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?

Hacking Your Executive Function: Don’t Let Anxiety Get In the Way

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One of the most common things that comes up when I talk to folks about beginning their to do lists is that they have a LOT of emotions wrapped up in getting things done. Whether it’s anxiety about not being able to do things well enough, fear that they’ll do it wrong or let someone down, or guilt that they haven’t gotten to the task list yet. This is one of those places where emotion regulation can be incredibly helpful in managing the rest of your executive functioning, but the emotions around getting started are so big and so specific that I’m going to spend some time focused on how you can manage those emotions particularly.

We’ve already gone in depth on breaking down a large task into smaller pieces, but I’m going to return to that here because one of the emotions that can cause you to freeze up when you need to start something is the panic/overwhelmed feeling that it’s too much. If you’re one of those people who looks at a project and immediately feels the intensity of every step of that project, I highly suggest being kind of arbitrary in where you start. Sure, if you’ve got the time and the energy you can map it out, but it might be easier to pick one piece of it, any piece, that is easiest or closest to you, and focus exclusively on that.

For example when I started writing this series I didn’t really think about the order particularly well. I knew I just needed to get started. So I started writing about emotion regulation, because I feel very comfortable with it. I didn’t think about the other topics at all. I just looked at the one that felt the most comfortable, until I had finished that and could move on to the next one. This is a little bit like an extended exercise in mindfulness. When your brain starts to think about the scope of the project or drift to other areas, you might make a note, but then return to what you were doing before. Or you can just remind yourself that you’re not working on that right now, and bring yourself back to the topic at hand.

One helpful way to do this is to schedule in regular breaks so that your focus doesn’t get worn down. You can also use sensory techniques to ground yourself: if you start to get distracted or overwhelmed, pay attention to your breath, do a body scan, or notice what the seat underneath you feels like. One game that I like to play when I feel panicky is to pick a color and name each thing in the room that is that color. It helps to remind my stupidbrain that nothing is actually dangerous in my environment. That way you can reengage logic to refocus.

The next major issue that I see people run into is perfectionism: I can’t start because what if I do it wrong? This one is a classic when we’re talking about writing things: people will stare at the blank page and refuse to put down a single sentence if it’s not just right. This is not one of my personal issues, since my tendency is to just do MORE if I’m concerned about perfectionism, but there are lots of good resources out there.

First, remind yourself that you can always go back and make changes. One method that I use is having a system to note where I’d like to change something. When I’m writing I’ll highlight sentences or passages that I know I’m not a fan of, but I won’t let myself fix them the first time around. It helps me to feel better knowing that it won’t stay that way, but I can still move on and get the general shape of what I want to write. You can practice this by banning your delete button: everything you write stays on the page for this draft.

I also like to allow myself filler when I need to. If I’m writing or drawing, and I know there’s an element that will be there in the final piece but I don’t feel ready to work on it yet, I’ll just make a note: “add citation here” or “argument two here”. It feels weird at first, but the more you practice using these halfway techniques, the easier it feels to start because even if you get stuck you can just skip the hard bits.

I’m using a lot of writing examples here, but all of life can be thought of as drafts, and each time you work on a task you can improve it with a second go around. Sure, maybe I’ll look at my dirty house and be overwhelmed that it will never be perfect. But I can give it a sweeping and that will be my first draft. It will be something. Tomorrow I can “edit” it by putting away all the clutter. There is rarely a task that you can’t come back to and make improvements on. A few general tips: don’t compare yourself, whether to past you, other people, or some imagined perfect you. Avoid all or nothing language. Practice doing something halfway. See if anyone cares.

When you’re not overwhelmed or being a perfectionist, sometimes it’s just plain old low self-esteem that’s the culprit: if you’ve made mistakes in the past or worry that you don’t do enough, it can seem pointless to start on things now. “I’ll just screw it up, why should I bother?” “I’m so bad at this I don’t want to do it,” or even “I haven’t done it yet so I’ve already screwed up.” Guilt and low self-esteem suck and can be 100% crippling.

