So Many Wings mental health podcast

I was stoked recently to be interviewed for the So Many Wings podcast, which is one of my favourite podcasts – about transformatice mental health and social justice, hosted by mental health activists and creators Sascha DuBrul and Jacks McNamara.

In the podcast we covered topics like:

  • What it means to write an “anti self-help book”
  • Plurality and trauma
  • The intersections of psychology, gender non-conformity, and relationship structures outside the mainstream
  • The crucial and complicated nature of consent
  • Navigating the contradictions of academia and DIY media production

You can listen to the podcast here, and I’ve included the questions and answers I prepared in advance here as it contains a pretty good update on where I’m at and what I’m working on these days…

How would you like to introduce yourself, your ancestors, and your connection to place?

So many possible answers to this, and I note an initial grief response. It’s not easy for a white British person to feel great about their ancestry or connection to place with Brexit looming and attention on the ongoing horrific impact of colonisation and white supremacy. More personally I’m very connected to the legacy of intergenerational trauma at the moment in relation to mental health, so biological ancestors feel complex.

After sitting with it though I realise I do connect with ancestors in other ways, maybe like Armstead Maupin distinguishes between logical vs. biological family. Logical ancestors could be the queers, freaks and weirdos in the past who trod similar ground to me: the ‘creatively maladjusted misfits and changemakers’ as you so nicely put it on the website.

Also I’ve practised a version of Buddhism for the last 20 years, particularly following the teachings of Pema Chodron, and I’m aware she calls her lineage something like the messed up lineage because so many of the great teachers had terrible pasts and struggled immensely. There’s also a lot of what’s called ‘crazy wisdom’ in that lineage, and I like that connection to celebrating madness.

I do feel very connected to place as in nature – as followers of my Instagram will be aware. Moving recently to a place where the land meets the sea, and there are hills to walk in and nearby forests, means a lot to me.

How would I like to introduce myself – it’s an interesting one given I’m plural – something I know you covered on a recent podcast with Dick Schwartz. I’m a system of seven people and we collaborate to write books, podcast, serve our communities, and train others around mental health and collective care, as well as on gender, sex, and relationship diversity.

While we feel like the language of “mental health” is totally inadequate and misses so much of how people experience emotional distress in the world, we are using the term on this podcast so people can find us and have a sense of what movements we may be coming from. Can you speak a little to your own journeys with “mental health” and moving beyond that construct?

Absolutely, in a way it’s perhaps a reverse journey to the one many take. I trained in psychology and was lucky enough to be exposed to critical psychology understandings very early on. I then trained as an existential therapist which has big overlaps with the anti-psychiatry movement. My Buddhist approach would also be highly critical of dividing people into binaries of mad/sane, normal/abnormal, etc. I have colleagues who are very involved with mad pride and mad studies.

So from the start my own writing was always very informed by these perspectives: questioning of conventional diagnosis and treatment of mental health struggles, and locating struggles in oppressive systems and structures – and wider cultural messages – rather than in individuals.

However, in some ways I think I did focus ‘out there’ to some extent to avoid looking closer to home – particularly at the ways early child development shapes our suffering – because this felt like risky territory, and because so many of the approaches which take this view have such a poor history of individualising struggles and pathologising queer people.

I’m now finding the work of people like David Treleaven (who you also had on the show), Staci Haines, my co-author Alex Iantaffi, and others super helpful for bringing together social justice perspectives with the neurobiology of intergenerational, historical, and developmental trauma. Alex would definitely be another great person for the show as they do the Gender Stories podcast and are just publishing a book on gender as a form of trauma.

Personally there were severe mental health struggles present for grandparents on both sides of my family. Both were highly impacted by the second world war I suspect. The stigma around such difficulties, and attempts to eradicate ‘negative emotions’ in an attempt to avoid them, play a big role in my own mental health struggles. The labels I could apply – with caution of course – to myself would be developmental trauma, DID, and something like CFS (recognising the lack of clear separation between physical and mental health).

I’m also thinking a lot right now about moving towards what is often seen as ‘mad’ as being vital for transformation. For me the most helpful things have been moving towards experiencing all my feelings – especially the ones we’re most taught to hide or eradicate in our culture like shame; to embrace the experience myself as multiple people and hear all their voices; to talk to myself (the classic ‘first sign of madness’); and to go towards the most tormented and traumatised parts of myself with deep kindness.

