagonistic – and perhaps in the most selfish way – because it’s about satisfying the curiosities of cis people with an easy-to-digest answer, rather than letting trans people speak their own truth, even if that truth might be more nuanced and require more effort to understand.

This article, then, is a deeper calling – demanding that cis people do the work and believe trans people when we share who we are and what we feel. Our emotional realities and lived experiences are diverse, painful, complicated, and even beautiful.

Cis people need to hold the space for all of this and more. And that starts with tuning in.

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This piece that I wrote originally appeared at Everyday Feminism.

5 Awesome, Immediate Self-Care Resources For When You Feel Like Actual Garbage

This week at LQTU, I’m dialing things back a little and sharing some things that I’m a fan of.

I’m not sure if the internet is tapped out on self-care articles (I mean, how many times are we going to be told to take a bubble bath? Apparently at least a hundred times). But as someone who relies on these tools to keep my depression and OCD at bay, I personally think the world can still benefit from conversations like these.

Especially if some of those resources are cute, queer, and/or created with neuroatypical folks in mind. In my opinion, we can never get enough of those.

Lately, I’ve got some favorite self-care resources that I’ve relied on to keep myself sane. They’re sweet and simple, but more importantly, they’re effective and they’re accessible. I’m compiling them in one place, hopefully to make them easy to find and share for folks that need them.

If you’re struggling to get through this moment, this won’t magically solve all of your problems. However, it can certainly help you cope. At those moments when I’m not sure where to start, and I feel stuck and unmotivated, I like having these options available to me. Maybe you will, too.

So here are five immediate self-care resources. I’ve made sure that they’re free to use (we can’t all shell out money for a face mask, fair enough), and they don’t require a whole lot of energy to do (because when you’re depressed or anxious, it can be hard to find the spoons to do much of anything).

And, since this is a community and all, if you’ve got resources that you think are worth knowing about, drop them in the comments! That way, folks who are following along can benefit from your wisdom. I’m sure we’d all be grateful.

1. Watch these calming videos of a person cooking and dining with their cats.

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Cover art for CreamHeroes Cats channel, adorable as frick.

CreamHeroes Cats (don’t ask me about the channel name, heck if I know) is one of my favorite things on the internet. That’s not hyperbole, either. It’s everything that’s good and pure about the worldwide web.

The YouTube channel is based on ASMR, so imagine really quiet and pleasant sounds, combined with adorable footage of someone assembling an aesthetically pleasing meal for both themselves and their many precious cats.

Screenshot 2017-11-04 at 7.46.41 PMAs I shared on my instagram, not only do I find these videos ridiculously calming, but my cat, Pancake, is obsessed with them, too. We cuddle and watch them together.

Whether you have it on in the background for the soothing sounds, or you’re wrapped up in a blanket and watching attentively for that oh-so-satisfying moment when seven precious kitties finally get to chow down on perfectly cut salmon… I’m pretty sure this is one of the best things the internet has given us. Bless.

2. Get a virtual animal companion designed by really smart people that know about mental health.

Screenshot 2017-11-04 at 7.47.13 PM

The free app BoosterBuddy might be one of the best self-care gifts you give yourself. Designed by mental health professionals in partnership with neuroatypical youth, this is an app that helps you create better self-care habits and routines, as well as tracking your mood and substance use, with a coping strategies library for a variety of mental health challenges.

It’s also gamified, so you earn coins as you take care of yourself, which then, in turn, allows you to buy things like berets or fanny packs to dress up your animal friend. It sounds silly, but it’s weirdly motivating?

There is an abundance of positive reviews online, many of which come from folks with all sorts of different mental illnesses and traumas. And the team behind the app is very receptive to feedback, and with each update there are new features and improvements coming directly from recommendations made by folks using the app.

While the app is designed for young adults, I actually think it’s great for anyone. And since it’s free, if you’ve got a smartphone, there’s no harm in trying it out.

3. Dive into a queer web series when you’re looking for a distraction that doesn’t require Netflix or Hulu.

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From the web series Brown Girls, which you should definitely watch here.

INTO Magazine came up with a fabulous list of queer web series that I’ve kept bookmarked since it was first published. While we’ve made some significant progress in getting queer media on major networks, the web series in this list are much more diverse, and in many ways, more true to life.

Sometimes my favorite self-care is getting wrapped up in a new show, maybe falling in love with a character or a story, and eating Nutella from the jar. If that sounds like you, keep this link in your self-care toolbox (literally — make a bookmark folder with resources, it’s extremely helpful). You’ll be glad you did.

4. Walk through this step-by-step guide that’ll remind you how to take care of yourself when you’ve forgotten.

screenshot-2017-11-04-at-7-47-58-pm.pngThe “You Feel Like Shit: Interactive Self-Care Guide” is something I repeatedly plug on this blog. Sometimes, when we’re really freaking overwhelmed, our brains seem to shut down and we conveniently forget… I don’t know, literally everything there is to know about how to be a human?

Or at least, I do.

Sometimes we just need someone to nudge us along, offer gentle reminders to eat (and even giving us suggestions on what to eat), suggest some grounding exercises, or give us permission to take a nap.

The guide helps you assess what you need and makes practical suggestions on how to feel better, keeping in mind what you’re able to do in that moment and what you’re not.

I often challenge folks to keep this in their bookmark bar, and use it frequently. Self-care is a skill, and like any other skill on the planet, requires a lot of practice. So think of this guide as a simple way to practice.

5. Listen to these comedians laugh about mental illness because sometimes you have to laugh in order not to cry.

hilarous-world-depression_tile@2I’ve gotten pretty into this podcast recently, fittingly called The Hilarious World of Depression, where comedians and artists share their mental health journeys in a funny, sometimes painful, and super engaging way.

