The Marginalized Person’s Guide to Pool Parties

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Hello my long lost friends. It’s been years, nay millenia since I last spoke with you. I’m so sorry for dropping off the face of the planet. My non-internet life has been kicking into high gear lately, and I’ve got a ton of other projects in process (not the least of which is hand-lettering all of my Hacking Your Executive Function series). My brain needed a break.

But I’m baaaack and I’m so excited to introduce my latest series.

A few months back, Hulu debuted the show Shrill, based on the book Lindy West. Everyone at my aerial studio got WAY into it. If you haven’t seen the show, go watch it: it’s powerful and intense, and resonated really deeply with a lot of us. We’re going to venture into a tiny little spoiler here, but it’s nothing major: in one episode, the main character decides to go to a pool party specifically for fat people. It’s a revelation for her: she’s surrounded by people like her who are unapologetic, joyful, supportive, and so happy to be together. I mean literally it’s what a party should be: a bunch of people enjoying each other’s company and their own experiences together.

After seeing that episode, we started to refer to our aerial studio as “our pool party”. We could show up with whatever baggage we had on any given day, discuss it (or not) as we needed to, be allowed to participate (or not) at whatever level felt good to us in that moment, and have a bunch of strong, beautiful, amazing people yelling at us that our butts look good.

A few weeks later, I was in therapy and doing some EMDR (trauma processing) around a memory of my first boyfriend making out with me when I very much did not want him to: how I felt trapped and confused, how desperate I felt to escape, the fear. When my therapist asked what I’d do now in a situation like that I responded “I’d call my aerial friends and they’d destroy any man who dared touch me without my consent.” It took all of five minutes for me to get from that realization to the realization that what I want out of my life is to make pool parties for other people. That shit is what makes life worth living.

I’ve been letting those thoughts percolate somewhat in the last few weeks. There are some areas in my day to day life that I’m working to build spaces like this, but I also wanted to do some work to identify what it is about certain places that give them this difficult-to-replicate feeling. So that’s what this series it: an exploration of what traits make a space a pool party. It’ll also probably have some practical suggestions on finding pool parties, recommendations for leaders who want to make their spaces more pool party like, and other bits and bobs along the way.

But hold up: why does the title of this post say “marginalized person”? Nothing in that definition of pool party implies that it has to be a marginalized person. Well as per usual everything I do has to come with a lens of accessibility, feminism, racial injustice, and all the other things that make me a social justice warrior (or bard or whatever). And there’s something particular about a pool party: it’s a place of relief for those who don’t feel comfortable in the world as it is. That feeling of relief and joy that comes from letting it all hang out when you don’t get to do that on a day to day basis is unique to marginalized people.

Sure, white, cis, straight, able-bodied dudes don’t feel comfortable in every place, but there are so many places historically available to them to feel unjudged and comfortable. So the thing that makes pool parties amazing is that they provide that same opportunity to people who haven’t had it. And unsurprisingly, those are the people who need it most: the ones who go through their lives second-guessing, masking, closeted, self-conscious, insulted, attacked. Those are the people who most benefit from pool parties.

So not only will I be talking about the logistics, I’ll also be chatting about the philosophical importance of them and the the role that they play in the lives of marginalized people, particularly when it comes to healing trauma. So just in case you thought I was going to write something fun and light-hearted, don’t worry, I’ll always manage to make it intense.

So onwards! To a pool party!

Self Love, Self Tolerance, Pride, and Self-Esteem

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We’re heading out of pride month, which is why now is the obvious time for me to finally get around to talking about pride (good job me) even though I started working on this post back in May. I have a weird relationship with pride. I feel fiercely proud of the communities that I belong to: I have queer pride and autistic pride and nerdy pride. But feeling proud of particular accomplishments or who I am? I doubt that will ever happen. I’m not sure it needs to.

And that’s part of what I want to talk about: how necessary is pride? How do you build the kind of pride that supports healthy self-esteem? How does pride relate to self-esteem and self-love? What should our goals be when it comes to developing these positive feelings towards ourselves, and how realistic is it to expect something like self-love in a society that just shits all over you if you aren’t a white, cis, dude?

Let’s start by talking about toxic positivity. That sounds like an oxymoron but it’s not. Toxic positivity refers to the way that some people demand only happy attitudes. It’s rampantly common on social media, and is something that gets forced on neurodivergent and disabled people (see: the only disability is a bad attitude). It says that you shouldn’t focus on bad things, feel negative feelings, or share things that could be construed as complaining or whining. It says everyone needs to love themselves, and if you just tried harder you can be happy and positive.

