What are the pitfalls of “just trying to help”? Well-meaning people sometimes make things more complicated. And some systems ostensibly meant to “help” those in need cause more harm than good.
In this episode of YR’s Adult ISH podcast, host Nyge Turner explores good intentions gone wrong, and how that plays out in the trans experience in conversation with journalist Tuck Woodstock, host of the “Gender Reveal” podcast. Plus, disability justice activist Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkhulu helps unpack how our mental health “care” system can create unintended harm and trauma.
Adult ISH is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia. Be sure to follow all our socials @yrAdultISH!
Georgia: Hey, this is Adult ISH producer Georgia Wright. We’ll start the show in a second, but I wanted to give a heads up that this episode includes discussion of some tough mental health topics, including suicide. Please take care as you listen.
Nyge: Welcome to Adult ISH produced by Y-R Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX.
I’m your host Nyge Turner.
This episode circles a question that our whole team has been confronted with MANY times in our twenties: how do you actually help someone who’s struggling? Personally, I find it very difficult when I’m asked for help. Sometimes I end up helping, but sometimes I put too much of a burden on myself and cause way more harm than good. It can make me feel useless, like I don’t have the right tools to help the people I love.
So we decided to ask for — you guessed it — help! This episode, you’ll hear conversations with some trusted experts who weigh in on how we can show up for each other in tough times.
First, we spoke to journalist and educator Tuck Woodstock. He hosts a podcast called “Gender Reveal,” made by and about trans people. Tuck also consults with companies to make workplaces more trans-inclusive.
I asked Tuck, in their experience, how people trying to be allies can still cause harm.
Tuck: I think that it plays out on a micro level all the time because when cis people are trying to include trans people, they often end up working so hard to include them that it just completely alienates them. And so when I’m giving trainings for different companies, I have a whole slide that’s just basically saying, “if you mean women, say women.” And so, to that I’m like, you don’t need to say “women who identify as women” or “women-identified people” and you don’t have to spell women with an x, or a y, or a z or whatever. You don’t have to say “women and also trans women,” like you can just say women and then treat trans women like women and that’s inclusive. And then people will try to go the other way where they’re like “Oh, I said women but should I be including nonbinary people and trans men?” And it’s like no, because those aren’t women so you don’t need to include them under women. That’s misgendering. The little things that I see all the time when people run into a trans person and their brain just shuts down and they are like, “How do I…how do I talk to this person?” I’m like, you really just talk to people like you talk to anyone else. And trans people are very used to being spoken about in a way that isn’t ideal, and so we have a lot of forgiveness around people who don’t know what they’re saying. But when these people are so scared to say the wrong thing to trans people that they actually just avoid talking to or about trans people because they’re scared that if they talk to or about us at all, they will somehow get in trouble, that does a lot of harm to trans people because trans people end up not getting hired at jobs because people are so scared that they might do allyship wrong. That they just don’t want to have to talk to us at all. So that’s a lot of what I run into I feel.
Nyge: And then that in turn turns into them doing allyship wrong (Tuck: Exactly! Absolutely) By not including people.
Tuck: Yes 100%
Nyge: So you do this consulting work that’s very close to your identity. What is that like? The challenges, benefits, or the boundaries you have to build.
Tuck: Yeah, I mean it is exhausting. But I think in some ways it’s also really satisfying because I would be and I am talking about these things all the time whether or not I’m getting paid for it. And so I think a lot of trans people and people of other marginalized backgrounds are asked to do all of this unpaid labor where we’re trying to justify and explain our identity to other people and we’re trying to explain to other people that they should treat us as human beings and that we should have basic human rights. And this is all work we are doing all the time and are mostly not listened to or taken seriously and certainly not compensated for. And so it’s really nice to be doing that exact same work except for I’m positioned as the expert in the room and everyone has to listen to me. And I’m getting paid really well.
Nyge: What are some of the boundaries that you have to enforce when it comes to doing all this work?
