On Anxiety and Safe Spaces – A Captain Awkward Thingamajiggady

Posted: 24/04/2013 in Uncategorized

I want to start by saying that I understand other people’s perspectives.  This is an issue that hits close to the bone for a hell of a lot of people.  All the reactions I’ve seen to the post I’m talking about are VALID.  I just wanted to offer my own, and felt it better and less likely to fan the flames the Captain was trying to temper to wait and post on MY blog rather than adding to the masses of comments over there.

So, the good people over at Captain Awkward – both the contributors and the commentariat – have had a rather fraught few days since the Captain answered their latest letter, from a man concerned by the way his new-found feminist knowledge was interacting with his anxiety disorder.

The Captain interpreted the letter as being more about everyday, non-mental-illness anxiety, and as such as being yet another rehashing of the hundreds of comments on the original Schrodinger’s Rapist post, by men, upset that they suddenly had to think about the feelings of the women they meet.  The commentariat responded – and rightly so – by calling out the Captain’s complete dismissal of the part where the letter writer stated they had an anxiety disorder, as in capital-A Anxiety, and that in that context the “get a grip, stop bothering women” response felt ableist and triggering.

I’ve been silent in the comments and elsewhere, mostly reading and lurking a bit.  Now the comments sections of the relevant posts are closed, giving people time to cool down, I want to say a few things myself.  First, a bit of background information.

I’m a crazy person.

Well, okay, so actually I have some mental illness.  I have anxiety-related issues, depression-related issues, a long history of self-harm, and a list of Stuff the Doctors Note Down when Diagnosing that appears picked from a whole range of related disorders.  So I identify as Crazy.  I know it’s an ableist term, but I’m pro-reclaiming harmful words (I also identify as queer, for example), and I honestly find it easier to say “I’m crazy” than… that whole paragraph of non-answer I just gave.  Anyway, the point is that I am very intimately acquainted with the sort of emotional and mental baggage the letter writer deals with.

I also agreed with the Captain.

Now, that’s not to say I thought her reply was fine.  It was undeniably problematic.  And even if I didn’t personally think that, my own “I’m alright Jack” feelings do not, at all, in any sense, negate the triggers, the upset, the pain and the anxiety that others feel.  But I do want to offer my perspective.

Because having mental illness sucks.  Having mental illness that specifically impacts on your ability to Do People Stuff, like socialising, talking to people, etc, is especially fraught.  But when several people commented that it isn’t right to ask the letter writer to accept social anxiety as his lot in life, my thoughts went to this post and the comment threads in that.  The Awkward Dude Sagas.

In those posts, and the comments, there was quite a lot of discussion about the intersection between awkward/inappropriate behaviour and perceived disability.  Specifically, the fact that whenever a guy behaves inappropriately towards a woman, someone will defend him by saying that he might be AS” – that he might have Autism.  As people pointed out, having a spectrum disorder that can make social interaction and social cues more difficult to navigate doesn’t excuse the behaviour.  Put kindly, a person who behaves inappropriately should be called out for their behaviour.  If they don’t have AS, calling them out and following through on that  is the only way to make sure they know they need to behave.  If they’re predatory, it’s the only way to make sure they know they don’t have license to operate.  And if they do have AS, clear communication when they mess up is vital to help them learn.

But there’s an extra layer there, too.  One of my favourite comments on that post was this comment, by Kaz, who said,

Guess what? Most guys are pretty okay with body language and social cues. Most guys are much better on that front than I am, in fact! Because, you know, most guys are NT and I am actually on the autistic spectrum! And nobody’s ever cut me any slack when I struggle with the social cues surrounding romance and dating. Never mind the fact that for someone who’s read as female, the consequences for messing up can be *much much* worse for than for a guy. I mean, the last time I seriously misread signals in that context I was sexually assaulted? And it left me achingly aware of how vulnerable I am to that kind of thing happening again? So I’m afraid I don’t exactly have much sympathy for someone whose main problem with the amount of non-verbal language and subtle cues that happens re: romance is that it makes it hard for them to find a date!

