Monday, November 14, 2016

On Walking Away...

This last week has seen a number of us walk away from people in our communities, and in some cases from whole communities. The election seems like it was the instigating factor, but in reality, for those of us who did the walking it was just a final straw, the flushing of a last chance we had been tenuously holding out to people who hurt us. It's not surprising so many of us chose to walk out. What is surprising is that when I look around, the people who have the most guilt and recrimination are the ones who also have the best case for opting out, and the people who realistically enabled the hate that has just burst across the ballot box like a wave seem to have no trouble with their own decisions to self-isolate.

That's not how this gets to work. Trust me, I'm an expert in walking out. My current relationships with blood relatives happen entirely over text, and everyone who has known me longer than five years is just an acquaintance or a long-distance friend at this point, with the exception of the roommate who ended our romantic relationship six months ago. This is what happens when you are an adult with a chronic pain condition. And when you have a blatant and impossible to ignore neurodivergence (or several). And when you start transition.

Sit down. You are about to get a master class in alone vs. loneliness.

Regarding the people who should stay and fight...

I'm not going to be wasting a lot of space talking about why it is your responsibility to let marginalized folk slink off to focus on survival if you are the sort who can comfortably ask why we are freaking the hell out right now. Chances are, if you're that person then you're not reading the blog. Or, if you are, then you either think you are one of us or you have some other rationalization in hand for this critique. I'm not particularly concerned with you either way, though, because the fact is that the people who are going to fight are fighting and the ones who are not never were. The people who stay and fight are already staying and fighting. If they can convert you, great, but I personally am not wasting my time on it. I'm trying to help people survive.

On social media vs. IRL isolation

As an autistic system in the middle of transition, I only have so many social spoons. Part of the reason why my social media life is becoming so intolerant of those that hate me is because I can't escape it in the real world. I happen to be working on expanding my real-world involvement, so I need to step back my online footprint if I am going to safely fight the fights that matter. I used a similar reason for why I was not going to keep working on a family that didn't make itself safe and welcoming to me for three and a half decades. Whether this is your reason for walking away from certain relationships or you have others, the fact is that isolation is bad for you, but social media isolation might just be the tool you need to be able to cope with the rest of things.

Imposter syndrome

One of the things that affects many people in a variety of different marginalized identities is imposter syndrome. Depending on your exact circumstances, it could manifest in a variety of ways, but for those of us with neurodivergences, one of the biggest obstacles is overcoming the urge to question our own competence. For transgender neurodivergent individuals, this can be especially problematic, because the idea that our way of being is a mental illness compounds the already-gigantic task of coming to terms with things that society actually does label mental illnesses, and with deconstructing the pathology-based beliefs that cause us to question ourselves.

Whether you are neurodivergent, transgender, or you face other axes of marginalization, staying safe and moving forward under a regime that is hostile to your way of living means seeking affirmation and validation. Whether that comes through your own community, through intercommunity outreach, or through solace and the policing of your own personal boundaries is up to you. No matter what, though, you need to make sure that when you question yourself, it is from within the safe and bounded confines of a space you trust. When the world wants to destroy you, figuring out whether you were wronged or whether you have made a mistake requires laboratory-style controls. Otherwise, you may never isolate the variable.

Rest and Regeneration

Chances are, when you walk away from a relationship, you have goals in mind for your future. It doesn't matter if you are walking out on a professional dynamic that no longer works for you, on a romantic or nesting relationship that has gone south, or on the people who should have been your core support network. It will take you time to get yourself right again, and to understand how to begin to relate to people who don't have ties to those parts of your life you have moved on from. You need to let yourself hope and plan during these times, but you also need to regroup and to regain your strength. If you just had to walk out on people who played a major role in your day-to-day for a few years, it could take some time before you are ready to move into the next project in a serious way.

When you are trying to find the balance between activity and self-care, it's important to know how to tell when you are giving yourself signals that say rest. For those of us that are regularly dissociating or who experience alexithymia on a regular basis, looking for objective behavioral markers can help:
  • Reduced attention span
  • Difficulty with language, especially language that is normally non-problematic
  • Indecisiveness/Executive function problems
  • Cognitive dissonance (think when your brain breaks, but without the sensory feedback)
  • Heightened sensitivity to sensory input
  • Reactive emotional outbursts
All of these are signs that you need to rest before getting organized around a new project, and if you ignore them, you will wind up in a place where you are unable to complete it and more impaired than you were to begin with. How do I know this? Ask me about my blog network....

