I Will Not Be Thrown Away: guest post

I Will Not Be Thrown Away: guest post

Image description: A black and white photo of the back of a Black woman’s head in a head wrap. Photo credit: Mel Vee. Mel Vee is an aspiring photographer and her guest post series will feature her photography.

This is a guest post by Mel Vee.

Mel Vee mesmerizes, captivates and incites with her spoken word. She is a passionate advocate for the power of narrative to heal and liberate. A general disturber of shit, Mel Vee seeks to blur and disrupt all kinds of distinctions. She is a core member of the Uproot YYC, a grassroots collective for artists of colour dedicated to uprooting systemic barriers in the arts community. She was a member of Calgary’s 2017 slam team, who were semi-finalists at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and co-creator of The Unlearning Channel podcast.

This post is the second is a four-part series, one per week for the month of May. Together, this series will comprise the third entry in the Feminism from the Margins series.

Content note for rape, sexual assault, descriptions of misogynoir.

I learned from an early age that my body was not my own.

My Black body was created to be of service to anyone who showed up and demanded it. This Black body, the only home I have on this speck of stardust navigating the cosmos, was as foreign and alien to me as those distant galaxies.

Why should it have been any other way? I received the message clearly that my body was a means through which others could actualize their own wants and desires. My body was not a safe nor joyous place; not a place to be treasured and tended to gently. My body was a vessel – to serve others, for men’s desires, and for birthing children, but never for me.

My education in the precarity and disposability of the Black female body began at home with the women in my family. Their necessarily strong, beautiful black bodies were always in service to others. Most of the women in my family were and are never still.

One aunt, whom I love dearly, always comes to mind. As far back as I can remember, she was always in motion, toiling away for others. She toiled in her home, at her work as a nurse’s aide and in her church. She did it all. Raised a family, held down a career, opened her home to countless unwanted and discarded people in the community and never spoke a word about her struggles to anyone. No one ever questioned what toll this constant availability and service would wreak on her body and mind.

Her pace continued unabated for the entirety of my childhood, adolescence and early adult years until one day, the inevitable happened. She snapped, culminating in a one month stay in a psychiatric ward. People whispered about what might be the culprit for her decline without ever approaching the truth, that she was used up until she had nothing more to offer.

Barely a few months of marginal concern went by before things returned to “normal”. The unceasing demands, the perpetual toil and the complete disregard for her well-being until her health completely failed and simply never returned. She now spends much of her time bedridden. I feel blessed when I receive a message from her because it means her pain eased up just enough to manage a text. My aunt, once a pillar of our family, reduced to sending texts during a brief respite from her unending pain.

Her body bears the cost of continual and unceasing labour for people who took and took and left her an empty shell. Her body is racked with osteoarthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and she constantly struggles to maintain a healthy weight. I am certain some will attribute this to the inevitable ravages of age, but I know in my bones biology is only one part of the narrative.

Her body fought back in the only way available, it shut down. My aunt toiled for years without rest for others. Everyone around her demanded more and she gave more. When her health declined, all the people who had taken from her vanished, without a trace. I wish I could say my aunt is an isolated case, but this is the fate of many women in my family. Our bodies, time and energy are used up until there is nothing left and few, if any, stick around to pick up the pieces. My aunt cautions me continually about her fate and encourages me to take care of myself. It is a grim reminder that I take to heart.

What is most grotesque about the situation of my aunt and so many women like her is how normalized this is; how people expect the Black female body to be at service and at the ready.

Our bodies are not meant to be lovingly inhabited by ourselves. The roots of these expectations are deep, undoubtedly tracing their history to chattel slavery where our bodies were literally not our own. How do you love a body that was never meant for you to enjoy; a body that was historically regarded as property and in contemporary times is a reminder of your presumed inferiority?

My own body bears the scars of the precarity and disposability of the Black female body. My left arm is scarred from my wrist up to near my shoulder. All of these wounds are self-inflicted. Even after a decade of being free from self-harming behaviour, my scars are still visible. I wear them openly as an act of defiance, to hold a mirror up to a society whose violence I internalized and enacted upon myself.

I had no shape, no words for the anger and hatred I felt for being born in a Black female body; a body people regarded as valuable only so far as it could serve. I lashed out against a world which continually shows its brutal and naked contempt for me and people who look like me. I lashed out against the one person I knew had no recourse. Myself. I lashed out because rage is all I could muster. Someone had to be punished for the wound of being a Black girl in a society drenched in anti-Black racism and misogynoir.

In the process of addressing trauma and healing in my life, it has become evident that my internalized misogynoir had caused me to disassociate and distance myself from my body. I became an unwilling occupant in a body that others had treated with the utmost contempt; culminating in rape, sexual assault and violence. I sought to protect myself emotionally in the way traumatized people do, by distancing myself emotionally from the source of pain, my brown and despised body; a body that was valuable only to the extent it could serve.

I am now undergoing the painful but enriching process of coming home to my body; the process of reclaiming a body others have treated with contempt and disrespect. I am now learning to inhabit my body and treat it with love, respect and dignity. I am learning slowly to prioritize the needs and desires of my body. I am learning that my body is worthy of fighting for and keeping alive.

I am coming home now to this brown body after 28 years. I am coming home to this brown body which has been the site of so much grief and violence. I am coming home to this brown body where I laugh, love, fight, move, dance and sing. I am coming home to this brown body, imperfections and all. I am coming home to the only body that will carry me until I die.

I am reclaiming my body in defiance of a society that regards brown bodies with violence.

I am reclaiming my body in honour of all the Black women who no longer can.

I am reclaiming my body so others know it is possible.

I am coming home to my brown body, in the only home I will ever know in this beautiful and sometimes terrifying cosmos.

I am finally coming home.

