“A Sort of ‘No’ Feeling", by Clay AD and Leah Clements
Video description: conversation between Clay AD and Leah Clements
Access Info + Content Warnings
The discussion refers to dissociation, gender dysphoria, chronic pain, medical gaslighting, and to trauma in a general sense.
Leah’s film ‘Collapse’ refers briefly to an armed robbery.
Talk in English with English subtitles.
Transcription (edited for clarity)
LC: Maybe we should introduce ourselves, and then talk about how we know one another?
CAD: Yeah that sounds good.
LC: Ok, so, my name is Leah Clements, I am an artist, I live in London, which is where I was born and where I grew up. And I work in a lot of different media, mostly film and performance, but also other kinds of things that involve long-term research projects, and gathering groups of people to do workshops and things. It might last a day, or a year or more in some cases. And also more and more writing recently, actually. And I tend to focus on specific personal experiences that are often a combination of my own experiences and those of other people. Often it’s something that I have experienced personally, and then find other people who also have. And it’s usually something that is hard to articulate verbally, and often has a relationship between what you would think of as a distinction between physical and psychological and those not being quite so distinct.
And I’ve also for the last few years being doing a lot of work around sickness/cripness/disability, I am disabled and identify as crip, and that’s meant speaking more and more to other people who identify that way and also intersectional conversations, and people you meet along the way because of that. And doing practical work around that as well. I, with Lizzy Rose who’s an artist, and Alice Hattrick who’s a writer, set up an online resource for disabled artists called Access Docs for Artists, which helps, um, which offers a guide and information on what an access doc is and how to make one. An access doc is a document that lists your access needs that you can share with an institution like a gallery when you start working with them. Yeah.
CAD: Cool yeah, I’m Clay, and I’m living in Berlin right now I’ve been here for four years, I’m originally from Indianapolis, Indiana, and also I’ve lived in New York. And I do a few different things, one of the things I’ve been focusing on in the last couple of years is training to be a somatic bodyworker, so that means I typically work one-on-one with people, talking, touching, working through issues that are going on with them. I’m also an artist and a writer, so I’ve been doing more writing these days, but also involved in art collectives.
I’m in a group here in Berlin called Sickness Affinity Group, and it’s a combination of people who identify as sick, and disabled or crip, artists who are working around topics of health, and also people who are healthcare workers or care workers, and we basically just function as a support group. So we come together once every two months, and we just try to support each other in varied ways, we do a lot of talking in those meetings I would say. And then outside of those meetings some of the group members work on different projects together. In my own practice recently I made a guide, an audio guide that’s sort of like a workshop that you can do at home, with your friends, about gender dysphoria. So basically, trying to think about that through a somatics lens with my friend Rusti who is also a somatic practitioner in Philadelphia. And that is out through this platform called ‘Heavy Heavy Breathing’, and you can listen to it for free.
I guess the reason I know you, Leah, is because of a book that I put out, and was reading from that, and then met you doing that. And so that’s also been part of a lot my practice recently I guess, is sharing the reading from that book, which is a science fiction about...basically just my own experiences of chronic illness, and dealing with the medical system, but kind of set in this scifi world with clones and evil doctors, corporations and stuff, that felt kind of fantastical at that point, but also was a pretty direct translation of experiences that I had had, and other friends have had. That book is called 'Metabolize, If Able'. It’s just been nice to read and share from that because I think it’s brought me into a community with a lot of people, like you.
LC: Yeah, and I’d really like, if we have time, to talk a bit more in-depth about that particular book later.
So you had a book launch which was organised by Arcadia Missa, in London, and Ruth Pilston who is the head of publishing for Arcadia Missa invited me to speak at that event. But we actually have a lot of friends in common anyway, particularly Romily Alice Walden who is a wonderful artist and everyone should look up.
CAD: I’m living with them right now!
LC: Yeah. And, I mean that’s felt more and more the case for me, of encountering people - there seems to be an expanding kind of, fairly international group of people who are in touch, and in a wider sort of support network, mostly in the US, the UK and Germany. And then I thought maybe we should talk about the title of this.
