So, I grew up reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series(it was considered a trilogy until he wrote a few extra books). You don’t need to be familiar with the series to get the point of this post, but I do want to make clear that the basic concept wasn’t originally mine, but instead lovingly adapted for the disability community by me, in response to his expression of the concept. Apparently, he wasn’t alone in creating this visual, but I like giving him credit as that was my exposure.
What is a Somebody Else’s Problem field?
In Adam’s books, a somebody else’s problem field(or SEP) is a much cheaper alternative to an invisibility field. Rather than trying to keep people from seeing something, “it relies on people’s natural disposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.”(this quote is found in the third book in the series: Life, the Universe and Everything)
Part of this is a sense of non-ownership(I didn’t do it and don’t have to fix it), and part is a subconscious recognition that if they don’t acknowledge it, it’s simply not their job to fix it.
For his book, it was an incredibly useful way to hide the presence of a mountain (Nobody wants to notice a fluorescent pink mountain) and later a space ship(since people on earth have some strong ideas of what a space ship should look like, one that looked like an Italian restaurant simply was edited out by their brains).
So basically, a SEP field is a way for people to not notice, or not react to, unusual or unexpected things that occur in their presence that would otherwise attract their attention.
My use of SEP fields
One big thing I have learned with my Functional Neurological Disorder(FND) symptoms is that people don’t like a mystery.
When somebody sees another human in trouble, their first instinct is to help, though that is often tempered by other factors.
When there’s a weirdness that they don’t know how to react to, they often jump to the first idea that hits them, and stubbornly hold onto it, despite evidence to the contrary.
In my case, this can be very dangerous. My FND expresses primarily in the form of abrupt and violent movement of muscles in ways that simply don’t match normative expectations.
I have had a disturbing number of people misinterpret this as a seizure and try to ‘save’ me by calling 911, holding me down, screaming ‘oh my god she’s having a seizure’ and other obnoxious but well-intentioned behavior.
Usually, this persists even when I tell them that I’m ok. It likely doesn’t help that their behavior often increases my symptoms because the situation is stressful.
I’ve learned over the years how to sometimes shift those symptoms into things that are less startling but more annoying, but what I can’t do, 99% of the time, is prevent the movements from happening.
I have had many people get annoyed by my tapping my feet or rocking back and forth, and for the most part, they will then demand that I stop what they perceive as annoying behavior.
This sets off larger symptoms because they startled or angered me(depending on the situation), and often leads to them deciding that I’m having a seizure or otherwise in extreme medical distress requiring their immediate action to save me from myself.
What I’ve learned though, is that while when I’m alone strangers will have all kinds of interesting reactions, I basically get left alone if I’m out with somebody who seems calm when I’m symptomatic.
Having company is my SEP field, and it protects me from a lot of additional stresses and minimizes my risk of injury or exhaustion.
How having company protects me
When strangers see that a person isn’t alone, they assume that if there’s a problem, their companion will know what to do.
If the person needs more help than their companion can give, the companion will ask for help.
If the companion isn’t freaking out, they shouldn’t either.
It’s another aspect of human nature: if another person is potentially more capable or available to provide help than you as the bystander, you let them do it.
In my case, my symptoms are sometimes interpreted as seizures or other emergencies, so if I’m having a bad day, there is a distinct possibility that if I’m alone, strangers will interpret my symptoms as my being in an emergency situation and attempt to ‘rescue’ me.
If, on the other hand, I have a friend or two with me, strangers assume that my friends have the situation well in hand, and they don’t need to do anything.
Note that this doesn’t mean that my friends have any additional responsibilities. It’s not about my friends doing or not doing something for me, it’s simply that the act of conversing, going the same way, or carrying something for the other signals to the people around me that I am not alone, and (presumably) my companions have a better sense of what I need than they do.
There is a concept in psychology, the bystander effect , which indicates that if a person is alone and has a problem, if there is only one person who witnesses it, that one person is much more likely to notice and much more likely to help than if there’s a whole group of strangers witnessing the issue.
There are a lot of variables involved(degree of danger and degree of similarity or difference), but the main point is that if other people might step in, each person is more likely to hold back and see if somebody else steps in first.
With having a companion with you, most strangers just give that companion the space to determine if you need help and what help you need.
Examples of my use of a SEP field
I don’t drive, so most local commitments, my partner, Al, drives and accompanies me. With him by my side, if I get symptomatic nobody feels the need to rescue me, as it’s His Problem.
When we go to doctors appointments, if I get symptomatic(pretty much a guarantee if I’m sick, likely if I’m not), Al reassures the staff that they don’t need to worry unless he does.
While I can and often do reassure them, I’m sure that the vaguely concerned look on my face(I am trying to control the symptoms, which takes concentration) or my occasional gasps or apparent shortness of breath(when I double over it reduces my air capacity for the moment) don’t help.
Al also can answer a percentage of their questions, or explain my symptoms a bit, which allows me to focus on regaining symptom control so I can hold still for the next step.
I use this a lot when I go up to NYC. I’ll make plans to meet up with my friends so that I’m only alone for the train ride up.
I often find that being in crowded spaces will set off my symptoms, so I try either to not travel during rush hours or to have somebody on the subway with me if I’m traveling when it’s crowded.
