LISTEN UP: I’ve had mental health issues, including moderate to severe PTSD, anxiety, depression, and mood instability since I was a pre-teen. I have many people in my life who’ve gone through similar struggles. Two decades later, I still see people say “keep your chin up/try yoga/meditation/eating differently/this magical therapy that helped me”. NO. Please just STOP. If you think I (and others with the same or similar struggle) haven’t tried all and sundry to feel well, just stop, shut your mouth, and reconsider your position. The fact that I still have people tell me “just get over it – that’s what I did/do!” when I have a mental health crisis is tiresome beyond belief. People with mental health issues deal with enough utter nonsense like that from our employers and our woefully inadequate mental healthcare system – not to mention from our own brains, which continually love to troll us. We don’t need it from people in our social circles and from those who love us.
Our brains are chemically altered by our life experience, and some are simply born with chemical balances, to boot. The scariest part of a mental health crisis is that there is generally no quick fix. It’s a long, hard road to re-wire your brain. For most of us, it is both a daily struggle and an entire life’s work. Many of us with PTSD stemming from traumatic events will have to deal with that condition our entire lives – and those of us who are marginalised in some way will often experience trauma again and again, which exacerbates our existing mental health issues, sometimes exponentially.
I’ve observed that the three basic responses to our mental health struggles are: 1. Just get over it/keep your chin up, 2. Try this one magical panacea that will make you get over it/keep your chin up. 3. Run away because it’s all too much/too scary/you can’t do anything. These are all essentially wrong. The ONE key thing to remember is to stop trying to solve mental illness. You won’t be able to, so don’t even attempt it.
The best sort of response to someone struggling with their mental health or a mental illness is some sort of expression of sympathy/empathy and solidarity. If they need help with practical things (and they usually will), offer to help: bring them food, cook them dinner, make tea, do some shopping for them, buy them a little treat, write them a letter, check in with them regularly and send them some love. Offer to do these things, and ask them what else you could do to help them. Above all, continue to be kind and supportive. That’s all many of us with mental health struggles need and it’s all you can do (and more importantly, it’s relatively easy for you to do). Many of us have the issues that we do because people in our lives haven’t demonstrated basic decency and care. Demonstrating these things is a truly radical act in a society that treats the mentally ill, the vulnerable, and the marginalised like garbage. If there is indeed a panacea, it is the creation of a society that truly shows care and respect for us.
Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts will be found at www.polymeansmany.com from tomorrow. This month, our topic is “My Poly Set-up”.
I’ve interpreted “My Poly Set-up” to mean the constellation of relationships in my life and how they are conducted and connected. I’ll discuss how I came to be in my current constellation and how it works as well as it does.
I have a domestic partner whom I’ve been with for the past 3+ years, and who gets most of my time (mostly as a function of us both being introverted homebodies). I use domestic partner as a label, because we have always resisted the label of “primary vs secondary”. I don’t find that hierarchy helpful or useful in describing how either of us do things. It’s restrictive and, I feel, a potential snag that could cause us to be lazy in terms of communicating and defining our expectations of one another.
Beyond my domestic partner, at present I have a few amorphous connections – currently tangential but with potential to become less so in future – with people who live an ocean away from me (where I lived until recently). I would not usually feel comfortable with such an undefined connection, but distance at least partially requires me to be, until I spend enough time with those connections that we can choose to define them in a particular way or not. I generally prefer my connections to be fairly well-defined; or, at least, I like to have 2-3 connections fairly well defined. I would not describe anyone as a “girlfriend” or “partner” until we have a conversation explicitly agreeing such labels. So here I am: many important people in my life, varying types and levels of connection, and distance keeping most of those connections undefined until such point that the distance is closed or, until we have The Conversation from this distance.
