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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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.

Screenshot 2017-11-04 at 7.46.41 PM

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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PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!This piece that I wrote originally appeared at Unapologetic 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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5 Ways to Lovingly Support Someone With C-PTSD

I was watching Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I felt myself starting to panic.

Right from the start, seeing Quasimodo be the recipient of so much gaslighting – being told that the world wasn’t safe, that he would never be accepted or loved, that Frollo had only his best interest at heart – struck a jarring but familiar chord with me.

Quasimodo’s isolation in the bell tower, unable to leave or connect with the outside world, eerily mirrored the control and entrapment I’d experienced years before.

“Hey,” my partner said softly, pausing the film. “Sam, you’re safe. It’s okay. But if this is too much, I’m more than happy to watch something else.”

In the midst of an emotional flashback, my fears were disrupted by my partner’s tender assurances. I could only nod. Without another word, my partner put on Steven Universe – my go-to show, having watched every episode at least three or four times, its familiarity and charm never failing to calm me down.

And I breathed (slowly and deeply) as I was lulled back into a sense of calm, my partner sitting quietly beside me. Sometimes seemingly “little things” can stir up something in survivors that becomes difficult to process in the moment.

But if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that sometimes our greatest healing can happen when we allow ourselves to love and be loved.

When my therapist told me that he believed I was struggling with C-PTSD, countless pieces of the puzzle rapidly clicked into place for me. The flashbacks, the fear of abandonment, the hypervigilance, the distrust, the dissociation, the deep and abiding emotional pain that I could swear I was born with – with one diagnosis, all of it seemed to make so much more sense.

Complex trauma, while not officially listed in the DSM-5, is still widely recognized by clinicians and survivors alike as a form of PTSD that occurs due to prolonged exposure to trauma – particularly interpersonal trauma, in which there was abuse and/or neglect that led to a significant imbalance of power.

Many culturally competent clinicians and survivors alike extend this framework to include the oppression that marginalized folks face, which can so often be traumatic.

My understanding of C-PTSD is largely influenced by the work of Pete Walker, a psychotherapist and survivor of complex trauma, whose words and affirmations helped bolster my own recovery (his book on complex trauma in childhood is a must-read).

While I am in a much better place with my trauma history, my loved ones – especially close partners who don’t share this kind of history – sometimes struggle to know how best to support me. I’ve had time to read, engage in trauma-informed therapy, and connect with community around these issues, but my loved ones haven’t necessarily done that work.

Friends and family of folks with C-PTSD don’t always have the same level of education and understanding that survivors do. That’s why I wanted to create this quick resource – to serve as a jumping off point to how to better support trauma survivors.

If you aren’t sure how to support a loved one with complex PTSD, here are some suggestions to start with.

1. Recognize That We Don’t Always Know Our Triggers, Either

Whenever I disclose to someone that I have C-PTSD, they often try to support me by asking, “What are the triggers I should know about?” I think this is a great question to ask if a survivor is aware of what can cause a flashback, but the reality is that many of us can be triggered on a level we aren’t even aware of.

That’s why it’s good to not only ask what triggers us but to ask what you can do if we find ourselves triggered.

What does your loved one find helpful? Is there something you can say, a kind of safe touch they want from you, or something else that’s comforting?

I use this guide to manage my flashbacks, and I think it’s a good point of reference for anyone who wants to help someone work through a particular episode. Give it a read, and invite your loved one to share what’s useful to them and what isn’t – assuming that this person is ready and able to have the conversation with you.

2. Encourage Us to Express Our Grief and Anger

A lot of trauma-informed therapists will say that survivors have a difficult time grieving the trauma they endured, and sometimes have difficulty expressing anger.

One of the best things a loved one can do is hold the space, then, for survivors to experience these emotions and express them in healthy ways.

Not sure how to do it? Here are some suggestions:

  • “I noticed that this conversation is bringing up a lot of anger for you. Do you want to share why?”
  • “What happened to you is absolutely unfair and unjust, and I’m open to hearing more if you want to talk about it.”
  • “If you need to cry, that’s okay. I can stay with you or I can leave if you need privacy. Just let me know.”
  • “Your feelings about this are absolutely valid. I hope you know that you’re safe now, and you’re allowed to feel those feelings.”

The key here is to (1) validate those emotions as real and understandable, and (2) open up a space in which those emotions can be felt and expressed more deeply.

Sometimes these conversations will happen when the trauma is referenced directly. Other times, a seemingly unrelated event can trigger a flashback. In both cases, it’s important to give survivors the space to navigate their feelings without judgment.