When I’m dealing with my own shit, I often find it validating to hear about what other folks have been through, reminding me that (1) I’m absolutely not alone, and (2) many folks, some quite brilliant actually, have lived through the same or similar struggles.

That affirmation can be so powerful, and for me, it’s a necessary part of taking care of myself.

One thing I like to do is to have this podcast going while I take a long, warm shower (this wouldn’t be a real self-care article if there weren’t some mention of a bath or shower, right?). If I have enough energy, sometimes it’s also nice to take a walk while I’m listening, to grab a latte or just sit in the park.

The nice thing about finding a podcast like this is that you don’t actually have to do anything other than turn it on. So if you’re just a pile of sad on your apartment floor, barely keeping it together (been there, done that), this can still be an option for you.

One last thing, friends…

As always, every single human is different! Our needs, our wants, our triggers — none of us are exactly alike. Which means that the resources here may not be applicable or helpful to you.

The only way to know for sure that something here will be helpful is to use your best judgment, and try things out!

I’ve got some additional articles about self-care, if this is a topic that you like:

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that, if you find yourself needing a lot of support or struggling to find what works, you might want to connect with a therapist. I started using Talkspace recently (I wrote all about it, and online therapy generally, a couple of weeks back in this article), and having that support has made a huge difference in my day-to-day life.

If you’re thinking about online therapy in particular, I asked the folks at Talkspace if there was something I could offer readers. Long story short, signing up with Talkspace using this link gets you fifty dollars off, which is an A+ deal for folks who are on the fence. And I also get a referral bonus, which is nice, because if you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you know that I need a lot of therapy, haha.

More importantly, though, I want you to get the care that you need — there’s a whole list of free crisis resources available at this link. There are so many options out there! Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need to.

Happy self-caring! Whether it’s dining with cats or an interactive guide, I hope you’re able to find what works best for you.

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7 Signs That Online Therapy Might Be Right For You

There wasn’t anything wrong, really, with my last therapist. He was smart as a whip, caring, and thoughtful. But after more than a year of working together, I had this nagging feeling that I wasn’t getting out of this what I needed to be. Something wasn’t clicking.

As someone with agoraphobia, it was already challenging to get to another city just for therapy. The financial impact of a copay, transportation there and back, and the time taken away from work had already added up. If I was already spending that money, why couldn’t I just sign up for online therapy, and get the care I needed without leaving my apartment?

So (shrug emoji) I decided to give Talkspace a try.

I chose Talkspace in particular because I knew from talking to other folks that they are especially mindful of their queer and transgender clients (of which I am both).

They didn’t ask me to review their services, or offer me any kind of incentive to talk about them. This is not a paid advertisement, friends, so you can trust that everything here is my honest opinion!

(This was actually an article requested and funded by my patrons, who were interested in online therapy and wanted my perspective. Hi there, patrons!)

If you’re intrigued by online therapy but not sure if it’s for you, I wanted to create this no-nonsense resource to help you decide.

While Talkspace is the platform that I use, this is advice that I suspect will apply to other platforms as well.

As with any therapy experience, you ultimately get out of it what you put in. That being said, there are definitely some signs to look for when deciding if online therapy could work for you:

1. Paying out of pocket isn’t prohibitively expensive for you.

Between my $15 copay and the Lyft ride to and from the office, paying for online therapy wasn’t actually that much more expensive for me. For $39 dollars a week, I can send unlimited messages to my therapist (text, audio, or video, as lengthy as I want) and get two thoughtful responses per day.

If I need a video call for a face-to-face experience, I can pay extra for that, either as part of my plan or on an as-needed basis.

But I want to acknowledge upfront that not everyone can afford this.

If you have insurance and your therapy is already sufficiently covered, online therapy will not be cheaper. However, if you have travel expenses and copayments (like me), or you’re already paying out of pocket, online therapy might actually be cheaper or at least fairly reasonable.

I still think this is the best $39 bucks I spend every week. But for folks who are low-income, this isn’t necessarily accessible to you.

2. You find yourself wishing you could process in the moment.

One of my biggest issues with face-to-face therapy is that, by the time my appointment rolled around, a lot of the more intense situations or emotions had already passed, or I couldn’t remember them once it was time to talk about it.

I often walked away from my sessions thinking, “Jeez, I wish I could just talk to my therapist when things came up, instead of having to wait until our next appointment.”

I felt like I was wasting time, like our appointments were basically me trying to remember what was bothering me or just filling up our time.

If this sounds familiar, online therapy might actually be an awesome option for you. With Talkspace, I’m able to write to my therapist at any moment, so when situations or emotions come up for me, I can articulate those things to my therapist in real time.

I’ve noticed a difference, too — we’re actually talking about the issues that are most present and important for me, instead of what I happened to remember during a scheduled time.

It’s important to note: If you are the sort of person that needs an immediate response, online therapy might not feel as gratifying at first. It took a period of adjustment to get comfortable with spilling my guts, knowing that I would have to wait to hear back from my therapist.

But I did get used to it! And it’s a format that’s working much better for me.

3. You know or suspect that writing is a great outlet for you.

A lot of my best emotional work happens through writing (this probably doesn’t come as a shock, seeing as I’m a blogger). Online therapy has been like having a diary that actually talks back, compassionately and competently guiding me through my process.

If you know that you’re the kind of person that finds it cathartic to write everything out, online therapy can be an awesome platform for you. There aren’t time constraints or character limits, so you’re given permission to take whatever space and time that you need.

If writing isn’t your thing, you can always just monologue with an audio or video recording. Sometimes you just need five minutes to ramble uninterrupted, and online therapy is great for that, too.

