Reflections on a Year in Therapy

I started seeing a therapist early last December, which means I’ve been in therapy for about a year now, and I want to take some time to reflect on my progress with my therapist.

The therapist I’m seeing now is the only one I’ve ever had. Before I started therapy, I had lots of conversations with people who knew me well in which they assumed I’d been to therapy and then were surprised when I told them I hadn’t. For as long as I can remember, my life has depended on being my own therapist, on cobbling together techniques from CBT and DBT, relaxation gifs, ASMR videos, harm reduction, and strategies from friends and strangers on the internet to make myself a path to survival. I don’t know what assuming I’d had professional support says about those people or about me, but I’m proud of myself for managing as well as I did for as long as I did without therapy.

I had a really difficult childhood, and I’ve wanted therapy since I was a kid. I remember my mom threatening me with it as punishment once. Inside I was begging for it, but she never followed through. I asked her directly for therapy a few times when I was a teenager. She always found some way to brush me off or drop the subject, usually saying something about money or insurance. She obfuscates our family’s finances, but we’re pretty well-off and I suspect it was always a lie.

During my first attempt at college and the time I spent as a dropout, I grew into some complexities that made it harder to trust any hypothetical therapist. I was bi, agender, chronically ill, a survivor of parental abuse and child-on-child sexual abuse. My problems included getting into internet fights with mansplainers in the bi activist community and other niche conflicts of politics and identity. It was a lot to explain to anyone, let alone a stranger, a medical professional whose background I barely knew at all.

When I finally did start therapy, it was because I’d hit a wall in trying to get by on community-based support alone. The people I consider my friends and community are mostly trans, disabled, and otherwise marginalized. The struggles we go through with oppression and sometimes our own bodies mean we’re often stretched thin trying to care for ourselves and each other. Thankfully one of my friends was able to recommend a therapist, with more nuance than a basic “gay-friendly.” I started seeing that therapist, and I’ve been happy enough (and in the beginning, search-averse enough) to stick with her.

I liked her intake paperwork, which asked about identities, including gender and pronouns, in open-ended ways, but the first couple of months of therapy were rough. My therapist kept forgetting things I’d told her about myself and my life, and forgetting she’d already told me her story about a Buddhist with progressing Alzheimer’s. I shrunk, as I usually do with even friendly and respectful authority figures, and went through those conversations again and again without saying anything.

My therapist’s attitudes about diagnosis often frustrated me as well. She was pleasantly indifferent to diagnostic labels at first, saying they were often arbitrary and just a box to fill in on the insurance paperwork, but other times she’d use diagnostic labels to pathologize people. We wouldn’t dream of being Facebook friends with each other, but I happened to see her comment on a mutual friend’s post, giving Trump the usual armchair diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I didn’t identify as having Borderline Personality Disorder in my intake paperwork because I know how medical and psychiatric ableism goes. My therapist never seems to have thought about BPD as a diagnosis for me, maybe because she sees me as too well-adjusted or morally good for it, but she asked me if I thought my abusive mother was Borderline. In reality, I think it’s possible but mostly an ableist, anti-Borderline moot point. To my therapist, I responded with less politically charged apathy.

While my therapist understands that I’m agender and identify as trans, she’s also made a lot of common cis slips. She fumbles with other trans people’s pronouns sometimes, and I’m sure she does with mine if she ever talks about me. She sometimes refers to me as female, a woman, my mother’s daughter, and so forth, then struggles to frame more accurate and sensitive statements in terms of socialization or how other people see me. Early on, she asked me what I think therapists should know about serving trans people. I was frustrated that she was asking to be educated while she was supposed to be helping me, but I didn’t want to say so. Instead I stared out the window for a long time before answering, which was an admittedly unclear communication strategy. I eventually said that dysphoria and other trans-related problems won’t always be what we’re in therapy for, which her other interactions with me showed she already understood anyway.

I’ve been open with her about being a writer, but not about my pen name or all the specifics of what I write about. She expressed interest in seeing some of my writing early on, and my deep-seated fears about snooping clashed with my hesitation to deny any request. If I showed her any of my writing, she’d be able to google and find more of it, so I’d have to just trust her not to. Rationally, I did trust her, but my trauma-brain was just not having it.