This post is the final piece in the third contribution to the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, get in touch!

Also check out the other posts in the series:

Never Ever Follow Those White Kids Around – a brief personal history of race and mental health: guest post

Never Ever Follow Those White Kids Around – a brief personal history of race and mental health: guest post

Image description: A close up of bright greenery with an out of focus cityscape in the background. Photo credit: Mel Vee. Mel Vee is an aspiring photographer and her guest post series will feature her photography.

This is a guest post by Mel Vee.

Mel Vee mesmerizes, captivates and incites with her spoken word. She is a passionate advocate for the power of narrative to heal and liberate. A general disturber of shit, Mel Vee seeks to blur and disrupt all kinds of distinctions. She is a core member of the Uproot YYC, a grassroots collective for artists of colour dedicated to uprooting systemic barriers in the arts community. She was a member of Calgary’s 2017 slam team, who were semi-finalists at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and co-creator of The Unlearning Channel podcast.

This post is the second is a four-part series, one per week for the month of May. Together, this series will comprise the third entry in the Feminism from the Margins series.

Content note for racial violence, intimate partner violence, suicidality, graphic description of self-harm.

I learned from a young age that I was valued less than others. My brown skin, femaleness, queerness, working class family, speech impediment and quiet, thoughtful nature, mistaken for mental slowness, marked me for hardship and struggle. No one told me in those exact words, but no one needed to – that much was obvious.

My mother was the first person to impart this lesson and spell it out for me but she did so from a place of love. “NEVER EVER follow those white kids around; think they’re better than you! Don’t believe them, they are not better or worse than you. They are human, same as us. But they will think they are high and mighty because they’re white,” she warned us.

She was specifically referring to my cousin, who hung around the playground and in class desperately following white kids around for their coveted friendship. It is a painful memory to reflect on now. My cousin with her dark brown skin, boxer braids and almond eyes following around blonde and brown haired, blue and green-eyed girls with impossibly straight hair and pale white skin.

They were the epitome of beauty, goodness and wholesomeness and my cousin desperately wanted to be beautiful and good and whole like them. She followed them around like a shadow. They often shooed her away, cussed her, threw things at her and even made fun of her. One time she came home to her mother in tears after one of the white girls spat on her and called her darkie; tar baby. My mom was quiet, but her knowing eyes said, ‘See, this is what I warned you about.’

Looking back, I cannot blame my cousin for wanting to distance herself from her blackness. All I learned about Black people in school was that we were slaves. Our history began with slavery and ended with Martin Luther King Jr (bear in mind this was taught in a Canadian school – hello Black Loyalists!). The only Black person I remember seeing in an elementary school textbook was a hunched over Black woman, obviously enslaved or a sharecropper, with a filthy black and white handkerchief on her head, glaring into the camera from a cotton field. That was it. We had no history prior to enslavement; there was no mention of Africa prior to European colonialism, the horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade, current and global Black independence struggles and the connection to diasporic Blacks or even Black people during enslavement who resisted, taught, created art or invented.

Our history was reduced to this picture of a tough-looking, stooped over woman with a mean glare.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my mom was doing her best to shield us from a tide of white supremacy which would seek or simply by design devalue the lives of her children – which taught and continues to teach that we were nothing more than the descendants of enslaved people who contributed little to history; that we were less than Europeans and non-Black People of Colour. Our skins marked us as inferiors. Her efforts in hindsight were commendable, given the impossible nature of the task. I remember she blasted Peter Tosh’s African as her primary act of Black affirmation and pride regularly. Her favorite lyrics were:

Don’t care where you come from
As long as you’re a black man, you’re an African
No mind your nationality
You have got the identity of an African

She would belt out, “As long as you’re a Black man, you’re an African,” much to my chagrin. In spite of her efforts to instill in us a sense of pride in our Black heritage, her African diasporic consciousness was no match for the cruel reality of the white people around us, who viewed us as novelties at best or troublesome inferiors at worst; nor the pervasiveness of white supremacy in public and private institutions and in social life.

As a result, I had few friends during my formative years. I followed my mother’s stern warning but I couldn’t help but feel a pang of regret when I saw my cousins, who she chided years ago for following white kids around, now had the cool (read white) kids as friends. I realized though that my mother’s words rang true; nearly any Black kid I noticed hanging around with white kids in my junior high and high school would be following along behind them, like a shadow.

The Black kid in the social group always hung out precariously around the edges, as though they never truly belonged. Thankfully once I entered junior high school, we were no longer the only Black family in the neighborhood, but the dynamics remained unchanged. There was an implied subtext of the Black kids being other than or merely tolerated.

The Black kid in the group also always served a chillingly particular purpose – the comedian. If the Black kid was not providing amusement, they were swiftly ostracized as I was. As a nerdy, smart, quiet and thoughtful sort not accustomed to serving up guffaws, I had no purpose to the majority of the white kids around me (with the exception of my small, racially diverse band of merry misfits). Not only did I not entertain the white kids around me, I was also a threat to them academically and intellectually, as I was always at or near the top of my classes in those years.

A Black kid with a brain who refused to debase herself for the entertainment of whites? That was completely intolerable and I suffered the social price. Black kids were allowed to hang out with the white kids, so long as they knew their place.

In spite of myself, loneliness crept in when my merry band of misfits and I parted ways for high school. For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone. Since I stubbornly refused to sacrifice my stellar grades for the cheap compensation of male attention (which I cared for little as a budding queer), I watched from the sidelines as the white girls who were former friends and acquaintances begin to reach those adolescent milestones and I remained stubbornly inexperienced. Although I sensed a budding attraction to women, I couldn’t shake the sting of being spurned by the mostly white boys around me. My brown skin, chemically relaxed hair (which was never silky straight like the other girls), thin frame and nearly non-existent breasts marked me painfully as the other. The few black boys and boys of other races worshiped the white girls – I was non-existent to them. I had not yet met any queer people or girls who liked girls. I was awkward, out of place and alone.

Unsurprisingly, my mental health deteriorated.

Accustomed as I had become to spending the afternoons alone in my bedroom after finishing my homework, on one particular day I sat down on the floor in silence and stared at my arms. I had already begun self-harming by then as a way to express the rage I felt towards myself and my circumstances but something inside of me snapped.

The last thing I recall thinking that day was how much I hated my brown skin.

It always got in the way; it made me different.

I did not remember how I got the razor but before I knew it, I had a huge slash on my left inner forearm. It was the deepest cut I had ever inflicted on myself. I did not recall wanting to cut that deeply, but in the fury of my self-loathing I simply had no control. I panicked. I had always heard we were the same colour underneath but now seeing the white flesh beneath the brown skin was too much. I became nauseous, and in my panic I did something uncharacteristic of myself – I got help. My mom freaked out when she saw; she didn’t know whether to cry or scold or pray. Instead, she called my aunt who was a nurse’s aide at the time. They both kept talking to each other while my aunt did her best to stitch me up. They both spoke as if I was not there:

“Why would she do something like this?”
“The poor dear…”
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!”

My aunt, finally coming to her senses, said there was no way they were taking me to the hospital.

“They’ll take her away. There’s no way we are going to the hospital.” And that was that. My mother and aunt knew instinctively getting social services involved would be ruinous to the family. My mom and aunt didn’t bet their and my collective well-being on the charity of social services, a fate we had so far escaped.

Unfortunately for me, the lack of intervention (partly due to that understandable resistance) contributed to further decline. The situation grew more dire as I became involved in an abusive, tumultuous relationship with a white girl who exploited my mental health struggles for her personal gain. She was the first person to ever express any interest in me sexually and I was hooked.

Due to her erratic and abusive behaviour, I became estranged from my family for a few months and opted to live with her and a friend of mine where I deteriorated even further. I learned intimately the extent to which a white person would weaponize their race against mine to exploit and cause destruction. My partner continually called services on me, which led to a trip in the back of a police cruiser. Calling the police on a mentally ill Black person can lead to violence and death – I cannot stress this enough. It is an extremely hateful and vile thing to do. Yet when she was confronted about her despicable and nakedly abusive behaviour by various people, the white girl waterworks began and that was the end of the conversation.

Of course, she was well aware of my struggles with race and with mental health – it was why she singled me out of the crowd for her predatory behaviour. Yet it never ceased to astound me how a person who claimed to love me could also attack with such racist vitriol or stay silent when others did. But instead of being furious at her blatant racism, I began to loathe myself and my race more intensely. Not wanting to be victimized further, my desire to identify with the oppressor grew stronger in a mistaken bid to become the abuser instead of the abused.

When that relationship reached its terrifying conclusion, I was thrust into the world of mental health professionals. The mental health professionals I encountered were exclusively white. I never encountered a single mental health care professional of Colour. The mental health professionals I met with expressed puzzlement at my suffering. By appearances, I was raised in an intact family (I did not disclose the volatility of my home life and my father’s explosive rages and violent outbursts), had stellar grades, played sports, worked part time and volunteered regularly.

I never told a single health care professional the real reason I began self-harming – I hated myself. I hated my brown skin, African features and curly hair. I now cursed my dear mother, who so tenderly attempted to prepare me to live in this racist society, for not being white. I was so close to being white and she was the reason I wasn’t. She received specific vitriol for the then-perceived mortal sin of being Black. I internalized the rampant and unabashed racism of the people around me and it was quite literally killing me.

I planned to end this post on some highfalutin note about how considering the impact of race and systemic inequity on mental health is a moral imperative blah blah.

But I believe that would be too simple of an end. That much is obvious.

Instead, I want to stress the importance and deep implications of the fact that the mental health of racialized people in a white supremacist society is not only simply complicated and impacted by race, but rather that being racialized itself can be a cause of mental health trauma.

This is the controversial part.

I am not a psychologist nor do I claim any expertise in the area. However, my lived experience speaks for itself. How does a queer, young, working class Black woman talk to an aging heterosexual middle or upper class white man about her most vulnerable life struggles? How can you possibly be vulnerable with someone who may have no frame of reference for your life experiences or worse may become hostile at the suggestion that race could be a factor in mental illness?

Though I did find understanding mental health practitioners in time, I never discussed race with them. Yet it was and still is vital for my mental health to be able to talk about what was actually near and dear to my heart – the complex stresses of my life being devalued based on who I am and navigating through the compounded effect of trauma on marginalization.

This is the key message that is missing desperately from the mental health conversation. Most people do not know that I have struggled with my mental health for a reason. The mental health profession as a whole is not equipped to deal with race in a way that is clinically significant to racialized people. I believe this is why I am becoming more candid about my mental health struggles – I want people to understand how psychologically scarring racism can be and how redressing justice can be powerful for improving one’s mental health.

I want to end with a thank you to my mother for her ceaseless efforts to affirm our Black heritage and instill racial pride.

This post is part of the third in the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, get in touch!

Also check out the other posts in the series:

Further reading on racial trauma, and mental health among Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour

Prioritizing: guest post

Prioritizing: guest post

Image description: A black and white close-up of wood, twigs, and metal twine, with dry grass in the background. Photo credit: Mel Vee. Mel Vee is an aspiring photographer and her guest post series will feature her photography.

This is a guest post by Mel Vee.