What all of that misses is that some people have really good reasons not to be positive and to have low self-esteem. Some of us have brains that literally don’t function correctly to have good self-esteem. Many people live in bodies that cause them pain and distress on a regular basis. Everyone who isn’t cis, white, thin, able-bodied, etc. gets constant messages that they are wrong and their bodies are wrong. So it’s real and honest to have some negative feelings about yourself and your body. It’s a fight to have self-love or pride. Feelings of sadness and hurt and pain are reasonable feelings and they deserve attention and time. People should feel comfortable sharing negativity when they need to.

With all that in mind, if you’re female, disabled, a person of color, fat, or any other demographic that is constantly told how bad they are for existing, do you need self-love? What’s the honestly healthy and reasonable way to deal with self-esteem?

I no longer think that it’s useful for me to think about loving myself. It’s a goal that I doubt I will ever reach, I live in a society that is constantly fighting to get me NOT to believe it, and it’s simply a fact that my body is not valued in this society (although as a white, cis, relatively thin lady I have it pretty good). I’m too tired to fight that over and over and over and it just doesn’t seem worth it. It’s like living in an abusive relationship and trying to convince yourself that you are actually loved.

That being said, some people find the process of loving themselves and feeling pride in themselves incredibly powerful. I will not deny that being bold and happy and proud in the face of oppression is powerful. It’s not just about you: it’s about showing others that it’s possible, it’s about actively, every second of your life, questioning the ideals that have been shoved down your throat your whole life. For some, this work is doable, important, and radical.

For me, it comes down to effort in and return out: how much work do I need to do in order to feel some level of self love? What do I get out of it? My personal calculation has come down to say that “self tolerance” is more reasonable, but your equation may be different.

With that in mind, how do you actually go about feeling more proud of yourself and improving your self-esteem? If you want to love yourself, what can you do to make that happen?

The thing that has surprised me the most is how big of an impact the people around me have on my self-esteem. This has been true on two levels: the friends that I have and how they respect my needs, boundaries, and accommodations as well as the communities I expose myself to and the ideals they uphold.

I started with the first level because finding communities and being intentional about what images you expose yourself to is hard and more abstract. Other people (while also challenging) are also a bit more literal.

Friends are damn hard. Finding good friends, especially as an adult is hard. I’m about to make a recommendation that might seem real shitty to a lot of people who struggle with socializing: be picky. Friends who ignore your boundaries, friends who make you worried that you’re saying the wrong thing, friends who won’t allow you accommodations are not good friends. When I first started dealing with my mental health I made a concerted effort to be social more often and I canceled plans with people at least once a month because of mental health issues. I needed the accommodation of flexibility, patience, and support. My friends were willing to provide that, and because they never got upset when I canceled, I learned that my needs were valid and I was acceptable as is. I highly recommend learning about how to set boundaries and make requests, and practicing as often as possible because that will create the healthiest, most supportive relationships.

I found friends who understood when I said “I cannot tolerate chewing noises, could we turn on some music” if we were out together, and friends who never told me I was acting weird or talking weird. Friends who would listen when I told them about how cool octopuses were (and how they can taste with their skin). It’s HARD to find these people, and it can seem exhausting and impossible when you’re still looking, but keep trying.

My strategies have been to find people with similar interests to my own, to find one friend who is accepting and nurturing and then meet their other friends, and STEAL THEM FOR YOUR OWN, or to work hard on establishing one relationship at a time that you feel solid and comfortable with. Even 1-2 people who are validating, supportive, and accepting can make a huge difference. That for me was the major turning point from “I am a burden on everyone who doesn’t do enough and is ugly and bad and awful” to “I’m ok. Asking for what I need doesn’t hurt anyone. Being different doesn’t hurt anyone.”

There could easily be a whole series on building healthy relationships and finding people who respect your needs, but for this post we’ll have to settle for that down and dirty overview. It seems odd that you would need other people to build your self love and pride, but the environment you live in makes a significant difference to what you internalize, and if you’re always around people who accept you, build you up, and treat you well, you’ll start to think that’s what you deserve.

Speaking of internalizing things, let’s talk about media and culture. Your direct friends aren’t the only people who send you messages about what’s valued, what’s acceptable, and who you should be. You also get those messages from the utter deluge of media and information we get every day. Lucky for you, the internet means that you get some control over what types of images you see every day.

Curate your internet experience. No it’s not an echo chamber, it’s so easy to hear fatphobic or ableist or racist bullshit, you’ll get it no matter what. Intentionally follow people on social media who are like you and who celebrate themselves. Work to find media that doesn’t disparage people like you (e.g. I try not to watch things that make jokes at the expense of fat people being fat). Find hashtags or movements that celebrate the things you find difficulty being proud of (for me it was the neurodiversity movement and body positivity movements). Spend time looking at images of people being happy and (fat/black/disabled/trans/etc.), read articles where people talk about the things they love about themselves or how they are building community.