Tuck: That’s a super good question. I have firm boundaries around talking about my own experience with gender, and especially my history unless it’s something that I specifically decide to bring up. But I’ve definitely had people in interviews mostly ask like, “When did you know you were trans?” Or, “What was your relationship like with your parents?” And I’m like “Oh, we’re not here to talk about that.” Or people will try to hire me to talk about like my own gender transition and I’m like “Oh no, I’m not here as like a token trans person. I’m here like as an educator talking about gender more broadly.” And so if I choose to volunteer something about my life, I can choose that for myself. But I’m not going to do it when I’m explicitly asked to. So I think that’s my biggest boundary. Is that I’m not here to talk about myself. I’m here to talk about – from the perspective of an expert, the general concept of being trans or talking about trans people. There have been times when people have asked a question and I’ve been overly defensive. And so, I would say I do a good job of having boundaries around myself. But I do a bad job protecting my emotional boundaries all the time … and sorta keeping my feelings in check when people are challenging the validity of trans people existing and I think that’s fine. I think it’s okay to be angry about that.
Nyge: Yeah. You would have to have such an unhuman-like level of composure to keep your cool under those situations. And so many people do. Which is – kudos to them, for sure. So based on my personal experience — and this is I guess dealing with race and dealing with allyship around race — I had an experience with me and my wife where we went to this jewelry shop like a couple of weeks ago. And this like woman comes up to my wife and she was like, “I love your hair… Is it yours?” And I was kinda thrown off at first. And my wife was thrown off. And she was like, “Wait, what?” And she was like, “No, is it yours?” And it’s like, my wife was super nice about it. But I wasn’t trying to be nice about it. But, I don’t know. You feel like you owe people a level of grace when they are trying to be an ally or when they are trying to give you a compliment or trying to be “nice.” But I’m kinda curious, do you actually owe people that grace who might cause harm in the name of allyship? Or just trying to be nice or anything like that?
Tuck: I mean, I don’t think so. I get told all the time that I need to be nicer to cis people. Which is so funny because the people that I do work with come back and say, “You were so gracious, you were so patient, you were so fun, you were so funny, you were so nice.” But I will make a joke on Twitter about how it’s fun to make a cis person uncomfortable in a training which I do think is useful because I think we learn the most when we are uncomfortable. And people will come in and say, “you need to give cis people all the patience in the world” or, “We need to explain that because we need to hold everyone’s hand in case they are confused.” And I don’t think that’s true either. And so I think that if people want to see themselves as allies, it’s important to be walking the walk of allyship and that includes not ever centering your feelings and not tone policing the people that you are purporting to be an ally of. And so, if you see yourself in allyship with trans people, then you can expect that trans people have better things to do than to hold your hand through every step of the process and it’s up to you to hold yourself accountable, to learning, to correcting mistakes when you make them. And if you’re doing that, then you will be seen as an ally.
But if you expect your hand to be held and your feelings to be centered and your feelings to really be coddled to cater to you, that’s not allyship. That’s just like asking for a nice little cookie from that community. And we’re out. We’re out of the cookies. We can’t offer anymore.
Nyge: Yeah. I feel like it will be felt — it’s probably felt too when people are making it about themselves or making, trying to make themselves feel like they are better people for including you in a discussion that you should have been included in in the first place.
Tuck: Right. Well how many times have we heard someone be like, “Well, I wanted to be an ally to trans people but then one trans person was mean to me, so now I’m not.” Or like “I wanted to be an ally to Black people but someone was mean to me and now I just have to be racist.” You know? That’s like – that’s not the only option!
Nyge: It is not. It definitely is not. Um, what advice would you give to people who have been harmed or people who have caused harm in the communities you work with?
Tuck: I mean, two different questions but people who have caused harm, I just think we should all be trying to improve, right? So when people are asking “What do I do if I mess up?” I really try to stress that all of us mess up and all of us make mistakes and I think that we should generally be giving people grace to mess up and I think that kind of goes against what I said earlier. So I want to clarify that I don’t think we need to like hold each others hands through messing up. And I don’t think we ever need to center the feelings of the person causing harm over the people who have been harmed. But I do think that there can be space in society to make mistakes and that certain sort of facets of communities that are harmed often — people from different marginalized communities — can become very sensitive — but that seems like a charged word, but just very activated by any sort of err because we are so used to microaggressions, to being harmed, that we become very sensitive to any type of, you know, perceived harm. And that makes so much sense. That’s like our bodies and our minds trying to protect ourselves and each other from what we are perceiving as a threat or harm or violence. So it makes so much sense. But I think working on giving everyone a little bit of grace to mess up can make us feel better when we mess up. Because we know that we’ve created a community in which making mistakes is a thing that happens. And what matters again is how we hold ourselves accountable and how we move on and learn from them. Sorry that’s a meandering answer but we got there!