Mel Vee mesmerizes, captivates and incites with her spoken word. She is a passionate advocate for the power of narrative to heal and liberate. A general disturber of shit, Mel Vee seeks to blur and disrupt all kinds of distinctions. She is a core member of the Uproot YYC, a grassroots collective for artists of colour dedicated to uprooting systemic barriers in the arts community. She was a member of Calgary’s 2017 slam team, who were semi-finalists at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and co-creator of The Unlearning Channel podcast.

This post is the first is a four-part series, one per week for the month of May. Together, this series will comprise the third entry in the Feminism from the Margins series.

Content note for suicidality, illness, and threatened violence.

Wake up early for a change. Stop being such a lazy fuck.
Go to morning meditation – it is important for you to be there.
Make your partner breakfast and lunch.
Try to make breakfast for yourself but you’re distracted. Will get back to it later.

Your friend is suicidal and she needs help – she doesn’t have much support.

Brush teeth.
Put on clothes.

Another friend lost her job – she might be homeless soon. You have to help somehow.

Put on shoes. Walk out door.

Another ambulance is at the house across the way. Last week there was a man covered in blood wielding a knife. Need to look for a new apartment. Another item on the to do list.

Your friend could stay with you if she needs to. You don’t just leave friends like that.

Walk back from meditation. The community is struggling and needs money. You decide you should probably volunteer more.
Do dishes.
Plan for the next meal. You have no energy to cook but cannot afford to eat out.

You remember the days where there wasn’t enough food in the house and you ate peanut butter for dinner; sardines if you were lucky. Curse yourself for being so damn ungrateful – at least you have food to cook! Hear your father’s voice remind you of how ungrateful you are.
Feel shame.

Think of resources for your suicidal friend.
Know mental health resources for LGBTQ folks are often a joke – but you try anyway.

Realize you should exercise – it’s important for your health. Promptly delay exercising by answering emails. They never stop coming; someone is always itching to hit send.
It’s the same old – “We need you to volunteer. This is an important cause. We can’t afford to pay you but we appreciate your time. You can build up your profile. It’s only temporary.

Your aunt is sick again. Her no-good kids keep hitting her up for money. She needs someone to talk to even though you could use a quiet moment but you love her and it’s the least you can do.

The timer you set to write for 10 minutes has 8 seconds left. Guess you won’t be writing today.

Deadlines are piling up. All the shit you said yes to is finally catching up. You vow not to say yes to anything else EVER AGAIN and yet you say yes to even more.
You still need to exercise.

Go to work. Radiate warmth and kindness to people with a pathological sense of entitlement.
Be expected to have read every book written in the span of human civilization. Get cussed out for daring to manage others expectations and refusing to tolerate abuse. The customer is always right. Fight back tears in the washroom. Remember this job is all you have and your mother told you never to rely on anyone for money, especially a man. Smile even bigger at the next customer.

Yet another friend is about to be out on the street. You want to help but you just cannot. Feel helpless. Useless.

Go to your second job.
Meet one friend for coffee after.
Go to that show tonight. You need to show your face or else people will think you don’t take this seriously and that you’re not paying your dues.

Your partner is tired from their job so they cannot really help with chores. You try not to get upset because they are not trying to make your life difficult on purpose. But still…
More emails and texts.
A friend you rarely see becomes upset and demands to know why you don’t have time for them.
You cannot think of a good reason to say no and they are not that bad. It will only be an hour.
Schedule her on the only day you had free.

Another friend is having a breakdown. They simply want to talk.
Your partner is in the mood even though you barely have the energy to keep your eyes open but you can’t remember the last time you two had sex. Feel ashamed.

The laundry is piling up. The floor needs to be vacuumed. That’s for another day.
Try to go to sleep. Spend at least an hour wondering how your life got like this. Wondering where you went wrong, if you went wrong, if you should be more selfish. What should you cut?
Realize you’ve already cut everything extraneous from your life.


Realize you don’t even have time to appreciate the irony in this.
Know you will do it all over again the next day. And the day after next. And the day after that.
Know you will keep doing this and know you can’t stop. Know that you want to stop but also know you never will.

This post is the third in the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, get in touch!

Also check out the other posts in the series:

We’re Forked: Navigating Spoon-Disparity in Long-Term Relationships

We’re Forked: Navigating Spoon-Disparity in Long-Term Relationships

Image description: Kate’s incredibly stylish orange cane, leaning against white drawers with silver handles, on a wooden floor. 

This is a Patreon reward post for Kate, and was available to patrons last week. Patreon supporters at the $10/month level get a self-care post on the topic of their choice during their birthday month. These supporters make my work possible! Especially as I head into my Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work program, my patrons ensure that I can keep producing resources and self-care content. (And wow, there are some really great resources in production! Check back tomorrow for a post about that!)

Kate and I have known each other for a few years, and got to know each other while we were both going through some challenging times (though we didn’t actually meet in person until quite a bit later, and still aren’t able to spend as much time together as either of us might like!)

Kate has been one of my most outspoken supporters, and I appreciate how she is always willing to leap in with an offer of help or a suggested solution.

Her birthday is in January, and her topic is, “maintaining intimate relationships and partnerships with a chronic illness or chronic pain.”

I struggled with writing this post because I am experiencing my own spoon shortage. I’m in the middle of a depressive episode, have been sick for the last two months, and my fibromyalgia pain has been spiking. All of these spoon-hoarding gremlins are impacting my own relationships, challenging my sense of who I am and how I navigate the world, and putting gloom-coloured glasses on my view of the future. When I write about self-care for folks who are struggling, it’s easier when I can write about a struggle I am not currently experiencing. It’s easier if I can yell back into the labyrinth from the safety of the outside. Easier, but not always better. It is a myth that the best insights come from people who have “figured it all out” – I believe the opposite is often true. When we are in the thick of it is when we have the most relevant and meaningful insider information. Our struggle is not a barrier to our ability to help each other – it is the fuel that allows us to help each other. This is one of the key principles of narrative therapy, and as much as it challenges me, I am trying to bring it into my own life. Can I write something worthwhile from the heart of the struggle? Yes. Well, I think so. Let’s find out.