And later in the comments,

The extra fun thing is that being a woman with AS can make you particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, too! Both because there is no allowance made for women struggling with interpreting social cues correctly – in fact, a lot of the shit women get is predicated on that kind of thing: let us contemplate how the entire “what did you think would happen if you [went home with a guy/invited him to your room/smiled at him/wore a skirt/etc. etc.]” line of reasoning works out for Aspies, hm? – but also because those nice other aspects of AS that hardly ever get talked about can play into things. Things like sensory sensitivities and difficulty dealing with unexpected happenings and certain verbal issues that can crop up… …I find it ~hilarious~ that the behaviour that usually gets the “but but think of the men with AS!!!” treatment is usually behaviour that may be very dangerous for people with AS to be on the receiving end of. Frequently my answer to “we should tolerate X behaviour to make men with AS more welcome!” is “if you tolerate X behaviour, I am an Aspie who could not participate in that space at all.

To take the sheer awesome smack-down that is Kaz’ contribution and rework it for this particular issue,

It is horrible having an anxiety disorder.  Anxiety can make normal social interactions more difficult.  It sucks to be a man who finds it hard or triggering to try and socialise with women because his feminist learning conflicts with his jerk-brain.

But guys aren’t the only people who have mental health disorders.  And you know what else sucks?  Being a woman, aware of Schrödinger’s Rapist not just as a theory, some hypothetical, but as part of your lived experience of dealing with harassment and assault.  And also having an anxiety disorder.  Because we get no free pass, no allowance from guys who totally get it and understand that their desire to interact with us is triggering and upsetting in extra ways.  But we’re expected to shut the fuck up and deal.  We’re expected to not only deal with it, but find the spoons to dig our way out of an anxiety cycle enough to be civil, and understanding, and receptive to the triggering and unwanted attentions of the guy talking to us. 

Every day, we have to separate and manage our normal, bog-standard anxiety-about-predators from our Anxiety triggers.  That’s not fun, but it’s not ableist.  It’s normal everyday fucking life if you have anxiety.  Just as I have to separate my paranoid tendencies to assume the worst from my practical experience that sometimes I am in danger.  You know how the Gift of Fear is supposed to be a tool to help us stay safe?  Try working that into your life when you know – because it’s a medical fact – that your mental health issues mean your instincts often need to be second-guessed.  When you know that you actually sometimes CAN’T trust your own judgement, and when learning how to differentiate between the two is a long learning process.  It’s not ableist to say that this is work I need to do.  It’s a statement of fact.

The advice that says:

  1. Keep working on your mental health needs.
  2. You need to separate the rational anxiety about these social things from your irrational anxiety.
  3. Schrödinger’s Rapist actually provides a handy check-list of things to help you determine rationally whether approaching a woman is okay right now.
  4. There is no blanket solution by which we can absolve you of your responsibility or free you of your triggers.
  5. Also, what you’re asking sounds a hell of a lot like what non-anxiety-having guys ask about this exact same thing.  Same rules apply to all of you.

Is spot on.  Right on the money.  Guys with AS do not get a blanket free pass from not acting creepy.  Guys with Anxiety do not get a blanket free pass from not thinking about the needs of others.  I agree that the original response was overly-snarky (although snark is the default style of the CA archives, and the Captain is notorious for being strong-minded and direct when it comes to calling people out when they try and weasel for cookies and free passes), and I can see why some people were triggered by it.  But that doesn’t make it wrong advice.

That said, I know I get stuff wrong.  I don’t see what the difference is between the way we deal with the suggestion that AS people can’t help being socially awkward and the way we deal with this, but I’d be happy to listen to other people’s perspectives on that.

But what I think would be more helpful, is a round of suggestions.  Fellow Anxiety-sufferers!  How do you balance the additional pressures of social interaction with a feminist mindset, with your triggers and mental health needs?

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