Nyge: No, I love the comment you made about being sensitive but rightfully so. Because everyone is sensitive about certain topics. It really doesn’t matter who you are. If you recently lost a parent or anything like that and somebody brings that up, it’s gonna, you are going to be charged up about how you respond to whoever brought that up. I feel like it makes sense why anyone would be sensitive about any of these topics.
But I guess to ask you more directly, what advice would you give to someone who wants to initiate a conversation with people who have harmed them?
Tuck: So I would advise to stay firmly in your truth and do not let other people talk you out of the feelings that you are having. Because, again, your feelings are valid. If you feel hurt by something, there’s no way that someone else can talk you out of feeling hurt. That said, be thoughtful of what outcomes you are hoping to have out of the conversation. Would you like that person to stop doing whatever the behavior is? Would you like them to acknowledge that they understand why it is harmful? Would you like them to apologize to you? Would you like them to make amends some other way? Would you like them to take some space from you and stop contacting you until they can figure their stuff out? Really knowing what your asks are and your goals are going in can be helpful.
And then also, having someone that you can debrief with before and after so you can be like, “Am I valid in this feeling?” So they can be like, “Yes! That makes so much sense.” Because when you are in the room with someone, it is so easy to doubt yourself. Especially if you are from a marginalized background, it’s so easy to make yourself small. And to doubt you have any validity to being hurt by the way you were treated. And also giving the other person space to make things better if that’s an option that you are open to.
Because I know for me, really recently, I was really upset about the way I was treated. And went into a phone call expecting to maybe have to argue with someone. And that person was like “Everything you’re saying makes sense. And I totally agree. And I’m really sorry.” And I was like “Oh! Well, great.” And so I didn’t — I’m not going to be mad at them forever just because I decided I was mad at them. I can give them that: Okay you apologized and we’re done here and I think we’re all good now. So just being open to that. And also on the other hand acknowledging it might not turn out that well and if that’s the case, you have every right to walk away from the conversation and the situation whenever you need to.
Nyge: Do you have anything else you want to add on the topic of people causing harm in the name of allyship or anything like that?
Tuck: Yeah I would just say that I’m not inventing anything new here when I say that respectability politics doesn’t work. And so it is extremely fine to not be super sweet and kind and polite to people who are harming you while purporting to be allies. And we are not going to solve any of the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism etc in our country by just like being nice to the people who are harming us. That’s just never worked. And so, tone policing is not a you problem, it’s a them problem. They shouldn’t doing it to you. You have every right to be sad, to be mad, to be any feeling that you need to be. If you are in a situation like a work situation where you need to, you know, hold something in in order to keep your job and stay afloat, I totally understand that. I’m not advising people to just completely go off the handle in all circumstances. But I just want you to know in your heart that your feelings make a lot of sense and that you don’t need to be more worried about the feelings of the people that are harming you than about your own feelings.
Nyge: Thank you so much. This was amazing.
Tuck: Yes of course. I was so happy to talk to you. You had such good questions. I really appreciated how thoughtfully you were engaging with it.
Nyge: You can follow Tuck Woodstock on Twitter at @tuckwoodstock, and you can listen to Gender Reveal on the Apple Podcasts app or wherever else you get your podcasts.
Nyge: Before the break, you heard my conversation with Tuck Woodstock about the difficult subjects of help and harm. Tuck helped us explore these ideas from the perspective of a gender educator, but there are many other ways that these subjects show up in our lives too, like when we talk about mental health.
That’s why we turned to Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkhulu, the founding director of Project LETS. Project LETS uses peer support to reimagine what we know about mental illness and disability.