I have also found it incredibly helpful to find or build spaces where it’s taken as a given that you and your traits are valued. One of the most positive influences in my life is a Facebook group run by autistics that says in the rules that autistic ways of playing, communicating, and being are to be valued and respected. This gets played out in all the posts and interactions, and it feels like a place where I can finally breathe. Give yourself those spaces.

Sometimes this might mean cutting out media you enjoy. I really loved trash-watching America’s Next Top Model, but guess what? It gave me fuel to hate myself for my body. I stopped and I feel so much better. Be aware of what you’re learning from media so that you can choose it intentionally.

There are definitely additional things you can do that involve gratitude, challenging negative beliefs and myths, reminding yourself of what you do well, and so on, but these are two that I rarely have heard and which made all the difference for me.

It Feels Bad. That Means It’s Working. It Feels Bad. That Means I Should Stop.

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About a month ago, I decided to start working on a fresh set of life goals. I wanted to be intentional and thoughtful about the life I live and to actually aim for something. I wanted to do the hard work of identifying my values and acting them out as best I can. I put a variety of tasks large and small onto my schedule for the month, thinking that they would help me to feel more authentically myself and allow me to be a better person.

Today, I feel icky. I spent the better part of 20 hours sleeping yesterday. I feel stretched thin and uncomfortable and overwhelmed. I feel demanding and conflicted and too loud. I feel like I’m asking too much and not providing what I should in return.

Surprisingly, I think that these feelings are good evidence that I should keep doing exactly what I’m doing. I think that they’re good evidence of growth, of work, of change. This is both metaphorical and literal. When you’re working out and it starts to hurt, that usually means you’re hitting the point where you’re getting stronger. Emotionally, when you start to dig into things that are uncomfortable or try things that scare you, you’re growing and dealing with the challenging things. I sometimes joke with myself that if my therapist suggests something and my first response is “no!!!!” then I should definitely probably do it because the strong negative response indicates that I’m afraid of something about that experience. In general, our emotions protect our coping mechanisms, even if those coping mechanisms are bad (think telling someone with an eating disorder to eat more: it’ll upset them a lot, but the discomfort is part of being healthier).

On the other hand, a week or so ago I scraped my knee quite badly. I thought it was fine, so I mostly ignored it. I ignored it when it ached all day long. I ignored it when it started to goop some gross substances out of it. I ignored it when the skin around it turned red. And guess what? Now it’s much worse than it was to start, and most likely infected. Ignoring it when something hurts and feels bad is an incredibly stupid idea because pain is a signal to STOP what you’re doing and make a change.

So what the actual heck? Pain both means “good job keep going” and also “stop immediately you stupid poop nugget why are you doing this?”

Now most of you probably understand that nuance is a thing and are looking at me like “yup, sometimes the same stimulus means different things ya ding dong” and I get that. But I want to recognize the fact that determining when pain is healthy and when it’s a sign to stop can be incredibly challenging (especially if you’re interoception challenged or alexythemic). And if possible, I’d like to offer some suggestions for how to tell the difference.

You know how we’re going to do it? We’re going to talk about stretching.

I’m currently working on getting my splits. I take stretch classes 2-3 times a week, and I have been for quite a while now. In the first few months of working on splits I strained my leg approximately once a month. As I was pushing into the movements, I was pushing to the point of pain: a sharp kind of pain. Almost pinchy. I couldn’t breathe easily. I couldn’t hold the position for an extended period of time. And those were all signals that I was pushing my body too far too quickly, which is why I would goof up my leg, then have to take time to recover. It set me back even further.

I’m still having a hard time always knowing which discomfort is good discomfort and which discomfort is productive. But here’s a big hint for myself: you don’t need to push to the very edge of your abilities every time. Some of your stretches will feel comfortable for extended stretches of time. The point isn’t to hit one major moment of an impressive pose. It’s to build up a skill that you can keep using.

Ok time to get metaphorical:

Sometimes a new experience or skill will take you to the very edge of your flexibility. It’s the absolute most you can do. For me that would be something like cold calling a business for a sponsorship. Doing it will feel painful, breathless, terrifying. It will activate all of the fears and anxieties I have. That’s how I hurt myself.

I like to think about breath and skills as the measure here. Can I do the thing and still breathe? Can I do the thing and use the skills I have that keep me functional? That’s the equivalent of productive stretching. It’s the edge of your discomfort. It’s the place where all of your resources aren’t simply focused on making it through this pain or this moment, but instead on doing it correctly, with care, and with intention. When discomfort is something that I can do and still engage skills, that’s the growth time.