I spent those first couple of months comparing therapy to the therapeutic value of other things in my life, and therapy usually lost. I wished insurance and/or my mom would pay for other kinds of professional support, like artistic mentorship, or compensate my friends for all they ways they’ve helped me.

I’m not sure when my opinion shifted and I started to look forward to therapy more, so I guess it must have been gradual. I still have to repeat myself to my therapist sometimes, and she still unknowingly repeats herself to me sometimes, but it’s gotten less frequent. In a recent session, she got out a clipboard and prepared to take notes as I told her about my family’s intergenerational trauma. It made me feel like she was really listening and engaged.

I’ve been more assertive with her recently, if only in small ways. One time, on the way into her office, she asked me how I was, and I said, “I’ve been better.” She said, “That’s good,” misunderstanding how I meant it. I was using it in the negative way, like “I’ve been better at other times in my life than I am now,” but she took it as “I’ve been better recently.” I hate correcting people, so my impulse was to just go along with it, but instead I clarified.

I’m still not confident enough to tell her directly when something she’s doing isn’t helping me much, but I’ve learned to recognize and communicate when something is working especially well. I come out of therapy feeling best when we address old, deep pain or a current acute crisis. Even if I’m seriously chronically frustrated about something (like housing, employment, or my career as an artist), spinning those wheels doesn’t make me feel better. I’m learning that on days when I come into the office feeling pretty good, the best thing for me is to pick a situation that hurt me long ago and discuss it with my therapist. Even when I can self-validate, it’s still healing to have someone else acknowledge violations that everyone in my life wanted to ignore when they occured.

I’ve come to trust my therapist more to respect my privacy with regard to my art life. Some of my trust developed through familiarity, and some developed because I didn’t want to bother to obscure identifying details about things like my performances and employment. My therapist has enough information about me to easily find my pen name and everything that’s associated with it, but I trust her to respect my boundaries. I still haven’t shown her any of my writing, though, because I don’t think she needs to read it to understand me.

As for the things she gets wrong about transness or disability, I’ve decided to only correct and educate her if she needs to understand better in order to support me. As important as it is to educate people about social justice, she’s paid to help me, not the other way around. If I can brush off her mistakes and still get the support I need, that’s what I do.

As much as I’ve struggled with some aspects of navigating therapy, I like my therapist and look forward to our sessions. Therapy fulfills my lifelong fantasy of having an older adult who cares what happens to me and is a reliable presence in my life. I know she’s paid for that, but that doesn’t negate it, and she also shows me that she cares through specific compliments and, once, coming into the office on a day she usually takes off because that was all my schedule would allow for. She also offers me a hug at the end of each session, which I appreciate as a reliable and predictable way of receiving touch. Knowing that whatever happens to me, there will be someone waiting to hear about it and give me a hug helps me get through tough times.

While I still value and need support from my friends and communities, I feel better about not needing to ask quite as much of them since I started therapy. I think therapy has also helped to ease my overall desperation, which is a relief.

It’s work and a process of growth to get what I want out of therapy, but I’m gradually working towards knowing what I want and asking for it. As I come to understand and assert myself, my therapist is becoming the supportive presence that I’ve longed for all my life.


(I’m still struggling to integrate class dynamics and privilege smoothly in my writing. I’m happy and privileged that my mom and her insurance are able to pay for me to see the therapist I want to see, even though my mom’s financial and other abuse kept me from accessing therapy for most of my life. I suspect she finally became willing to pay for therapy because I’m too old for the government to take me away from her and because she knows it would be financially difficult for me to cut ties with her.)

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Trans Inaccessibility is Disabled Inaccessibility

My trans, disabled body doesn’t know the line between disability-related access and trans-related access, if the line exists at all.

I’ve been resting for the last 30 hours or so. I napped yesterday evening, got 10 more hours of sleep, and woke up feeling floaty, dizzy, and sleepy. It hasn’t stopped. I spent the whole day lying on the couch, watching TV or playing video games in short bursts while my energy lasted, but mostly doing nothing at all. I’m writing now only because it seemed too bleak to move from the couch to my bed just to extend my streak of sleeping.

It wasn’t this bad yesterday, but I was exhausted and in more pain than usual. The day before, I ran out of energy an hour or two into my work day, got so sensitive I had to turn off the lights, and maintained a piercing headache regardless.