4. You find it easier to be emotionally vulnerable in digital spaces.

I grew up in the age of AOL Instant Messaging. Some of my deepest and most vulnerable connections have happened digitally. For whatever the reason — maybe it’s social anxiety, I’m not sure — I find it much easier to be vulnerable online.

I think online therapy is the best possible platform for folks like me, who simply find it easier to be honest when there’s the safety of a computer or phone screen between us and our therapists.

In just a couple of weeks, I disclosed more to my Talkspace therapist than I had with my previous therapist that I’d worked with for over a year. Being online helped me access emotions that I found it difficult to tap into in a face-to-face appointment.

(I think it helps, too, that this is therapy that can happen in the safety of my apartment, whenever I’m ready, while I’m hanging out in my pajamas and hugging my cat and eating nachos…)

5. You feel like you’re texting your friends a little too often.

I’m the kind of person that, when I’m overwhelmed with my life, I find myself texting or messaging my friends, sometimes with a frequency that makes me feel a little annoying.

And to be clear: It’s absolutely okay to reach out to someone when you’re struggling, as long as those boundaries are negotiated between you!

But what’s great about online therapy is that I now have a safe space to express myself at any moment, without the fear that you’re “too much” for that person.

If you’re an “external processor” like me, where nothing feels resolved until you’ve actually gotten it off your chest, online therapy is actually awesome.

I feel like there’s more balance in my relationships across the board, because every single day, I have an outlet for what I’m thinking or feeling that doesn’t rely exclusively on my friends and partners. That means I can be more thoughtful and intentional about who I reach out to and why.

6. You have other clinicians on your team that can help during a crisis.

A lot of reviews I’ve read talk about how online therapy isn’t designed for folks with severe mental illness. But I don’t actually agree with that — I just think that folks like us have to be mindful of what support systems we put in place, and when we use them.

Every person with severe mental illness should have a crisis plan. This is especially true for those of us who use online therapy, which means we won’t always get an immediate response when we’re in crisis.

I use online therapy to explore my trauma history, manage my OCD and depressive symptoms, and navigate the daily triggers and stressors in my life. However, I don’t use online therapy exclusively.

I also have a psychiatrist that I see regularly, support groups that I attend on an as-needed basis, and I can also contact my previous therapist if I’m suicidal and need to be referred to local crisis resources (like outpatient resources or hospitalization).

My Talkspace therapist knows that I have a history of suicidality and self-harm, and we’ve talked about what steps we would take if I were in crisis again.

I think online therapy can be a great option for folks with severe mental illness. (For me personally, I feel much more supported checking in with my therapist ten times a week online, as opposed to seeing them just once a week, if that.)

The key is that online therapy should never be the only option, and you and your therapist should work out a crisis plan upfront.

7. You have very specific therapeutic needs that you’re having trouble meeting.

My therapeutic needs were a bit… complicated.

I’m a queer and transgender person with a history of complex trauma, struggling with depression, OCD, and borderline disorder. I needed a therapist that can handle all of the above, but trying to find one who was up to the task was daunting, to say the least.

When I signed up for Talkspace, I first talked with a consultation therapist (kind of like a clinical matchmaker) who would help me find my ideal therapist. Upfront, I gave them as much information as I could, and they gave me three therapists to choose from.

One of them was a trauma-informed therapist who was also queer and transgender, who was well-versed in the disorders I was dealing with. We also came from a similar perspective, valuing a social justice-oriented and sex-positive approach.

Talk about a perfect match!

I think that one of the benefits of online therapy is that you have more options. Rather than searching for someone within a reasonable distance, you can connect with any therapist that’s licensed in your state. This widens the pool of available clinicians, and ideally connects you with a therapist that meets more of your needs.

(The great thing, too, is that switching therapists on apps like Talkspace is super easy — and those therapists will have access to your previous conversation logs, so you won’t feel like you’re starting all over again.)

If you’re a marginalized person that needs a therapist from your own community, your odds of finding the right therapist are much higher with online therapy. To me, this is by far the best part of the process.

There are definitely some valid criticisms to keep in mind, though.

I’ve loved my online therapy experience, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention these. Some of the common issues that people encounter with online therapy, summarized for quick reading:

  • You need to be 18 or older: As far as I know, for legal reasons, it’s not available to folks under the age of 18. Be sure to investigate this before signing up if this applies to you.
  • It’s a different pace: Responses are “asynchronous,” meaning your therapist responds when they’re able to — it’s a little more like email rather than instant message. For folks who like instant gratification, this will take some getting used to. If you’re in acute crisis, this shouldn’t be your primary support system.
  • There’s no body language: If you’re someone that is a little more withholding, and therefore you need a therapist to be able to “read” you, this can be an obstacle. If you’re someone that has difficulty interpreting emotion and tone through a text, this can also make things tricky. (Video calls and audio recordings are still options, though, so don’t hesitate to switch things up if you’re finding the text-only format to be tricky!)
  • You have to spell things out (literally): Your therapist won’t know if something isn’t working if you don’t tell them directly (they can’t exactly see if you’re uncomfortable, or bored, or annoyed, for example), so be ready to advocate for yourself if you aren’t getting what you need.

Alright, so what should I know before I get started?

