Preserving Your Joy When Studies Hit Close to Home

by Kate Ellis

Being autistic and non-binary is a core part of my identity. This is probably why it bewildered many of my loved ones when, for my undergraduate honours thesis, I chose to spend a year critically analyzing materials that suggested trans autistic people did not exist.

This is something that many of us encounter during our studies, whether in a formal institution or not. Many of us take classes that focus on social justice, take it upon ourselves to learn more about systemic violence, and form book clubs around urgent political issues. And it makes sense why we do this: we want to change something, to make the world better for people like us or for those with whom we stand in solidarity.

But at the end of the day, this work will always be particularly taxing when we are dealing with people and systems who hate us simply for existing. Reading over and over again that I did not have the capacity to understand gender and that I was a victim of “trans ideology” was deeply taxing. It made me question myself constantly, leading me to worry that these people were right. I found myself falling into a mindset of the internalized ableism and homophobia that I have been working so hard to interrogate. And yet, my work was still deeply important to me, and I didn’t want to stop.

We often hear about the importance of protecting ourselves so that we are able to keep doing our work. This is a symptom of a capitalist machine that demands we keep contributing to society, that we keep producing. To me, that’s not what’s important. We need to preserve our joy simply to survive and enjoy our lives. 

I gradually learned to prioritize self-care throughout my thesis work. Self-care is a term that has become deeply monetized, conjuring up an image of girlboss feminism and bath bomb sales. This is not the kind of self-care to which I am referring. Rather, I intentionally showed up for myself over the course of the past year. For me, this could look like:

  • Setting time limits for working periods and making sure that I took frequent breaks
  • Consuming media that affirmed my queer, autistic identity, such as books, podcasts, and videos made by queer autistic people
  • Debriefing with my supervisor and peers when dealing with particularly difficult topics
  • Spending time with friends and family where I did not think or talk about my research
  • Prioritizing my basic needs, like food, hygiene, and rest, over my thesis work

Making these acts of care a priority is not always easy for me. This is especially true as my autism causes me to get sucked into certain topics to the point of obsession. This is where my community came in. We live in an individualistic society that urges us to think about only ourselves, to only work towards our own goals and to preserve our own joy. But in doing this, we leave each other behind and abandon our own happiness. Having a care network is a radical act and one that I would have not gotten through the last year without. My community, consisting of family, friends, peers, and coworkers, often showed up for me not only as emotional support, but also as practical support, bringing me meals, editing papers, and helping me clean my unruly bedroom. And it’s given me great joy to return these favours.

I am only one person, with one experience. I cannot write a comprehensive manual on how to preserve ourselves when dealing with topics so deeply personal to us. However, I just wanted to share my experience in the hope of resonating with others. 

If you are interested in this topic, I recommend the following resources:

“Cripping The Resistance: No Revolution Without Us” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha: 

The Nap Ministry: 

The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence by The Care Collective: