Asking for help when we are suffering is incredibly difficult. We’re taught to be self-reliant, to be rugged individualists, to take care of ourselves. Self-care ideology reifies, rather than challenges, this foundation of white Western culture. Mainstream self-care rhetoric can be ableist and alienating for marginalized folks, such as LGBTQI, disabled, and immigrant communities, low-income communities, and communities of color, who often don’t have access to the kinds of things self-care listicles usually suggest or the financial resources to take advantage of them. Capitalism and heteropatriarchy purposely isolate us — trapped in our homes, dependent on our “nuclear” families, too exhausted from working to organize or socialize with our neighbors — and in many of our cities, gentrification breaks up our communities even further.
There is an urgent political need, especially in Trump’s America, for marginalized folks to build support networks within our own communities, as the State (police, health care systems, immigration, schools, welfare systems, etc.) has never genuinely cared for or protected us and cannot be relied on. Those of us with disabilities, who require assistance, support, and care from others in order to survive, are in a difficult bind. We’re often left relying on the State, or on our significant others and biological family members, for care. For many queer and trans people, significant others and family members are unavailable or overburdened by struggle themselves, and so we suffer alone.
Last year, I published an article here on Autostraddle laying out a critique of self-care rhetoric borne out of my own experience and envisioning what “community care” looks like. Since then I’ve worked extensively to incorporate that vision into my personal life, and along the way I developed several tools and strategies to create and maintain community-based social networks built on deep, intimate friendships and centered on mutual aid and support. I’ve shared what I learned and developed in workshops at a number of conferences — including at A-Camp this year — and will be continuing to do so throughout 2018! For those of you who couldn’t or can’t make it to one of my workshops, here’s a brief overview. See the end of the article for resources, where you can find my workshop next, how you can bring this content to your group or organization, and more.
So what do we do? How do we take care of each other? Here’s my framework. It’s a continuous work in progress that can be adapted to a variety of communities and social networks and should be utilized to the degree that it works in your own community.
The main idea is two-pronged: first we must model in our own lives what we wish to see in community — that means, however scary and difficult, we have to teach ourselves how to ask for help. Second, we have to support our loved ones and community members to do the same. When we’ve all broken past the fear of being burdens on others, when we as communities learn how to ask for and give help and support, we’ll be able to take care of each other.
PART I: ASKING FOR HELP
- Figure out your needs
- Figure out your limitations and how community can help
- Ask for help
1. Figuring out your needs
What would your best, healthiest life look like? If your needs were met and you were thriving, what would your day-to-day look like? Or, if you’re currently struggling, what would it take to be well? Be aspirational. Don’t let yourself be cornered by your current job or financial situation. Write 3-5 “I” statements envisioning yourself living your best, healthiest life. What would that look like? For example, here are a couple of mine:
- I cook dinner for myself 3x per week
- I exercise 2-3x weekly
Your “I” statements might be more or less practical than mine — just try to make them as “SMART” as possible and as active as possible. For example, write down things you can do, rather than feelings or “I am…” statements (though if that’s where you want to go with it, go there!)
2a. Figuring out your limitations
What keeps you from doing those things, if you aren’t doing them already? What are your barriers? Are they physical, mental, emotional, spiritual? Mine are mostly mental and emotional barriers. I am able to do these things, but I don’t, for a variety of reasons. Write down what’s stopping you from doing those things already. For me, some major barriers are:
- Lack of accountability: I spend a lot of time alone, and have nobody to check me if I don’t do the things I commit to doing to take care of myself. If I tell even just one person about my plans, I’m much more likely to make them happen.
- Social anxiety: Being in crowded places with strangers is like my kryptonite, especially at places like the gym where my gender is really obvious, having a friend for support is essential.
2b. How can community support you?
Imagine that all of your friends and family, everyone in your community, wants you to live your best, healthiest life, and will do what they can to support you in breaking past those barriers. Well, you don’t have to imagine it — it’s likely true! One of the most remarkable things I realized when I started asking for help was that my community stepped up in incredible ways, and I found out — contrary to the stigma and rhetoric around being burdensome — that they enjoyed it! There were a bunch of people excited that I finally reached out, because they had been caring from afar but not knowing what to do or how to support. Take a look at the things you need and the barriers you have to making those things happen. How could a community member support you in overcoming those barriers?