I’m chronically ill; this isn’t new to me. But what set off this flare was transphobia. A couple of my cis coworkers gave mediocre definitions of “cisgender” while I was facilitating a workshop and no one corrected them. I felt trapped, and when it was time for small-group conversation, I froze, giving a hasty explanation before running away to cry in a small, dark meeting room. With support from my boss, I was able to pull it together and work for the rest of the day. But really, I was gone before I even left the room, and to my extreme frustration, I’m not back from this dissociation yet.

It’s an effort not to fault myself for being so weak. Emotional breakdowns and their physical aftermath are tedious, and I wish I could just opt out. My impulse is to minimize the microaggression. I know my coworkers were well-intended, and their errors were relatively subtle. I try to use this knowledge to make myself feel less deeply about it. It wasn’t that bad, I try to tell myself, so I shouldn’t feel this bad.

It doesn’t work. Deeper down, I know it was that bad. My pain tells me so. I feel unlovable and invalid in my agender, and my body breaks down in accordance with my emotions. When I try to erase my reasons for being hurt, it’s not the pain that goes away — just the explanation.

This is what inaccessibility looks like: being made to leave, disengage, cut back, shut down — and suffer anyway. Trans inaccessibility is emotional inaccessibility is physical inaccessibility is disabled inaccessibility. Casual transphobia wreaks horrors on my bodymind, giving me disability that this space and this work refuse to hold.

I’m frustrated at my own weakness. I want to be an unstoppable force of justice, not someone who runs away, cries and disappears for three days.

Capitalism is ableist, and it teaches us that fatigue is apolitical. If you’re permissibly tired, it’s natural, everyone gets tired, you need some rest, take care of yourself! If you’re tired in a way or to an extent that interrupts production or inconveniences others, then you’re lazy, not trying hard enough, and maybe just innately inferior. How pitiful that your body is just so bad and useless — guess it’s time for you to disappear until you’re fixed!

For people who aren’t tired all the time, it’s easier not to question where else exhaustion might come from. It’s easier to condemn fatigued people to a biological fate of exclusion than to resist cissexism, environmental racism, capitalism, and all the other forms of oppression that leave us so frequently burnt out.

But I am exhausted all the time, and I’m sick of self care. I’m sick of having to spend time healing my wounds instead of mounting a resistance. I’m sick of fighting transphobia with tea and baths and sleep. Self care might help conserve my life and energy, but it won’t stop the onslaught.

I need care from my community. I can’t support myself when I’m so tired already. I need solidarity from people who will understand, and the less I have to explain, the better, because talking takes energy too. I need validation in my transness and reassurance that I have a right to be honored in my agender, even if it’s so frequently violated. I need physical intimacy with people I trust.

My needs are barely being met. My friends and community members love me, but love alone can’t sustain us. We need resources. We need time and energy left over after work, school, moving apartments, transphobia, ableism and everything else that demands our labor. We need affordable housing in decent proximity to each other and affordable, accessible transportation.

Hurting more myself makes me hurt more for my community. I’m tired of us so often being targeted, ignored, made to insulate our oppressors from the grief they cause us. I’m tired of us being denied support by those with more power, being forced to draw from our own insufficient resources or, at best, the limited resources of our communities.

I need cis people to do better, to care more, and to stop creating such huge demand for caring labor from people who are already overtaxed. Stop hurting us. Call us by our pronouns, on the first attempt, every time. Quit projecting your assumptions on our bodies. Learn from trans-produced narratives and guides, but do your own research. Pay us for our labor to teach you. Take your collectively vast resources and use them to educate yourselves and each other. Do the prep work to keep from pushing us out of our shared spaces.

Start helping us. Care about us. Care for us. Make yourselves safe for us to trust. Hold us in our pain and our anger, if we will be held. Let us flee if we need to and ease our way back in when we can.

I need care; I demand access. I will not leave my fatigue at home or my transness at the door.


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Nik Moreno’s “This, Not That: A Guide to Eliminating Ableist Language” backs up suggestions with context

[image description: a photo of This, Not That: A Guide to Eliminating Ableist Language, with a bright pink cover and “This, Not That” written on a banner illustration.] Photo by Nik.
Nik Moreno’s This, Not That: A Guide to Eliminating Ableist Language delivers on its promise: it examines how some everyday words and phrases are ableist and offers suggestions of how to replace them. But what I appreciate most about it is that it provides context that is often missing from word substitution lists.

