A huge thank you to Karlie Ebersole for contributing this guest post!
CW: sanism, ableism
A couple months ago, I decided for the third time in my life that I needed to begin to see a therapist. As someone with an anxious and often depressive neurotype, there are generally two options posed to me: talk to a therapist or take meds. Since I feel like so much of my experience with Madness is linked to my experiences and social position in society, I generally feel reluctant to reflexively take the latter option and am more inclined towards talk therapy. I LOVE to talk… even when I often hate myself after I do it a lot. Perhaps subconsciously I truly believe that talking can solve all of my problems. While that might not be exactly true, I do believe that there is a lot of power in trying to confront our emotions and past traumas when we have the resources and/or desire to do so.
The first time that I tried to see a therapist was a process. A game of writing the number to call on my to-do list and watching weeks and weeks pass by without having called to make an appointment. I had recently moved to college and was becoming distant from many of my friends back home if I had not already lost them altogether. I felt scared and alienated from my peers and was coming off from a period where I used alcohol to cope. Because I was beginning to understand and recognize my worth as a disabled person and was beginning to name my queerness, I was only able to start peeling at the outer layers serving as barriers to my self-understanding once finally finding someone to talk to. After all, my therapist was at a short-term clinic and it felt incentivized to make my problems seem tangible and concise. I was able to fool myself into feeling I reached some sort of resolution towards the end of my sessions, completely unaware that resolution and closure should not have been the goal.
The next time I tried to see a therapist was maybe a year later. I decided to go to an affordable clinic. In the college town where I live, this meant that I saw someone who was still in training. Objectively I was fine with this. After all, I really just wanted someone to listen to me and validate what I was saying. Well, she listened to me alright. I found myself just going in there and talking and talking sometimes feeling like I forgot to take a breath. I felt validated but upon reflection I think this might just be because she did not do anything to overtly invalidate me. She laughed at all my jokes including the ones I made to avoid confronting how shitty I felt about things in my life, but I appreciated that validation at the time too. To her credit, she did give me lots of worksheets to help me evaluate my values and she helped me practice mindfulness a few times. I felt like I was being offered tools that would help me in the real world outside of our sessions. Unfortunately these sessions expired around the time that I am assuming my therapist was completing her program. She made me feel like I had accomplished something, but that feeling did not last long. A few more layers were peeled.
Fast forward another year or so to this year and I am realizing that all my past therapy experiences have sufficed merely as band-aids to underlying issues. I am not going to pretend to have a complete understanding of what these issues are, but I do figure they reside somewhere in my unprocessed trauma. And as most disabled folks with able-bodied parents probably know, much of this trauma lies in (or becomes exacerbated by) these familial relationships. More than that, there are nuances to having any relationships with non-disabled people that solicit deep reflection and self-care work; the latter not being really possible without the former. This dynamic is not exclusive to any specific marginal identity, as I have learned by listening to other marginalized folks that this is a common experience. What is important is acknowledging that marginalized folks are vulnerable to their oppressors whether or not the oppressor intends to cause harm. So where can we go to receive the care that will validate our position? Where can we feel safe to express what society wants us to keep silent about– our oppression, often the very core of our problems?
I was inspired to write this because of my most recent experiences in therapy. Right as I begin to make myself vulnerable, expressing basic grief over all the pain I have experienced born out of living and interacting with the world as anomaly, clinicians seem to have a knee-jerk reaction:
“Have you thought about how [insert name of person other than myself] must have felt?”
Here’s the thing about being multiply marginalized disabled person: it is normal to feel like we take up too much space even when we take up a fraction of most others. I was socialized to feel like a burden, to feel lucky if someone decided to pay attention to me in any way that seemed remotely positive. I was made to feel like I should thank people for treating me with the basic respect that is expected to be afforded to white, able-bodyminded, cishet folks. And there are of course layers to this, but even if there is a respect that is not afforded to non-disabled folks, it will never be because of their ability status.
What is it that I am trying to express? In a lot of ways, I am still working through that but a theme has come up a lot lately for me in spaces where I would hope to feel safe and receive care. This theme relates to the pressure to empathize or sympathize with those who have caused me harm, whether that harm was intentional or otherwise. Let me be clear. It is not therapeutic to encourage me to consider how my existence and intrinsic behaviors make other people feel, especially when their feelings are often rooted and/or influenced by ableist/saneist notions of normality. I do not need reinforcement that I am a burden to everyone around me, that I need to prioritize others before myself. I already do this. It is natural for me, reflexive. It is in these moments where I realize how easy it is to slip through the cracks, how critically misunderstood so many marginalized people are and how urgent it is to have more therapists who are informed about vast human complexity. Informed feels like an understatement. They just need to….. give a shit. Our lives cannot be reduced to stereotypical narratives and all of our problems are not going to be directly related to our marginal identities. However, if a fundamental mutual understanding our material experiences cannot be reached, if there is no space for that to be heard, how can we truly benefit from these interactions at all?
I hope that by speaking my truth and connecting with other folks who are marginalized, I will begin to find channels where I can be cared for in ways that will allow me to heal from trauma, or at the very least can allow me to find peace. More importantly, I hope that I find the space within myself to feel worthy of receiving that care.