Poverty and Isolation are Killing Us: (More, Unending) Thoughts and Conversations on Suicide, Criticism, Responsibility, Purpose, Care, and Love

content notes: suicide (thoughts, attempts, prevention, etc), youth incarceration (mine)

An accomplice of mine recently asked me if I had any advice to give or ideas to pass along as he was preparing to facilitate a discussion on suicide and support for queers, activists, and weirdos. He was feeling stressed by expectations placed upon him to “fix” things, and was trying to decide where to focus his attention. Criticism and self-blame were mentioned first, as crucial issues suicidal friends were dealing with – I’m among those who’ve attempted suicide while feeling both overly-criticized by others and hyper-critical of myself, so I recognize some of the ways in which criticism without care and constructive support can make one feel hopeless and disposed of, ineffectual and alone. It’s a dangerous place to be, and unfortunately, it’s pretty much inevitable that we’ll find ourselves, our friends, and our peers there again and again.

Now that a few years have passed since my most recent suicide attempt, I feel like I can re-examine it with a form of detachment, or at least a shifted/shifting perspective – although the issues that led me to overdose into a coma are still not issues I’ve resolved or reconciled, it does help to have some distance from the actual calendar-date (not to say that time heals, because no, time doesn’t always heal; sometimes it compounds and infects the wounds, but you know). I’ve taken one more overdose since then, and although there’ve still been times afterward when I’ve considered killing myself, I’ve become more skilled at resisting impulsive actions in despair, and I’ve come to understand that I do want to be alive, even if I sometimes feel neglected and worthless.

Poverty and isolation have been constant triggers for me. My immediate response to my accomplice’s questions about suicide and support: “Poverty and isolation are killing us.” When I read his email, I had this instant reflex, this anguished rage at being used, abandoned, broke, doing so much work in sickness and not being able to access what I really need to thrive, to create, to feel loved, and to be able to love. I wrote back that isolation almost killed me and I haven’t recovered. (In my late-20’s and early-30’s, my suicidal feelings were often triggered by chronic pain, but that might’ve been mitigated had I had more solid friendships.)

I was reminded that after moving to Toronto only five years ago, most of the friends who were there when I arrived have since left, and many of the friends who are present today are people I’ve only met within the last six months to a year. I don’t have any friends who aren’t talking about leaving, who aren’t being pushed out.

I told my accomplice that the first things we need are stable and accessible housing for very-low-incomes, a desire and an ability to commit to long-term friendships and relationships, and to do daily work against disposability. I was having this conversation with someone who’s also attempted suicide, so I knew my words would not be revelatory to him, but hopefully – at least – a reminder of what we need to keep dreaming of and fighting for.

And he said, “I’m afraid people aren’t being helped and loved the way they could be.”

Me too.

{image description: Lavender walls in the corner of a room. A string of three hearts made of bright purple foil are hanging on one wall. On the other wall, there are two strips of bright pink light, created by a sunset in a nearby window that is not captured in the photo. The effect is hazy and ethereal.}

I think about what it would mean to have a real, felt, deep sense of care for each other. I imagine what it would be like to be able to commit to long-term friendships & relationships. “Long-term” anything felt absurd to my chronically suicidal & crip-self until recently, but it’s been on my mind more and more often. I think of what it would mean to STAY.

And I think of barriers to staying. To staying in the body, and to staying in one location, one place. I don’t know what the solution to ending poverty is except for robbing rich people, robbing banks, forcing them into a radical redistribution of wealth.

In the meantime, how do we cope?

One thing I learned at my sickest was that I don’t want anybody to feel the way I felt when fibromyalgia, complex-(p)TSD, and inaccessibility were killing me. When I went into remission last Spring/Summer, I started meeting new people and making new friends. With new friends, and with those few who had stuck around, I was excited to do what I couldn’t before – take transit to their homes and bring them food. Being able to wait at a streetcar stop or bus stop, being able to breathe once I stepped onto the vehicle, and being able to walk from each stop to my friends’ homes, felt – and still feels – entirely novel. Being able to carry my own backpack, to carry dumpstered food, feels novel, and I wanted to share as much as possible.

Food and presence are what I needed the most, and what I could not have.