Online therapy is really like any form of therapy, in that it only works if you show up. Here are some quick tips for the best possible online therapy experience:

  • Be as specific as possible when looking for a therapist: Better to tell your “matchmaker” too much about yourself than too little. The more you advocate for yourself, the better your matches will be.
  • Disclose, disclose, disclose: Be as open, vulnerable, invested, and honest as you can possibly be. You will only get out of the experience what you invest into it.
  • Talk about therapy in therapyTalk with your therapist about what’s working and isn’t working. If something is helpful, let them know. If something isn’t, be sure to say so. If something needs to change, it’s important that you communicate that to get the best possible experience!
  • Customize it: Online therapy has a little less structure, so be sure to talk with your therapist about how you can create accountability and a format that works for you. Whether it’s homework assignments, assigned readings (I like to share articles with my therapist on occasion), scheduled check-ins, or experimenting with formats (text, audio, video, etc), there are tons of different ways to “do” online therapy!
  • Set some goals: If you’re not sure what you want out of the experience, take some time to think about it. Creating goal posts can be helpful in guiding the process, both for you and your therapist.
  • Be safe: If you have a history of suicidality, substance abuse, or self-harm — or any kind of disordered behavior that could lead you to harm yourself or someone else — make sure your therapist knows this, so you can create a crisis plan together.
  • Anticipate an adjustment period: I felt weird about online therapy at first. It feels distinctly different, especially in the absence of body language and the delayed responses. Give yourself time to adjust, and if things feel off, be sure to let your therapist know.

So is online therapy a good option for you?

Obviously, not knowing you personally, I can’t say for sure! But I can say with certainty that there are definitely folks out there who have benefited from it, myself being one of them.

While I was skeptical at first, it turned out to be a great decision for my mental health, though I recognize its limitations. Like with any form of therapy, it largely relies on finding the right match, disclosing as much as you’re able to, and advocating for yourself throughout.

Hopefully this guide gives you all the right information to make a decision that’s right for you. I’d also encourage you to research more on your own (I am by no means the ultimate authority on therapy!). As the saying goes, knowledge is power!

Hey, fun fact (added some time after I published, once I found this out): If you sign up with Talkspace using this link, we both get $50 dollars off. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ If you’re on the fence, give it a whirl!

If you found this guide to be helpful, please hop on over to my Patreon and consider becoming a patron! Through donations, I’m able to create free and thorough resources like these based on your recommendations.

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4 Ways Mentally Ill People Are Blamed For Their Struggles

The first time I told someone that I was mentally ill, they reacted with disbelief.

“You?” they asked. “You don’t seem that sick to me. Be careful not to play the victim.”

The second time I told someone that I was mentally ill, they invalidated me.

“We all get depressed sometimes,” they replied. “You just have to power through it.”

Countless times, I’ve been made to feel like my mental illness is my fault. I wasn’t trying hard enough, I needed to change my perspective, I wasn’t looking at all of my options, I was exaggerating how much pain I was in, I was only looking for sympathy.

If I wasn’t mentally well, they implied, it was obviously an issue with me that had nothing to do with the systems that fail mentally ill people each and every day. My “failure” to live a functional and happy life had nothing to do with the biological, psychological, and sociological factors that contribute to mental health. Instead, it always seemed to circle back to me and an apparent lack of willpower that kept me down.

For a while, this kind of gaslighting – the denial of my struggles that made me question my own reality – had convinced me that my mental illness wasn’t valid or real, and what was intended to be “tough love” from the people around me only made things worse by leading me to blame myself instead of advocating for the kind of treatment I desperately needed.

Like many mentally ill folks, it was impossible for me to move forward in my recovery until I stopped blaming myself and started seeking out the right kind of support. But it can be impossible to do this when the people around you are convinced that you’re doing something wrong.

A culture that routinely traumatizes mentally ill people by interrogating the severity of our illnesses and the sincerity of our efforts – effectively blaming the victim – is a form of psychological violence that keeps us from accessing the care that we need.

And yet it’s the norm in this society. People seem to have a lot of opinions on the choices that mentally ill people are and aren’t making while staying silent about the systems that force us to make less than ideal choices in the first place.

Personally? I believe that any choice made in an effort to survive is not necessarily a “wrong” choice, and if we care about mentally ill people, it’s our job to expand those choices by increasing their efficacy and accessibility rather than punishing mentally ill folks for doing their best to navigate their illnesses in circumstances that will never allow them to thrive.

As a mentally ill person, I have struggled within a culture that compulsively critiques the choices that I’ve made rather than advocating for the availability of better choices. And these critiques leveled against me, perhaps with the intention of motivating me, have ultimately hurt me.

I want to unpack those criticisms. The reality is that they harm not just me, but the millions of people that grapple with these illnesses every day.

And unfortunately, it’s a conversation that is increasingly necessary as support and resources for psychiatrically disabled people are only disappearing under the new administration, fueled in part by these prevalent beliefs about mentally ill people.

Here are four ways mentally ill folks are blamed for what they’re going through and what we can learn from these harmful assumptions.

1. We’re Expected to Pull Ourselves Up By Our Bootstraps

I remember when my old therapist told me, “If your mental illnesses were just an attitude problem, wouldn’t you have changed it by now?”

When I hesitated, she added, “I don’t think you’d make yourself suffer this deeply and this much if the solution were that simple.”

And she was right. I was doing everything that I could. My struggles were not due to a lack of effort on my part. I would’ve done anything if it meant finally getting better.

People who haven’t experienced mental illness personally often buy into the idea that if you try hard enough, mental illness is something you can overcome. With one brushstroke, it’s depicted as a lack of willpower and a personal failing. Myths like this disempower mentally ill people because they take the focus away from creating resources to help us and instead place complete and total responsibility on the person who’s suffering to make solutions appear out of thin air.

But if we could single-handedly ease our suffering, wouldn’t we have already done it? It isn’t fun, and for many of us, it disrupts our lives in significant and even unbearable ways. In fact, it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide.