It’s funny how often I find that physical metaphors allow me to distinguish emotional nuances. Very literal questions like “can I easily take a breath” are much easier to answer than “is this distress helpful or overwhelming”. So often emotions get expressed in physical ways, and it’s much easier to notice what’s happening in your body than it is to pull apart the strands of what you’re feeling and why.

So if you’re wondering whether your discomfort means you should stop or keep going, think of stretching: can you be productive where you are? Do you need to back off a bit? What will help? You’ve got this!

Thoughts About Aging, Mental Illness, and Fatigue

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CN: suicide, death, eating disorder

I am ageist. It’s a weird thing to admit, partially because many people don’t think that age discrimination is a big deal and partially because it sucks to realize how deeply you’ve internalized certain prejudices. But I’m terrified of aging, and that colors the way I view older people. I already feel as if I’ve aged past my prime and it’s all downhill from here.

The reasons are pretty fucking obvious when I think about it for more than 20 seconds, and I don’t think that my reasons are unique, so I want to talk some about of the ways that ageism intersects with disability and mental illness, and the very real reasons that people who are already unhealthy might have negative feelings about age. Join me for this delightfully depressing post.

Time for some weird honesty: I did not expect to live to my current age. I’m 28, which is hardly ancient, but starting when I was about 17 my depression and eating disorder meant that I assumed I’d eventually succumb either to starvation or suicide and be gone by the age of 25. I didn’t make plans for the future because I could barely think past the exact moment I was in. To be honest, taking an expansive view of life and self often leads to depression and suicidality for me. It’s easiest for my mental health if I don’t let my perspective grow past approximately one year.

Now time for some angsty honesty: our society is not set up to support thoughtful aging. Before the age of 25 we have tons of milestones, and most people’s paths are reasonably set. You go to school, you’re supposed to graduate, you either get a job or go to college, you try to save money, you “find your career” etc. You try to find a partner, buy a house, get married, have kids. Even if those aren’t the things you want to do, there’s a suggestion of what you could be doing.

But post college and after that first job or two? There’s almost no guidance. I’ve recently been trying to find guided exercises that I can use to figure out the next steps in my career (as someone who loves their current job but wants to continue to grow) and literally, the only job planning worksheets out there are for people about to graduate.

We don’t have many set paths after you graduate. The rest of your life is this big open uncertainty with few milestones. What the hell am I supposed to do with that? Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t fall back on the “default” plan for the rest of my life because there isn’t one.

So if I’m real and I’m honest, I don’t like being reminded of age. I assume that other people who are older than I am don’t enjoy their lives because I can’t imagine what my life will look like or how it could be better than what I have now. I recognize that this is internalized ageism. I recognize that it comes out of fear. The problem is that my fear of aging is not irrational. In fact it’s super reasonable.

I am not a healthy person. I have nearly constant fatigue, headaches, and aches. However I still rely on my body in a major way to help keep my emotions regulated: without some serious movement and sensory input, I get a bit manic. I’m deeply concerned that as I age, my body will no longer be able to do the things I need to do in order to stay emotionally healthy. When I think about growing past the age of 30, 40, 50, I think about all of the ways that my body will continue to fail. I know that my fatigue will increase. I know that my abilities will decrease. My fear of that is rational.

On top of that, I’m a planner. I have a deep need for control. Our bodies change in uncontrollable ways as we age. Our place in society changes in uncontrollable ways. There are no rituals, no ways to break up the years and turn them into bite-sized, understandable chunks. I can imagine that there are ways to age that don’t suck, but in America today? Aging sucks.

I don’t have a solution here. I don’t have a way to recognize that if I could freeze my body where it currently is damn would I and that has nothing to do with vanity or loving youth it has everything to do with not wanting to become more disabled in a world that sucks for disabled people. I don’t have a way to hold on to that and also advocate for respectful, supported aging. Complaining about getting older is both normal and also seen as shallow. I want more out of the conversation: I want recognition of the ways that our bodies decay and the weird things that start happening and not just complaints, but what we can do to make it better. I want recognition of the intersection of aging and disability.

Embracing Things That Feel Cheesy

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I’m currently on a kick of goal planning and self-reflection. Typing those words makes me feel a little bit icky. They’re so Pinteresty. They’re so “Live laugh love”y. They’re so…earnest. It’s not that I’m not earnest. I can be to the point of it being a fault. But I’m not earnest in the way that thinks “wine time” is a good decor choice. I’m definitely too cynical for the type of lifestyle that looks polished and can be mapped out in a goal planner (only mild shade to those who do live their lives this way).

Or so I thought.