Stability and reliability are deep cravings of mine. I’ve always wanted a home that feels permanent and unendangered, and friendships and relationships that feel constant and consistent. I operate on crip-time, and that gives me patience, but still. Crip-time, even with the sense of understanding engendered in that word and concept, even with the art that comes from it, can be a lonely timeline within which to build a life.

{image description: Three items on the corner of a white wicker writing desk by a lavender wall. In the middle is a white ceramic planter with a face painted on it. The eyes are closed and the expression is serene. There is a moon cactus plant, which looks like it’s growing out of a head. It’s green with a deep, deep purple spiky ball growing on top. To the left is a transparent deep violet planter with a small succulent plant inside. To the right is a deep violet candle holder with a white candle inside. The wick is white, unlit.}

Another love of mine and I have been discussing our concepts of love. For me, love is a verb, not a noun. It’s a feeling, yes, but it’s a feeling that requires action, attention, communication, and curiosity.

I’m fascinated by words in other languages that don’t fully translate to English. There’s a Swedish word I learned recently: trygghet. It translates to security in English, but with a broader meaning in Swedish: Trust, a sense of belonging, and freedom from danger, anxiety, and fear. But even those words are probably not enough to describe it.

When I wrote about what love is, or what I want love to be, the first words I wrote were: responsible, nurturing, and complex. (Okay, I also wrote lust, but that was within the context of our current relationship, and not totally relevant to what I’m writing today.) I wrote, “I want us to be able to discuss what love means and what love entails.” (Some of these conversations were happening in-person, others through emails – things are scribbled down through various notebooks and my diary because that’s how I try to make sense of my brain and my worlds.) Sex and lust aside, I then wrote a list of my desires within our relationship, including some I’d also like to transfer into my friendships:

– to challenge one another
– to grow with one another
– to have complex & vulnerable conversations
– to have a felt sense of reciprocity & exchange
– to learn each other’s psyches
– to trade books with one another

And I wrote: “I’m sure there are a thousand more things I could add to the list, or that’ll come up in the future. I need a word that means a deep sense of care and connection, but I’m not sure what that word is yet. Maybe I’ll find it in another language.”

Other words I’d add to my definition of love are: listening, vulnerability, encouragement of creativity, trust, curiosity, and exploration. And those can bubble out into a thousand other words and ideas and feelings, too.

{image description: A plastic clay-coloured planter with a bunch of succulents growing. The planter is sitting on a white ceramic plate with little pink flowers along the edges. Beside the plants is a brown paperbag folded closed, with “self heal” written in black Sharpie. It contains dried self-heal plants. These items are on top of a black milkcrate filled with books. The wall behind them is lavender. There is one book cover visible through the top of the milkcrate: Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton.}

Every time I write about suicide, I hope it’ll be the last time. I’ve written about suicide many, many times over the last more-than-a-decade, and it feels redundant, but it feels necessary, too. Sometimes I wonder what I’ve got left to say. Not only that, I wonder what I can do – to prevent suicide, to help friends and readers navigate suicidal feelings, to reverse and undo the possibility of more queer suicides.

What is the best thing to do when life feels unmanageable and unsustainable? What does daily work against disposability and ostracization look like? Where can we seek solace and comfort? What does suicide prevention look like not only in times of crises, but day-to-day? What does it mean to be responsible to and for one another, to devote time and attention to one another regardless of mood or in/convenience, to stay present, patient, and committed?

Sometimes I worry that queers treat one another as if we are products, as if we can be discarded, replaced with an upgrade, left behind after being consumed. I worry that we treat one another like literal shit, taking what we need and discarding what’s leftover as if a human being can be flushed away, as if a human being can be toxic.

My experience with mental illnesses and a chronic pain condition that often renders me immobile, was that queers left. Not everyone disappeared, but enough disappeared that it felt as if there’d been a mass exodus. Queers stopped talking to me, stopped inviting me to attend events or participate in readings or performances, never offered to share my work when I couldn’t be present or to table my zines and books for me when I could no longer go to zinefests; they very rarely offered basic help, and aside from my partner at the time, nobody committed to making sure I could access food by picking it up for me and carrying it to my home (admittedly, I was ragingly resentful of anyone who could walk without a mobility aid, and wasn’t sure if I could cope with having them in my home anyway). Aside from my partner, the only friend who helped with food more than once left the city as my condition deteriorated. They were evicted from their home so it could be torn down and replaced with condos. It was the last place they could afford in Toronto, a city that had been their home for their entire adult life.