When you place the burden on mentally ill people rather than advocating for a system that supports us, you put our lives in danger. Not only are we less likely to seek out help if we’re expected to go it alone, but legislators won’t think twice about slashing funding if it’s treated as an attitude problem rather than a legitimate public health issue.

No one wins when we abandon mentally ill people.

2. It’s Assumed That Treatments Will Be Accessible, Quick, and Effective

It took me over a decade from when my symptoms first appeared to get the right treatment.

And that bears repeating: over 10 years.

My case is exceptional, too. Most people will take at least ten years just to seek out help for the first time, and many will never receive treatment at all. This gap in care can account for the significant rates of drop-outs, hospitalizations, imprisonment, and homelessness that are a staggering reality for people with mental illness in this country.

It is incorrectly assumed that if you’re struggling with mental illness, a good therapist and a pill or two can easily remedy the situation.

But that’s assuming:

  • The stigma and cultural norms have not discouraged you from seeking out help
  • You have geographically and financially accessible options
  • Treating neurodivergence as an illness is a framework that serves you OR alternatives that resonate with you can be accessed
  • You have adequate insurance OR access to resources designed for folks without it
  • You understand how to navigate these systems and can find what you need
  • You can safely take medications and you respond to the medications prescribed to you
  • You were accurately diagnosed
  • You have the necessary self-insight to recognize your triggers and symptoms and can convey them to a clinician
  • You have the stamina and time to endure years of testing out different treatments to figure out what works
  • You have trusting relationships with the clinicians directing your recovery

…which only happens after you are willing to sit on a waiting list for weeks and even months to see those clinicians in the first place or can seek out crisis services (like the emergency room) sooner.

Does it sound like a lot? That’s because it is. And this isn’t even a complete list by any stretch.

Of course, if you’re multiply-marginalized, forget it. You not only have to wait for a clinician to see you, but you need a culturally competent one that understands the context of your unique struggles.

This is damn near impossible for many of us, as psychiatry as a profession is still dominated by clinicians who hold a lot of privilege and can replicate these hierarchies in their work. Instead of addressing the laundry list of reasons why mentally ill people don’t get treatment, it’s just assumed we’re not trying hard enough or that we don’t want to get better. This is a fallacy designed to prevent us from accessing care and perpetuates a broken system that does not serve us adequately or compassionately.

3. We’re Not Allowed to Feel Discouraged or Defeated

Behind all of the pressure to “keep trying” and all the suggestions that we’re never quite doing “enough” to get better is the implicit message that mentally ill people are not allowed to feel defeated. We’re not allowed to momentarily give up, hang up our gloves and say, “This isn’t working, and I’m tired.”

If we aren’t constantly “on” and working at recovery, it’s suddenly our fault that things aren’t improving. If only we’d just put in the effort, things wouldn’t be this way. Never mind that we’re human beings, and sometimes it’s just too overwhelming or painful to keep going.

A culture that treats mental illness as a lack of effort is a culture that says mentally ill people aren’t allowed to be fully human and vulnerable. It dictates that the effort is our sole and constant responsibility, and that we aren’t allowed moments in which we can grieve, give in, or be afraid.

The expectation that mentally ill folks are doing something wrong if they aren’t constantly in motion is an unrealistic and unfair burden to place on us, especially because the level of dysfunction that mental illness can present can make it nearly impossible to advocate for ourselves in the first place.

Feeling discouraged is valid. Feeling afraid is valid. Feeling exhausted is valid. There is a full spectrum of emotion that comes with recovery, and part of humanizing mentally ill folks requires that we hold the space for those emotions.

Recovery is a discouraging, scary, and exhausting process that can wear down the most resilient among us. This has nothing to do with mentally ill people’s personal failings and everything to do with the fact that these illnesses can be difficult to live with.

If you blame us for not trying harder or trying enough – demonizing those moments when we feel most vulnerable or defeated – what you’re saying is that if we aren’t superhuman and invulnerable, our pain is deserved.

This is untrue. We don’t deserve this. And we certainly didn’t ask for it.

4. We’re Either Too Functional to be Sick or Too Dysfunctional to be Helped

Here’s one of those ways in which mentally ill folks can’t win: we’re either too “functional” by appearances and therefore making excuses for our shortcomings, or we’re too “dysfunctional” and we’re a burden on society that can’t be helped.

Either way, rather than acknowledging the impact mental illness has on us, people tell us that in both scenarios, the problem lies with us.

It personalizes our struggles in a way that is dehumanizing. We’re seen as either dishonest or insane, and in either case it’s our responsibility to deal with it rather than society’s collective responsibility and ethical obligation to set up systems that allow us to heal.

And as with all of the myths we’ve broken down in this article, this is how oppression operates at its most insidious level: by decentering the systemic origins of human suffering and instead placing the responsibility and blame on the individuals who are suffering. If we categorically write off mentally ill people by either invalidating the authenticity of their struggles, or pushing them off to the margins as irredeemably lost, we no longer have to be accountable for what happens when our systems fail them.

Though attitudes like these remain the status quo and might initially seem benign, they create a protective shield that obscures what’s really at play.

It’s ableism, plain and simple.

Victim-blaming folks with mental illness is not just a matter of stigma, though we can easily recognize it as such. It’s also a form of violence; it directly upholds a system that harms the psychiatrically disabled and deflects accountability for that harm.

We can all do better than this, and it starts by putting the blame where it really belongs – not with mentally ill folks who are only trying to survive, but with the systems that fail us, a society that gaslights us, and the violent attitudes that embolden them both.

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4 Things the Queer Folks in My Life Taught Me About Resisting Toxic Masculinity

I’m standing outside of a club with friends.