CAD: ‘A sort of ‘no’ feeling’
LC: Yeah, because I think it’s something you said in the guide that you did with Rusti that I listened to, which is wonderful and everyone should look at. I’ll let you give that context, but you, during the process of describing something you used this phrase ‘A sort of ‘no’ feeling’ and it really stuck with me. And it applied a lot to what we had been talking about recently.
CAD: Totally. So I think in general a lot of our conversation has revolved around dissociation in some kind of way. That’s one of the things that Rusti and I ended up talking about a lot as part of gender dysphoria, is experiencing dissociation. I think we as somatic practitioners working with people who experience gender dysphoria and also experiencing it ourselves, were interested in the physical sensations of dysphoria, and sort of pushing, within our collaboration together, feeling safe in some way to explore that. Which was interesting. But I think it happened when I was trying to do some physical sensation exploration of when dysphoria was coming up, trying to go into it a bit deeper and having this physical ‘no’ sensation from my body of ‘don’t go there’. And I guess that was an interesting moment, of a feeling which I’d experienced for a long time in different ways, of becoming able to articulate it from doing that exercise. And I think also with this sort of ‘no’ concept I think also we were talking a lot about - you and me, we were talking about this book by Gabor Maté called 'When the Body Says No'.
He’s a doctor who I think is retired now, from Canada, working in Vancouver. He worked a lot with drug addiction and also palliative care, and his process in that book is trying to connect disease, and chronic disease, to childhood experiences and emotions. One of his theories in 'he body says no' is talking about how the body will express ‘no’ for itself, even when the person who is also that body is not maybe allowing that ‘no’ to happen in their lives. And he sees that correlated with illness. Which has been a really interesting book to read as a person with a chronic illness.
LC: Yeah. I should say, I find it quite a complicated network of things, thinking about chronic illness and the body and emotions and how all those things connect. Because my chronic illness which is called M.E. has a really long history of being misdiagnosed, wrongfully diagnosed as hysteria, and various other ways of saying that it’s mental illness, or psychological, I mean that’s still the case. Generally you get told you’re depressed and put on antidepressants, still, because they don’t know how to treat it. So for me, it’s an important distinction to say it is a physical illness, and that’s what it is. Because people are still, including myself, put through this medical narrative, where mental illness is used as a way of diagnosing a physical illness, and that can place the blame back on the individual
LC: Like you’re not doing enough. But embodied emotions has been something that’s been really key in my life and my work as well. And I can think of some really strong occasions where that’s been incredibly obvious. When I was about ten I had an argument with my sister and my cousin, and I don’t even know what it was over, and they made me so furious, but I knew I’d get in trouble if I hit them. I really wanted to hit them! So I stomped off back to my Nana’s house because that’s where we were, and just vomited. Immediately, and I was so sick for about a week! I couldn’t move, couldn’t get out of bed. It was such a concentrated repressed rage that just went bleh! In such a clear way.
CAD: That’s an amazing example!
LC: Yeah! And dissociation is something that comes up a lot for me, because I have chronic pain. I have a complicated relationship with it, it’s not as straightforward as I have chronic pain, therefore the dissociation steps in. It’s other stuff too, but that’s been a large part of where it has come in more recently, in recent years for me. And what I found really interesting and unusual about your meditation that you made with Rusti, and I mean obviously I want to talk about the one that’s posted here as part of this, but in particular when I listened to the one you did with Rusti was the acknowledgement and understanding of dissociation being a kind of protection. Because I think that in a lot of meditations, guides, or in a yoga class for example, there can be decisions that are made beforehand, and pre-assumptions made by the person leading that something like dissociation is a necessarily bad thing that should be overcome immediately.
CAD: For sure.
LC: That you should just be in your body, no questions asked, and you just have to connect with it. Without any acknowledgement that that could be a really difficult thing to do. And I felt that that was really different and usual in what you were doing, that there was totally an acknowledgement of - you might not have to, you might not need to, it might not be the best thing for you right now, but let’s work out how much you can, and how you can do that.