If this is something that hits you on the regular, I highly recommend taking some time every day to write down what you have accomplished. I know you’re going to want to be a sassafras and discount 90% of what you do, but be honest with yourself. If you need to, check in with a trusted friend or partner who can remind you of all the things you do. When you’re feeling like a guilty failure, look at that list. It’s facts and you can’t argue with it.

You can use some of the techniques I mentioned above to ground yourself when you start to get swamped by feeling like a failure. But I also encourage you to be realistic about your past failures: did they truly have the big impact that you think they did? How many other people actually remember that failure (I suspect you might be the only one). Think of the times you see yourself as a “failure” in context with all the other things you do: what percentage of your life are you making mistakes? It’s probably within the realm of very normal. If you find that this makes you feel much worse, you might want to check in with someone who loves you, who can help you be realistic about when you make mistakes and when you are successful.

Finally, I’d remind you that past mistakes do not dictate the future. I’ve made a whole buttload of mistakes in my life, but usually once I make one I learn from it. Then I can make new ones! If you are really concerned that a project is our of your reach, it’s a good time to ask for help and see what supports you can put in place. Mistakes feel like shit, but they’re an opportunity to improve. I admire few people more than those who notice when they’ve screwed up, ask for feedback, and make improvements.

Good luck with all your feelings around initiation! You’ve got this.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Unexpected Transitions

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Most of what we’ve talked about up to this point are when you can plan ahead for a transition. You know it will be coming, you have an idea of what your day will hold, and you can give yourself extra time or use skills to make the transition easier. But sometimes we have to unexpectedly go from one thing to another. Maybe we get interrupted from a project during the day and we have to immediately move to a more pressing task. Maybe you’re out with friends and they decide to change plans. Maybe an emergency comes up. We all have times where our plans get derailed and we have to quickly switch to something new.

One thing you can do is practice your flexibility. This is the part you CAN do ahead of time so that those skills are strong and ready to be used at a moment’s notice. If you can set aside a day where you’ve got time and emotional reserves (ok this might be a ridiculous dream), try switching between different tasks and noticing how you feel, what makes it easier, etc. I recommend starting this out with things you like so that you’re not trying to really accomplish stuff and you don’t have to worry about the anxiety around the task itself, just around the transition. Maybe you pick two tasks and set an alarm for every hour, then move back and forth between them.

Once you start to feel more comfortable switching between tasks you like, you can try to introduce more challenging tasks, or have someone else give you an unexpected task. You can also use a friend to help you practice creating a new plan or expectation in the moment, which is another way to prep ahead of time. Maybe you want to test out having a day or have a day or an hour where you don’t decide ahead of time what you’re going to do. You can practice deciding what to do and how to do it on the fly. To get advanced, set aside the time then have a friend suggest the activity so you can figure out how to accomplish it unexpectedly.

Again, these in advance skills are things that I would only recommend practicing if you have the time and feel emotionally stable when you want to practice them. I’d also suggest having a plan B in place for if you start to melt down or feel overwhelmed so that you can do some self care if you start to struggle with the transitions. However the more you practice these things, the easier it will get to do them in the wild when unexpected transitions appear. You may have to start by practicing in a very intentional way (you get an unexpected transition, you stop and write down what you’re planning to do and how you’re going to do it, you do emotion regulation techniques, then you begin the next task), but I have found that the more I do it the less I have to consciously work through a transition.

There are also some things you can do in specific situations that will help you. I generally try to overplan, meaning have a couple of different options for any plan that I create. It’s like a choose your own adventure book! I’ll have my first plan, which is what I would like to happen. But if I know it’s possible that something might go down differently I’ll have an alternate version of my plan to accommodate. I try not to go overboard with this though because once you start hitting four or five different versions of the same plan it tends to cause more anxiety than it’s worth and eat up a LOT of your time. Be reasonable. Make contingency plans for things that are LIKELY to happen, not every possibility in the whole world. Practice recognizing that something may happen you haven’t planned for and then forcing yourself to stop planning.