For me, they were:
- Accountability calls/check ins: like, “go to bed bb!” or “hey, did you make any art this week? I want to see it!”
- Intentional Social Support: like, accompanying me to a party/event and committing to being on my arm the whole time so I don’t get anxious, or going to the gym with me so I’m not a trans person in the locker room alone.
- Crisis text support when I’m having an anxiety attack (see an example in part 3, below).
3. Ask for help!
This is maybe the hardest part — but once you’ve figured out what you need, and how folks can support you, you need to ask them to! Here are some simple ways to do so:
- Individual asks: Since you know what you need after part 2b, who do you know who might be able to provide those things? Do you have a friend who works out a lot? Ask her if you can go to the gym together! Does one of your friends text constantly? Maybe she can be your text accountability partner! An example: When I was well, I realized that what I needed to hear in the moment when I was having a panic attack was three simple statements that I knew to be true, but couldn’t convince myself of in the moment of crisis. I asked a friend whether she’d be willing to text the three things to me at a moment’s notice when I was in crisis. She gladly agreed, and has gotten me through a handful of panic attacks over the last couple years.
- Social Media: Facebook, Instagram, etc. can be super alienating or super community-building, depending on how you use them! For example, one of the things I needed as I recovered from my suicide attempt was advice and commiseration from folks who had been there. Facebook provided an opportunity for me to reach out for this kind of support, and it delivered! Facebook groups can be incredible community-building tools. For example, in almost every major city, there’s a “X City Queer Exchange.” I’ve utilized these Facebook groups in the Extended Bay Area, Seattle, and New Orleans, and all of them have been incredibly active and fruitful, both for giving and receiving support, to varying degrees.
- Intentional Conversations with trusted folks can be so helpful and necessary. There are different types of intentional conversations — advice, processing, and venting are the main three — at which different people excel. Ask your friends who have been through similar situations for advice about what to do. Ask your very emotionally adept and/or analytical friends for processing, which is when you try to better understand a situation by discussing its intricacies. And ask your friends who you know are good at listening without judgment to vent at them without their providing any feedback unless you specifically ask for it.
Health Care: If you have access to it, getting mental (and physical!) health care is essential. Therapy can be key to survival. I find that my sessions with therapists are almost always “venting” sessions — I don’t need a stranger’s advice and rarely their processing, I just want to talk for an hour about my problems without feeling as though I’m taking up my loved one’s time or emotional energy. But therapists are paid to listen to your problems! Utilize them if you can, and make sure you look into it. Many of us think we can’t afford therapy, but there are sliding scale therapists, peer counselors, most colleges give a few free sessions with the campus health plan, and you can always barter emotional labor with members of your community.
Is there an app for that?: NotOK is an app that facilitates the asking for help process. After a bit of work on the front end, when you’re not OK you can simply open the app and press a button and it texts your trusted contacts a short message informing them you’re not OK and shares your location! This app got some criticism from me for its price, but last I heard it just got cheaper. I am also developing an app with some amazing tech folks I met at A-Camp to facilitate asking for and giving community support: stay tuned and see links at the end of this article for more resources.
Remember, when you ask for help, be specific — ask for what you need (see part 2 above!). This helps you get your actual needs met and helps supporters know whether they can support you in the ways you need. It’s also important, however, to be flexible — for example, if you need a ride to the grocery store, but someone offers to pay your bus fare and accompany you and to help you carry your bags, consider whether that’s another way to get your needs met that you’re OK with. If the offer doesn’t meet your needs, though, it’s not disrespectful to thank them for the offer but decline it.
Asking for help is simple but very difficult. It’s essential to set up structures for these types of support when you’re feeling OK, when you have the capacity. Set up the means for which to ask for help before you’re in a crisis moment — when you’re in crisis, it’ll be difficult to reach out for the first time or in a new way.