What Kate asked about was maintaining intimate relationships while navigating chronic illness or pain. In relationships where one person experiences chronic issues and another doesn’t, those issues can create a significant disparity in ability and access to internal resources. (And in relationships where multiple people are experiencing chronic issues, the pressure resulting from reduced access to resources can grow exponentially.)

Being in the position of having (or perceiving that we have) less to offer often triggers shame, fear, and stress. In my own relationships, I worry that I’m not worth it, that my partners will grow tired of me. I worry that I’m “too much.” I have heard the same worry from my clients.

This anxiety is so natural, and so understandable. Our society does not have readily accessible narratives that include robust “economies of care.” Our most common narrative has to do with “pulling our own weight” in a relationship, and our definitions of balanced relationships rely so heavily on ideas of equality rather than justice. Split the bills 50/50. Take turns washing the dishes. You cook, I’ll clean. My turn/your turn for the laundry, the diapers, the groceries.

And it becomes more complicated when we consider the intangible labour of emotional support and caregiving, which is disproportionately assumed to be the role of women in relationships with men, and, since women are also often the ones experiencing chronic pain or illness, this can compound into a messy and unjust situation pretty quickly. (To back up these claims, check out the links at the end of this post.)

Thankfully, both of these problems – the tit-for-tat approach, and the unjust division of emotional labour – are being challenged by writers, activists, and communities on the margins.

In Three Thoughts on Emotional Labour, Clementine Morrigan writes, “We can name, acknowledge, honour, perform, and yes, accept emotional labour, instead of simply backing away from it because we don’t want to be exploitative.”

This is so challenging for so many of us, because we do not want to exploit our friends, our partners, our communities. When we experience chronic illness or pain, the fear that we might slide into exploitation and “being a burden” becomes amplified. Morrigan suggests that we can ask three guiding questions about the emotional labour we are offering or accepting – Is it consensual? Is it valued? Is it reciprocated?

If we can answer yes to each – if we are discussing what we need and what we can offer, if we are valuing what we are offered and if our own offerings are valued, and if there is reciprocity – fantastic!

But what does reciprocity look like in situations where there is a disparity in access to resources?

Morrigan suggests that:

“It is important to acknowledge that some of us need more care than others. Some of us, due to trauma, disability, mental health stuff, poverty, or other reasons, may not be in a position to provide as much emotional labour as we need to receive. We may go through periods where are able to provide more emotional labour or we may always need more care than we are able to give. We may be able to reciprocate care in some ways and not others. This is totally okay. We need rich networks of emotional care, so that all of us can get the care we need without being depleted. We need communities that value and perform emotional labour—communities that come through for each other. Reciprocity is a commitment to building communities where all of us are cared for and no one is left behind; it is not a one for one exchange.”

It is not a one for one exchange.

This is so critical.

And it’s so hard to make space for this. It’s hard to see our worthiness and the value we bring to a relationship when what we offer has shifted from what we were able to offer before the chronic issue grew up within us and between us.

Not only that, but it’s often hard for our partners to recognize what we’re bringing to the relationship. Not because they don’t love and appreciate and support us, but because they are also caught within the web of accessible narratives and ableist norms.

In order to answer “yes” to Morrigan’s “is it valued?” question, we need to be able to look clearly at the work our partners, friends, and families are doing for us and acknowledge that work. And we need to be able to look clearly at our own work and speak openly about it, so that it can be valued. Neither side of this is easy.

Becoming aware of the skills and insider knowledges that we develop as we live our new pain-, disability-, or illness-enhanced lives can help with recognizing, articulating, and allowing people to value our new contributions.

In A Modest Proposal For A Fair Trade Emotional Labor Economy (Centered By Disabled, Femme of Color, Working Class/Poor Genius), Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes:

“Sick and disabled folks have many superpowers: one of them is that we often have highly developed skills around care. Many of us have received shitty, condescending, charity-based care or abusive or coercive care—whether it’s from medical staff or our friends and families. We’re also offered unsolicited medical advice every day of our lives, mostly coming from a place of discomfort with disability and wanting to “fix” us.

All of this has made us very sophisticated at negotiating care, including our understanding that both offering and receiving it is a choice. The idea of consent in care is a radical notion stemming from disabled community wisdom. Ableism mandates that disabled people are supposed to gratefully accept any care offered to “fix” us. It’s mind blowing for many people to run into the common concept in many sick and disabled communities, that disabled people get to decide for ourselves the kind of care we want and need, and say no to the rest. This choicefulness has juicy implications for everyone, including the abled.”

I love her wording here. The juicy implications of choicefulness! Imagine the possibilities of this.

And yet, even as I revel in this juicy and nourishing framework, I remember my own deep and ongoing struggle with the concept of pain, illness, and disability as invitation, as superpower, as self. This radical reorganization of labour within relationships does not come easily, and one of the reasons it’s so challenging is because our concepts of fairness are so influenced by one to one exchanges.

Piepzna-Samarasinha addresses this fear later in the essay, reminding us that, “Disabled people often run into the idea that we can never offer care, just receive it. However, we often talk about the idea that we can still offer care from what our bodies can do. If my disabled body can’t lift yours onto the toilet, it doesn’t mean I can’t care for you—it means I contribute from what my particular body can do. Maybe instead of doing physical care, I can research a medical provider, buy groceries for you, or listen to you vent when one of your dates was ableist.”

