Monday, October 17, 2016

Kink and Anxiety

In a call for people to be more conscious of what they can do to help their communities I recently said that it takes nothing but your time to show support for something or someone. While I stand by this as a general rule it is certainly not absolute: specifically for those with anxiety issues it can take a great deal more than just your time. When you have anxiety, showing support can become a constant battle between the stress certain situations cause you and the desire you have to help those you care about. Being spread too thin can be stressful for anyone, but the difference is that anxiety can be triggered in regard to specific, isolated events and cannot always be mitigated by carving out more time for yourself.

My own personal anxiety is something I’ve alluded to here a number of times (and struggled with for years), but I want to put a face on the severity of its impact for those who can't relate. I’ve been involved in the kink community over a decade now; it’s not just a pastime for me, it really is a lifestyle I embrace fully. I honestly can't remember the last time I went more than a week or two without attending a group’s bar night or a play party or attended a contest/event. Even with that amount of experience and exposure, anxiety can still immobilize me to the point where I literally can't participate. A few months ago a local group was hosting a game night at a member's house, someplace I’d never been. There were a lot of variables which were triggering my anxiety badly, but I managed to force myself to get in the car and drive over. Once I parked, I sat in the car for at least 10 minutes trying to will myself to get out and walk up to their house, fighting the urge to start my car, drive home, and make up something to apologize later. The desire to show support eventually won out, but sometimes it doesn't and I flake on things or people I care about. If anxiety can cripple someone with my level of experience, it can keep someone with less experience from even taking that first step. For some people, they may not only never make it to the car, they may not even be able to convince themselves they're allowed or welcome to attend a social gathering.

The kink community has always been very dear to me, from the very first time I set foot at an event. The friendships and relationships are so strong and open that I often find non-kinky people who are unable to believe that it is even possible for people to be that close and loving. The most prevailing theory as to why kinksters have such healthy relationships seems to be that kink requires a greater degree of self-awareness, helping build more solid and trustful dynamics. While this is certainly true, I don't think it is what makes the kink community so special; there are plenty of communities with a similar mindfulness. What I think makes the kink community so special is that it celebrates that there are parts of yourself that you cannot develop or even access without others. Whether it’s a headspace, an act, or a lifestyle dynamic, the activities overwhelmingly necessitate sharing experiences with others and developing the communication skills necessary to make those endeavors possible. Without this, most people will never understand those early twinges and pangs that so many of us look back on knowingly.

When I look at the community and those coming in to it, I see anxiety far too often. Sometimes it may stem from something as serious as a pathological chemical imbalance, other times it may just be an implicit distrustfulness from years of bullying or other such distress. Whatever the cause, these things tend make a person feel the need to suppress themselves for fear of rejection or ridicule, which can serve as a tremendous source of anxiety. When there are parts of yourself that you are deeply programmed to be ashamed of, other people accepting those parts can almost feel like you’re being gaslighted; you feel crazy for believing the ridicule is gone, like it’s just lurking around another corner. Sometimes you’re afraid to turn that corner, to have that new experience, so anxiety gets the best of you and you stay put where it’s quiet and safe. On bad days, it can feel like the very notion you could be accepted for who you are is downright insane.

As I stated before, most of kink simply cannot be learned alone despite how deeply ingrained kinky tendencies may be in some. You don’t have to try very hard to find someone who can, in retrospect, see that their interests impacted their behavior years (or decades) before understanding these impulses. We aren’t talking about a hobby or a trade, we’re talking about someone being unable to explore parts of themselves if they cannot gain access to the proper resources. This creates a unique obligation for our community to look out for those who are starting to learn; if we aren’t able to recognize when people are having a hard time finding circumstances in which they feel comfortable with these parts of themselves, they’re apt to disappear from the community.

One of my favorite annual events is CLAW, largely because of how focused on community-building it is. Every year that I’ve had the privilege of attending their amazing brunch, there’s been at least a 2-3 minute spiel on the difference it can make just to introduce yourself to a newbie during your weekend. It’s an amazing, simple, and impactful concept that makes a huge difference when adapted by a community. The next time you’re at a social gathering and see someone not really mingling, keep in mind how hard it may have been just for them to show up: do everything you can to make them feel welcome. Of course be respectful if they want to be left alone, but an introduction rarely hurts and lets you gauge their level of desired involvement. If individual conversation with strangers is difficult for you (or you simply can't find common ground), try introducing them to your circle of friends while you get a drink or use the restroom. There’s always a small risk that it may lead to some awkward moments, but there’s also a very good chance you’re helping someone get a foot in the door to make connections that will help them understand themself better. You don’t have to like every person you meet, but giving every willing and well-intentioned person you meet access to your community means they can eventually always have someone to help them grow, even if you can't at the time.

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