A few weeks ago I got distracted in my normal planner life (I keep a fairly involved planner and sometimes watch videos of other people doing their planning. I’m a nerd) by something called Powersheets, a goal planner. One of my favorite planner Youtubers was doing them, and I just felt drawn to it. I’m not sure why. It certainly wasn’t the slogan “cultivate what matters” which felt cheesy and exactly 0% like me. It wasn’t the light Jesus overtones of the whole company. In fact almost everything about it screamed “run for the hills this is some woo woo bullshit that is going to make you throw up in your mouth.”

And yet I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what it would be like. I’ve been feeling a bit uncertain about my life trajectory lately. I’ve hit a lot of exciting and cool landmarks in the last few years (found a job I love, gotten married, bought a house), and now I’m wondering…what’s next? How do I grow? Where am I going? Now that I’ve started to get my mental health chaos at least sorted into some messy piles, is it time to go a step further and actually sort through it all and put it away? That metaphor got away from me. The point is, I’ve made it out of crisis, which was how I lived for many years. That’s an amazing accomplishment and I feel like a badass. But I’ve developed a lot of behaviors that were coping strategies to escape crisis (see: I will eat whatever I want whenever I want because for a long time I didn’t eat at all), and now they’re just a bit too extreme.

So I’ve been a bit antsy of late, looking for purpose. You might say goals.

Which brings me back to the Powersheets, a planner made for setting and sticking to goals. A planner very much in the realm of “cutesy shit that too many people use for trite and inane bullshit like redecorating their home to look like it belongs to Joanna Gaines”. I don’t quite know how to put my finger on the things that turn me off so deeply. It’s the quotes you can find on Pinterest, or on inspirational images. It’s “clean” eating. It’s yoga. It’s anything with the word boho in it. It’s farmhouse style. It’s telling women they’re not doing enough or living their best life unless they’ve bought this product.

Maybe those things are your jam, but in so many cases I see capitalism masquerading as insight, and I get full on angry when I try to engage with it.

But I’m still a person who likes self-reflection and who wants some guidance to finding the life, values, goals, and STUFF that I want. Trying to plan out your life without any kind of steps or ideas to guide you (especially for this autistic brain) is awful. And there just aren’t very many resources that have the word “fuck” on every other page, which would be my preferred method of planning out my life.

And I think that’s why some of these cheesy weird tools were pulling me in. I think most people hit a bit of a quarter life crisis these days: if you manage to get a reasonable job post college and keep yourself from sinking into debt, you start to wonder where you’re supposed to go now. Millennials aren’t really doing “career” in the same way as our parents, which means a lot of work on our part to figure out what we want and how to get it. I’m not interested in the kids thing, I’m not interested in a traditional corporate career track. So what do I do?

So I decided to just buy the damn workbook and do the damn thing. So what if it was cheesy? So what if it seemed like someone was trying to sell me a lifestyle along with this 30 page planner? So what if I was worried the prompts would use phrases like “spark joy” and other BS that has little to no grounding in my life and experiences? I am powerful enough to take tools that weren’t made for me and bend them to my will.

Does that sound ridiculous? Sure. Is it also how I am going to allow myself to access resources that aren’t made for me and aren’t appealing to me when no one caters to autistic brains? Also yes.

One of the greatest tools that I have learned in my mental health journey is to steal. Do neurotypicals have a resource that is completely unrelated to my sensory needs but would still help? STEAL IT. Is there a resource that people use to organize kid schedules, and I don’t have kids? STEAL IT. And in this case, is there a resource that is in many ways built around capitalistic goals and fairly surface level self-reflection that doesn’t speak to me? STEAL IT. Take those questions and spring board off of them to create additional ideas and questions that make sense for you.

What do I mean?

Well one of the exercises that is in MANY goal planning workbooks is choosing a word of the year. I don’t get this practice. I don’t understand what you’re supposed to do with a word of the year, and so often having a word of the year feels limiting to me. But I decided not to skip that section because it asked me to look at all my priorities and decide which one is most important right now. Instead, I chose to give myself a question instead of a word. My word of the year is “huh?” I didn’t take the concept too seriously, because it’s incredibly easy to fall into something that feels cliche like “growth”, but that doesn’t really help guide me. I created something open that will push me to further reflection instead of something that closes me in. And I picked something that embraces a bit of my wackiness so that I didn’t feel like I was turning into someone who wasn’t me.

Throughout my use of the Powersheets I have sworn, crossed things out, questioned their premises, and in the end made some major progress in deciding what I want to do next in my life because I didn’t get too hung up on the prompts. I took them as suggestions, then focused on what was important for ME.

I’m never going to like things like “live, laugh, love” thanks to my cynicism and sarcasm. Gratitude journals make me want to puke. But my own approach to tools like this can make a huge difference. If I approach them as “this is a question that I will use to spur my own self-reflection about my own priorities, my own values, and my own interests” rather than something that I have to take particularly seriously, it’s far more effective. Being creative in how I interpret questions and respond to them makes them more useful.