The zine opens with an introduction about the importance of language in culture and media, a brief glossary, and a reminder of the ways in which ableist language leads abled people to physically harm disabled people. In these components and throughout the rest of the zine, Nik highlights that ableism serves colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism. These systems all reinforce each other, and it’s important to keep that in mind as we work to dismantle them.

Nik also provides a short note that for some disabled people, including him, it’s powerful and important to reclaim words like “crippled.” As someone who’s pretty into reclamation, I appreciate this acknowledgement and the way Nik’s joy radiates through these words.

Nik starts off the explanation of words to eliminate with “The Scrap Yard,” a collection of words and phrases he suggests eliminating entirely, rather than replacing. He explains how each of them does harm. This list includes slurs and phrases and dismissive, ableist questions like, “What are you deaf?” In this section, I especially appreciate Nik’s analysis of how “lazy” is used to criticize people instead of acknowledging the bodily and societal barriers that stop us.

Before transitioning into the words for which he suggests replacements, Nik cautions the reader that the alternatives he suggests can still be used in ableist ways and provides guidelines for examining the assumptions and values behind our use of language. This extra step of reflection can go a long way in checking our ableism.

The second set of words and phrases to eliminate works similarly to the first set, but in this section there are also clouds of alternatives to try. Nik offers many suggestions for each entry, covering a variety of situations in which people use the ableist language. This section includes words like “lame” and many diagnostic terms that are tossed around as metaphors.

In my mind, there’s not a stark real-life difference between the words in the “scrap yard” and the ones for which Nik suggests alternatives, but his distinction doesn’t detract from my reading experience. Nik’s definitions of terms, particularly around the distinctions between ableism and sanism, differs from mine, and I think these definitions would benefit from more precision, but these are ongoing and community-wide conversations.

Nik also offers opportunities to connect to other people’s writing about resisting ableism through relevant quotes throughout the zine and a “further reading” section at the end.

While much of this zine focuses on getting abled people to stop hurting us, it’s also valuable for disabled people who want to work through how our own language my uphold oppression, and there’s a beautiful and validating dedication at the end. I also recommend it to my fellow white disabled people because we have a lot to learn about how ableism intersects with racism and colonialism and how to support disabled people of color.

You can get This, Not That from Nik’s Etsy shop.

M. Sabine Rear’s “Bending Spoons: A Field Guide to Ableist Microaggressions”Will Charm You and Help Sighted Readers Not Make Fools of Ourselves

Bending Spoons: A Field to Ableist Microaggressions by M. Sabine Rear is a beautiful, compact quarter-size zine of illustrations of people making everyday ableist comments about Sabine’s blindness, paired with explanations of how what they said was harmful.

ableist dude.jpg
My favorite pair of pages in the zine, with the illustration described below. The facing page says, “Blindness is a marker of physical difference that is written on my body. It designates my body as especially vulnerable, perhaps unusual, not fit to be in public. This dude has identified and then immediately fetishized this marker of difference. He thinks he’s totally made my day.” Photo by Sabine.

It’s very elegant, in both visual style and writing style. Sabine’s illustrations of ableist jackasses and well-meaning but misguided commenters are simple but packed with character. My personal favorite is a dude with crosshatched hair and a beard protesting, “…but you have such beautiful eyes.” The last bit of his comment is written in cursive and the “i” is dotted with a heart, which is the kind of detail that makes me love this zine.

Sabine’s explains the assumptions she observes behind each ableist comment, as well as reflecting on her personal feelings about it and how the comment fits into broader ableist patterns. I recommend checking your own behavior and thoughts about blindness against the illustrated quotes and using Sabine’s analysis to learn how to do better if you notice any of your own anti-blind ableism. Even if you know better than the people who are being blatantly obnoxious, you may not recognize some of the subtler microaggressions as such. Personally, I’ve caught myself making a mistake similar to the person who tries to relate by telling her, “I’m pretty near-sighted too.”