We forget that there is still care, still reciprocity available within our relationships even when our ability to perform the tasks we used to, or the tasks we wish we could, has shifted.

Learning how to navigate this shift is challenging.

Searching for resources to share in this post, I was discouraged by the sheer volume of academic research performed by normatively abled “experts” on the outcomes for relationships that include a disabled partner. Once again, the centre scrutinizing the margins. It creates such a disempowering framework.

I was also dismayed by the fact that “should I date a disabled person” was one of the suggested related searches. Gross! GROSS!!!!

These are the narratives, and the social framework, within which we try to navigate our relationships as pain/illness/disability-enhanced individuals.

We need more robust, inclusive, intersectional, and hopeful resources. Not hopeful in the “look on the bright side” gaslighting-via-silver-lining sense. Hopeful in the sense of possibility-generating, hope that, in Sara Ahmed’s words, “animates a struggle.” Hope that reminds us that there are narratives possible outside of the ableist norm, and that we can write those love stories within our own lives.

The parts of ourselves that do not fit tidily into the ableist ideal show up in our relationships in many ways. In order to write those inclusive love stories of any kind – platonic, romantic, familial, or parental – we need to recognize and learn to navigate all of it. Financial, social, emotional, physical, mental – very aspect of ourselves that requires tending and care.

Chronic illness/pain/disability impacts our financial lives – we are often less able to work within normative capitalist models. The 8-5 grind doesn’t work if you can’t manage a desk job for 9 hours a day, and many other jobs are also out of reach. This adds pressure to our partners and social supports. Money is a huge source of shame and fear for many of us, so learning how to talk about requiring financial support, how to shift the balance of contribution in a household – overwhelming! Be gentle with yourselves in these conversations.

I find this particularly challenging. More than almost any other way in which my chronic issues impact my relationships, the financial instability that has been introduced as a result of my no longer being able to work a full-time job feels humiliating and shameful. I am working hard to carve out a living for myself, to build my business in sustainable and anti-ableist ways, to do what has to be done to pay my share of the bills. But my partners still take up more than what feels “fair” in the financial realm, and it’s hard. For me, engaging with writers, activists, and advocates who are challenging capitalism and neoliberalism has been helpful. Recognizing that there are other economic models available has opened up some space for me to still see myself as a contributing member of my partnerships and society.

Chronic illness/pain/disability also impacts our social lives – getting out to see friends can become more challenging. Our partners can end up taking on more social caring work for us, being the ones we talk to when we aren’t getting out (or when we don’t feel safe to talk about our struggle with others).

The aggressive individualism of our current anglo-european culture means that we are often isolated, and this can be so discouraging. Again, I struggle with this personally and I don’t have easy answers.

And searching for resources on parenting with chronic pain, illness, or disability is similarly challenging and disheartening. Parenting with any kind of divergence from the ideal is difficult. The weight of judgement, assumption, erasure, hostility, and isolation is so real. Although more supportive and inclusive blog posts, research papers, and articles are being written, the perception of a weirdly-abled parent is still one of lack, inability, and pity.

We often want to provide everything our children needs, without outside help. That’s the expected ideal. The nuclear family is still the celebrated norm, and the ideal of a normatively abled, neurotypical, stay-at-home, biological parent is still the target to meet. We may recognize that “it takes a village” but we resist the idea that part of what that village offers may be physically chasing after the toddler, lifting the baby, doing homework with the teen, helping with the rent. Just like we need to expand our conception of emotional labour and economies of care within relationships, we need that same expansiveness and redefinition within our parenting relationships and roles.

Which is easy to say, and incredibly hard to do.

At Disability and Representation, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes, “What so many able-bodied feminists don’t get is how profound an experience disability is. I’m not just talking about a profound physical experience. I’m talking about a profound social and political experience. I venture out and I feel like I’m in a separate world, divided from “normal” people by a thin but unmistakeable membrane. In my very friendly and diverse city, I look out and see people of different races and ethnicities walking together on the sidewalk, or shopping, or having lunch. But when I see disabled people, they are usually walking or rolling alone. And if they’re not alone, they’re with a support person or a family member. I rarely see wheelchair users chatting it up with people who walk on two legs. I rarely see cognitively or intellectually disabled people integrated into social settings with nondisabled people. I’m painfully aware of how many people are fine with me as long as I can keep up with their able-bodied standards, and much less fine with me when I actually need something.

So many of you really have no idea of how rampant the discrimination is. You have no idea that disabled women are routinely denied fertility treatments and can besterilized without their consent. You have no idea that disabled people are at very high risk of losing custody of their children. You have no idea that women with disabilities experience a much higher rate of domestic violence than nondisabled women or that the assault rate for adults with developmental disabilities is 4 to 10 times higher than for people without developmental disabilities. You have no idea that over 25% of people with disabilities live in poverty.”

So that fear of embracing a new normal, subverting the neoliberal individualist norm, creating new economies of care and radically altering our relationships to be just rather than equal… this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We aren’t just subverting norms and creating new relationship methods – we are doing so, as parents, under the scrutiny of an ableist and highly punitive culture. We are conscious of the fact that our subversion of norms, which may be possible within adult relationships, may make our parenting relationships more precarious, more tenuous.

Access to external help is readily available to the professional upper class – nannies are a completely acceptable form of external help, and parents are not judged for needing a nanny when that need is created by long working hours. Needing help in order to be more productive? Sure thing. (You’ll still face judgement, of course. Can any parent do it “right,” really? Nope.)

But needing help because of pain, illness, or disability?


That is much less socially sanctioned, and there are far fewer narratives available that leave space for that choice to be aligned with a “good parent” identity.