PART II: BUILDING A COMMUNITY OF CARE
Everyone has different capacity for different types of community-building. Some people can go out on the front lines and march, rally, and occupy spaces. Others can write articles, tweets, and posts, and stay all up in the comments and conversation and be a part of the discourse. Some of us can provide seemingly unlimited emotional labor for comrades and family, while others can do physical labor or can provide resources in other ways (financially, for example). It’s all necessary, and there’s no hierarchy here — we all get in where we fit in. It doesn’t have to be reciprocal and it doesn’t all have to be valued the same by society.
Figuring out where YOU fit in is key for Part II. In Part I, you figured out what you needed from community. In this section, you’ll figure out what you can offer community and how to build a culture of community care in your social network.
- What do you have to offer?
- Offer support when you can.
- Be open and intentional about the kind of community you’re trying to build.
1. What do you have to offer?
In Part I, you wrote down what you needed from your community members (I needed accountability texts reminding me to go to sleep and work-out buddies, for example, among other things). Of the things you need, what could you also offer? Look back at your list of ways you would like to be supported. Which of those could you offer to others? Which couldn’t you? Write a star next to the ones you could also offer.
Analyze your resources. What do you have? Everyone has something: Large kitchen? EBT (food stamps)? A car? Extroversion? Money? Writing skills? Business skills? Empathy? Art skills and/or supplies? Multi-lingualism? A “fancy,” “official-looking” outfit? Carpentry skills? Some time? Any and all of these can be incredibly useful in supporting someone in community. What do you have to offer? Some of these seem esoteric, but can be incredibly helpful in ways you might not immediately expect.
A large kitchen can host an affinity group’s monthly meal, even if you’re not part of the affinity group. EBT can be a lifesaver; there are assuredly bunches of folks in your community who are food scarce and should qualify for EBT but aren’t on it for whatever reason — if you can spare a few veggies here and there it can literally save someone’s life. Cars are crucial — especially depending on where you live. Grocery store carpools can change lives. Helping someone write a resume/cover letter can be the difference between them getting a job or not — and those are NOT skills most marginalized folks are taught in school! Multi-lingualism can also be a lifesaver — so many older folks who don’t have comprehensive business-level English skills have to rely exclusively on biological family in order to navigate the world. If a community member has a court date, doctor appointment, are buying a used car, or another appointment of some kind at an institution that will judge folks based on how they’re dressed or the like, having a person with them who can wield their class or race privilege in that situation (maybe that’s you in your suit or skirt, especially if you’re able to pass as older, whiter, and/or straighter than your community member) can really up their credibility.
2. Offer support when you can
Because it’s so hard (and culturally discouraged) to ask for help from our community members, it’s hard to know how to go around supporting community with the resources you do have. As we build community care structures from the ground up, it’s going to be tough. Usually the best you can do is try to notice when people around you are struggling. Maybe it’s a vague Facebook comment, maybe over dinner or drinks a friend reveals something to you, maybe you read a local news article or see your neighbor dealing with something on your block. Or maybe you’ve seen what resources/privileges you have and just want to straight up offer them to community members in a local queer Facebook group. There are two key questions that you need to remember:
“How can I support you?”
If the person has done some introspection like we did in Part I, they might know exactly what they need, and by asking them this, you give them the freedom to let you know. However, because we aren’t taught how to do this, most of us don’t know what we need, especially from people in our extended community. When that’s the case, you have to be proactive:
“Would it be helpful if I ____?”
If your friend has no food and their car broke down so they can’t get to the grocery store, you can offer to give them a ride, or bus/Lyft fare, to send them delivery, or to come over and make a meal and eat it with them. Making a clear offer can really help when someone’s in crisis, because all they need to say is “yes” or “no,” they don’t have to figure out too much or negotiate anything, they can just accept or deny the support you’ve offered.
Neither of these are perfect — what if, for example, when you ask how you can support someone, they ask for something that’s beyond your capacity (they need rent money, and you’re broke! Or they need a translator, but you’re monolingual). Or, you have something to offer but it’s just not what they need?