3. Let Us Vent Without Trying to Fix Things

One of the biggest mistakes that my loved ones made was that every time I tried to process aloud what I had been through, they would interrupt with advice on how to “fix” things.

In my recovery, I’ve found that coping with C-PTSD is not so much about fixing something. For me, a big part of the work has been about breaking through the denial of what I’d been through, and learning to love and protect myself in a way that I’d never believed I could.

I didn’t need to change or “fix” my relationship with the people who’d hurt me – more than anything, I needed to work through the ways I internalized that harm so I could, in turn, address the ways I’d been hurting myself.

More than anything, I’ve needed to be able to talk about what happened and feel seen when I did, so that I could begin to process what I’d been through and treat myself with more compassion.

And while every survivor’s recovery will look different, remember that when we want advice, we’ll ask for it – but what we need more than anything is your compassion.

4. Give Us Permission to Be Imperfect

For a lot of us with complex trauma, we struggle with perfectionism. Pete Walker calls this the “inner critic,” which so many survivors grapple with in recovery.

For some of us, perfectionism was a coping mechanism run amok, in which we desperately tried to better ourselves to “earn” the love or attachment that we lacked by correcting our supposed shortcomings. (Spoiler alert: No amount of perfecting ever changed this, but we continued trying anyway)

This “inner critic” can also be the voice we internalized, like when “you’re a bad child” suddenly becomes “I’m a bad child.” The external criticisms or neglect we endured suddenly became the mantras we took on as we were further and further traumatized.

Which is to say, a lot of survivors who are dealing with complex trauma really struggle with being imperfect.

For me personally, I believed for a long time that if people truly got to know me, they wouldn’t be able to love me. So I spent a good amount of time trying to make myself “better,” with the hopes that I would someday be “good enough” for the people in my life.

I think this is why it’s powerful when our loved ones give us permission to be imperfect. Some examples:

  • “You don’t have to be perfect for me or for anyone else. I’m going to be in your corner no matter what.”
  • “It’s true that you make mistakes. But you always work hard to make things right, and that’s what matters.”
  • “In my eyes, you’re already lovable and you’re already worthy.”
  • “Trust me. If something’s wrong, I’m going to tell you, and I promise we’ll work through it.”

An important thing to remember is that you’re responsible to your loved one, but not for your loved one – so their perfectionism, self-esteem issues, and unresolved trauma aren’t yours to fix.

Instead, support your loved one as they do the work to untangle those issues for themselves. That begins with simply letting them be human – creating the kind of space where you can both show up as yourselves, without the “all or nothing” expectation that the only people worthy of love are perfect people.

5. Educate Yourself About C-PTSD

Not sure where to go? A great place to start is this FAQ about complex trauma. While it’s written with survivors in mind, it’s still extremely useful for loved ones who aren’t sure what this C-PTSD stuff is all about.

I also think that this Wikipedia article on C-PTSD is one of the better online resources, along with this book that I mentioned earlier on in this piece.

Ask your loved one if there’s a particular resource that they’d like you to familiarize yourself with, or if they’re open to having a conversation about how complex trauma affects their life and relationships. If they’re interested in a conversation, make sure that you’re committed to holding the space for whatever emotions might arise, and that your approach is validating and compassionate.

Pete Walker also has a great resource on the concept of “co-counseling,” which offers a nice structure on how to have these conversations in a productive and safe way. I’d highly recommend it. You can also reach out to a therapist to facilitate this conversation between you if more guidance would be helpful.

Part of supporting a survivor is being open to learning and realizing that this learning is an ongoing process, rather than a single event. There’s no singular article or resource that will give you the expertise needed to support someone – rather, in the process of building trust between you, you’ll teach each other how to create a mutually safe and supportive space.

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When my partner paused The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it was a simple but important gesture that said to me, “Your trauma is not a burden. I’m here to support you.”

More than anything, I think survivors withhold a lot of what they’re going through for fear of being “too much” – but when invited, we can find the kind of safety necessary to open up and allow our relationships to truly grow.

If you’re looking to support a survivor, it can be as simple as noticing. As simple as validating us. As simple as saying, “I believe you.”

All I really wanted was someone to believe me. And every time someone does, I can feel a part of me learning to trust again, learning to love with abandon and without fear.

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Mental Illness Taught Me to Fear Being Alone. Here’s What I Do to Cope.

My partner is gone for the remainder of the week, leaving abruptly on the heels of a family tragedy. And at first, I’m convinced I will be fine.

I have new medications. I have a wonderful cat. I have friends, and Netflix, and books to read.

“This won’t be so hard,” I tell myself. “It might even be fun.”

But the second night alone, I’m having a full-blown panic attack. And I’m so ashamed of it that I resist reaching out for help, for fear of embarrassing myself and confirming my friends’ suspicions that I’m too crazy, or too needy, or both.