And yet, many of us do parent while in pain, while ill, while disabled. And we are good parents. Just like we have valuable superpowers of caring that can be brought into our adult relationships, we have the same superpowers of caring to bring into our parenting roles. What we do may look different than the pop culture ideal. How we do it, when we do it, who helps us with it – that might all look different. And that’s scary. But the value it brings to our kids is immeasurable.

One of the invitations that chronic illness, pain, and disability extends is that it pulls the curtain back on how harmful the neoliberal ideology of rugged individualism really is, and asks, “is there another way?”

I’m not great at saying “yes” to that invitation, but I’m getting better at recognizing it when it shows up. I don’t need to have all the answers, because I have a community around me that is brilliant and incredibly generous.

So, when I was struggling with this post, I asked my best friend and one of my partners to help me.

H.P. Longstocking has been dealing with the long-term effects of two significant concussions, and in a moment of discouragement at my own inability to write this post, I asked if she could help me get started. What she sent touched on so much of what I wanted to write about, so eloquently, and I’m ending this post with her incredibly valuable contribution. She is a parent, a scholar, and an integral part of the social net that keeps me going. I think there’s hope in how she has responded to this.

She writes:

While I am no stranger to depression or anxiety, I had never experienced a chronic debilitating illness and I found that my self-care habits and techniques were no longer usually helpful or even always possible. Last summer I had several concussions. Because I had sustained so many as a child, these two accidents completely changed my life. Most of the summer I was not safe to drive or even walk as my second concussion happened when I tried to walk out of my bedroom and due to the concussion symptoms, I cracked my head into a wall. I could not look at screens, read, handle light or loud noises, and was told to stop having sex. All of my self-care habits were taken away.

I have always been an active person. Running and cycling have been my times of meditation and recalibration. Dancing brings me joy. Physical activity has been an integral part of my self-care since I was a small child. To have days, weeks, and months where walking short distances is the most physical activity I can safely manage, and some days not even that, has had a detrimental impact on my body and my emotional well-being.

I used to love to read. I devoured books and articles. I had just started my Masters and was supposed to be immersing myself in the scientific literature. I could not do any of that. I still struggle. Reading was my escape, my lifeline, my lifeblood, and I hoped, my livelihood. Now it causes me pain.

I was not prepared for the constant, chronic pain. Previously, I had headaches so rarely, I did not recognize them the few times a year I would experience one. Now, I have a hard time recognizing it because I am never without one. I find that I have my face screwed up in pain after someone reacts to me as if I am scowling at them. My coping mechanisms for the pain are to hyperfocus on something so I am unaware of most of the world around me. Unfortunately, this is usually my phone which in the long term makes it worse, but also as it gets worse, I have less self-control and ability to stop myself.

All of this has impacted my relationships. Without the ability to drive, I am often limited in who I can see and where I can go. Even without that, I am easily tired in social settings and my words begin to slur in mental exhaustion. I cannot handle loud spaces for very long, or if I do, I pay for it with days of recovery. I often feel isolated, alone, and incapable of taking care of myself, let alone being the partner, parent, and student I aspire to be.

But, I have adapted. Instead of reading, I listen to audiobooks. Instead of digesting dense theory or the latest studies, I listen to light narratives and fiction that has a plot so predicable that I can fall asleep and not miss much. I go for short walks instead of long bike rides.

My relationships have also changed.

It is hard to feel like you are not carrying your weight, especially in this neoliberal culture where people are valued according to how much productive and profitable output they can do. It is hard to be a partner with someone when you are more dependent and roommate than lover. It is hard not be able to see people, leave the house, focus on what someone is saying, or do what they are doing. It is so isolating and would be so much more so with poverty added as well. It hurts to see your kids do an impression of you which is just sleeping.

My friendships have changed. I am slowly learning to ask for help. To say no. To cancel plans last minute because it is not safe that day for me to go out. I cancel plans so often now that I am scared to make them. Much of my socialization now is online and sporadic. There is a price to pay for too much screen time. I am spending more time with people I do not have to hide my pain from. I do not have the resources to put up with mind games and people who suck energy. I have a few friends that make safe spaces for me to come and just nap around them so I won’t feel alone. My life is rich, even though my world and abilities have shrunk.

Self-care looks entirely different to me now. Instead of the sun on my face and the pounding of my feet on running paths, I sip tea wearing sunglasses. Instead of pushing through discomfort, I am learning to listen to it so that I do not make things worse. Instead of losing myself in the written word, I find comfort in story, sound and other sensory delights. Some of the people I spend time with have changed, and the ways I spend time with people have also. I do not know which symptoms will resolve and which I will have for the rest of my life, but while I grieve for friendships and opportunities lost, I am also grateful for the capacity to change and adapt, and trust that relationships worth holding onto can withstand the changes as well.

Further reading on emotional labour:

Winter Self-Care for Weary Queers

Winter Self-Care for Weary Queers

Image description: A glass ball nestled in a mossy log on snowy ground, reflecting the wood, moss, and snow. Photo credit: Pixabay.

The January Possibilities topic was “Winter Self-Care for Weary Queers” and we talked about the many ways in which winter is both delightful and challenging, and how the short sunlight hours, the frequent illnesses and pains, and the cold weather impacts our moods, our social lives, and our access to self-care tools and spaces.

I collected the insights and suggestions of the group into a free resource – the third of the monthly collective documents! I’m really proud of this work, and of the valuable knowledge that’s shared each month at our events.

You can download the PDF here.

You can also find the Facebook event for the February discussion on Self-Care in Queer Relationships.