CAD: Yeah. I think it’s maybe also this sensitivity coming from working one-on-one with people, and just seeing that the capacity and experiences of people are so variable, and something that one person’s really comfortable with will be someone else’s worst nightmare you know? So I think those kinds of assumptions can be really upsetting for people. And then I think that there’s the other difficulty that if you’re making a guide or something, even if you’re teaching a workshop with many different people, how do you use language to make the sort of range of possibilities feel able to enter those possibilities I guess. And not just assume that dissociation is a bad thing for someone. Because it might be the right choice, or it might be where that person’s at at that moment.
CAD: I think I’ve learned so much from other somatic practitioners, even just on social media, talking about this, because I think there’s a lot of work being done around how coping mechanisms are ingrained in our body from experiences of trauma, and just what working with them somatically actually looks like and means. And it looks really different for everybody. I think that’s what I’m articulating, or realising.
LC: Yeah. And we’ve got this guide that you’ve made for this, to go alongside this conversation, but do you think you could just through a bit what somatic work you do? And what that looks like generally?
CAD: Totally. Yeah so I studied here in Berlin at a school called The Pantarei Approach, and I’ve been a dancer for the last seven years, and I’ve also been doing a lot of my own work with meditation and breathwork so kind of smooshing those things together. Basically in a session it’s about essentially finding out what’s drawing the person to this work, and finding out a bit about the history and what’s going on, and that’s happening all just through conversation. Like we could do that now, together. I haven’t started to try to work again but generally, we’ve entered this different moment of somatic work so I don’t even know how it would work right now, for example. Because the way I was taught was body-based and touch-based, so someone would then get on a massage table. And it really depends on what they bring in, but then some kind of touch would start happening. I would keep talking to the person, it’s a lot about, especially at the beginning, finding what kind of relationship exists between that person who’s there and their own body, and the kind of language and connections that they feel and the sensations. And sometimes it seems like very basic things like asking people to feel, or if they don’t want, to, asking where they can feel, that they might have a more strong connection to. Working with the breath. It can be quite physical like that, and it can also be very deep. I would say deep in more of a lot of emotions and memories coming up. So it just depends who’s there and what is happening.
LC: There really is that sense in even listening to the recordings, where you’re obviously not present in the room but there’s still kind of a sense of it being so responsive and particular to the individual. Like the one that’s ‘Connecting to the ‘no’ within’ which has been made to go alongside this, which I listened to yesterday and loved, there is a lot of breathwork in it which I can’t do, but you set out at the beginning, just don’t do it! You say it more delicately than that, more gently than that, but it’s just this offering of alternatives to what you might do otherwise. And even just acknowledging that you might not be able to makes such a difference I think.
CAD: Yeah. Moving back to what you were talking about in terms of your experience with M.E. and also the history of that disease particularly of not being believed and having narratives overwritten by authorities, It feels really important for me to centre that kind of work around just trusting that the person knows what they need, and that they’ll do what they need to do. It’s also why I don’t really call myself a ‘healer’. And I have a complicated relationship to that title. Just because I think as a sick person having so many experiences of not being believed by doctors or other medical professionals, or having a lot of disbelief with myself, like arguments in my own head about what I’m feeling and this kind of thing, I think trying to facilitate spaces where people can strengthen that part of themselves to believe that they’re feeling their bodies and that whatever’s coming up is what’s coming up. That feels very important to me.
LC: Definitely. And maybe that’s a good point for us to talk about Cartesian dualism? Just in the context of the medical model, and medical authoritarianism over the body and mind, and the separation of that. I know that’s something you’ve particularly been looking at so maybe I’ll let you talk about it if that’s ok?
CAD: Yeah that’s totally fine. I mean I also just think that this image is very funny (referring to their background image). It’s kind of beautiful but also when you just know the history of violence that’s been extracted from this image, it’s just like - what? The soul is that weird little pear thing, ok? Maybe I’ll change my background in a second too, because I think there’s so many other models that exist, and also are being researched right now that offer very different perspectives about what the body is.