We’re standing in a circle, laughing and chatting and enjoying ourselves. Intermittently, we touch each other’s hair, we put an arm around the other, we kiss each other on the cheek, and we yell above the noise, “I love you so, so much.”

Gender stereotypes and norms might tell you that we’re a group of women.

But we aren’t. We’re a group of queer folks, all with different relationships to masculinity, flaunting a total disregard of gender norms.

When I made the decision to transition – changing my gender presentation and pursuing hormones – I knew that testosterone in particular would come with a host of expectations around performing masculinity.

And as a genderqueer, femme trans boy evaluating my relationship to masculinity, I didn’t know exactly how comfortable I was with that – especially since so many aspects of masculinity can be toxic.

While I would benefit from gaining numerous privileges associated with masculinity, I would also have to contend with the gender norms that harm so many men and masculine-identified people.

But when I fell into a community of queer folks – some transgender, some gender non-conforming, all navigating the expectations of “masc” together – I found a very different kind of masculinity. While they are by no means the norm, what I learned from them was transformative.

This community taught me not only what toxic masculinity demands of men and masculine people, but also the possibilities that exist outside of it.

In the process, I came to realize the kind of masculinity that I could be comfortable inhabiting.

Here are a few of the things that I’ve learned from them.

1. Masculinity Doesn’t Mean Denying Each Other Physical Affection

Men aren’t often seen hugging each other in this society. If they touch each other, even in a platonic way, it’s considered too “gay” or effeminate. As a result, we have men who seldom share physical affection, affirmation, or closeness.

While everyone’s personal boundaries are different, masculine-identified folks are never given the freedom to set their own boundaries. There’s one boundary and one boundary only, and it’s that men shouldn’t share physical closeness. This isn’t just limiting. This can be painful.

What I appreciate so much about the community of queer folks that I’ve fallen into is that we love on each other.

In my community of queers, we greet each other with warm embraces. We lean on each other and hold each other through difficult moments. We aren’t afraid to touch each other and express our affection for each other just because society says that men and masculine-identified folks shouldn’t do so.

Just imagine what friendships between masculine-identified people could look like if we felt encouraged to express our affection for each other in whatever ways felt comfortable for everyone involved.

Imagine the closeness, the reassurance, the comfort, the support, the vulnerability – these are very healthy experiences that are encouraged in female friendships, but never permitted for men and masculine-identified people.

Denying men and masculine-identified people a full spectrum of intimacy with their friends is one of many ways toxic masculinity hurts us. And rediscovering this intimacy with my friends has been profound.

For me, having this kind of consensual physical closeness has been healing. So much of toxic masculinity relies on the idea that men and masculine people must keep others at a distance.

But why should we?

From a simple mental health perspective, I know that this kind of shared affection between friends can help us feel connected to each other and creates a sense of safety within our community.

2. Masculinity Can And Should Involve Emotional Vulnerability

Men shouldn’t cry. Men shouldn’t be emotional. Men should deal with their shit on their own time.

When I began my transition, I was fearful that I would feel pressured not to express myself or my feelings. And in the beginning, this was absolutely true.

If you browse through my Instagram, for example, you’ll see that prior to testosterone, I took many selfies while smiling – but when I started testosterone, I took pictures with more serious and standoffish faces, thinking that they made me “look more masculine.”

I didn’t even notice at first.

This insidious idea that men shouldn’t have emotions had impacted even the ways in which I took photographs of myself. I had internalized this idea that masculinity was about distance and suppressing my emotions – even joyful ones.

Encouraging men to not be emotionally vulnerable is enormously harmful.

Expecting us to push down our feelings can eat us alive, deny us valuable resources and support that we need, and often puts the emotional labor onto other folks of marginalized gender (primarily femmes) who are put into caretaking roles.

I would even venture to say that the epidemic of violence coming from primarily white men in the United States can be connected to the suppression, hostility, and aggression that is expected of them as the only legitimate avenues to asserting their masculinity.

Finding a community of queer folks that are very expressive, share their feelings and their struggles, and support one another through them has been so important in pushing back against toxic masculinity that encourages us to isolate ourselves and lash out.

I feel empowered to be around people who aren’t afraid to show vulnerability and encourage one another to reach out during difficult times.

Their sensitivity, warmth, and compassion fly in the face of everything that hegemonic masculinity has told us to be.

3. Masculinity Isn’t About Rejecting What’s Deemed ‘Feminine’

The first people to comment on my sparkly, beautiful nails were the queer men in my life. Some of them applauded how rad they looked. Some of them remarked on how they, too, needed to get theirs done.

And none of them shamed me or questioned the choice.

I once wrote an entire article about how I was fearful that being on testosterone would take away some of my favorite, more “femme” parts of who I am – and how I was determined to hold onto these things.

Toxic masculinity greatly limits the emotional range that men and masculine people can have, and it also limits our gender expression as well. At the root of this is misogyny, which privileges what we associate with masculinity over what we associate with femininity.

Often times, men and masculine people can fall into the trap of rejecting what is considered “feminine” because they feel it will affirm or legitimize their masculinity in the eyes of other people.

But well into my transition now, I am still rocking the nails, blathering on about my passion for interior design and stylish clothes, singing pop music at the top of my lungs, and crying over romantic comedies.

I don’t reject any stereotypically “feminine” aspect of myself just to cater to patriarchy. I am flipping the bird to a gender binary that says masculinity and femininity are these dual, opposing forces that, upon ever mingling, the universe will implode.

Thankfully, the universe has yet to implode from my queer, femme masculinity.

In reality, they don’t need to be in opposition, nor should one be valued over the other. In fact, femininity, masculinity, and even androgyny can be ingredients to each of our own individual, unique recipes that make up who we are and what we feel empowered by.