Stefanie identifies as a multiply disabled and neurodivergent person living with chronic illness, as well as a survivor of harm at the hands of our medical and mental healthcare systems.
They joined us to shed light on how we can best support those we love – even when they are dealing with situations that we may struggle to understand.
Stefanie: I have been doing this work for a long time. When I was a freshman in high school, I had lost a friend to suicide and really just saw the way that our community wasn’t prepared to deal with it. The people who were supposed to do like know how to deal with it, didn’t know what to do and did not want to talk about it because they were afraid of like legal repercussions, which we tend to see a lot that mental illness or suicide is like a liability. Disability becomes this like liability. And there’s a lot of like fears that get associated with that. That was a lot of what really got me started working on Project LETS.
Nyge: In this episode we’re discussing people who cause harm even when they’re trying to be a so-called ally. How has that played out in your experience being a disability advocate?
Stefanie: In so many ways! The first thing that I often talk about in work I do as an educator or facilitator is that, you know, help isn’t help if it’s not helping, right? We often have our versions of what support looks like or what care looks like, or what resources might be useful for us. And we have to recognize that that’s one perspective and one version. As somebody who has experienced trauma in the mental health system, many people will tell me to go to therapy to heal that trauma, and that might not be a safe place for me. You know, another example being that sometimes people really aren’t ready to fix or change something in their lives, but they do want to talk about it, right? Like they want someone to be present with them. And we can often show up with like love and care as like little problem-solvers who are trying to like, jump in and, you know, take care of somebody’s life in that way. And that’s not what’s wanted or that’s not what’s needed. I think we can have, like a lot of misses in the communication that we engage with when it comes to care.
You know, for me, as somebody who is an ambulatory wheelchair user, meaning that I can walk some of the time, I’ve had people who will come and like, push my wheelchair or just like, touch my wheelchair, and thinking that they’re trying to help. And, you know, for wheelchair users like that, mobility devices are like an extension of our bodies. And you know, you should not touch or engage with someone’s mobility device without consent. And sometimes people will get really offended, like, “Oh my God, like, I was only trying to help you.”
You know, that’s one end of the spectrum, and we can go to the other end of the spectrum with people who will call 9-1-1 for a so-called wellness check, right? Somebody is concerned about a friend or a loved one — thinks maybe they’re going to harm themselves, and they decide to call the police to go to their homes and do a wellness check.
These are incredibly dangerous. They are life threatening, particularly for Black folks, Indigenous folks, disabled folks, people who have been deemed to be inherently dangerous, those who cannot control the movements of their bodies or follow demands, or maybe someone who is deaf and can’t hear demands that an officer is making.
So, you know, I think that it comes down to, um, you know, what are the ways that we are invoking our own beliefs around what’s helpful? How do we often kind of take actions without consent? And really, what are the ways that we can build more space to ask questions, right? To get to know somebody’s preferences before we make assumptions about what care looks like.
Nyge: What were the core values and principles of peer support?
Stefanie: Yeah. Um, just like a basic example, right? Let’s say like a friend reaches out to you and is like, “Hey, like, I’m feeling really depressed.” I think a lot of us have, like, would start to panic in that moment. Or, you know, if we’re in the mental health system, we might be trained, like the next question to be like, “What, are you going to kill yourself? Like, are you suicidal?”
And I think with peer support, so much of the beauty of it is like we can breathe for a minute. Because I can tap into moments where I have said I’ve been depressed or felt that way. And I know that that does not inherently mean that, like, I’m at the point where I want to kill myself. Those two things are not necessarily connected. So, you know, what would it look like in a conversation if we could respond not with like, “Are you going to kill yourself?” But with, you know, “Thanks for sharing that. Do you want to talk to me about what’s been feeling so difficult lately, like what’s been feeling so heavy lately?” And I think, you know, that’s a core value of peer support. Actually just moving towards a place of exploring what is happening, rather than like trying to locate what is wrong with this person and focusing so much on like the solution.
This might be the first time that like someone has ever opened up about something and we don’t need to like rush. I think with peer support as well, we’re really trying to like minimize, you know, those power dynamics that show up in a therapeutic space. Like, the mental health provider is the expert and you are here as like the sick person who, you know, needs to get information from this person, right? It’s more about a relationship. We have an understanding that healing happens in community, in relationship. There are maybe times where the person who’s providing peer support might need peer support and like, that’s totally OK.