While gentrification and poverty contributed to my friends’ inability to show up for me – average rent in Toronto is about double my monthly income – there was much that was within their control that they chose not to do.

This is how we get left behind.

And where do we go? Where do you think we go?

I’m 32. I’ve been isolated and incarcerated, medicalized and pathologized, in various ways from childhood onward, and I’ve been chronically suicidal since childhood. I never thought I’d become an adult, never thought I’d reach my 30’s. Now I imagine what it’d be like to become both an elder, and an elderly eccentric.

{image description: A big, open grey sky which inhabits most of the frame. At the bottom of the photo are the tops of fir and cedar trees, and the bare branches of a maple tree. The bare branches are coated with ice, and the firs and cedars are weighed down with ice, drooping.}

I recently read the novel As We Are Now by May Sarton. May Sarton was a lesbian feminist poet and novelist who felt unappreciated and unrecognized throughout most of her career. In May Sarton: A Biography, author Margot Peters suggests in the footnotes that May Sarton may have had borderline personality disorder. While I question the ethics of a posthumous diagnosis, I do feel a kinship with all borderline artists, including those whose mental health is further speculated upon in death, as well as in life. In As We Are Now, an elderly lesbian is abandoned to an abusive nursing home. She keeps a diary, documenting her boredom, resentment, and deteriorating memory (as well as small moments of beauty). Before she sets fire to the nursing home, killing herself and everybody inside, she encloses her diary in the refrigerator so her story will be found, told, known.

When I read As We Are Now, I was reminded of the times I’ve spent incarcerated in my early-teens and throughout my twenties – and I know that if I live into old age, I don’t want to be forced to experience that kind of confinement again. But if we don’t build alternatives, and hold onto one another as if we are the weird, wonderful, precious, complex, mysteries-worth-keeping-alive that we are, that’s the most likely outcome.

If we don’t work together and love (or like, or accept) one another as if we have futures, if we don’t act as if “long-term” anything is possible I worry that myself and so many others will become like Caroline Spencer, the main character in the novel – abandoned, alone, frightened, vengeful. It’s imperative that we re-develop our imaginations; that we learn to take care of one another, with all our flaws and mistakes and discomforts, with all our fears and traumas and pains, and with all our care and reverence and awe, too.

As a messy, imperfect anti-capitalist and prison abolitionist, I think a lot about how to practice my politics in everyday life. From an abolitionist perspective, and from my own mad-queer-poor-crip perspective, shame, punishment, and ostracization are among the most crucial issues – along with poverty, racism, ableism, and colonialism – that we need to be dismantle and eradicate if we want to keep one another alive.

To continue disposing of one another – in small, ordinary ways like not bringing food to our pals when they’re hungry, and in larger, more vindictive ways, like telling friends and acquaintances who they are and are not allowed to talk to if they want to remain in our lives – feels like tacit participation in carcerality, in carceral feminism.

A few nights ago, as I was lying in bed thinking about this piece but feeling unable to write it, I had what felt like a revelation to me: after the first time I was arrested when I was thirteen, the judge who sentenced me to a few months in a detention centre and a year on probation, gave my mom the opportunity to add the names of my friends to my probation order, making it an illegal offense for me to interact with them. I have a memory of standing in the courtroom, on the bench behind bulletproof glass, a security guard to my left, my greasy hair hiding my eyes, as my mom told the judge which name(s?) to add. I don’t know if that’s what happened, if that’s how the information was passed on to me during sentencing, or if perhaps duty counsel told me later, from a cell in the basement, but anyway, the image and the feeling are there.

When I was caught on a concrete stoop downtown, sitting beside the person I was no longer permitted to interact with, I was arrested, charged, and incarcerated again.

As an adult, I’ve both cut certain people out of my life, and had others do the same to me. And each time this happened, it wasn’t just one person – I’d notice that when I lost one friend, three or four would go with them. The situations in which this happened weren’t abusive; they were situations in which I was feeling either used, unappreciated, or unlistened to. It felt like we were punishing one another, cutting off the oxygen. Many more queers have lived through this (and sometimes died). I know queers who are so afraid of this happening, so afraid of this happening again, that they can barely form friendships at all, let alone long-term, dependable, reliable, supportive friendships, because they can’t count on anybody sticking around. Maybe they can network when they need to, maybe not, but it lacks the sincerity and trust that so many of us need. I know so many queers and trans folks who’ve lived through this, are living through this, and are slowly being killed through this.