Or, you know… we can just ditch the binary thinking altogether and let people live.

I wouldn’t have felt like I could really be myself until I saw other queer men embodying this – a gender fluidity in which the limiting norms and rules of masculinity no longer apply – and embracing their whole selves, femininity unapologetically included.

They have rejected this binary way of thinking, refusing the “either/or” ultimatum of the gender binary (some of them, like me, even identifying as non-binary).

Seeing other men who are unafraid to fuck with gender has made me feel empowered to do the same.

4. Pushing Back Against Toxic Masculinity Means Acknowledging Our Privileges

Often times, women and other gender minorities take on the emotional burden and labor of educating men, in particular, about privilege.

It’s an unfair burden, to be sure, as folks who are on the receiving end of oppression should never be obligated to educate their oppressors, nor should privileged people feel entitled to their labor and energies.

What I’ve found so promising about the community that I’m surrounded by is that the men in my life have taken the initiative not only to have these conversations among themselves, but to act as interrupters and to educate other men and masculine people about their privilege.

One of the most eye-opening parts of transition has been seeing the ways in which I am treated differently as I move through public spaces. And in community with other queer and trans men, this has opened up many conversations about power, privilege, and interruption.

An essential part of dismantling toxic masculinity is men taking ownership over their own education around systemic inequality, and taking on the labor of educating other men about it as well.

It’s also about interrupting the manifestations of patriarchy when we see it. It’s about ensuring that marginalized folks feel safe in our spaces. It’s about being cognizant of the space that we, ourselves, take up. It’s about utilizing our power to amplify the voices of marginalized folks within our community.

It’s about tuning in when marginalized folks take the time to call us in, apologizing when we’ve fucked up, and taking ownership over our position of privilege.

And it’s definitely – definitely – about holding one another to a higher standard, calling in other men and being willing to be called in when mistakes are made. This is especially critical so that this labor is not left to people of marginalized gender who must endure microaggressions and harm to call us in.

When I identified as a cis woman long, long ago, I can remember feeling extraordinarily unsafe in groups of men, to the point where I wouldn’t be in those spaces at all.

Identifying now as a non-binary person with masculine privilege, I want to create the kinds of spaces where gender minorities can choose to be in community with me, knowing that the burden doesn’t rest on them to maintain the safety of our space.

I’m grateful that I exist in community with other folks who feel the same way.

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When I first embarked on my gender transition, I was scared of masculinity. I was scared of all that it had come to represent. I was scared of all of the toxic expectations that would fall on my shoulders.

Unpacking those expectations and doing better as a person of privilege will be an ongoing process for the rest of my life. But I’m grateful to say that in community with other queer and trans men, I’ve found a space to do this processing in a healthy way.

Surrounded by queer men who push back against hegemonic masculinity, I’ve also been able to carve out a new kind of femme masculinity for myself – one that I feel is both healing and empowering, allowing me to be my authentic and most honest self.

Communities like these, however small they may be, give me hope that a new kind of masculinity is possible – one that is nurturing, sensitive, vulnerable, self-aware, and even radical.

Knowing that it’s possible, I am committed to resisting this paradigm until it finally collapses under the weight of itself.

Because when masculinity is toxic – when it actively harms not only those who are marginalized but the oppressors themselves – it can never be sustainable.

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A version of this piece that I wrote originally appeared at Everyday Feminism.

My Least Favorite Obsession: Am I Making My Mental Illness Up?

I can remember the first time I realized something wasn’t right. I couldn’t have been any older than seven or eight. I couldn’t sleep, and I was panicking and seething with guilt, though I don’t remember why.

What I do remember is that I’d gotten into a habit of holding my breath and counting when I felt stressed like this. More specifically, I’d hold my breath and count to ten. Sometimes it would help for a moment, until the anxiety started to pummel me again, my thoughts racing like a runaway train.

I’d repeat the process, then, until I fell asleep or couldn’t hold my breath anymore.

1… 2… 3… 4… 5…

6… 7… 8… 9… 10.

(I always loved the number five and multiples of five.)

I remember how it struck me that, no matter how many sets of ten that I cycled through, it never seemed to truly help me. And I wondered why my efforts were failing. Take deep breaths, right? That’s what they said.

I didn’t understand my emotions, because my emotions didn’t behave the way I was told they would.

It wasn’t necessarily a surprise, then, when I was nine and planning the details of my funeral like I was assembling a grocery list (I distinctly remember wanting my stuffed animals to be in my casket, until I later thought it punishingly unfair to bury them with me, as I explained in my diary).

It wasn’t a surprise that when I was ten, I was so jarred by the attacks on 9/11 that I started reciting the pledge of allegiance every time it was 9:11 PM, just in case, to make sure that nothing bad would happen.

And it wasn’t a surprise, either, when I was thirteen and contemplating suicide. It wasn’t a surprise anymore, because I knew from a young age that my emotions had always had a mind of their own, one that I was helpless in the face of.

For as long as I could remember, my body — and my life, really — was just a vessel for some kind of unspeakable anxiety and, at times, depression. This has been a constant. And for something so constant, you’d think I would never question it.

But I’ve still spent the last month in a tailspin anyway, persistently worrying that I’ve invented all of this somehow.

Disbelief and invalidation were my first experiences when I shared my pain, and those first experiences have never left me. It’s a voice of doubt that I’ve internalized after years of practice, after plenty of time to rehearse and learn the role.

It was the well-meaning parent that said, “We all get sad sometimes.”

It was the so-called friend that said, “He’s just doing this for attention.”

It was the school counselor that looked at my self-inflicted wounds and said, “Oh, that’s not so bad.”