Nyge: How do you not put all of the responsibility on yourself when you’re in those types of situations? Like I’ve had instances personally where people have reached out and I just put it all on myself like, I feel like now I am responsible for you. Now I need to make sure like I’m checking in like all the time. I need to be … and then if something goes wrong or something doesn’t like happen or whatever, I feel like it’s my fault.
Stefanie: Yeah, really. Good question. You know, I think the first one is that we need to have an awareness and an understanding of what our boundaries and our capacity is. And I know that gets thrown out all the time, and it’s kind of like lost meaning for people like: what are even boundaries? But I am talking about, you know, becoming very clear on what you can offer in specific and tangible ways. Like I have been, you know, someone who has said, “Let me know if you need anything.” Right? How many times have we all said that: “Let me know if you need anything.” And then somebody like, asks for something and I’m like, “Oh my God, they’re like, they’re breaking my boundaries.” And I’ve had — I have like an internal sense. Or, you know, many of us only know like something doesn’t feel good anymore like when it doesn’t it feel good. We don’t actively, proactively know like what we want in order to create like healthy containers.
And I think like we need to be clear with ourselves. Like, are we communicating with other people like what we’re able to do? Are we saying we can do everything and then when someone asks for everything, we’re like, “Oh my goodness, how could you do that to me?” And I think the other thing is we tend to like as a culture, do this thing where we like totally overcommit and then we just drop out. So much better to say. “Like, listen, this is where I’m at, right? Right now, I can send you money, I can order you a meal. I can have like a one-hour conversation with you tomorrow. I can see you on this day, right? Do any of those offers feel really good to you?”
The other one is like, who else can we bring into a situation with consent? Because what happens is somebody feels like I’m holding this whole thing and then it gets to a point where they’re like, “I have to reach out to someone else.” And we often, like, violate someone’s consent when it can be much better to just straightforward say, like, “Hey, like, I can’t hold this whole thing with you. I don’t feel like I’m able to provide the best support. I’m dealing with so much right now. Is there anyone else we can bring into this that we can add to a care team, right?” Like normalizing the fact that care cannot all live within one person. And even with the like, my fault, right? Like, we can’t save people. We can not save anyone.
When people come to me with something, I’m like, that’s an offering. That’s a gift. I have lost a lot of people. I’ve lost people that I’ve supported. I’ve lost friends. It’s a horrific feeling. And to be in supporting others of like who go and sit and like the, you know, “What didn’t I notice? What could I have picked up on?” It’s it’s so many things, right? It’s so many different points. (Nyge: Yeah.) And we actually take people’s autonomy and power away from them when we think that like we can save them. (Nyge: Hmm. Yeah.)
So yeah, it’s an interesting thing there, but I really appreciate the question you’re asking. And the last thing I will just say briefly is that like, we are always, always, always like in need of continual healing for ourselves, especially like people who are in positions of providing care and healing for others. There is no like, “I’m good, I can support everyone and I’m good.” We all need to find the places that we have to do our own healing still.
Nyge: What advice can you give listeners who have someone or have someone they love that is experiencing a mental health crisis?
Stefanie: Whoah. Yeah, the first one would be to not panic. To try and ground and center yourself and to get support for yourself in the ways that you can. Because so often I find that the person who is supporting the person that they think is in crisis, they’re actually in crisis, right? And you know, there’s like two crises that we’re trying to deal with there.
Are you able to like engage in this situation right now? Are you the person for the situation? Really figuring out: is it a crisis, right? And I know that sounds really basic. But for example, folks might be tweeting about a particular emotion and then you might assume something based on a tweet, right? Can we check in with someone? Can we clarify what’s happening?
If someone’s like making like vague statements saying something like, “Hey, like, are we talking about suicide here? Or are you thinking of killing yourself?” — directly rather than like making that determination and then like going to get some version of help for this person. Actively trying to partner with this person throughout every step of the process. Asking questions is critical. Bringing in folks that you know that this person trusts and has a good relationship with is also really, really important.