What does it mean to you to write an “anti self-help book?”

I’ve said a bit about locating people’s struggles in wider systems and structures, and cultural messages, already. The first anti-self-help book I wrote was Rewriting the Rules which focuses on relationships. So it locates the struggles we experience in relationships largely in the cultural myths around love: that the best basis of a relationship is the experience falling in love, that romantic love is the most important kind of relationship, that we can expect to live happily ever after and have great sex till the end of time with our partner, that kind of thing!

Again drawing together trauma-informed and social justice perspectives – on the podcast I do with Justin Hancockthe Meg-John and Justin podcast – we now consider the ways in which neoliberal capitalism shapes our understandings and experiences of relationships, and how families pass such understandings and experiences on – as a kind of intergenerational trauma. So we learn ways of relating which hurt us and others. For example, yearning to get all our needs met in a romantic love relationship, struggling to have boundaries and to express our needs, being out of touch with our emotions and feelings, feeling that we have to hide parts of ourselves if we are to be loved, etc.

With Justin and Alex we’ve taken a similar approach to sex and to gender as well. Alex and I do a series How to Understand Your… (gender/sexuality/relationships) And I also do this graphic guide series with Jules Scheele – comic introductions to queer, gender, sexuality, and hopefully mental health and love in future – which take a similar approach.

How did you get into working at the intersection of psychology, gender non-conformity, and relationship structures outside the mainstream?

Again perhaps an unusual origin story for a mad queer person, but it started with trying very hard to conform to the norm. At university all I wanted was to find The One and settle down with him, be the woman behind the great man, be good for the other people in my life, become a therapist to help others, basically conform to heteronormativity and femininity. I only did a PhD because my partner was doing one and I didn’t know what else to do!

Over the course of my 20s I began to question what the norms of relationships, sex, and gender did to me. I increasingly felt how they impacted my mental health and definitely did not lead me to having good relationships, good sex, or a happy relationship with myself.

In my late 20s, after discovering feminism and social constructionism, I discovered the overlapping bi, polyamorous, and kink communities. Through those I explored different ways of doing sex and relationships, and later on gender. In also questioning some aspects of those ways of doing things I’ve got to where I am now – a plural, queer, trans, largely-solosexual relationship anarchist! And very much still a work in progress.

Can you tell us about how how you navigate the relationship between your work in academia and your production of DIY media like zines and your participation in queer and other subcultures?

I’m a recovering academic! I left academia last year because I was finally able to earn enough money from writing and related work and wanted to focus on creating more DIY type content for a general audience, and serving my communities in other ways.

There was certainly always a tension within academia between the way things were done there and who I was and the work I wanted to do, so it is a relief to now be self-employed. It is perhaps impossible not to internalise the toxic aspects of what is a neoliberal capitalist institution where you have to produce a great deal, hide vulnerability, and compete.

That said, academia gave me access to many of the ideas that influence my work – which I am passionate about making more accessible to all – and supported me to train as a therapist, and to focus on public engagement. I have huge gratitude for the feminist and queer psychologists who supported me on that journey in particular.

Can you tell us more about your work around biphobia, bisexual invisibility, and mental health?

Sure. Part of my work with the bi community was co-founding an organisation focused on bi research, and together we wrote The Bisexuality Report. One of the key findings of that was that bi people have worse mental health than both straight and gay people. This seems to be the result of biphobia and bi invisibility. Because of binary cultural understandings of sexuality, bi people are often assumed to be lying, going though a phase, confused, greedy, manipulative, etc. That stigma, and the fact their bi-ness is not believed so they often have to come out repeatedly or remain closeted, takes a toll. Also they are often rejected by both straight and queer communities, which can be extremely isolating.

Of course similar things are true for non-binary people who question the binary of man/woman, and sometimes also of cis/trans. This is what led Alex and I to write the book Life Isn’t Binary: exploring how our culture tends to binarise everything, and what we can learn from non-binary people of all kinds. We also tackle the mad/sane, rational/emotional, and positive/negative emotions binaries in there, for example.

The consent checklist: What conditions are necessary to have consent? In what kinds of situations is consent crucial and complicated? How did you get into doing work around consent?

The consent work I do is certainly motivated by being a survivor, and one who – like many – suffered both from the sexual assaults themselves, and from the cultural gaslighting around them which made it so hard – for years – to recognise them as such, and to get out from under the fog of minimising, denial, shame, and victim blame.