It was the uncaring psychiatrist that said, “If your grades are good, why are you here?”

It was the teacher that said, “You don’t seem depressed to me.”

That seed of doubt was planted long before I had any defenses against it.

When I first started sharing my pain, it was often followed by someone else’s doubts. Those doubts almost acted like an electric shock, training my brain to question myself whenever I was hurting. The outside world interrogated my reality often enough that I had eventually learned to do it myself.

My obsessive-compulsive disorder, of course, latched onto this persistent self-doubt like a parasite, thriving off of it.

I have OCD… or don’t I? What if it’s an excuse, a way to disguise my evil nature? What if it’s all fabricated? What if it’s a manipulative ploy, a way of harming the people I love by eliciting their concern? How would I know if I’m lying? What if it’s all unconscious? What if I don’t even realize it’s happening?

And then I’d desperately search for reassurance.

I’d repeatedly ask my friends and clinicians to tell me I wasn’t imagining it, I’d research my diagnoses to death, I’d take every quiz, I’d google every variation on “did I make up my mental illness.” And if you know a thing or two about OCD, you’d know that the compulsion to be reassured only makes the obsession worse.

I became obsessed with the idea that I might have some kind of factitious disorder, despite how little sense that really made.

This last week, I spent upwards of ten or more hours of my day, drowning in the fear that I could be unconsciously hurting other people, lying to them. That I was somehow dishonest. And because factitious disorders are largely unconscious, it would be impossible to prove the existence of something that, by nature, I wouldn’t be aware of.

In other words, it’s a total mindfuck.

I’ve often explained my OCD to people as being fixated on “the unicorn in the other room.” I can’t definitively prove there isn’t a unicorn in the other room, and the mountain of evidence to the contrary doesn’t offer total certainty. And for OCD, 99% certainty will never be enough; OCD thrives in the 1%.

OCD introduced an ethical dilemma that, at the time, felt very real to me: Every time I reached out for help, I questioned if it was an attempt to manipulate someone, or if it was “proof” that I only wanted attention.

The simple act of needing help became evidence of the very thing I feared most.

But the more I suffered, the more I desperately wanted to ask for help, fueling the anxiety. It got to the point where I was refusing to go to support groups, because I was afraid I would be “found out.”

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My journal is filled with messy charts like this.

That anxiety fed the compulsion to research (which is, in fact, a real compulsion), to repeatedly ask if friends believed I was ill or lying, or to ask my clinicians to remind me of my diagnoses (and some were totally unwilling to play this game, knowing it was a compulsion).

At one point, I was opening up my healthcare provider’s app dozens of times per day, just to look at my list of diagnoses in an attempt to self-soothe.

These mental compulsions, though subtle at first, started to escalate in frequency, until it eclipsed most, if not all of my day. I’m talking, thirty-texts-in-one-week-asking-my-friend-if-I-have-OCD kind of frequency (sorry about that, Chris). And the more I tried to stop thinking about it? The worse it got.

It took me far too long to recognize that these were behaviors stemming from OCD. Even now as I’m writing, there’s this compulsion to research just a little more, to take another OCD quiz (knowing that the results will always, always be the same), or to ask my partner for the millionth time, “Are you sure I have OCD?”

You know, just to be sure.

(And even now, there’s the fear that I’ll put this article out into the world, only to discover later that I’m not mentally ill at all. It’s not logical… but OCD isn’t logical, either.)

But given what I know about OCD, I’m probably not the only person that has been consumed by this fear.

And I’m definitely not the only mentally ill person to ever worry myself sick over whether or not I’m mentally ill enough, traumatized enough, suffering enough.

The very existence of this fear (which is so common, obviously to varying degrees) speaks to the kind of invalidating world we live in. Mentally ill people are practically groomed to gaslight themselves, and that kind of doubt doesn’t help or serve anyone.

So if you’re out there, maybe repeatedly googling “Am I making my mental illness up?” (like I have about five hundred times this week), I hope that this came up on your search results — and I’m glad that you’re here.

Because I’m going to say to you what I think is most important to hear right now:

No matter what you label your suffering, that pain is valid.

Mental illness or not, whatever framework you use to interpret or make sense of your pain… it’s still valid, and you deserve to be supported as you work through it.

If you are struggling, you deserve compassion and care. And as you struggle, you need to take care of yourself.

You have value. All people do. And you, just like anyone else, are worthy of happiness, health, and wholeness.

I’m giving you permission to create the circumstances needed for you to be well and thrive.

If that means asking for help, ask for help. No one should have to suffer alone, including you.

I can’t prove to myself that I do or don’t have OCD (or depression, C-PTSD, borderline, and whatever else ends up on my chart).

…And if you think about it, the nature of this whole “existence” thing is that there’s never complete certainty of anything — just hopefully enough certainty to get by.

My brain still isn’t satisfied with the quizzes, or the research, or the reminders from friends, or the diagnoses. I realize that now. The more I seek out the reassurance, the worse I feel.

And while I’m (mostly) okay right now, I might obsess about this all over again tomorrow, because that’s what this disorder does.

(Or maybe my mind will latch onto another fear, convincing me of some other way I might hurt someone or do something that I don’t actually want to do, inspiring the next great moral crisis for me to spend hours and hours consumed by. This is a very tedious, persistent disorder.)

So rather than resisting the doubt, I’m choosing to live with it. I’m choosing to do my very best to accept it — to accept doubt as one of the preconditions to being human in this very messy, confusing world.

I don’t know much for certain, but I do know this: I can take care of myself today. I can try my best to be kind to myself.

That’s what I’m going to do tonight. And I hope you will, too.

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