At first, I feel ridiculous, because “normal” people can be alone. “Normal” people don’t think twice about it, apparently.

But here I am, laying on the floor of my apartment, hyperventilating because my OCD has whipped me into a frenzy. I can’t stop thinking about how I might kill my cat or kill myself, even though I desperately don’t want to do either (fun fact: obsessions like these never come to fruition, and even though I logically know it’s my OCD messing with me, I can’t seem to calm down).

But when I pause and think about it, my aversion to being alone isn’t exactly surprising.

Being alone meant lacking protection, and with a history of self-harm and dissociation, being alone meant that I was vulnerable to real emotional and even physical harm. I learned to associate being alone with being in danger. And while I’ve pushed back against that line of thinking in my adult life, I’m still traumatized by everything that happened when there was no one there to intervene.

We exist in a culture that likes to tell us that if we aren’t completely self-reliant, we’re weak or defective or needy. But the truth is, people with mental illness or trauma histories have valid reasons to fear being alone.

When the most painful events in our lives began with our minds betraying us, being left to our own devices can feel like the equivalent of hanging from the edge of a very precarious cliff.

Fearing being alone, then, could be looked at as a self-protective measure — when we associate being alone with being in danger, our brains are wired to sound the alarm when we perceive that danger, even if it isn’t “rational” to the outside observer.

I have a lot of compassion for anyone who struggles to be by themselves (even for myself, though it can be hard to remember sometimes). It’s not a position that anyone wants to be in. It’s not a fear that anyone actively wants to have. And it can wind up making us feel helpless, embarrassed, and ashamed.

There are so few resources that help us figure out how to be alone and still feel safe. There’s this default assumption that we all can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and handle it, without realizing that trauma and mental health struggles can deeply complicate this.

For me, being alone is still very much a trigger, one that I’m constantly trying to figure out. But each time I confront it, I get a little bit better at dealing with it, and sometimes even enjoying having that time to myself.

I wanted to share some of what has helped me. While every person is different, I’m hoping you’ll take what’s useful to you and leave the rest. Think of this as inspiration, rather than a list of hard-and-fast rules.

Here’s how I deal with being by myself.

1. Resist the Self-Criticism and Judgment

When I feel the anxiety of being alone, my impulse is to start judging myself for it. “Everyone else seems to be fine with this,” I tell myself. “Why can’t I be?”

I start to panic about how I’ll never learn to be okay with being alone, and that if I ever lose my partners or my friends, I’ll be doomed to a life of misery and anxiety for all of eternity. (Typical borderline, I know…)

It’s a shame spiral that quickly gets out of control. It never helps me — it only makes things much worse.

As best you can, it’s important to try to resist those thoughts. Particularly as someone with complex PTSD who struggles with feelings of being powerless, I try to combat those thoughts with affirmations and self-assurances. I tell myself stuff like this:

  • It’s okay to feel afraid or triggered right now.
  • I am capable and prepared for this, even if I feel afraid.
  • I have tools and coping skills for this situation.
  • This is about trauma and not about personal weakness.
  • I have options for what I can do in this moment.
  • I can keep myself safe. I can count on me. 

Everyone’s affirmations will be different, but the general themes here are important. It’s critical to remember that (1) your fear in this moment is valid, (2) you have options for how to respond to that fear, and (3) your emotions, however charged, aren’t in control. You are.

I practice telling myself this stuff all the time. Sometimes I even write it on a sticky note if I need to. And while it may not magically make everything better, it does help me to feel less guilty about what I’m going through.

2. Create the Illusion of Company

Sometimes we really do need a human connection, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s why, when I’m struggling to be by myself, I try to create at least the illusion of that connection.

For me, this includes podcasts. One of my favorites is The Purrrcast, which is literally just a podcast of people telling stories about their cats. It has this fun feeling of sitting around in someone’s living room, geeking out about one of the best critters known to humankind (sorry, I just seriously love cats). I like to get a cup of tea, wrap myself in a blanket, and tune in.

I also think YouTube channels are great for this. YouTube tends to be a little more personal, with YouTubers talking directly to you. I like to watch Marina Watanabe’s channel for this reason (she runs the series Feminist Fridays).

I imagine myself hanging out with Marina — talking about mental health, feminism, politics, queerness, whatever — and I think that has helped me immeasurably in becoming more comfortable being alone. (I’m now ~actual friends~ with Marina, instead of just a creepy fanboy, so I can verify that she’s actually as amazing as she seems.)