Like some basic tips that tend to be useful oftentimes like a lack of sleep, a lack of like meeting basic needs can be a huge contributor to crisis situations. So trying to create like a safer space, like a sanctuary where someone can, you know, not have to like deal with like bright lights and loud noises, can get food, water, rest. Considering that like drugs or medicine may be involved in a mental health crisis can be helpful. And again, like really checking our own fears and assumptions around safety, around danger and support. I have seen people practice such amazing care in community. Like setting up rotating shifts for someone who didn’t feel safe, rather than like making the determination that someone needed to go to the hospital.
And the same thing for someone who might be experiencing like what we may call psychosis or altered states. Like if someone is saying something to you that you don’t understand, there are folks in community who do work grounded in like a hearing voices framework that don’t automatically say, like, “it’s a crisis to hear voices,” who can work with someone to engage them and say, like, “Hey, what’s happening here? What are you hearing, right? Like, what’s going on for you?”
So building our toolkits around what options and resources are actually available because most of us don’t know outside of like calling 9-1-1, right? We just don’t know what’s available. So I really encourage folks to take some time digging into like what resources exist around me, what exists virtually, look for things that are created and led by people who have lived experience, who are directly impacted, like Project LETS, like the Fireweed Collective, are some organizations. Sins Invalid, Heard are some organizations that are really doing critical work to keep people safer in community.
Nyge: This is a really big question. But in your wildest dreams, how would you change the way our society cares for one another in times of crisis, especially mental health crises?
Stefanie: You know, I want to say that like, it’s less about learning and more about unlearning. Like, we need to go backwards. Because we actually, like historically have known the ways to take care of each other in community prior to all the very violent forces of capitalism and white supremacy that have eroded our ways of being in relationship with each other, right?
And there are still many Indigenous communities and cultures who still practice that type of like collective living and collective care. And I’ve had the privilege and honor of working with and studying alongside and being like a patient of many healing practices, not just in the US. And I think some of the things that actually already exist that we need to like, re-remember and rebuild out is like people need space to be like free to have like freedom of body movement to like, be loud, to like, cry or scream. And, you know, we need to build opportunities for that to happen. I’ve seen that be incredibly useful. We can build like cooperative living spaces for folks who have, like higher support needs, right? Disabled folks who are labeled like low-functioning, who are more interdependent on others for their care. Prior to the invention of nursing homes, like elderly folks lived in, you know, with families and died at home.
Yeah, so my future is one where we can all access the care we want and need. Medication. Things are accessible to us without having to be, you know, labeled or told that there’s something wrong with us. That we can perform really whole care with each other without the boundaries and borders of the systems that we have been placed within.
Nyge: Something that stuck out to me from these conversations was that we need to let our loved ones know specifically what we are able and willing to do to help. That way we are being transparent with people about everything we are capable of, instead of falling short because we bit off more than we could chew.
Also, do the research and put in real work to fight for the communities you care about. Allyship shouldn’t be a merit badge that you seek, it’s a daily practice of genuine love, listening, and respect for other people.
Nyge: Adult ISH is produced by Y-R Media, a national network of young journalists and artists creating content for this generation. Our show is produced by Georgia Wright, Dominique French, and by me, ya boiii Nyge Turner.
Our executive producer is Rebecca Martin.
If you or someone you know needs support, there are resources available. To access more resources on peer mental health support, you can visit projectlets.org, which has a ton of helpful links and guides on some of the subjects we discussed today. You can also call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or call 1-800-662-HELP for non-urgent information about mental health and substance abuse.
Original music for this episode created by these young musicians at YR:
Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, and Jacob Armenta.
Music direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler.
Art for this episode by Brigido Bautista. Art direction by Marjerrie Masicat. Creative direction by Pedro Vega, Jr
Special thanks to Eli Arbreton.
We are also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX…(pause)…an independent listener-supported collective of some of the most amazing shows in all of podcasting. Find them at Radiotopia.fm. And if you haven’t reviewed our show on Apple podcasts, please be sure to do so. Five stars is much appreciated.
You can follow us on all the socials @yradultish and on that note, we will see y’all later.