Too rarely do we discuss mental health and trauma in our movement spaces. That said, when it is talked about there are some common tropes, standard ways of talking about disability and trauma, that fail to both make space for disability and hold community members accountable. By reproducing standard frames around disability we open up space for abuse and toxicity with no recourse for justice, restorative or otherwise.
As someone who participates in movement spaces, and who carries around their mental illnesses and trauma I want us as a community to sit down and really think about the ways in which we must hold space for disability and accountability.
“Your feelings are valid.”
A common phrase in movement spaces, especially in recognition of ongoing gaslighting from abusive systems and individuals, we often must affirm for ourselves and others that our feelings are valid. That our anger is valid. But, as someone with major depression/anxiety/PTSD I must also recognize that sometimes my feelings are both valid and rooted in trauma. My feelings can be valid, and still be misdirected and abusive. Recognizing this is not only about community accountability but my own self-healing and feeling-management.
“I have [insert trauma/disability]. Thus, I cannot be harmful.”
Often leveraged along other axis of power, the leveraging of experiences of trauma or anxiety are often used to stop conversations which are difficult — when many of our conversations about accountability are hard this is a tactic for shutting down attempts at communication.
Particularly effective when used by white women, crying in response to call-ins around abusive behavior can diffuse attempts at building community or holding each other accountable. We must managed to hold space for tears, and then work past that moment to ensure that harm is addressed.
“I’m sorry, I did [abusive behavior] because of my disability/trauma”
Saying sorry is a good first step. It establishes that you realize you’ve caused some harm. But if the conversation stops at an apology, without efforts to manage harmful reactions or develop care plans (networks of support and mechanisms to safely express emotions) to support healthy future interactions, then it becomes a pass to continue abusive behaviors.
“I hold you accountable for your actions, but you cannot hold me accountable for mine.”
Trauma and mental illness do not abdicate you from responsibility for your relationships with others. Instead, it means that we have to think about how accountability must fluctuate and how we can hold ourselves accountable within our communities.
“I don’t know why I did that.”
One of the ways folks with mental illnesses are gaslit by those around them is being barraged by questions about motive and intent all the time. One way of building a responsible, accountable relationship within our movement spaces is not to ask why someone did something abusive, but to manage the reactions which are harmful and build connections which allow someone to explore their trauma.
“Movement spaces are spaces for unburdening of trauma.”
This is a tricky one. Yes, movement spaces are spaces of healing; trauma is never isolated to one person and healing is never a solitary feat. But when we expect movement spaces to listen to us uncritically or maintain some objective, therapeutic distance it can turn our spaces into emotionally toxic spaces.
*calling out others, and then disengaging*
Those of us with mental illnesses have less spoons — less energy — to spend on confrontation and so we have to pick and choose our battles. Often times this means holding off on immediate confrontations and thinking through what needs to be said before approaching someone who has harmed us. This is a reasonable coping mechanism for folks with chronic mental illness and fatigue. This practice becomes harmful though when we approach others with our grievances and then refuse to engage the other person meaningfully. We save spoons by sharing and then disengaging — but this practice eliminates the voice of the other person and is an abusive tactic which over time leads to toxic behavior in our movement spaces.
As movement spaces evolve and change, and as disability becomes an increasingly important frame for liberation, we are going to have to develop a more nuanced understanding of restorative justice, community accountability, and responsibility. We have to, as Assata says, “love and support one another.”