By figuring out your capacity, you can make sure to only offer support that you have capacity to give, and by building community and knowing what other folks in the community have to offer, maybe you can make a suggestion for someone else who might be able to help. But as we build our skills of asking for and receiving support, we might need to be more explicit about what our capacities are so that we know who to go to for support in certain circumstances.
A tool like the Support Card, below, can help facilitate this. It might seem extra — well, it is extra — but if you’re looking to really do some work to build your community you might have to get a little extra. Take two copies of the Support Card, fill one out based on what you have to offer, and then give it to a friend. Ask her to fill the other one and give it back to you. That way, you both know what each others’ capacities are. Imagine if everyone in your social network had a stack of support cards for all of their friends and comrades so that, if they ever had a moment of crisis, they could analyze what they needed, then go through the support cards and find out exactly who to ask for help based on what each person’s capacities are. And they know this support is being offered, so it’s not as stressful to ask for help, and everyone else in the community is doing this too, so there’s less stigma. This can be done in a much less structured way, but for many of us, the structure takes much of the anxiety out of the process.
3. Communicate your vision
It’s one thing to model asking for help from your peers and community. But if you want to build a whole community that cares for each other, you’ll have to do a little work to empower the rest of your folks to break down the stigma around being a burden on others.
Sharing support cards with your close friends can be a good start. Just telling your friends how much you appreciate their care and support, and offering to be supportive of them in whatever ways you can, is also a good start! Reaching out and offering care when folks are struggling is key, as it shows that you’re not all talk but are really interested in backing it up.
Utilizing some of the tools I mentioned above — like social media — you can also take care of folks in your extended community. Sometimes offering a ride to a member of your queer community, for example, can lead to making a new friend. Giving away excess food instead of throwing it away can help a hungry person in your community and reduce waste. Donating or sharing a struggling person’s fundraiser, like retweeting links to your extended community, can help them get the reach they need. When I was raising funds for my top surgery, the retweets from members of my extended community, many of whom knew the right hashtags that spread it even further, made all the difference.
In my vision, community builds outwards like ripples in a pond. You build a relationship of care and support with a couple close friends. They do the same with a couple of close friends. And then it keeps building and growing. Community building works best locally, and in-person—though social media and online communities can be a great facilitation tool. But if we’re talking about disability, and crisis, ideally you’ll have people locally who you can reach out to in the really difficult moments— folks who are nearby and can come through in person if they have the capacity.
This work is essential if we want to achieve liberation for all members of our community, not just the ones who can do self-care, the ones who have social capital, the ones who aren’t disabled, the ones who can rely on the government because they don’t have to fear being mistreated, discriminated against, or worse. This is also a political mission — the people who would prefer we not exist need us to be isolated and helpless in order to achieve our extermination. But by building community, and taking care of each other, we also build power to achieve liberation.
The final task is to put this all to work: think of 1-3 close friends with whom you’d like to build a deeper connection of care. Write 1-3 ideas of how you might do this — fill out and exchange support cards? Send a text offering care and support? Post on your local queer exchange offering rides, food, accompaniment, or something else? And… commit to making it happen! THIS WEEK! It’s never too late to get started, but it’s also never too soon.
- Beyond Self-Care Bubble Baths: A Vision for Community Care
- How to How to be an Ally to Sick People posted at Autistic Hoya
- Disability Justice Writing by Mia Mingus
- Download Support Card Here
- Download NotOK App
Do you know of a community or organization that would benefit from having a trained facilitator (me!) teach this workshop to them? Check out my information page and reach out! I am affordable and flexible with compensation!
Where am I teaching this workshop next?
- TRANScend: A retreat for trans and genderqueer folks, Northern California, October 2018
- Facing Race: A national racial justice conference, Detroit, MI, November
Are you a facile facilitator and want to teach some of these strategies to your organization? How to Take Care of Each Other – the curriculum is available as part of Speak on It! Communication Mixtape Curriculum. Contact me directly to purchase!