Sometimes it also helps to create an order when it feels like things are out of control. The order doesn’t have to make sense: it can be totally arbitrary. If I get a bunch of new projects thrown at me unexpectedly I’ll write them all down and sometimes just pick one, any one, and say that I have to start there. Getting started is more important than prioritizing correctly. Another example would be if an unexpected emergency comes up. Let’s say your spouse gets a flat tire and calls to ask you to come help. I might give myself five minutes to jot down what the steps of that task would be, then give myself a clear reward afterwards. I can tell myself “first I will drive to pick them up, then I will help them change the tire, then I will stop for ice cream on the way home. I can finish my current task at x time.” Having a clear place to pick back up on what you thought you would do also helps alleviate the anxiety.

Last but not least I find it helpful when faced with an unexpected change to notice what’s actually upsetting me about the situation. Am I upset that I can’t do something I was planning on doing? How important was that thing? Do I actually want to do the new thing more? Am I frustrated that I can’t complete what I was in the middle of? I may have another time I can finish it, or I can remind myself that things aren’t all or nothing, it’s ok to do part of something then come back. Is it not knowing exactly what’s about to happen? I can ask more questions to determine what’s going on, or else just make some decisions for myself (this happens a lot in a social group when no one can decide where you’re going. I’ve taken to just saying what we’re doing because generally people will agree). I think we often get hung up on trying to figure out what’s “right” or makes the most sense when we’re trying to plan or put together a schedule, but it’s surprising how often just doing SOMETHING is more effective.

That’s all I’ve got for you on transitions! Drop any extra hints or tricks in the comments. Next up? Working memory.

When SAD Isn’t Just the Winter Blues

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I love spring. I hate spring. I have a lot of feelings during spring.

Last night I took a walk with my skin free to the air for the first time since November. It’s like breathing again. Sometimes it feels like I’m drowning in it. I want to run. I want to disappear. I cry. I drink. I get tattoos. I shave my head.

Spring is really, really hard for me. I feel uncomfortable in my body and bored with my surroundings. Spring is when I get tattoos or shave my head or break up or make rash decisions. It’s almost a manic feeling, but tinged with a deep, deep melancholy. I guess that’s what happens when you’re an autistic who has a strong pull towards spontaneity but also goes into a panicked shock when a plan changes.

You might be surprised to hear that these symptoms reasonably could fall under the label of Seasonal Affective Disorder. From Mayo Clinic: “Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year.”

Most people experience heightened symptoms of depression in the winter, and that is the most common type of SAD (low mood, low energy, nasty depression during the fall and winter months). However there are some folks who experience consistent low mood at other times of the year. I personally get SAD in the winter, and then this weird, nostalgic, anxious, mess of dissatisfaction during spring. Winter is a time of hibernation, when I can barely bring myself to move. Spring is the time when I have energy and I want to use that energy to do bad things to myself.

It can be so frustrating to have these patterns of emotion without recognition (from yourself or others) that it could be a perfectly natural seasonal issue, and that you can use the same skills and techniques that others use to deal with them. If you regularly feel depressed in the winter, most people can identify it as seasonal. Other times? Not so much.

Especially when it comes to spring and summer it can seem like everyone else is excited and loving the season, while you’re stuck somewhere else, isolated.

So today’s post (short though it is, I need to ease back into this blogging thing) is a reminder that SAD can be at any time of the year. Different people are affected differently. Your history can affect it (dates like the death of a loved one can be particularly difficult), or our current life (I always have a major conference at the end of April that leaves me drained and struggling).

No matter how your depression manifests, it can be helpful to look for patterns and start to put coping mechanisms in place preemptively. If you know summer is bad, plan your self care more actively leading into summer. If you know winter is bad, communicate with others and ask them to help you get out and about.

