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Photo by Christiane Wilke, from the Apt613 flickr pool.

“Weirdos, freaks, and queers” helping each other survive in troubled times

By Lee Pepper on November 14, 2016

Everyone I know is really scared right now.

In the queer & trans communities I run in, we’ve all always known that there are a lot of people out there who don’t want us around. Following the American presidential election, though, that hatred feels legitimized, reinvigorated. And we’re feeling it. Many people I know are talking about how we can support one another, but the prospect can be daunting.

Photo courtesy of Carly Boyce.

Photo courtesy of Carly Boyce.

So I was excited to hear that Carly Boyce, a visiting workshop leader from Toronto, will be leading a workshop at Venus Envy called “Suicide intervention for weirdos, freaks and queers: Helping our friends who sometimes want to die maybe not die.”

It’s an introductory workshop open to anyone who wants to learn how to support people in their life who are suicidal, with an emphasis on communities for whom emergency mental health services might not be accessible or feel safe.

Many of us (even subconsciously) hold the idea that there is a hard line between healers and people who need healing, and it is just not true. We are all of us tender and broken, and that doesn’t mean we can’t hold space for other people’s pain.

Apt613 interviewed Carly Boyce by email. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Apt613: This is such a scary time, and everyone I know, especially more marginalized folks, are feeling so hopeless and terrified. This is a lot to ask, but do you have any thoughts on how we can support each other to survive right now?

Carly Boyce: Gosh. the world can be a super scary place, in some ways especially now, but also, like, always?

Living in it can be really painful, especially for folks who are marginalized. I know for me, when I’m struggling, what makes me feel like sticking around is possible is feeling connected. Sometimes that connection is about individual relationships, sometimes it’s about a larger sense of community, or it can be about having a meaningful role in working towards some kind of social change. Ideally, all three.

Three big and interconnected dangers that I see increasing folks’ danger of suicide are shame, stigma, and isolation. So my approach is about bringing more comfort and competence to conversations about suicide, which can have an impact on all of those factors. We can all work towards unpacking shame and stigma about suicide in ourselves and in our communities, and noticing and working on breaking isolation for ourselves and the people around us.

What do you see as the particular needs of “weirdos, freaks and queers” around mental health and suicide prevention, and can you talk about why you think it’s important for us to develop those skills within our communities?

It’s quite common for queers and weirdos seeking mainstream mental health care to feel like their identities and experiences aren’t represented, respected, or understood. Seeking professional help when you’re queer or trans can often look like laboriously providing education to your healthcare provider instead of getting the services you need. Lots of folks have given up on western medicine, on therapy, on social services, either because they have had really negative experiences, or because those things aren’t accessible to them. At worst those systems are outwardly violent towards us, pathologizing our identities and experiences, invalidating our lives and choices, taking away our autonomy, and violating our consent.

Keeping our people around is a long game, and so we need a lot of folks to be able to carry pieces of that.

I believe really deeply in peer based work, and that human connection can feed and heal us in so many ways. I believe in building capacity within communities so we can keep the people we love close to us, even when folks are sick or sad or hurting or harming.

People who are struggling with suicidal feelings, especially those who struggle in long term, ongoing ways, are actually experts at staying alive. They do it every minute of every day. We do a disservice to people who are struggling when we assume that they are delicate or without skills. Remembering that helps me de-escalate my own fears in conversations with people who are considering suicide.

How did you get started doing suicide intervention training?

Most of the training I’ve received about suicide took place in a peer based context. I spent seven years doing direct support with survivors of sexual violence through a student run sexual assault centre (SACOMSS) at McGill when I was in school there. For sure I had training that felt more relevant to my life and experiences there than in both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work.

In my last job (running peer based sexual health projects through Planned Parenthood Toronto), I did ASIST training as part of my professional development. I wanted to know if that program, the sort of gold standard suicide intervention training, was in line with my values, and if anything had changed in how suicide is formally approached since I had been trained last about a decade ago.

I don’t want to knock ASIST, I think the training they provide is really useful in lots of ways. But I found myself in that training thinking a lot about how I would be framing some of these issues and ideas if I were running it. My facilitator brain was running full speed, and I decided to pay attention to that. I asked some folks in my personal and professional life if they thought there would be value in a space for folks who provide informal suicide support to gather and share strategies, and for me to be holding that space, and everyone were super encouraging. I picked a date and booked a space, and when I put the event up on Facebook, it filled up in three hours. So I kept doing it.

I see that you’ve taught this workshop a bunch in various cities. I’m curious what you’ve learned through doing this work?

I’ve run this session about a dozen times now, mostly in Toronto, but also in Burlington, Peterborough, and Hamilton (and soon Ottawa!). I’m working on setting up workshops in London, Guelph, and Kitchener-Waterloo. It wasn’t a plan exactly. Word spread about the workshop, and folks in my communities reached out to me and asked me to come facilitate in their cities. I learn a great deal in every session and I feel really lucky to be able to benefit from the wisdom and experiences of so many amazing humans who show up and share generously with me and each other.

If I’m thinking about more big picture learning, there are a few things that stand out to me.

Firstly, that the workshop itself is an opportunity to have conversations about suicide that don’t feel like an emergency, and that in itself is a really helpful and reassuring experience for people to have.

Something else that’s emerged is that there is a lot of overlap between folks who give support and folks who need support around suicide. Many of us (even subconsciously) hold the idea that there is a hard line between healers and people who need healing, and it is just not true. We are all of us tender and broken, and that doesn’t mean we can’t hold space for other people’s pain. In some cases, it may actually help us connect to others who are struggling.

A third thing I am thinking a lot about is that there are very few spaces where folks can talk about complex grief relating to people they have lost to suicide, and that there is a need for that. In thinking about what is next for me in this work, I am wondering about how to structure workshops or other kinds of spaces for people to share that grief.

Carly Boyce’s workshop “Suicide Intervention for Weirdos, Freaks and Queers” will be held twice at Venus Envy, on Sunday December 4th, and again on Monday December 5th. Registration is on a sliding scale between $10-35, and you can register online at Venus Envy’s website