Language like “internalized ableism” and “crip embodiment” may feel dense or confusing for readers who aren’t familiar with disabled and anti-ableist language, but part of unlearning ableism is familiarizing yourself with the language disabled people use to describe our experiences. This is a great place to start.

Bending Spoons inspires me to experiment with the power of simplicity. It’s a quick, short read packed with useful information.

Learn more about Sabine’s work at her website or order Bending Spoons from Powell’s Books for $4.

Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” is an ableist dystopia in disguise

[image description: a screenshot of Kelly, a young Black woman portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, asking two other young people, “Have you seen a girl? Mid-20s, brown hair, glasses?”]
[image description: a screenshot from earlier in the episode of a crowded bar full of 20-somethings and no one else] I don’t know, Kelly, have you seen anyone who’s not 20-something?

[spoiler alert for all of Black Mirror S3E4, “San Junipero”; content warnings for death, eugenics, ableism, homophobia, and car crashes]

Since Black Mirror’s October 21 release, people have been going wild about it. In particular, lesbian, bi, and queer women have been rejoicing about the episode “San Junipero,” the story of a lesbian and a bi woman who meet, flirt, and fall in love.

There’s a lot to like. “San Junipero” shows us unambiguous bi and lesbian representation, a subversion of the Bury Your Gays trope, and queer women driving off into the sunset to “Heaven is a Place on Earth” as credits roll. The happy ending is all the more remarkable coming from a series that often closes on characters in abject horror at technological dystopias in which they’re sometimes complicit.

But to me, “San Junipero” is its own kind of dystopia: one in which elderly and disabled lives are considered not worth living.

The episode begins with “an outgoing party girl”, Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and “a shy young woman,” Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) meeting in a bar in 1987 as Kelly tells Yorkie to go along with whatever she says so Kelly can get away from a man who’s harassing her to have sex again. The two women hit it off and continue talking after the harasser leaves.

Yorkie is consummately inexperienced. It’s her first night in the beachside party town of San Junipero. When Kelly buys her a Jack and Coke, Yorkie sniffs it before taking a sip and winces at the taste. Kelly asks if she’s never had it before, and Yorkie is slow to lie that she hasn’t had one in a while. After more conversation, Kelly gets an uneasy Yorkie on the dance floor. Yorkie runs outside before revealing she’s also never been on a dance floor. Kelly invites Yorkie back to her place. Yorkie declines, saying she “never did anything like that.”

As the show reveals more about its world, we learn that San Junipero is actually a virtual reality to which people can have their consciousnesses uploaded when they die, and where living people can visit for five hours a week. The system was designed as “immersive nostalgia therapy” for Alzheimer’s, but it’s said that people who spend too much time in the virtual reality go crazy and dissociate from their bodies.

Keeping pace with revelations about the fictional universe, “San Junipero” unveils more about its characters’ lives and backstories. Neither Kelly nor Yorkie is actually a young woman. Kelly is an elderly woman with an unspecified disease who’s living on borrowed time; Yorkie is an elderly quadriplegic woman with a tracheostomy tube, waiting for her wedding of convenience to a man who will be the final signature she needs to be authorized for euthanasia. Her paralysis resulted from driving off the road after a fight with her homophobic parents when she was 21.

Generally, the government in “San Junipero” isn’t wild about euthanasia, which is on “triple lockdown” to “stop folks from passing over just because they prefer San Junipero flat out.” Yorkie has obtained the necessary signature from her doctor and has signed off for herself, but her disapproving parents won’t provide the requisite family signature.

For all the difference of this sci-fi universe from our own, its biopoliltics are strikingly similar. The government doesn’t want citizens electing en masse to die early for an afterlife of recreation. Although the episode doesn’t explore this aspect, it’s likely that workers’ lives are needed to maintain capitalism. We don’t see any labor outsourced to virtual reality, so presumably the loss of a worker’s life is a loss for business. Workers mustn’t die while they still have value to exploit, so family members and doctors are expected to keep healthy people from voluntarily dying.

In contrast, we’re supposed to see Yorkie’s right to die as straightforward and obvious. In the real world, we only see her lying in a hospital bed, able to hear but not to respond in any way. A passing line tells us that she’s talked to Greg (Raymond McAnally), her fiancé, on the comm box, a device that isn’t explained but seems to be part of the real world. But we don’t get any other information about how this works or see her having any other agency in the real world. Yorkie is meant to die because her disabled life is unlivable. Every sympathetic character wishes for her death, and the audience is meant to as well.