Relationship Orientation and Sexuality
I think a great deal of how I do things as a polyamorous person is impacted by being demisexual (follow this link to read more about demisexuality). Sex is important to me, but casual sex (outside of an established relationship) isn’t, particularly. That doesn’t mean I don’t have sex outside relationships, just that I don’t go out of my way for it anymore (e.g. I rarely attend sex parties these days – this is subject to change). Being demisexual means that I tend to enter into romantic/sexual relationships incredibly slowly. On average I know someone for a minimum of 6 months (and sometimes much longer) before being comfortable enough to express or even feel an interest in or attraction to them. I tend to prioritise connections that seem romantically substantial and potentially long-term. Any long-term partner is likely to spend considerable time in my home and often with my other partner(s) around.
Defining and codifying ‘considerate behaviour’
I commented to my domestic partner the other day that “we don’t really have a lot of rules”, and they said to me “WHAT. We have more than a pageful saved in google drive!” How embarrassing! I looked at the document and remembered it right away; I suspect the reason I had forgotten is that our agreement with each other (made long ago) is mainly defined by what we both agree is considerate behaviour toward the other person, not by what I think of as hard-and-fast rules per se. This agreement has been so ingrained in the way we do things that I’d forgotten we had a whole document defining precisely what we considered to be considerate behaviour. It includes things like:
- We agree to update each other on the status of other relationships and our feelings for others.
- Other dates/partners should not come to the flat unless we both agree to it in advance.
- We will only get involved with people who the other person respects and is likely to be able to spend some time with.
- We agree to be positive, constructive and enable other relationships as much as possible; to take responsibility for working through our issues. The other person will recognise that this may take some time.
I know other people (couples, triads, etc) who don’t stick by the above (or any) guidelines and it works for them, but both of us know – due to previous experience – that having well defined, codified guidelines ensuring we’re on the same page is a great tool to prevent misunderstandings and heartache. We can re-visit them from time to time to make sure they’re up to date. It’s how both of us have been able to maintain a relatively pretty peaceful poly set-up for the past little while. If/when I enter into another long-term partnership, I’d likely want to come to another agreement with that person defining what we believe to be considerate behaviour in the context of our particular relationship. It’s the set up that works best for me, and although it can take a considerable amount of time to get there, it’s worth it.
Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts will be found at www.polymeansmany.com from tomorrow. This month, our topic is “What being poly has taught me”
When the PMMers first picked the topic of “What I’ve learned from being poly”, I assumed that I could or would have a lot to say about this. I have been practicing polyamory since my first relationship at 15 years old – that’s half my life now – so I thought I would have plenty of material and could write a litany of “poly lessons learned”.
But when I started to really think on this, I quickly realised that being poly has been so infused into my life that I have a difficult time differentiating its place in my life from relationships more generally. And furthermore, I don’t feel that being poly has taught me very much at all in particular. I think non-poly people deal with most of the same issues that we do: jealousy, trust, time management, boundaries, good communication, etc, and most of the seminal lessons I’ve learned from specific relationships would have transpired regardless of whether I was monogamous or polyamorous in that relationship. (I might have learned those lessons a bit differently if I were monogamous, however.)
In my own particular case, I’ve undoubtedly had many more relationships because I am poly, so perhaps my rate of learning from relationships has been greater than if I were monogamous. And as I have covered in previous posts, those lessons often come from loss of relationships – which in my case, has come more frequently as a poly person than it would have if I were mono, simply because I enter into relationships more frequently.
So perhaps in this way, poly has taught me to deal with loss better than I otherwise would have. It has taught me to fully appreciate having relationships that I know won’t last forever or even for very long at all. It has taught me the value of romantic and/or sexual friendships – a type of friendship I might not have been able to engage in if I weren’t poly or at least open. It has taught me to stop taking the damn relationship escalator all the time and to live more in the moment with my loved ones. NB: I got into my relationship with my fiancé thinking we would definitely not have a long-term primary-ish future together, and yet here we are just over three years later about to get married. I firmly believe that not jumping onto the relationship escalator from the moment we met each other is what got us here, because it meant we could form our own unique bond free of such expectations.