While many reflection exercises want you to take them seriously, I’ve found that being weird and goofy about it is actually far more helpful. My life is weird and goofy. I often have to address difficult topics with levity in order to survive. So if I’m asking “what’s my ideal life look like?” the answer won’t be “not depressed anymore” it will be “Fuck Suicidal Ideation Pt II: Living and I guess liking it?”. I’m embracing that it feels uncomfortable, even while I’m holding on to the parts of me that find it not my personality.

It’s a balancing act: discomfort can be a good signal to stop doing something, or it can be a good signal that you’re in the process of growing. The challenge is discerning when it’s positive and when it’s not. But let me just recommend embracing things that feel a little bit cheesy, a little bit trite, a little bit empty; you can imbue them with the meaning you want and need. So go out my friends, and STEAL.

Safe Spaces: A Post That is In No Way About Whiny College Students and Is About Home Decorating

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When you’re autistic, most of the world doesn’t feel particularly safe. It feels confusing, unpredictable, overwhelming, and irritating. Basic daily living is like being bombarded, whether from a sensory perspective, a social perspective, or an ableist perspective.

So we’re going to talk about what I do to make myself one damn space that feels safe. I’m taking back the concept of a safe space from those who want to use it as evidence of weakness or infantilization. I’m a grown ass woman and I need a safe space to survive. If you’ve never lived feeling as if your home is unsafe, then you get to shut up and sit down. Yes I’m salty because this is important.

And because I’m autistic, this conversation about safe spaces has nothing to do with free speech, with what words you can and cannot say, or with interacting with other people at all. It has to do with creating yourself a haven.

I spoke at a conference about making life more sensory friendly as an adult recently, and after my presentation, a young woman asked me about a specific problem in her apartment that was causing her immense distress. She started to tear up when she said “I just don’t feel safe in my own home.” I have been that person. I have lived with people who didn’t understand or respect my sensory needs, while I was unable to articulate those needs and ended up on the brink of suicide. I have known what it’s like to find any nook or cranny out in the world so you can hide late into the night before you force yourself to return home.

Every person deserves at least one place in the world where they can feel truly relaxed. One space where they are not guarding against trauma or triggers, where their senses feel calm, where they can let their guard down. Humans are not built to constantly exist in a state of heightened stress and anxiety. It’s exhausting and it’s unhealthy.

The solution? Prioritize having a safe space in your own home. This is not always possible. Sometimes you have to live with roommates you don’t love for financial reasons. Sometimes you’re stuck with your parents. Other folks might have the ability and luxury to say that it’s a trade they’re willing to make. I suggest that neurodivergent folks think carefully about the toll that living somewhere uncomfortable takes on them. I know that it was not something I could tolerate. Even when you do share living spaces, it’s possible to ask for an area that is yours and yours alone, which you can decorate and fill as you choose. I highly recommend trying to create even a single room where you feel as if you can breathe easy.

That’s a lot of preamble when what I really want to talk about are the practical steps and solutions to a variety of sensory and anxiety related problems and stressors, and the variety of ways that you can create a contained space to address those stressors.

Let’s start with sensory concerns. I’ll note that when it comes to sensory needs there are two directions you can go: you can be hypo sensitive (under sensitive) or hyper sensitive (over sensitives). Both of those are real needs and should be addressed when creating a safe space in your home.

We’ll briefly run through the different senses and talk about ways you can accommodate them, but I highly suggest being creative. Googling “sensory gym” is a great place to start if you want ideas, otherwise you could consult with an occupational therapist. Make it your own: I like to have artwork that makes me smile to look at, colors that are mine, etc. Even if it’s not sensory perfect, it feels so much better when I’ve set it up MY way and it’s MY things

Sight
Sight will in many ways determine how you decorate any space that you consider a safe space. If you tend to be sensory seeking you’ll probably want bright colors, a lot of decor in pictures and textures, and possibly some fidgets with movement (a la a lava lamp). On the other hand, if you’re sight sensitive, you’ll want soft or dim lighting (definitely avoid fluorescents), decor that is minimal and easy on the eye, simplified workspaces with minimal clutter, and low screen brightness if you’re using screens.

Sound
If you’re sensory-seeking around sound, it can be tough to get your fix without irritating other people, so I’d highly recommend getting some noise-cancelling headphones so that you can crank up your volume without bothering housemates. You may also want to spend time identifying which kinds of sounds appeal to you: maybe you’ll want to learn an instrument, maybe you’re into ASMR, maybe you like to listen to music. On the other hand, if you’re sound-aversive there are a few different levels at which you can manage noise. First, if it’s possible to find a room in your home that is well insulated and add wall coverings or thick carpet, you can dampen most of the noise that way. If that’s not possible or enough, you can also use headphones or earplugs. Finally if THAT’S not enough you can also try a white noise machine to keep particular irritating sounds from getting to you.