I’m reading this book now that I sent to you, by Staci Haines, it’s called 'The Politics of Trauma’. She helps start this somatics, called “generative somatics” in the States, that is a very politicised somatics education, and they do a lot with movement groups and also how to use somatics inside of organising to make the organising stronger. I think she talks about this mind/body separation in a good way and I’m just going to read a quote from her because I feel like she says it much better than I can:
‘In the West we've inherited a deeply rationalistic and objectifying view of the body and therefore also of ourselves and each other. The body is seen as muscles, tissues, sinews, bones, and a series of functions that move the mind of the self around.’
So this separation of ourselves I think also allows this dismissal of our lived reality and also this disbelieving in our body in a really harmful way, I think.
LC: Definitely. And, I wanted to quote from that book too. She says:
'Most psychological and somatic approaches focus on individual healing and do not integrate a social analysis into their understanding of how we are shaped and what needs changing. This is a limitation that I propose perpetuates the oppression and trauma we're trying to heal.'
And then goes on to say:
'Somatics understands both the individual and collective as a combination of biological, evolutionary, emotional, and psychological aspects, shaped by social and historical norms and adapted to a wide array of both resilient and oppressive forces.'
I think those two things of separating body and mind and communities and groups and collectives, that is totally the colonial divide and conquer thing of if you can make something a single individual's experience, or make that individual believe it's their individual experience, then you can separate them from other people who share the same experience, right?
CAD: Yeah, totally.
LC: And the separation of body and mind totally aids that because it's based on these systems of where we're at neoliberally now. Like you can yoga yourself better from anything, apparently. But just generally the idea that if you're not getting better from an illness, or if something isn't right in your body, whether that's an illness or not, if it's something else, then it's because you're not working hard enough.
CAD: Yeah, and I think that wellness culture, and neoliberal self-care stuff is so toxic, and I think that sick and disabled people see that quite clearly because you know it's not true. And so many of the issues are just sort of societal and shit that's just not being taken care of and being put on people. When there's actually no way that you can do enough yoga to pay your rent.
LC: My personal experience and my understanding of a lot of other people's experiences is when you find those other people who are living similar experiences to you, and you're like, 'Ohhh!' It's not just me!
CAD: I get the sense from your work that that's very important, like in the film 'Collapse' about connecting to people in this facility that you went to, who also are experiencing the sleep symptoms that it's talking about.
LC: Yeah definitely. So 'Collapse', is a film that’s being shown alongside this talk, and I shot that in thermal imaging mostly while I was in Guy's Hospital Sleep Clinic in London being tested for narcolepsy. And I was thinking about this thing that I do sometimes, and I knew a few other other people who did it too: falling asleep in times of distress. And so I did a call out on Facebook to ask if anyone else had this, and loads of people got back to me, and all of them were really surprised that there was anyone else who does this. This thing that you haven't even put into words for yourself, and then you find that oh, loads of other people do it. Because there isn't a word for it. It can be a symptom of narcolepsy, but you're actually more likely to fall asleep in times of happiness in narcolepsy. But although it can function as a symptom in that way, outside of that, there isn't a Western social, cultural understanding of it. So nobody knew that there was anyone else that did it. And you hear from seven of those people in the film, describing what it feels like, and what situations it happens in. Some are more extreme than others, and the way it functions can be slightly different, but they were all just really happy to know that other people had this thing that they have. And yeah, that was important for me. And it was important to bring those voices together to form this collective whole, to re-form a collective whole that could have existed had we not been separated by the absence of whatever would normally be decided as a unifying term, which would generally be a diagnosis, a medical diagnosis in that sense. And that is a theme across my work, trying to put words to or otherwise describe something that's happening that you just can't, you're struggling to communicate for one reason or another, and then trying to work out where the collective is in that.
CAD: That seems really valuable because I feel like one of the few spaces that's given to work with that, that I feel like it's clear through intersectionality that isn't actually how people come together, but is diagnosis, in terms of understanding yourself better. And yeah, it just made my brain very happy to think about it, that there could be different ways of doing that, like how do we make different frameworks for finding language for each other and stuff.
LC: Yeah, and self-define those terms. It's not easy.