At the same time: I could have learned any of the above while not practicing polyamory, it is simply impossible for me to know since I have never been anything but poly. But I maintain that being poly has not given me access to a particular set or special level of knowledge that can only be gained by those who are poly. Frankly, I don’t think that kind of knowledge exists. I have learned so much from the many relationships I’ve had, not from being poly, and for that I am immensely grateful.
Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at polymeansmany.com
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is something I have experienced on a regular basis in the past couple of years. Being poly as a socially anxious introvert is sometimes not a pleasant experience. I find this can be particularly exacerbated within poly communities, when I look around and can easily see my friends and loved ones being actively poly all the time – going on many dates with lots of different people.
Triggers of FOMO: Dating, Mental Health and Introversion
Relatively speaking, I don’t date very many people. I tend to be picky, but more than that I am extremely introverted. That means, while I love being around people, doing so saps a lot of my energy. When I go on a date with a new person, unless I already know them well as a friend, it means I have to put on my ‘game face’ – I have to be ‘on’ and I have to perform. Some of you might think this sounds odd, but it’s just the nature of my introversion. My most natural state is being quiet and speaking rarely, and while I love intense conversation with friends and lovers, if I do it too often without a break I become completely mentally and emotionally exhausted. On top of that, struggling with depression for most of my adult life means that I don’t have the spoons to act happy and energetic and generally socially presentable as easily and regularly as some others.
In the past, I think one of the reasons I experienced FOMO on a regular basis was because there are many people who I would like to date, but I simply don’t have the energy to engage with that many people as intensely as I would like. Very often my social anxiety gets in the way of flirting with or even speaking with new people I find attractive. Sometimes being in a crowded room at a party overwhelms me so much and saps so much of my energy as an introvert that I have difficulty approaching new people. When I see people around me working the room and chatting with and making out with people they’ve just met, I can become convinced that I am missing out and that I am the reason that I’m missing out.
Overcoming FOMO: Self Acceptance
One of the ways I’ve found to overcome FOMO in these situations is to emphasize self-care and self-acceptance. I’m introverted, I struggle with anxiety and depression and dealing with those characteristics is part and parcel of being me on a daily basis. For better or worse, it takes a lot of time and energy to deal with being me, and I have to be my number one. I have to make sure I get enough alone time and that I prioritize dealing with my mental health. This means not spreading myself so thin dating lots of people or going to huge parties, despite the fact that I am poly and have been for most of my adult life.
Several years ago, I dated many people at once for a few months. I had just split up from a mostly monogamous long-term relationship and I had a bit of that old familiar “kid in a candy store” mentality. After a few months it became clear this was not good for me, at all. I had started a lot of relationships and then went through a lot of break-ups. Gaining and losing so much in a short period of time took its toll on me. I decided to take a break from dating and a break from sex for a little while. I experienced some FOMO during this time, but mostly I felt relief that I was allowing myself a break from something that – in the long run – I knew was not going to make me that happy.
During that period I experienced much less FOMO when I realized not dating was a choice I was making and that it was good for me. I was able to feel happier for my friends who were dating a lot because I felt more relaxed and I had more energy. I knew that, while dating lots of people might make them happy, that it wasn’t for me. So I experienced less FOMO and greater ability for compersion. Eventually I started dating again and got into two very fulfilling relationships. I don’t think I would have been able to enter into those relationships if I hadn’t given myself a break and some time to recover.
FOMO and Distance
At the moment, I am taking a similar sort of break but for different reasons. I have just moved to a different country and therefore many thousands of miles away from the community/communities I had been a part of for the past several years. I am physically removed from my strongest support network. At the moment I am experiencing massive changes in my life, including reverse culture shock. And I admit it, I have been experiencing lots of FOMO because of this. I know lots of the people I left behind are having lots of fun without me. But why shouldn’t they? They are awesome and they deserve love and fun when I am not around. I love hearing about what my friends and loved ones are up to. I just wish I could be there to experience it too.