But even virtual reality doesn’t present a disabled life worth living: no one in San Junipero is discernibly disabled, elderly, or even middle-aged. “San Junipero” is full of crowd shots, but there’s not a disability or midlife signifier to be seen. This is a deliberate decision both by the show’s creators and by the residents of San Junipero, who can change their styles and cross distances instantaneously.

Kelly estimates that 80 to 85 percent of people in San Junipero are “full-timers,” people who have died and had their consciousnesses uploaded. Many of these people likely lived long enough to become disabled, and all of them have rejected both old age and their disability for their happily-ever-afters. (At one point, Kelly describes Yorkie to a stranger as “mid-20s,” which is comical in the endless sea of 20-somethings.)

It’s not surprising that Yorkie views her disability negatively. She acquired it in a traumatic series of events, and with her parents’ constant surveillance and scrutiny, she never got to explore the full possibilities of any embodiment. But seeing the choice to be able-bodied echoed by Kelly (who ditches her breathing tubes and use of a caregiver for support with walking) and by each of dozens of extras in San Junipero makes it clear that ableism in virtual reality is systemic.

Because the narrative and framing of “San Junipero” connect Yorkie’s able-bodiedness with her agency, it’s not enough for virtual reality and death to liberate her from homophobia and her oppressive parents; she must also be liberated from her disability. Lingering shots throughout the episode of Yorkie feeling the rain and sand on her feet further emphasize the already striking difference between her elderly disabled real-world self and her young able-bodied avatar.

The built environment of San Junipero discourages disabled existence. As Kelly jumps through time periods in search of Yorkie, we see 1980, 1987, and 1996 versions of Tucker’s, the bar where Kelly and Yorkie met, and each of these versions has stairs, as does the Quagmire, the bar with a “freakier” clientele. Even with instantaneous teleportation, it’s unclear how someone could navigate these crowded social environments with a wheelchair or a walker. What do you do when you need to poof up the stairs but there’s not enough space to poof into?

There’s also the unresolved issue of pity. Before Kelly and Yorkie meet in real life, Yorkie tells Kelly she knows her fiancé Greg pities her and it pisses her off. When Kelly visits Yorkie’s hospital, she pleads with Greg for five minutes of virtual reality time with Yorkie, which she uses to propose. The marriage and euthanasia happen the next day, as planned, but with Kelly instead of Greg as Yorkie’s spouse.

Yorkie and Kelly fight on their San Junipero honeymoon, Yorkie a new full-timer and Kelly still alive and on the five-hour time limit. Yorkie begs Kelly to reconsider her previous plan and stay with her in San Junipero, rather than passing away completely, when she dies. When Kelly objects, Yorkie cites their marriage. Kelly tells her that she married her “as a kindness, to help you  pass over.” Yorkie keeps insisting over Kelly’s further objections, overstepping so far as to insult her husband of 49 years, and Kelly responds by telling Yorkie twice that she pitied her.

Kelly drives off and into an intentional full-speed car crash, which in San Junipero has no consequences. Yorkie appears out of nowhere to offer a hand up. Kelly reaches for her hands, but her virtual reality time runs out before they touch. Soon Kelly tells her caregiver she’s ready “for the rest of it” and passes away.

When we next see Kelly and Yorkie together, it’s for their joyous seaside convertible ride into the sunset, with no discussion of Yorkie’s white entitlement or Kelly’s ableist pity. This couple is charming at times in their flirtation, and I want to believe in them, but ultimately I wouldn’t bet on them staying together a month, let alone for much of eternity.

Show creator and episode writer Charlie Brooker acknowledges that their future may be difficult but maintains that Yorkie and Kelly have “the happiest ending imaginable.”

Not to me. An inaccessible eternity where no one wants to be or is disabled is dystopia. It’s hell. I’d spend the rest of my existence mourning the loss of crip community, crip wisdom, crip magic,  and dedicate my afterlife to disability activism.

“San Junipero” suggests the possibility of representation for disabled elderly lesbian and bi women but ultimately buries them in permanent able-bodied youth. Kelly and Yorkie’s future stretches on potentially forever without futures for elderly and disabled queer women. Not even immortality can redeem the lifelessness of compulsory able-bodiedness.