As I’m trying to pick back up after a very busy April, I’m trying to remember that spring is hard for me, and this spring is feeling particularly hard for me. But summer will be here soon, and the forwards looking nostalgia will dissipate, and I will someday feel functional again. That is the nice part of seasonal affective disorders: it will end. It will get easier. You can get through it

When Mental Illness Makes You a Hypocrite

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I do a lot of things that I tell other people they shouldn’t do. Basically every day. I tell other people they shouldn’t skip meals or think of food as good and bad (food is not moral). But here I am, skipping breakfast literally every day and judging the hell out of my own food. It’s basically the most common mental illness experience as far as I can understand: we all think we’re uniquely bad in some way and deserve the cruelty we heap on ourselves in a way that no one else ever could.

I’ve been feeling it a lot lately though because mental illness also limits my ability to follow through on my values. The March for Our Lives was this weekend, and it’s something that I care a lot about. I believe deeply in the importance of public demonstrations, and of coming together when you have a cause. I didn’t go. I wasn’t busy. I could have gone, quite easily in fact. But I didn’t. The thought of it made me anxious and exhausted. The marches I have been to in the past knocked me out for a day or two afterwards, and honestly I have too much shit happening right now to manage that.

I feel awful about it.

If one of my friends came to me and said they feel like they aren’t doing enough for the movements they care about because they don’t go to marches and call their representatives, I’d remind them that there are a thousand ways to make a difference. Writing, talking to friends, supporting those people who are on the front lines, volunteering, working at an organization that supports the community, pushing for accessibility in events and spaces…these are all things that I do. I’d tell them that all of these things are important, and that staying functional and happy as an oppressed person is honestly job #1.

But I can’t listen to it when it comes to me. I’m special. I should be able to do more than other people, or do things that make me miserable because of…reasons.

It’s doubly frustrating because it feels like no matter what I do I betray my values in some way: go to a March, push myself too hard, feel like shit, and betray my strong value that each person has something to bring to social justice movements and it doesn’t have to be marching in the streets, and it’s ok to recognize your own limits. Or, don’t go, and feel like I’m betraying the movements I care about.

It’s amazing how many of these instances come up. I think we all have places where we have to compromise our values because we’re human and fallible and we can’t do all the things that we would like to or feel we should do. I can’t be vegan because I would actually literally die due to my sensory sensitivities+eating disorder. I can’t call legislators because it sets off my anxiety and I am a wreck before and after. I’m really awful at setting boundaries despite telling other people that they’re super healthy (because hey when you’re depressed your brain tells you any boundaries will make people leave you forever).

There are a lot of things that frustrate me about having mental illness/disability. But the worst is unquestionably that it impacts my ability to be a good person.

And yet.

Mental illness is not an excuse to be a bad person. But sometimes it’s definitely an excuse to not do all of the hundreds of things you’d like to do to be a good person. And I have to remind myself that there’s a difference between being a bad person and not being the best person (heyo look there’s my old friend black and white thinking). It’s easy to think that you’re making excuses for inappropriate behavior when you try to accommodate your disability. It’s easy to think you’ll slide into treating people badly because well I’m mentally ill and it’s just how I am. It’s easy to think only anxiety will keep you vigilant.

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in myself that I’m convinced the line between “using my disability as an excuse to be a shithead” and “accommodating my disability” is blurry and grey and hard to understand. I don’t think that’s actually true. Sure, there are some edge cases like “how often can I cancel before I really am a bad friend?”. But “should I choose not to do this thing that’s really hard for me and instead focus on things that use my talents”? That’s not one of them.

So sure, I might feel like a hypocrite or worry that I’m betraying my values, and even feel like I’m ignoring my own advice by even having those feelings (seriously, anxious people can feel anxious about anything). But I’d know if I were truly violating my own ethics. One of the hardest things to do when you’re mentally ill is trust your own assessment of a situation. But our own assessments are so important when it comes to our own values. I’m going to start practicing; I am living up to my values to the best of my ability. And that’s good enough, no matter what anyone else says.

 

How The Good Place Does Mental Illness Representation Right

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It’s rare that a mainstream sitcom has a character dealing with mental illness that doesn’t irritate the living hell out of me. It’s also rare that any media ever represents philosophy without irritating the living hell out of me, but The Good Place is magic and it does both of these things. Since I’m so often pointing out ways that media fails people with mental illnesses, I thought that for today’s post I’d focus on how The Good Place has done mental illness right and what other shows can learn from it.