If you find yourself in a difficult place, there are also therapeutic chatbots like Wysa, which can help talk you through your negative thought patterns, assist you with self-care, and teach you different cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. I like to use this when I’m in a panic and need some perspective.

Remembering that these are tools in your toolbox, available to you at any moment, can be super helpful in easing you into being on your own.

3. Set a Time Limit

Sometimes it’s just not reasonable to expect myself to be alone. But if I avoid being alone at all costs, I’m only reinforcing that fear and sense of helplessness.

So instead, I’ve tried setting time limits, encouraging myself to spend a finite amount of time on my own instead of an indefinite amount of time. Knowing that this time alone is temporary helps me cope a lot more effectively.

For example, I give myself an hour. I set a timer, and when that timer is up, I reach out to a friend or get myself out of the apartment. This challenges me to sit with my discomfort a little longer than I want to, but also makes it more bearable by giving myself a deadline.

It’s okay if you can’t spend an infinite amount of time in isolation. Just try pushing yourself a little (read: within healthy limits that don’t jeopardize your safety), and you may find over time that you become more and more capable of coping with it for longer amounts of time.

Remember, we’re trying to teach our brains that we can survive being alone. Which means it’s more important to have small victories (building up our confidence) than it is to just “toughen up” and suffer through an entire night.

4. Learn and Limit Your Triggers

Working with a therapist can be especially helpful with this. When being alone is already a trigger, it’s really important to limit our exposure to other things that make us more stressed out.

For example, I’ve learned that because my OCD obsessions center around self-harm or harming others, I’m not going to marathon Criminal Minds when I’m by myself. Similarly, as much as I love a beautiful, sad ballad, I will not be listening to the “Life Sucks” playlist on Spotify (yes, that’s a real playlist, and yes, I’ve gotten lost in it before — big mistake).

Even if I think I can handle stressors (oh, those lonely nights that I thought I could handle reading that super depressing memoir), I now don’t engage regardless of my mood in that moment. Because it’s just not worth the risk.

Know what sets you off. And avoid it like the plague.

5. Create a Schedule — And Stick To It

If I know I’m going to be spending some time alone, I try to plan ahead. I research some movies and pick one that I’ll watch, I buy some snacks, I download a new game, get a new book at the library, schedule a Skype date with a friend if needed, whatever.

I try to make sure my time is filled up, so that I’m not moping around or letting my mind wander.

Is it weird to create a calendar for my solo activities? Probably, maybe a little bit. But if I’m sitting around not sure of how to use my time, that’s when I start to get anxious. If I’ve already got plans, I have less space to freak out and a lot more to look forward to.

I’ve said it before, but boredom really is the enemy of mental health. So get yourself a plan, and stick to it.

6. Get Help Sooner Rather Than Later

You’re not always going to be a superstar at being alone. So much of our impulsive, emotional reactions to being alone have more to do with trauma we can’t even consciously access, and dealing with that can take a lot of time.

This is why it’s important that we actually ask for help when we need it, rather than waiting for some crisis or catastrophe.

If we wait for a crisis to happen, we’re only teaching our brains that crisis is inevitable, and we perpetuate the fear. But if we get support early on that allows us to turn things around, we can start to feel more capable.

When I was having a panic attack on my floor the other week, a lot of thoughts went through my mind. I thought about drinking to dull the pain. I thought about self-harm, because I’m practically wired to think about it whenever I’m stressed out. But I realized that if I engaged in either of those behaviors, I’d only confirm the very fear that made me feel unsafe in the first place.

So I called a friend. We went and got milkshakes, talked through my OCD obsession, and I slept soundly that night.

(At times when I was deeper in crisis, I was able to get myself to a hospital. And there’s no shame in that, either, if that’s what you need.)

The point of learning to cope with being alone isn’t to teach yourself that you’ll never need anyone — it’s to remind your brain that you have options, and that you can count on yourself to make the right choice and stay safe.

Sometimes staying safe means handling things on your own with your learned coping skills. Other times, it’s knowing when you need a little extra support, and being courageous enough to ask for it.

Practicing these different skills has helped me to create a sense of safety that has been missing for a long time. You start to learn the difference between a crisis that requires an intervention, and a moment of panic that we can manage ourselves. Our brains aren’t always great at knowing which is which — but that’s something that can be learned over time, with practice and self-compassion.

It’s amazing how we’re taught to feel ashamed of needing other people. I often wondered how different it would be if we, instead, just validated that being alone can be really hard, and encouraged people to be patient with themselves as they navigate those feelings.

There’s a funny sort of irony to the fact that, if you dread being alone like I do, you’re actually in great company — because it’s more common an experience than you might think.

So take a deep breath. Because believe it or not, you’ve got this.

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