Touch
Creating a safe space when you are sensory-seeking around touch can be quite the undertaking. That’s not because it’s hard to find ways to get input: it’s because there are so many and it’s so hard to choose and make space. You may also want a variety of types of touch and may need to have more than one space to properly meet all those needs. So for example you may want a comfy, cozy nest, which you could build with pillows and blankets that are incredibly soft. But you may also like other textures, and want mermaid pillows with sequins, or something with a bumpy or prickly texture, or perhaps something squishy. If you can incorporate all of that into one space then awesome! If not, you may need to be able to switch out your safe space, have more than one, or choose soft as a major texture and then use fidgets to bring in other textures (fidget rings, sponges, pillows, etc.)

On the other hand, if you are sensitive to textures you’ll want to think about when textures feel the least intrusive. Is it something soft? Is it when you’re taking a bath? Is it when you’re getting deep pressure? Do your clothes cause irritation? Based on your answers to those questions, you can build the space you need.

Smell
If you are the kind of person who seeks out interesting smells, your house is a great place to go wild. Bring in some flowers. Get some scented candles. Buy a variety of perfumes you can play with when you want to. If you’re not into chemical scents, Lush has strong smells that aren’t quite as harsh, or you could try essential oils. You may also want to pay attention to the different things smells can do: do you want to feel more alert? Try peppermint. Would you like to relax? Lavender is a great option.

If you cannot handle most scents, you’ll want to go in the far opposite direction. Scent-free cleaning products can reduce the overall smells, and you’ll also want to discuss with housemates if they can avoid using scents in communal areas (no candles, plug ins, etc.). Having a window nearby for fresh air is essential if scents get to you. You may also need to have headache meds on hand or whatever it is that helps you when you do get overwhelmed by scent.

Proprioception
Proprioception is the awareness of your body in space. It’s typically activated by pressure or movement. People often will regulate their proprioception with jumping, flapping, toe walking, etc. So if you need more on the proprioceptive side, your safe space may actually be more like a sensory gym, with crash pads that you can run into, a hammock or climbing wall, places to crawl or push up, stress balls and grip strengtheners, weighted blankets and vests. There are many people who report needing more proprioceptive input, and this can often be very active input. Even if you don’t have space for a full sensory gym, there are small fidgets you can use, you can roll around on the floor (yeah it looks weird but it works), or you can use resistance bands to create pressure. A final thing to note: low proprioceptive input can lead to clumsiness, so you may want your safe space to be cushy and easy to land on in case you fall or run into things easily.

Other folks feel overwhelmed by proprioceptive input. You’ll want somewhere that’s easily loungable, where you can feel low impact on your body through pillows and soft seating. You may also want to consider loose clothing, or even a bath as that can feel soft on the joints. Looking up ways to decompress your spine or ease your joints can also help: maybe you like heat on your joints or hanging upside down for decompression.

Vestibular
Last but not least we have the vestibular sense, which is what helps us balance. For folks who want more vestibular input, the sensory gym is again going to be a great option. Inverting your head gives good input, as do things like rock climbing, aerial arts, dancing, swinging, balancing, bouncing, and rocking. If you have the space, you can hang swings, create a small rock wall, or add bars to hang from. If you have less space, exercise balls are a great option for balance, spinning can help, and even wearing high heels gives some great feedback. 

On the other hand, if you dislike vestibular input, you’ll probably get nauseous easily and dislike those types of movement. Slow, predictable movements with deep pressure can help to calm your vestibular sense. That might mean lying on your back and gently moving your legs, or even staying totally still. Another thing to keep on hand would be nausea meds.

 

 

You might notice that there are a couple of senses that I’ve left out, specifically taste and interoception (the awareness of your internal processes, like hunger or the need to use the bathroom). The reason I left them off is because those generally are senses that either you have to seek out (taste) or that you simply have to respond to. If you want yummy food or reminders to pay attention to your interoception, you can customize your space as needed!

The second set of considerations for your safe space are supports for anxiety. Again, this will be something that you’ll need to customize to your own likes and needs, however I like to keep reminders of all the skills that I typically use for managing anxiety. That might be a list of DBT skills, or a list of the people I trust, or notes of common mindfulness practices. It’s also important that your safe space has all the tools that you need to actually use those skills.