The way I’m handing this now is, perhaps somewhat oddly, slowing down my life in my new country. I’m not making myself go out and meet lots of new people, as I was sorely tempted to do. I have enough on my plate already – enough new factors in my life that could trigger some serious mental health issues. I’m limiting the new factors entering my life right now and that means taking a break from dating new people. Chances are that, even if I were in London, I would want to date lots of people but wouldn’t have the energy to do so. Doubly so now that I live in New York, where I’m getting to know a new city, a new transport system, and basically a new culture in which I am immersed on a daily basis. Once I can expend less energy on adjusting to all of that and looking for employment, I am likely to consider dating again.
In the meantime, the FOMO is dying down as I realize the decision to not date anyone new is really the most healthy decision I can make for myself right now. Perhaps this active decision-making will work for others who struggle with FOMO too.
PS – When it is time to date again, I am thinking of developing something like this “Social Anxiety Elevator Speech” that Life on the Swingset discusses. Some of you might find this and the links below to be useful resources:
For mental health issues and polyamory, I highly recommend contacting Pink Therapy in the UK for poly and queer friendly therapists, some of whom operate on a sliding scale.
“…fundamentally, in order to believe in social justice, I have to believe that things can change. I have to believe that people can change.”
The above quote comes from a conversation I had with a friend recently about abuse and accountability in the context of communities, usually alternative lifestyle and activism-focused communities. This has been a hot topic for a while. There’s been an increasing development in “call-out culture”, which if I understand correctly, aims to encourage people to inform their communities about abusive or otherwise inappropriate/bad behaviour committed by specifically-named people.
I’m no expert on relationships, consent, or anything else. However, I have been an abuse survivor from a very young age, so holding people who abuse others accountable for their behaviour (and how best to do so) is something I’ve had to contemplate for the vast majority of my life. What I have seen in the past few years indicates that we haven’t successfully developed call-out culture. Why is this? There are a couple of key elements missing at the moment. (NB: Before I make those points I just want to say this post isn’t necessarily about how to hold others more accountable. That’s not something I can claim to do here, certainly not with one blogpost! This has an entirely different aim.)
Firstly, I’d say that there’s a lot of conflict around what we, as a community, do with people who’ve abused others or otherwise violated boundaries both before and after they’ve apologised. Communities seem to mainly deal with it by shunning those people and pushing them out. Their friends and partners may also be shunned. The rifts this cause in communities are undeniable based upon whose “side” people are on.
A few thoughts on this: the shunning approach won’t work, and it doesn’t work. This has been done many times before. People who don’t take accountability (and even those who do) and who are shunned go elsewhere, often to engage in the same behaviour with others – and the cycle continues ad infinitum.
If we believe in social justice, as my friend says, then we have to believe that people can change. Too many people feel that someone who has committed abusive behaviour cannot reform or change their ways, so they must be shunned and pushed out as the only solution. I call bullshit on that. You know why? Because that won’t allow people to change their behaviour by first admitting and being accountable for their wrongdoing. It will encourage them to hide it, which means they can’t reflect on it, which means they won’t reform or change and the behaviour will continue.
Bad behaviour does not automatically make someone a bad person and compassion for all parties is a useful tool. We need to make it clear that calling someone out for bad behaviour and holding them accountable is just that. It doesn’t mean their lives will end, or that they’ll be forced out. It doesn’t mean that they will lose all of their friends (although naturally, perhaps some friendships will end). However, obviously not everyone can or will reform, as cases of repeat abusive behaviour after repeated call-outs clearly highlights. Perhaps counterintuitively, the environment needs to be safe enough for people to admit they committed abuse. Unless that happens, we will never see true and active accountability.