Note: I will be spoiling up through Season 2, Episode 11.

The main person that I want to focus on in The Good Place is Chidi, however there are a few other individuals who can be read with a mental illness or neurodivergent lens and I’d like to address them at the end.

Chidi is not introduced as a mentally ill character. He is actually introduced as someone we could reasonably assume is supposed to be in The Good Place. He’s relatively in control, he’s quite intelligent, he’s a good person. We fall the fuck in love with him. He’s supposed to be our main character’s soulmate, and we view him as too good for her.

I highly appreciate this because when you first meet someone with mental illness you don’t know that they’re mentally ill. Typically we mask. We don’t disclose until we trust other people or until we have to. I love that just as in real life, we get to know Chidi just as a person, not as the token anxious person, but as a person like any other.

Only over time do we notice this anxiety that he’s holding in all the time, that he’s constantly worried and fearful, that he can’t make decisions. We start to become irritated with him, why does he behave this way, why is he so frustrating? Because we haven’t been told what it’s like inside for him, we judge (although of course Chidi is charming and kind, so we don’t judge too harshly).

But then we start to see the ways that anxiety can hurt people, the downsides of Chidi’s anxiety. We see the episode where he hurts his friend over a pair of boots, and how he can’t be counted on to be the best man at his friend’s wedding because the anxiety is overwhelming and the pressure gets to him. We see how his anxiety damages him and others, even as he’s trying so hard to be a good person.

This is one of the most realistic ways that I have ever seen anxiety portrayed. Your understanding of it and of the person who has it grows over time, and sometimes you see the positive elements and sometimes you see the negative elements. Sometimes you feel like you understand, or like they’re just like anyone else, and other times you wonder what the hell they’re doing.

But through it all, The Good Place also shows the way anxiety makes chidi thoughtful and exacting, the way he works so hard, and how he can be an amazing friend, mentor, and teacher when he learns to manage the anxiety.

And then after two season of SHOWING us Chidi, and letting us get to know him the way you would an actual human, only THEN does he open up and tell us with amazing vulnerability what it feels like for him. Because when we’re mentally ill we don’t just spill it everywhere to everyone, we wait until it’s impacted something and we feel like we need to explain and backtrack. And he does it so perfectly.

In Season 2, Episode 10, when Eleanor reveals her feelings about him, Chidi explains that his brain is the sound that a fork makes when it gets stuck in the food disposal. His brain is constantly hitting that grinding moment that is irritating and overwhelming and doesn’t go anywhere. Because we know Chidi and care about him, we’re open to hearing this explanation, and it snaps so many things into place.

I’m so glad that with the latest episode Chidi was judged on his anxiety again, and found wanting, because as an audience member I got so angry. I was on Chidi’s side because I knew who he was, and how he was still a good person despite the times anxiety got the better of him. I wanted the judge to understand him and be on his side the way I was. THAT feeling is how I know The Good Place got it right, because I love Chidi with his full history as someone who deals with anxiety. I want to hold him responsible for when it screws things up, but I get that it’s part of him and even a lovable part. I understand that when he cares too much it’s not always a bad thing. It feels so good to see someone like me on screen.

 

How To Share A Space With Your Partner (when you both have accessibility needs)

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As we continue in the Series That Never Ends (parts 1, 2, and 3), I like to dream that this will be the final installment. But I thought that last week, and here we are. Who knows what exciting new topics will be birthed within this blog post?

In the meantime, there’s a subgenre of competing access needs that I have never seen addressed, but that seems VERY important to discuss, and I have many Thoughts about it. That subgenre is when you are married to or living with someone whose access needs in some ways compete with your own.

But Olivia, you might say, how often does that happen? Well surprisingly often. I personally know…well almost every couple I know has at least a few accommodations they’re working with and that means two people have to find out how to accommodate each other basically 24/7. I know one couple in which one has severe anxiety and the other has severe misophonia making requests for noise accommodations a challenge, one couple in which one person has PTSD that is triggered by criticism, and another who has anxiety triggered by mess, meaning conversations about who has to take care of the house or whether things are being kept up can turn into meltdowns.