For example I often use my weighted blanket when I’m anxious so I would want that to be stored in my safe space. If I do a guided meditation, I’d want the script or app at hand. Speaking of having things at hand, another important element of a safe space for anxiety is to have all the things you might need for basic fulfillment (like food, sleep, drink) easily at hand. One of the easiest ways to quickly reduce anxiety is to ensure that all those needs are fulfilled, so it’s important to include them in a safe space.

I also like to make sure that if I need to, I can have another person around, but that it’s generally solitary. Pay attention to your preferences about socialization. You might want to have a trusted someone around all the time.

Finally, I try to create a space that is full of things that make me smile. You might like to include mantras or reminders that help remind you of how great you are. I personally prefer having pictures or decor that’s 100% me and that makes me smile. I personally have Pinterested quite a bit to figure out what aesthetic helps me feel calmer, then tried to incorporate that in my spaces. Sometimes it’s as simple as “I really like hexagons and colors” so you put a mural on the wall.

It might seem frivolous, or like that will never make a difference, but don’t knock it till you try it. There’s something surprisingly calming about a space that feels like your own, and one of the fastest ways to put your imprint on a space is to add things to the walls or put up some paint.

What tips do you have for creating a safe space in your home?

Interoception, Tokophobia, and Dysphoria: Sorting Out Gender in a Confused Body

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I have a phobia of pregnancy. A full on, nightmares and panic attacks phobia (it’s called tokophobia). When I think about the idea of my body growing and changing in ways that are out of my control and often highly unpredictable, I feel sick. The idea of another being using my body is terrifying. Add in the fact that pregnancy and childbirth often come with weird and wacky side effects that either no one tells you about or no one can predict, and I am 100% out. These are all the things that terrify me about having a body and that lead me to instantly imagine diving headfirst back into my eating disorder.

Unrelated fact about me (but maybe it will be related soon, we’ll find out together): when I was a child, I had some issues with going to the bathroom. Not like I wet myself. Like if I held my pee for too long, it would reverse and give me bladder infections. All of my earliest memories are related to these experiences: I remember the awful bubble gum flavored antibiotics I had to take every night. I remember the testing they did, where I’d go to the hospital and they’d pump my bladder as full as possible to see when it would happen (while my mother desperately tried to distract me from the pain and discomfort). I remember the surgery I got to correct it, which left a scar right over my pubic mound. I spent somewhere between 3 and 5 days in the hospital. I didn’t eat or sleep. I spent one full day after abdominal surgery puking. I just remember pain and boredom.

That was some personal shit, so let’s talk instead about genitals and reproductive organs.

You’ll notice that neither of these stories revolves directly around my experience of my genitals or my experience of clothing/gender roles/etc. Instead, it relates to my internal experience of my body (a sense called interoception). I don’t have great interoception. I’m pretty bad at noticing when I’m hungry or when I have to pee or when I’m thirsty (I used to think thirst was just a craving for ice cream. Not a joke). However, to me, it is still intimately tied to gender and sexuality. Most of these internal experiences come from the area around my genitals, the areas tied to sex and reproduction. While my bladder isn’t directly tied to giving birth, my stupid lizard brain only knows that it’s the same area where I get period pain and where sex happens, so it all gets tied in together.

My experiences of my own body feel foreign and fearful. I don’t know how to interpret this in my gender. Reproduction is so deeply gendered in our society that giving birth is intimately tied to being female (despite the fact that non women do give birth, and many women do not give birth). My phobia of pregnancy is inherently gendered because of that fact. I have dysphoria around experiences that in this society are explicitly “female”.

Where does this leave me in terms of gender? I KNOW that one of the elements of my gender identity is not only that I do not want to reproduce but I don’t want the ABILITY to reproduce. The fact that there’s still a uterus in me makes me vastly uncomfortable. My period makes me want to die (and for reference, my period is literally the chillest period ever to period. It lasts 5 days tops, is always a light flow, and rarely comes with cramps. But it still makes me hate myself and my body). I have dysphoria about these parts of my body.

What I don’t have is a particular desire to be a man. A penis with fucking sperm in it sounds just as bad as a vagina that makes babies. I don’t hate my genitals per se. But I have so much fear and anxiety about them that it almost translates into that.

I don’t have any clear bow to wrap up this series of thoughts. I’ve never heard a story like this one before, where the dysphoria is almost entirely about internal experiences and reproduction rather than the social role that is gender. I so rarely hear the discussion of “is this I hate my body or is this gender dysphoria?” How do traumatic body experiences create gender? I don’t know how to fit it into the narratives that currently exist. I don’t know how to name it.

Add in to the mix the fact that hating pregnancy is seen as an attack on women and you’ve got a recipe for silence and exclusion. So here I am. Talking about it. Letting it be seen. My gender is the kind that doesn’t reproduce. The kind that’s no uterus, no penis, no ovaries, nada. I’m me, not a parent. That’s it.