Preserving the integrity of reality

The mind is a terrible place to wait. Angel Haze said that, and they were dead on with the assertion. When you are working on making yourself free of your problematic relationships, you need to be able to count on yourself to know what is real and to honor your reactions to those real events. This is complicated, though, by the fact that the process of time and retelling has been shown to shape memory in a variety of unpredictable ways. As a result, people are not only prone to reality alteration at the hands of others, they are also prone to causing it themselves.

When you are intentionally misled about what is real and taught to mistrust your own perceptions, that is called gaslighting, after the name of a play about a husband who tries to make his wife believe she is insane by changing the light levels and other environmental factors in their home while lying about it to confuse his wife's perceptions. It is common for disabled and neurodivergent people to do this to themselves, especially when they have heard a lifetime of gaslighting tactics from other people that they then begin to play over and over to themselves. Ideas like the one that we can simply choose to do more work are not only damaging mentally, but they can have physical consequences too.

Similarly, gaslighting LGBTQIA individuals can cause many of us to lose track of our real emotions and desires by mistaking bodily and mental cues for other causes, including symptoms of larger health problems. In extreme cases, health problems can manifest and grow unchecked when this happens because people who believe their bodies are lying about their desires and needs tend to also have a bad habit of ignoring pain and other signs that they are in distress. I once tried to talk myself out of a fibromyalgia flare by convincing myself that the pain medication I was on was causing the cognitive problems and going off it. That was a bad week.

If your sense of reality is particularly prone to attack by yourself or others, you will need to find ways to reset your trust in it. If your social networks still include people you trust enough to validate reality for you, then you will want to use one as a sounding board as you adjust yourself to new emotional reactions and new situations. Reaction assistance is something particularly common among autistic support communities, so if you are not autistic and you have no experience with them, it might be time to start making friends across communities.

If your social networks no longer contain the kind of people you would trust to validate reality for you, then it is important to find external ways to judge whether or not the things other people are telling you are accurate. That means being able to step back from your sense of distress and being able to assess who gets what out of a situation. One important thing to keep in mind when you are attempting to assess things on your own is that abusive people tend to accuse their victims of exhibiting some of their own worst behaviors. This is important to know both because it will help you trust yourself and because it will serve to temper your knee-jerk reactions to people you may have wronged by reminding you that if you lash out and make accusations when there is a simple misunderstanding, you can also cause others to lose reality integrity, and you can become the one who gaslights as a result.

To help avoid self-gaslighting and the gaslighting of others, look at the following factors when you are trying to reconcile reality and your immediate perceptions:
  • Who benefits and how?
  • Is the person claiming to be the victim actually in a position of power or authority that allows them to control the resolution of the situation?
  • What specific acts are they claiming did them wrong, and how? Remember, generality is used by abusive people to get you to fill in the gaps yourself.
  • Are they throwing around absolute statements ("You always do this!") or addressing specific instances of behavior?
  • How much do they know about your access needs?
Remember, unseating your sense of the integrity of your reality is part of unseating your sense of self and putting you back into an abusive dynamic. Defend the borders of that reality hard, but do not mistake everyone who questions it for an enemy. The ones who can speak to you in specifics can help you understand when you are self-deceiving.

You must become your own best friend

This is a common platitude, and no doubt if you've read other self-help guides for people coming out of abusive situations, you've heard this before. It's not simple, though, and it does take reminders. Even today, I need to be reminded on a regular basis that I am not immune to making ableist demands on myself or tolerating them from others, and I work to make sure that I am taking care of myself. Practically, this manifests in a variety of ways. Some days, it means that I need to look at how people speak to me and what they expect of me and decide whether or not I should put up with it, and often the answer is no.

On other days, the practice becomes more complicated. This is especially true when one is trying to build up strength and challenge oneself, because the motivation to reach the goal can lead to exhaustion and injury. It's also true when deciding whether or not to let new people in. The only way that you will manage to break free of this orbit and get yourself into a social group that is healthy is if you embrace the idea that you would rather be alone than with someone who makes you feel bad. It sounds simple, but many people realize this truth and continue choosing the opposite. It's how we get trapped in obligation. It's how we get trapped in closets.

You haven't walked away yet until your priorities have shifted to put your own well-being at the top. You can be a best friend to someone by giving them everything that is left, but if you try to give them everything, you are hurting yourself and them, and you are in danger of becoming the very thing you just tried to walk away from.

Athena Lynn Michaels-Dillon