What do you do? How do you provide for different needs and make space for different ways of reacting to emotions?

I do not have the answers. I have some suggestions.

Get Yourself a Safe Space

More than anything else in the world, and perhaps this is simply because I am anxious introvert, I must recommend that every person has at least one room that is exclusively theirs or that feels 100% safe. It’s hard to articulate the way that having place to go where you don’t feel environmental stress or discomfort can bring your base level of functioning up. It allows a small amount of respite. When you’re living with someone who has differing needs from your own and the rest of the house may be a space of negotiation and compromise, having one area that is 100% you can make the difference between “home is exhausting” and “I have a place to recharge.”

That place to recharge allows you to disengage if a solution isn’t happening immediately, or if the shared spaces simply become too much for you. It helps to limit the amount of resentment you might feel when your needs don’t get met, helps keep you from hitting a meltdown point, and that space to breathe allows you to brainstorm solutions when your emotions are lowered.

So #1 piece is to make sure that you have one place where your needs are met, that belongs to you. But the rest of your house still exists, and you might want to eat meals with your housemate or occasionally interact with them. What do you do?

Talking About It

Because accommodations can be a fraught topic, I personally recommend setting aside a specific time to discuss them when no one’s emotions are high, but additionally setting up ongoing check ins so that it’s normal to discuss accommodations, and you don’t get that Serious Conversation vibe that can freak anyone out. Check in with your partner and see if the accommodations you’ve put in place are working for them. Let them know if they forget about yours. Make it normal, make it easy, and make it common to talk about whatever you need to be comfortable in your home.

When, Where, and How to Accommodate

Next, I think it’s not only important to discuss the types of behaviors that are difficult for each other (e.g. your constant need for reassurance sets off my anxiety) but also to discuss different spaces in the house, and how each one can be used most effectively. This might mean each of you makes a list of what you’d ideally like, and then you decide what’s easy (you institute it immediately), what you can do sometimes (maybe you have a specific room for it) and what will be challenging (we’ll get to this soon). In my home, the computer room is our quiet space. We talk there sometimes, but if one of us is on our computer with headphones on, it’s not time to bring up anything serious.

Do you want to set aside certain safe spaces? Do you want to say that “in space x I ask that you don’t eat, or don’t use this fidget”? It can help to give certain behaviors an expected time and place rather than out of the blue. This also gives someone who might need to fidget, bring up their anxieties, use an accommodation device, or accommodate their own needs in some other way a place they can go to do it. There also might be certain spaces that are particularly challenging to one of you. For a long time our computer room was set up such that I was facing away from the door, and my husband could come up and touch me on the shoulder without me noticing him at all. This was Not Pleasant so we rearranged.

 

When you hit the hard lines (e.g. one person can’t control their facial muscles and the other has misophonia) you may have to set specific rooms where things can or cannot happen, or decide that one person’s particular set of needs has to trump. It’s important to discuss these and have a way to bring it up.

Integrating Accommodations Into Your Life

Finally, it’s good to create a language for moving forward. Circumstances will change over time. Maybe you were fine with saying your partner gets to eat in the computer room with you, but you’re having a shit day and you need more space. You need to have a way to communicate that, and an understanding that the “rules” will change in the moment. It’s also good to have a way to remind your partner if they’re doing something they’d said they won’t (e.g. my partner knows I prefer there be music or noise on if he’s eating next to me). It can feel like nagging, but sometimes it does take time to develop the habit. If your partner feels like it you might brainstorm ways to build the habit together, e.g. a small visual reminder like a post it.

Essentially, there are a few ways you can manage competing access needs in a home: you can say that certain people get their accommodations at a specific time or place. You can say that one person’s need trumps another. Or you can try to find ways to make the needs mesh. A mix of both will probably be the best for everyone, but you have to talk about it to find what works for you.