CAD: No. I was just going to say, I think that was something in the gender dysphoria project that I was also interested in, because that is currently the diagnosis to be able to access trans healthcare. In a lot of places you need to get diagnosed still.
LC: With gender dysphoria? That's the term?
CAD: Yeah, and once you're diagnosed with that as a symptom of being trans, then you can get hormones or surgery or whatever you need. And so it made me feel really frustrated that the language to understand a real felt sensation, was also this language that was barring access for so many people to the things that they needed. I think then a lot of times it does becomes this individualised thing that needs to get fixed, whether that's through some hormones, therapy, surgery, whatever, which I believe everyone should just have access to, obviously, but it does become this individualised problem where actually like a lot of gender dysphoria happens because trans people are living in a hetero-cis-gendered framework that they just don't fit in. So it shouldn't be an individualised problem, but just becomes that because of society.
LC: On that note I wanted to talk, if you don't mind, more specifically about your ‘Connecting to the No Within’ guide - do you mind if we go a bit more into detail about that? I just found it really quite moving because I didn't expect, even though I know exactly what we've been talking about and I know what you were trying to do, I still didn't expect some of the stuff that’s in there. There's a moment where you talk about all the collective 'no's that are happening right now, and how you can feel those alongside your own 'no', your own personal 'no'. You describe this as a 'no' that you want to say or express but for some reason are not able to. And you talk about all the 'no's that have been foundational to the listener’s experience, and the 'no's that allow the listener to exist: the 'no's in history that have built the level of freedom that we have, and I found it quite moving.
LC: And quite unusual to have in something like a meditation. Maybe I just don't have as much experience of this as you, but I feel like your work acknowledges and works with a lot of things that aren't usually there.
CAD: Thanks, that's good to hear. Usually the way I make those guides is I just kind of free-write on it and try to get to a state where it feels like I'm just talking to myself, and I think I feel like we're kind of living in a moment of 'no' in many different ways right now. You know, coming from different places, and also when I was making that I was thinking about this pervasive positivity that exists inside of a lot of alternative healing modalities that I think can also become quite toxic because it's not acknowledging the spectrum of human experiences and some of that is not positive.
I did a meditation recently lead online by Lama Rod Owens, he's a Buddhist teacher from Atlanta, he's great, I think people should look him up, he's really powerful. He was doing this sort of Metta meditation, which is where you send love and peace and when it's guided, he was guiding it towards sending it to doctors and nurses right now, and also the dead, and just going to the parts of the present moment that are quite intense and dark. And I really appreciated that because it felt helpful for that to be held in a container, instead of the other place where I'm finding that right now, which is just reading a lot of news. So I think I was very inspired by him and also just felt, especially if doing these kinds of meditations and stuff is difficult, sometimes I think it is easier to connect to things outside of us. Whether that's literally just feeling the ground, or if that's connecting to an idea of something bigger than ourselves that makes us feel connected to the world in some way. That felt a bit scattered but hopefully answered your question.
LC: No, definitely. I really wanted to talk a little bit as well about your book ‘Metabolize, If Able’, which I think is wonderful. It's a dystopia, but it's also pretty believable and there's a lot of hope in it as well as a lot of bleakness. I found it very easy to imagine myself alongside those characters. And it's very collective as well - just continuing what we were saying before about collectivity versus over-individualisation, it revolves around two people but they're within a group and thus a sort of inseparable thing.
CAD: Yeah. I guess it's good to say I realised recently that I wrote that five years ago, which feels like so long now, and it was kind of before I had encountered much community around illness or disability. I have Crohn's Disease and I've had that since I was a young teenager, and I hid it quite well from friends and stuff at the time, because I just felt very alone with it, and it was hard to share. So I think for me, for so long sickness was connected to alienation and being different in this secret way that I felt ashamed of, so I think that that book came out of a process of first finding Carolyn Lazard's essay ‘How To Be A Person In The Age of Autoimmunity’.