January Preview

I’ve spent the last couple days mapping out my immediate upcoming projects. It’s pretty exciting, and there are many things coming up that you can be part of!
Check these projects, collaborations, and events out, and get in touch with me if there’s anything that piques your interest.
  • I’m launching a book club for parents, stepparents, and caregivers of autistic kids. We’ll be reading books by autistic authors, and recentering the conversation about what autistic kids need away from neurotypical experts, to autistic experts. I feel like this is a critical counter to the standard approach, and it’s important to me because both of my stepkids are autistic. I want to do the best that I can for them, and that means listening to autistic adults. You can get involved by sending me a message and letting me know you want in. Unlike most of my work, this one will be in person. We’ll be meeting once a month-ish at my home, so space is limited. However, I’ll be writing up a detailed review of each of the books we read, and those reviews will be posted on my Patreon, and then on this blog.
  • I’m collaborating on the creation of a resource for extroverts, addressing self-care and mental health, since so much of the available self-care and mental health writing assumes introversion, or assumes that being outgoing and social is incompatible with depression or suicidality. You can get involved by sending me a message. Our first in-person round table discussion is coming up on Saturday, and there will be a second in-person round table discussion later on. You can participate online (in text or skype interviews), in person (in one-on-one interviews or round table discussions), or some combination of these. I am particularly interested in talking with folks whose experience of extroversion has been impacted by cultural norms that don’t leave space for extroversion. (For example, autistic folks are assumed to be inherently introverted, and so are many Asian folks, while Black and Indigenous women are interpreted as “angry” or irrational if they’re extroverted, and women in general often find it difficult to be accepted as extroverts without being shamed for being “gossipy,” “loud,” or other unacceptable things.)
  • I’m collaborating with my brilliant sibling, Domini Packer, to create a resource for survivors and supporters following sexual assault, to help build and sustain networks of support following a crisis. You can get involved by sending me a message. We’re meeting with people one on one to chat, and also talking with folks online. This is going to turn into a zine (or similar), with stories, resources, and action plans for survivors and supporters following sexual assault. We noticed a pretty big gap in the available resources, and a lot of “lean on your community” without a lot of insight into what that looks like, how to ask for what you need, how to keep boundaries between yourself and your supporters. And for supporters, a lot of “believe them, be there for them” without a lot of information about how to do self-care during the crisis so you don’t end up burning out (or worse, turning around and leaning back on the person who has just been through a trauma), how to maintain boundaries with the person you’re supporting, how to reach out for your own support in safe and respectful ways. We’re going to attempt to fill that gap a bit. I’m also interested in talking with professionals who would like to contribute. (This one is coming up quickly, so get in touch asap if you want to be involved.)
  • I’m working on a resource to help folks navigate those “Bad Gender Feels” days. This project is in the germination stage, but I am starting to meet with folks to talk about what would be helpful and what they’d like to see included in a resource like this. This resource will also include information for parents and other supporters of trans and gender non-conforming kids who want to help them get through those dysphoric days.
  • Possibilities Calgary events are running on the third Tuesday of each month at Loft 112 in Calgary’s East Village, and are always free to attend. Every month has a theme, and our in-person discussion becomes the framework for a shareable, downloadable, free resource booklet. You can participate at the conversations, or by sending your ideas or suggestions once the monthly topic is announced. (January is Winter Self-Care for Weary Queers.)
  • The Self-Care Salons are running every month on the first or second Sunday at Loft 112 in the East Village. The cost is $50, sliding scale is available. Every month includes an in-depth conversation and a resource book. 10% of the profit from the Self-Care Salon goes to the Awo Taan Healing Lodge. (In January, Vincci Tsui, RD will be facilitating a discussion about food, health, and bodies that is size-inclusive, anti-diet, fatphobia-challenging – Self-Care Salon: Bodies, Food, and Health.)
  • Bridges and Boundaries: Social Self-Care will be launching Jan 22. It’s a 6-week online course focusing on building tools for social self-care. The cost is $150, sliding scale is available, and it’s going to be awesome. You can sign up by sending me a message.
  • You can also get involved by supporting my Patreon. And at the $10/month level, I’ll write you a post on the self-care topic of your choice. My Patreon supporters are the reason I’m able to put so much time and effort into developing resources that are comprehensive, inclusive, and available for free.
  • And, lastly, my self-care and narrative coaching (for individuals and relationships) is on sale until the end of January. You can check out my services on my Facebook page (I’m in the process of updating this website to be up to date), or you can just send me an email! A single session ($150) is 10% off, a package of 3 ($400) is 15% off, and a package of 10 ($1200) is 20% off.

There are other projects coming up that aren’t collaborations or events, too. Blog posts and other plans for creating new work, mapping out my content focus for the year. 2017 focused on wholeness and integration, and 2018 will focus on hope. I’m in the process of figuring out what that means, and how to bring that focus into my various pieces of work.

I’m also working on pulling some of my work off of Facebook and making it accessible elsewhere. I’ll be shifting my Tender Year posts into a new blog (and cross-posting with Facebook), and once that’s up and running, I’ll share the link here. I’ll also be posting more of my self-care content onto my Tiffany Sostar blog so that people can read it without being on Facebook.

And, perhaps most exciting for me, two major projects are lurching up to speed:

  • the book I’ve been talking about and writing about and thinking about for ages is happening and I’ve started to pull the content together for it, so watch for updates on the 100 Love Letters book coming throughout this year, and,
  • I’m 83% certain I’ll be doing the Masters in Narrative Therapy and Community Work this year at the Dulwich Centre (I’ve been accepted into the program, and now I just need to sort out funding – yikes!)

And one major project is just starting to simmer more assertively:

  • I’m putting together my speaker event wish list, and starting to think about restarting the UnConference Series and bringing people in for events (Avery Alder is at the top of my wish list, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to bring her in for a weekend workshop on transformative gaming sometime this year).

2018 is going to be about continuing to do what I love, learning how to do it more sustainably and effectively, and working with my communities to develop strategies and resources for resilience and hope. It’s going to be good.