It also feels vital to me to link consent to all the other work I do. Most of the trauma people experience takes the form of non-consent, from physical, sexual, or emotional abuse at home and/or school, to forms of oppression where you learn that your body, life and labour is not valued as much as others.

Consent often focuses on sex, but many of our relationships, workplaces, and other institutions are deeply steeped in non-consent. So I’m all about trying to make everything more consensual, and recognising how incredibly hard that is.

I think of consent as ensuring that everyone involved in a relationship or interaction is free-enough and safe-enough to express their needs and desires, their limits and boundaries, knowing that they will be respected. This needs to be an ongoing, relational process, with awareness of the power imbalances and social scripts which make consent very hard – if not impossible.

It’s also about learning about how to be accountable, and to employ models of transformative justice, when consent violations occur, something I’m still learning a lot about.

We’re both IFS geeks and recently interviewed Dick Schwartz, the founder of IFS – based on your recent writings, it seems like you have a relationship to parts work. Can you tell us more about that?

You could say that! In the last 5 years I experienced myself increasingly vividly as 6 – then 7 – parts or selves. What began as an exploration into my gender and erotic fantasies, ended up as a much more clear sense of plurality, and now most of my work is informed by this, including writing many of my blog posts as dialogues between different parts. My lived experience during lockdown has not been of living alone, but of living in a family of 7 who have been getting to know each other much better!

I only came across IFS recently. Initially I was informed more by my dear friend Trevor Butt’s work in personal construct psychology, and then John Rowan and Mick Cooper in the UK, and Hal and Sidra Stone in the US, all of whom present versions of parts work as a useful therapeutic approach for everyone.

I’m fascinated that while one branch of psychology and psychiatry was dismissing ‘MPD’ as made-up between clients and therapists, and invested in making people singular again, another bunch of therapeutic approaches were suggesting that everyone could benefit from getting in touch with their inner children, inner critics, etc. as separate parts of themselves.

Lately plural communities have challenged the pathologisation involved in DID and embraced being plural systems, with many diverse experiences and understandings under that umbrella.

Can you tell us more about your investigations into plurality and trauma?

I’m aware there are plural folks and systems who find the link with trauma very helpful, and those who view it as another way of pathologising plurality and regarding it as ‘lesser’ than being singlet.

I find it helpful, but just as I’d say it is equally important for trans and cis people to examine their relationship to gender, I would suggest that it is helpful for systems and singlets to explore their relationship to trauma. In such a non-consensual culture do any of us escape trauma? Might it be that trauma is part of what leads some of us to fragment into plurality and some of us to cling on to a sense of being a singular self, when actually we are all complex and containing multitudes?

The book that brought it all together best for us is Janina Fisher’s Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors, which we have recently written over 15,000 words of blog post about! Fisher locates our various parts in trauma survival strategies, which certainly maps onto our inner experience. We have parts connected to fight, flight, freeze, fawn, attach.

Like many authors on developmental trauma and shame Fisher suggests cultivating parts who can take a more parental role, holding and hearing the traumatised parts, and bringing our systems to a point of earned secure attachments, and expanding our window of tolerance for difficult feelings, which has been a huge part of our work.

What current projects are you excited about?

A friend recently said that their vision of me during lockdown was that – as a prolific writer – I’d be holed away working on my masterpiece. After a moment of shame I realised they were quite right. For the first time in my life I’m not working on a writing project, but the project of inner work, deep trauma healing, spiritual practice, transformation, or whatever you want to call it.

It feels both personal and political to me though, because it is also intrinsically about how I can relate with others in more ethical, consensual ways, and about how I can engage with my work – and the wider world – the same. There’s a lot in plurality, I think, that echoes calls from intersectional feminists to look deeply at our own potentials to be both victims/survivors and oppressors/abusers, before we engage with others.

In terms of creative projects, Alex and I have our workbook on self/collective care coming out soon, and Jules and I our graphic guide to sexuality – both very exciting.

Alex and I are writing again together in October. Justin and I continue to create together. And Jules and I are collaborating with some others for a graphic guide on trans voice, and hopefully a further graphic guide on mental health in 2021/22. I think you’ll enjoy the fact that the creative theme we have for this one is superheroes and superpowers.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).