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Emotional labor, internalized femmephobia, and this meme

[image description: an image of a baby seal with text over it that reads, “Have you ever considered getting a therapist instead of relying solely on the free emotional labor of your femme friends???” It’s attributed to @scariest_bug_ever.]
Hi, can we talk about this meme? Specifically, can we talk about the ways it resonates with me but mostly just hurts and isolates me, and also what you get from it if it resonates positively with you? Let’s also talk about better ways to navigate exchange of emotional labor.

I’ve been explicitly relying on community support instead of therapy for at least a couple years now. I don’t trust psychiatry. I don’t trust strangers. Mostly I trust my friends, and mostly I can vet my friends in a thousand ways most people don’t even understand are ways you’d need to vet a therapist. I don’t expect therapists to understand how deeply intra-bi-community misogyny and ableism hurt me, for example. I don’t expect online reviews about “gay-friendliness” or strangers from my local queer exchange group to be able to give me that kind of in-depth information.

My close, trusted (mostly femme) friends are close and trusted because we’ve had lots of personal and political talks that have established that they can validate, respect, and support me on really nuanced issues. There’s a reason I prefer them to a therapist, and that’s not to mention every other financial and bureaucratic access issue with getting and seeing a therapist.

I’m tired of being exploited for emotional labor. There are people I want to scream the text of this meme at because of the specific dynamics of our relationships. But this feels like poisonous internalized femmephobia when directed at everyone without more context about the politics of exploitation. When my femme friends share this meme, it makes me feel shut down, like there can’t even be a conversation between us about equitable exchanges and I’m wrong for just existing and wanting emotional labor from my friends (on terms that are good for us both. Look at me qualifying this. I should not have to qualify this. Thanks, meme OP).

Maybe I’m supposed to look at this meme and just go, “Yes, I have considered that, and there are reasons why until I recently got pretty desperate I had decided that a therapist wasn’t the thing for me” and shrug the whole thing off. But that’s not how it feels to me, and I think a lot of vulnerable femmes who need a lot of emotional labor feel similarly to me about it. UGH.

am working on getting a therapist now, actually, for these reasons: 1) I’m the kind of desperate that’s making me look for radically new strategies, 2) my friends are often burnt out and tired from all the labor they do for themselves and others, and they can’t always help even when they want to, and 3) a friend who shares some key identities with me personally recommended a therapist and could vouch for some of the nuanced stuff I worry about. Even if I get this therapist, it will be through my friend’s emotional labor. I wrote that as “friend’s,” singular, there, but actually, it’s “friends’,” plural. Another friend supported me and was physically present while I checked voicemail from the therapist-to-be, and I’m trying to help hir with hir own process of getting a therapist.

Getting a therapist is one potential, risky, sometimes inaccessible strategy for managing emotional labor needs. It’s valid, but not something anyone owes to their friends, and I don’t think it’s a surefire way to reduce the emotional labor you seek from your friends. A bad therapist, a helpful one with some frustrating aspects, or even an all-around great one could create new emotional labor needs, just like any other person in your life.

Let’s get out of the framework that accepting free labor is bad, and talk instead about unreciprocated or exploited labor.

As some alternative ways to work on balancing emotional labor, here are some ideas I have about how to do better, based on strategies I use in my own life:

– Educate yourself about emotional labor, especially the more privileges you have that allow you to opt out 0f emotional labor (including self-education) easily.

– Check in explicitly with people in your life about how you want to interact, what feels good, what feels bad, what’s off-limits. Have broad conversations about consent and boundaries.

– Consider balances of emotional and other labor throughout your groups and communities and with each of your friends. Examine what you do for people without them having to ask, what you do when asked, what they do for you without asking, what they do for you when you ask. consider how this relates to multiple axes of privilege without turning it into the oppression Olympics. Talk openly about this.

– Remember that equal isn’t necessarily equitable. Talk about it. Some people need more emotional labor, and some can give more of it more easily or at less personal expense. (But to be fair some people also refuse to develop the skills that would make it easier for them, which is part of the problem.)

How do you work to make emotional labor exchanges in your life equitable?

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