We punish each other for being imperfect.

If the way queers often treat one another reminds me of the ways cops, judges, and inadequate parents have treated me, what does that mean? If it reminds me of literal shit, what does that mean?

When I’ve felt suicidal, or otherwise despairing and alone, it’s also been influenced by my complicated relationship with the psychological concept of object constancy. My potential for a sense of object constancy got skewed in babyhood, so that not only did I not understand that if people (my parents) were gone (or not directly in front of me), they would return, I also didn’t understand that if I were not directly within someone’s view, they would still remember that I exist, they would still think of me and wonder about me. This feeling has followed me throughout adulthood. Logically, I know I don’t cease to exist when we’re not in the same room, but it doesn’t always feel that way. And logically, I know I’m a pretty unforgettable creature, but! My psyche, my nervous system, and my crazy brain do not always operate on logic. My lack of object constancy (which I’ve been working on re-developing in recovery) has deeply impacted my health and my creativity. While it’s more than I can get into within this piece, I mention it as a reminder that many of us with mental illnesses and suicidal despondency are dealing with this or something similar, and one way to help mitigate the fear or actuality of being forgotten is to remember to stay in touch and be present with one another.

{image description: A close-up of a lavender plant, all green leaves with no floral buds or petals. It’s a large plant, and all the sprigs are growing upward and crooked, turning toward the sun. The plant is on the top of a white wicker desk, and the edge of a white windowsill is visible in the background.}

I read a lot of books about queer and trans history and AIDS activism, and I think about knowledges, stories, ideas, and wisdom lost. Not just grief and death, not just art and friendship, but: accessibility and care. I think about what queers and trans folks might’ve learned about sickness, pain, disability, ableism, and accessibility, and where that information is now that so many are gone. I think about things like adapting to chronic illness, visiting sick friends in their homes, and fighting for tenants’ rights. I think about queer men pushing their lovers’ wheelchairs in pride parades. I think about their unknown, hidden archives.

The only writing I’ve found that accurately describes the rage and loss I felt/feel as fibromyalgia, a chronic biopsychosocial condition, devastated my body and my life has been queers writing about AIDS, and queers writing about cancer. Although they’re not the same, fibromyalgia is political, and suicide is a leading cause of death for people with fibromyalgia.

I wonder what all the lost people, bodies, psyches, could have told us – could still tell us – about art, about resistance, about pain. What could they have taught us about support, interdependence, and indispensability? About commitment and presence? About friendships and relationships, housing, grief, sickness, and despair? What information would you ask for if you could? What would our queer worlds look like today if all those knowledges, skills, and revolutionary ideas had been implemented? If hundreds of thousands of people hadn’t died? If we had multiple generations of elders and we knew where to find them while we’re young? If we, as queer individuals and communities, had a sense of continuity and connection, rather than starting from scratch again and again?

I imagine more accessible worlds: physically, financially, emotionally. I imagine worlds where we don’t have to consider networking, branding, productivity, etc. to feel like we’re good, valuable, creative humans who are deserving of care.

Another word I learned recently is maieutic. From Merriam-Webster:

“definition: relating to or resembling the Socratic method of eliciting new ideas from another.”

“Maieutic comes from “maieutikos,” the Greek word for “of midwifery.” In one of Plato’s Dialogues, Socrates applies “maieutikos” to his method of bringing forth new ideas by reasoning and dialogue; he thought the technique analogous to those a midwife uses in delivering a baby (Socrates’ mother was a midwife). A teacher who uses maieutic methods can be thought of as an intellectual midwife who assists students in bringing forth ideas and conceptions previously latent in their minds.”

And:

“Other philosophers had specific uses of the term dialectic, including Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Kantianism, Hegelianism, and Marxism. Asking a series of questions was considered by Socrates a method of “giving birth” to the truth, and a related word, maieutic, defined as “relating to or resembling the Socratic method of eliciting new ideas from another,” comes from the Greek word meaning “of midwifery.”

I want my work to provoke more questions, more imaginings, more possibilities. I want my work on suicide, poverty, illness, support, and friendship to be maieutic.