Secondly, people aren’t exclusively victims or exclusively abusers. I know this sounds obvious, but IT NEEDS SAYING AGAIN AND AGAIN. This shit is complicated, in pretty much every single case, and it is so tempting to see it otherwise. As mentioned, I was abused from a very young age by a family member – a few family members, in fact. I was a victim, I am a survivor, I am also a person who is happy.
However, I have also been an abuser.
The truth is, I think we probably all have behaved badly at one time or another for any variety of reasons. We’ve all been abused and we’ve all been the abusers. No one is perfect and we are all figuring this shit out as we go along, in the context of a culture that didn’t teach us what consent looks like. But can we all just stop and take a look at ourselves while we’re so busy looking at others? I see a lot of people in activism communities calling out people for committing rape and sexual abuse who have allegedly engaged in the same or similar bad behaviour and have not admitted wrongdoing or taken responsibility themselves. The truth is, people change. Our politics change. We improve so much over time. But we also fuck up massively and repeatedly and cannot truly improve without some extremely frank and often very painful self-reflection. We cannot call out others with any shred of integrity until we call ourselves out as well. My question is: are the people developing call-out culture reflecting enough on themselves?
I think we should consider that a culture that accepts the fact that people can and do fuck up is safer for the victim or survivor because they don’t have to fear dire consequences for calling it out. Communities who try to disown abusers who have been called out by saying they are some kind of impostor who invaded our community and “not one of us” creates an environment where ALL of us cannot talk about the mistakes we’ve made for fear of being ostracised. This further creates a culture of silence that perpetuates abusive behaviour and does not give people the opportunity to learn and grow out of such behaviours.
Now I’d like to tell you a story about me, and it involves publicly admitting a huge mistake I once made in a relationship to all of you, dear readers. I suppose you, as the reader, can (and surely will!) decide what you think of what I did:
I was in a relationship with someone for nearly a decade. We lived together, shared our lives together, we were as close as we could possibly get to another human being. One night I initiated sex while they were still asleep. I did this without waiting until they were conscious to ask if it would be ok or if they wanted it or if they consented. They eventually woke up and we had sex. I didn’t think about this again for years afterward. Many years later, around the time the Julian Assange rape allegations were coming out, I reflected on that experience. And with horror I realised I had made a huge fucking mistake that night. I eventually contacted my ex to apologise for what I had done. They practically started laughing when I did so, and told me that I had not done anything wrong and had no reason to apologise. They told me that they did not experience that event as coercive in any way. Whether they think this because we were in a relationship at the time (so this somehow gives me the right to not ask for consent?!) or because they woke up and then consented once they were awake is irrelevant.
We may have different politics and beliefs about relationships, consent and sex, but I still believe that I fucked up big time and it was important to me to take responsibility for that and to hold myself accountable. If I can’t do it myself, how on earth can I ask it or demand it of anyone else with any shred of integrity? The truth is, I couldn’t. This is one of the reasons I decided to write about it here.
Why? Because call-out culture should start from within. This is something I’d like to see more of: people calling themselves out, not just calling others out. If I want to see others doing this, then I can’t ask anyone else to do it without doing it myself. And thus, the idea for this blogpost was born…
I imagine my politics will develop further over the next five to ten years and I’ll realise that I have even more bad behaviour to apologise to others for. I hope I continue to have the strength to do this, to self-reflect, to take responsibility for my actions. It’s hard and it’s terrifying, but it’s also gratifying and I hope the more that I do it the easier it will get. At the end of the day, I have to believe that if I can change, then others can and will, too.
So now I call on all my friends and readers to engage in some frank and probably painful self-reflection. Doing so will require compassion for both ourselves and others, while we work through our mistakes and heal from the mistakes of others. Can we, as communities and as individuals, call ourselves out? Can we embrace and learn from our mistakes? Can we meet this challenge with compassion towards ourselves and towards others? I believe that if we all do this, the safer we will all be.