That essay is really incredible, and they also have Crohn's Disease. So I think I found somebody who was also very political who I could relate to, which was a first for me, and then I think from there realised that there was all this writing out there and work on, first person and theory and all sorts of stuff about illness and also like activism centred around illness and disability. So it came out of also yearning for community, and just the fantasy of that, and combining my own experiences with this idea that that could exist. And then it's also materialised for me because people connect to the book. Like I know Romily [Alice Walden] through the book now and there's a great friendship so it's just really nice, and also feels affirming to me of what art can do. Because I think sometimes I feel complicated about the art world, like most people do I guess, but that definitely feels like a very big positive of how friendships can be made over common experiences.
LC: Yeah definitely, and in our peer network it does feel like there's a really strong basis of support in all it's multifaceted senses, and there's just not that competitive vibe that you can get in the art world, it's just, we're all on the same team. And there's a lot of sharing and introducing and sending each other stuff to read and saying 'You should meet this person', then putting people in touch, just all of that. And why not?
CAD: Yeah, it feels really helpful to me because it’s a way of being that feels much better to me. I mean it's interesting to be in this moment because I feel like a lot of things that sick and disabled people have just been doing quite intuitively and out of necessity for a long time are becoming normal in a broader way. Which I don't fully trust, at the moment, but I think is also in some ways hopeful.
LC: Yeah, for sure. Because so many people have been so hurt. Disabled people who have been turned down from jobs or going to university or various things, because of their disability, because those adjustments were apparently impossible. And now suddenly, in a few days, they have become possible. Like you can see lectures from home, everyone's working from home, all of a sudden that can all be accomodated. So I think a lot of people have been quite hurt and upset, but the hopeful side of that is that everyone will learn, and then perhaps cultural institutions will continue to stream or video things that they haven't in the past for example. But I think even from the more cynical viewpoint, which would be if everyone just tries to go back to normal and forget about everything, and go back to disabled people apparently not mattering - and not just disabled people but anyone who may find it harder to access these things, not mattering to those institutions - even if that happens and they try to go back to normal, in the very least we can point to what's happening now and say 'It is possible, because you did it!' In the most cynical outcome, we can still say, 'You did it. Do it again.'
Alright, was there anything else? I feel like we probably have loads more to talk about but we wanted to keep this to a manageable timeframe for people to listen to and for ourselves as well. I don't know if there's anything you feel we haven't covered that you particularly want to before we end there?
CAD: I guess, if you feel like it, do you feel like saying anything about what you're working on now? I'd be curious about that.
LC: Oh, sure. I'm working on a lot of things, all at once - how unusual! I'm writing a text on diagnosis actually, which is something I've been thinking about for a really long time and have just been writing more. I'm writing a short text for a gallery, which is in two parts. One part is this folklore concept of 'True Name', which is this magical idea that beings have an essential name that describes their essence, and that if you can learn that true name then you can have power over that being. So a classic example would be Rumpelstiltskin. I don't know what kind of creature he's supposed to be, or if he's human, but he's magical, and then the woman whose baby is going to be taken away by him learns his name and that's how she has control over him. And then I'm putting that alongside a description from my 11 year old point of view, as though it was written by 11 year old Leah, about just me trying to describe symptoms to adults, and then adults giving me words, and me not knowing whether to trust the words that adults are giving me. And finding it hard, because you're learning words when you're a kid all the time, for things that are seemingly more objective, and then the process of trying to find words for feelings being really difficult.
LC: So yeah, I'm doing that and I'm working on a few other things but maybe I'll just leave it there rather than going too much into depth on other stuff.
CAD: That sounds exciting.
CAD: Yeah, I'm trying to start a new story, possibly a novel, or longer short story or something. It's about aliens. It's about aliens that contact children and the powers that this gives to them, and different communities that are forming around alternative structures of living, and connecting this to powers that they're finding from that, I guess, trying to think of a concise way to say it. But yeah, basically another science fiction story. And I've also just been making a lot of crafts lately to pass time.
LC: Yeah, I've been knitting a blanket.
CAD: That's really good, yeah. It's so nice to talk.
LC: Yeah, it's been really good having this conversation, which we've been having for a while now.
CAD: Yeah, the public/private performance of it.
LC: Cool, alright let's leave it there.
CAD: Sounds good.