Learning about the past makes me wanna live. Studying my own queer, mad, poor, cripple lineages makes me wanna live. Knowing that there’s so much I don’t know makes me wanna live. It helps me find my place in the world within particular contexts, and that encourages me to find my purpose, my multiple purposes. Becoming and remaining curious about how people lived, what they thought and felt, what they decided was worth documenting, learning about their creative practices and processes, gives my life meaning and purpose. Finding people, living or dead, who I feel a sense of affinity with, gives me purpose. Learning political and creative (psst: they’re indisputably interconnected) histories, especially those of women writers, queer and trans outlaws and weirdos, crazy people, disabled people, Black liberation movements, anarchist and anti-capitalist struggles, abolitionist perspectives and organizing, AIDS histories and ongoing criminalization of HIV/AIDS, etc etc etc, gives my life meaning and purpose. Sometimes learning is my purpose, and passing on what I’m learning is my purpose.

{image description: The same frozen trees shown / described earlier, but taking up much more of the frame now. The trees are icy, and there’s a series of ice-covered hydro wires draped in front of them, with a snow-covered winding road curving around and behind the trees.}

I’m a borderline witch. Harm none is an essential mantra for me. While recognizing there are no ethical decisions under capitalism, I try to do the least damage to people and to the planet as I can, on a daily basis. I’ve been afraid to talk about the hurt, pain, and grief I’ve survived though chronic illness, afraid that bringing it up again would be too devastating, would spoil the contentment and positivity I’ve been feeling lately. But I know it’s worthwhile to do so, I know it’s part of my purpose.

There are times when I’ve felt attacked, and times I’ve looked back on and realized I was the attacker, acting from an angry and triggered place, prioritizing my own feelings over those of others, and feeling it was radical to do so. I didn’t have practical skills for tolerating emotional discomfort or existential distress. I’m still learning those skills.

What would it look like to seriously develop the ability to apologize and make amends within queer and trans communities and cultures, in ongoing, vulnerable, constructive ways? What would it look like to be able to offer apologies and accept apologies? What would it look like to create reparative and repairitive amends? How do we carry on knowing that so many of us will likely not be offered the apologies and the accountability we need for the serious harm that has been caused to us? What if we criticized or analyzed for the sake of personal, political, cultural, and creative improvement and encouragement, rather than to reinforce our own sense of personal superiority?

What would it look like to remember ourselves when we were at our most fragile, and interact with our peers as if they have been to that place, too? As if they might be there right now?

Another word I learned recently is compersion. It does not yet have a dictionary definition, but there are several on Urban Dictionary, and when I searched for its origins, I found it was coined by a commune in the 1960’s called The Kerista Commune (communes have always fascinated me, as much as I am aware that so many of them, including this one, are not places where I’d belong). They’ve defined compersion as: “the opposite of jealousy; positive feelings about your partner’s other intimacies.”

I stumbled into it while navigating boundaries within my current relationship. While neither of us have perfected a mutual sense of compersion, it’s become a useful concept for me not only in terms of relationships, but with friendships and creative circles as well.

I’ve noticed that many of us have suicidal thoughts not only when we are triggered, not only when we are criticized, and not only when we’ve been abandoned or forgotten, but also when our peers appear to be succeeding in some way that we are not. Whether it’s through publishing a new work, or some other form of recognition, watching others experience success and joy (or appear to be experiencing success and joy) can feel like being left behind. Under capitalism, it feels like there isn’t enough room for all of us, and when one person is recognized above or before another, it can feel like a little more of that space is being taken away, rather than being opened and stretched to invite us in. ‘Vicarious joy’ is a phrase I’ve sometimes used with subjects like this; developing compersion feels like a relevant tactic here.

As well, we need to remember – and remind ourselves and our friends and peers again and again – that poverty is not a personal failure; it is a systemic, intentional, political tool of oppression and suppression. Staying alive is resistance. Taking care of one another is resistance.

Alivingly Yours,

P.S.: If you’ve benefited from my writing in any way – if my words have inspired you, helped you feel less alone, or sparked some weird feeling within you; if you’ve felt encouraged, or curious, or comforted – please consider compensating me by offering a donation of any amount. Whether you’ve been reading my writing for years, or just stumbled into me this afternoon, I invite you to help me sustain the process!

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