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?

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.

 

You Should See a Therapist: How To Suggest Help Without Being a Douche

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I think everyone in the world should visit a therapist at some point in their life. Therapists are fucking great. Whether you have a mental illness or not, you’ll experience some challenges in your life that require a bit of a mental health tune up, and a therapist can give you the tools to get through them.

So I spend a lot of time telling people they should try therapy.

There are a lot of really bad ways to do this. It’s easy to sound like you don’t want to deal with someone’s problems, to brush them off as “crazy”, to come across as uncomfortable with their behavior. Just saying “why don’t you see a therapist” can bring up a lot of negative reactions due to the stigma against therapy and mental illness, the fear of the unknown, and even just the common place desire to not change or be wrong.

There are significantly fewer very effective ways to recommend therapy to a friend, loved one, or family member. Since I’ve had a lot of practice, I thought I’d share some of my more effective methods.

Normalize Therapy

This is something that I try to do with everyone I know, because it helps fight the stigma against mental illness, and makes it easier for other people to talk about therapy. Also when you’ve been in as much therapy as I have, it’s hard to talk about your life and avoid it. I make a regular practice of mentioning therapy or my therapist around others. Where in the past I might have said “I have an appointment” I am intentional about saying “I’m seeing my therapist”. This makes it easier for you to approach someone in the future because a. they know you know what you’re talking about and b. therapy seems like a normal thing that other people do rather than a punishment, evidence of being sick, or shameful secret.

Change the Way You Talk About Therapy

Many of us who talk about therapy only seem to mention it when there’s a problem. This makes sense. We don’t really talk much about going to doctors when we’re not sick. But we also all know that we’re supposed to go to the doctor for check ups, vaccines, and routine care, even when we’re perfectly healthy. Therapy is the same way. Mental health isn’t something that just sorts itself out. We all need the preventative measures (skills, self understanding, etc.) that can help us stay healthy.

In fact, sometimes you need to see a therapist when there’s nothing wrong with you but life is particularly difficult. It’s important for those of us who talk about therapy to mention all of the different reasons and ways that someone might go to therapy, so that it’s not simply relegated to “mentally ill people do that.” Everyone can and should see a therapist when their coping skills aren’t up to par.

In fact, the extent to which we see therapy in a negative light even extends to how we talk about our therapists. How often do you hear someone say “I love my therapist”? How often do you hear someone talk about what a good relationship with a therapist actually feels? Almost never. I have news. It’s fucking amazing. I have never had a relationship like the one I had with my best therapist. It’s complete trust and vulnerability, knowing that they will validate, help, and challenge in equal measures. Knowing that there are no expectations and no requirements of you, that this is the one relationship where you are allowed to be entirely selfish.

Let’s talk about the good parts of therapy, the moments we have a breakthrough, the times we feel that wonderful rapport with the therapist. Let’s make good therapy moments a normal part of our conversation about mental health. It makes the whole process seem more worth it and less scary to those who might be interested in trying it for the first time.

Seeing a Therapist Doesn’t Say Anything About Your Character

A lot of people think that therapy is for sick or crazy people. I don’t really like describing mentally ill folks in those terms, but that’s how some people think of it. All of the above suggestions are ways to remind them that therapy is for everyone. But of course sometimes it’s helpful to just say it straight out: therapy doesn’t mean you’re a failure, that you’re broken, or that there’s something wrong with you. Asking for help is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. We don’t learn appropriate mental health skills growing up; we learn to eat our vegetables and exercise, how much water to drink, what it feels like to get a cold and how to get over one. We don’t learn these equivalent skills for our basic mental health upkeep, and therapy is a great way to learn and grow. It’s just someone who’s going to help you, nothing more.

You’re In Control

One of the common refrains that I hear from people who aren’t interested in therapy (and one of my biggest fears) is that therapy will change you, that the therapist will force you to do things, that it will make you into a different person. So after you say “hey, you seem like you’re struggling. Have you thought about therapy?” I almost always hear “I don’t want to change.”

It’s odd, but people seem to forget that they are in fact paying the therapist for a service and that as the client, they are the one who has all the power. A therapist can’t make you do anything.

Great reminders for someone who’s nervous: you can try it and then stop if you don’t like it. You can try it, stop, and try again. You can try it, decide you don’t like the therapist, then switch to a different therapist you like more. You have the power.

Now it is possible that therapy will result in you changing. Most people don’t go to therapy to keep feeling and acting the exact same way. But it’s self directed. A good therapist will help you achieve the goals that you want to achieve. You are the one who gets to choose if you’re going to follow through on their suggestions, who gets to ask for specific kinds of help, and who gets to decide the direction that the therapy takes. You can fire your therapist if you think they’re not good. It’s all up to you.

Which leads directly into my next point…

Yes Therapy is Hard

One thing that I strongly recommend when talking to someone about therapy is to be honest. Which means that I never tell anyone that therapy is great and I love it and always want to go.

In my experience, one of the biggest challenges for people to being open to therapy is that they don’t really know what happens. It’s a foreign experience. Especially for someone who might have anxiety, the unknown is nerve wracking. How am I supposed to act? What can I expect?

I think that it can be incredibly helpful to talk a bit about the actual nitty gritty of what a therapy session looks like. For me that means letting people know that each individual session is rarely pleasant. We’re often talking about difficult and painful things. Often we’re taking a hard look at what I dislike about myself, where I think I’ve screwed up, things that frustrate me, and situations that are causing me distress. Other times my therapist is asking me to look at things differently: instead of seeing myself as the odd one out in my family, I’m someone with slightly different needs (she described me as a hobbit in a family of dwarves: I can survive underground for a while, but I’m not meant to live there). That’s intellectual work.

And perhaps the hardest part is that many sessions involve your therapist asking you to do things differently. They suggest scripts for you to use with other people, ways to interrupt old thought patterns, new behavior to change relationships or manage stress or deal with things you don’t like in your life. That might mean that you have work to do in between therapy sessions. My favorite therapists have given homework, like “practice mindfulness 3 times this week” or “have this difficult conversation with a family member.” They give you the tools, but you have to be the one to put them into practice.

 

So at the end of the day, therapy is just being with a person who will help you achieve your goals. It’s another tool in your life toolbox, that comes with someone who’s always in your corner. Why wouldn’t you want that?

So if I were to sell therapy to someone here’s what I’d say.

“It sounds like you’re struggling. I’m so fucking sorry. Life is balls sometimes. For me, therapy was a really important part of learning how to manage. Society doesn’t prepare us for dealing with seriously hard emotional shit, and therapy is where I learned how to do that. I can tell you more, or recommend someone if you’d like?”