Trigger warnings for mentions of ableism, suicidality, self harm, abuse

Your disbelief cures nothing. 

Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis

Nowadays, we are all more or less familiar with the trope of the crazy woman. I have written about it before, and will undoubtedly do so again. “Crazy” is a cultural phenomenon that linguistically fuses the erasure of abuse narratives, the infantilization of women, the latent anxieties and misconceptions surrounding mental illness, and a whole host of similarly unpleasant tenets of Western thought. “Crazy” is a word that exonerates its user. Call a woman crazy, and you do not have to explain your treatment of her. You do not have to give a reason for why a once-meaningful relationship fell apart. You do not even have to acknowledge her account of the hundreds of ways in which you treated her like shit.

But the communities with the largest penchant for formulating trenchant (if occasionally slightly self-righteous) critiques of the ableism and misogyny inherent within the use of the word “crazy” are also, more often than not, precipitating their own form of this rhetoric. We tend to perceive ourselves as subversive, radical, and painstakingly careful in our applications of language, but in my communities–feminist communities, queer communities, trans communities, disabled communities, academic communities, and so forth–when we do not say that a person is “crazy,” we say instead that he, she, they are “toxic.” And that really is not much better.

I will try to make this unmistakably plain: I am not arguing, would never argue, that toxicity does not exist, or that anyone is under any obligation to accommodate toxic or abusive people. Toxicity is everywhere, all of the time. This is something that I understand far better than I would like to–believe me. I knew someone who routinely left unmistakable evidence of their self harm on my bedding and on the floor of my room. I had a girlfriend who routinely threatened suicide. I had a childhood that I still cannot fully remember or talk about. I know how bad toxicity can get. I know how agonizing–indeed, traumatizing–it is to lay down boundaries and enact separation from people you love because their behavior has gone so far beyond what you are capable of coping with. Time and again, I have been there. I know how important it is to be able to get out, to save yourself. I am not criticizing that. How could I?

What I am criticizing, though, is the strategic and contrived use of “toxic” as a modern analogy for “crazy”; that is, as a short-hand term used for deflecting awkward questions. Colloquially, “toxic” almost always implies a kind of mutual trauma, which makes people less likely to criticize your actions. This can be extraordinarily helpful if the person(s) in question really is/are toxic, and their actions really have resulted in traumatic experience. But if you use accuse someone of being toxic as an easier way of saying,  “I had been worried about us for a while, but was too afraid to confront him about it”; or, “I was unable to cope with her mental illness in addition to my own and thought we could both benefit from distance”; or, “They asked for support and I didn’t feel willing or capable of giving that to them”–then things start to become difficult.

First, and perhaps most obviously, this casual application of the word “toxic” makes it nearly impossible for survivors of abusive or mutually destructive relationships to adequately describe their experiences or identify their abusers without becoming lost in translation. And when you bring questions of preceding traumas and (dis)abilities into the picture, the term can become violent. Because if you slap the label of “toxic” on a human being, and fail to properly address their status as disabled, traumatized, or a survivor of abuse, then you become complicit in the incredibly harmful social practice of construing certain trauma or disability based behaviors as ‘choices’ or indicators of our failing health, when they are in fact permanent symptoms of conditions or traumas, and need to be recognized as such. 

It is absolutely possible to reproduce patterns of oppression even as we seek to eschew them—oftentimes we share the very facets of identity that we reject or marginalize in others.  A persons’ pre-existing disabilities must never be subsumed by a projection/displacement narrative in which trauma and disability related behaviors are only considered in their cultural reframing as ‘trigger points’ for other people (yes, even if said other people are themselves coping with traumas or disabilities).

For instance: if dissociative or spectrum-based behaviors make you inherently uncomfortable—so uncomfortable that you endorse, defend, or participate in acts of alienation and aggression towards an individual on the basis of their having demonstrated dissociative behaviors–then even if you suffer from similar issues, and even if these behaviors upset you, you still need to critically consider your own attitude towards people on the autistic spectrum, people with post traumatic stress disorder, people with dissociative identity disorder, and so forth. You need to hold yourself accountable. You need to take a long, hard look at the impact you are having, and the priorities you hold.

If you have ever considered, even for an instant, using someone’s own disability or mental illness against them in order to make your treatment of them seem more credible, then you are a part of the problem.

The thing about radical, empathetic communities is that they do not work properly without humility, mutual respect, and basic compassion. Having your own history or trauma or disability does not give anyone a free pass to weaponize ableist structures for the purpose of treating other disabled people like shit when it seems more convenient. That goes double for anyone who claims the label of ‘ally’ in a marginalized community. Because whatever effect someone’s disability may have on the people around them, the one who suffers the most from being disabled is always the person experiencing it.

To pretend as though certain conditions associated with trauma and (dis)ability are somehow innately toxic is reductive, violent, and inhumane. That kind of thinking prioritizes certain forms of trauma over others, and comes dangerously close to suggesting that certain kinds of people (or people with certain disabilities) are inherently unhealthy, and our marginalization justified.

If you ever find yourself in a community where exclusionary, abusive or ableist practices are considered defensible because your disabilities are visible, or the effects of your own conditions are somehow only significant insofar as they affect someone other than yourself, then the best thing you can do is recognize this for exactly what it is: vicious, toxic thinking that you do not need to put up with. Cut it out of your life. Protect the people you love from it. Do whatever you can to avoid replicating it yourself.

I have had the immense privilege, over the past two terms, of finding myself in communities where I am surrounded every day by extraordinary people who work their asses off to fight internalized forms of discrimination, and do everything in their power to protect me from the people who have attempted to use my disabilities against me in the past. But not everyone is so lucky: it honestly makes me sick, and sad, to consider what it must feel like to have to face this world, or this culture, or this university, alone as a disabled or traumatized person.

At the end of the day, there are a million and one appropriate ways to use the word “toxic,” and one decidedly inappropriate way of using it. So the next time you find yourself excusing your treatment (or someone else’s treatment) of a disabled person by labelling the latter as ‘toxic,’ just take a moment to check with yourself that you really do mean toxic. Double check that you are not just using toxic as a broad, deflective, misleading buzzword, to avoid saying “he/she/they are living with a disability and/or mental illness, which I don’t want to properly acknowledge in this conversation because that’s more effort than I am willing to expend: so instead I’ll rely upon known evidence of his/her/their disabilities, and the internalized cultural view of disabled people as sub-human, and leave the rest unacknowledged, because my own convenience takes priority.”

If the answer is ‘no,’ and you really mean toxic, then by all means speak on. If the answer is ‘yes,’ or ‘maybe,’ or ‘a little,’ or ‘I’m not sure,’ then pick a new goddamn word.