They can help me to either get a seat(there is no easy way to get a seat when you have an invisible or even semi-visible illness), or distract me on the trip to help me keep my symptoms as low as possible.
If we’re going to something that is likely to set me off(crowded events like street fairs or free concerts), we make sure to meet in a less-crowded area and I tend to give them the heads up that I may get symptomatic.
If I do, we find a quieter space or get me seated so I can focus on regaining symptom control and then enjoying whatever we’re trying to do.
My movements aren’t painful(though I’ve been told that sometimes I grimace as if they are), but besides making it difficult to do what I want to do(you try rocking back and forth while eating or reading a book sometime), if I keep repeating a movement, I run the risk of pulling associated muscles or straining them a bit.
With a trusted friend nearby, I feel more relaxed and the risk of a stranger increasing my symptoms, stress, or risk is infinitely lower, and I can focus on enjoying my time and my friends.
When I have bad symptom days, I’m more willing to push myself if I know that I’ll be meeting up with friends sooner than later, and I’m much more willing to try environments with a higher chance of setting off my symptoms if I know that I have that company to protect me.
At the Queer Liberation March at the end of June, I likely wouldn’t have done more than the march itself(and would have had a hard time doing that) if I hadn’t gone to the march with Kawa, knowing that they would help me out if I had trouble, and then had them accompany me to find other friends of ours when they were peopled out.
Once I was sitting with friends at the rally, I didn’t need to be self-conscious about rocking back and forth, or my occasional jerky movements, because anybody who noticed me would immediately see that I wasn’t alone, so my odd movements were Somebody Else’s Problem.
Bystander/SEP effect in a learning environment
Another thing I’ve found really helpful is instructing people in charge at any small to medium-sized event I attend. I’ve found this extremely helpful for my graduate school classes, but also useful in group meetings, facilitation events, and at kink events.
If I let the responsible parties(like the facilitator, professor, or EMT’s involved) know that I have FND, and that I am not in danger and am not having a seizure, they can then calmly not react when I get symptomatic in their space.
They may be surprised, but they can very quickly get over it, knowing that I reassured them while I was asymptomatic.
Instructors doing so is especially powerful as that has reliably prevented any classmates from disrupting class further. I suspect that if you do have a specific visible symptom and preferred response you can do the same thing in these types of situations.
Creating the field when you’re alone
This one is harder, but is somewhat possible. I’m a pretty social person, so I often get into conversations with people I’m waiting for something with.
This most recently happened on Sunday when I was taking the train home.
NJ transit sent us(the passengers of the 1:07 PM train to Long Branch) on a wild goose chase across their station by telling us to go to platform 2, then putting the train on standby a few minutes later.
I fought through the crowd to go downstairs to the hot track, sweating, only to be told a minute later to go back upstairs. I emerged in a different section of the station, surrounded by people, and so got pretty symptomatic between the crowding, sweating, uncertainty, and frustration.
We were then instructed by a NJtransit employee to go down to track 9(so fight through the crowds, go down the stairs, and stand in even more heat), and a couple of minutes later, an Amtrak train pulled in, and we were told that we were at the wrong track AGAIN, and to go back upstairs and wait for our track to be called.
By this point, I was rocking pretty badly, and my legs weren’t super steady. It was crowded on the platform, so I climbed up the steps, but was again surrounded by people, some of whom were still trying to come downstairs, and others of whom were trying to go upstairs, and many of whom were, like me, standing on the stairs wondering what next.
Eventually, it was sorted out, and we boarded the correct train on track 7(about 20 minutes after our scheduled departure time).
When I finally was in my seat, my feet did a little tapdance routine never to be repeated, and I ended up conversing with a fellow passenger.
He was seated in a pair of facing seats, so I joined him, and we had a merry conversation all the way down to his stop about CBD oil(he suggested I try it), FND, mental health, the problems with the medical system, and people who refuse to get treatment for their conditions.
The conversation kept me nicely distracted and I had very few symptoms on the trip home. I had a nice end to a stressful afternoon. Even though he was a stranger, he’d seen the worst and accepted it, so when I had a few minor shakes, he was comfortable continuing the conversation instead of assuming I needed help. His ease protected me from anybody else on the train making a bad assumption.
By doing things that indicate that this is a normal situation for me, and by doing my best to project an aura of self-containment, I can sometimes get those moments of safety even when traveling alone.
Listening to music or playing a game can supply at least some of the absorption/distraction I need, and make symptoms slightly more plausible as strange behavior instead of an emergency situation.
Sitting there playing candy crush while shaking feels like less of an emergency to the casual observer than just sitting there shaking.
Conclusion: protecting yourself by being Somebody Else’s Problem
There are a lot of people out there who make strange assumptions about people with disabilities.
I don’t want to be ignored, but I honestly prefer it to being stared at, or having people try to rescue me when I don’t need it.
I have enjoyed the idea of using the Somebody Else’s Problem field concept as a way to protect myself from well-intentioned meddling and from the ignorance of people as a whole.
Whether it’s when I’m out being social, when I’m trying to learn, or when I know I’ll likely have symptoms in a bit, I’ve learned to share my symptoms or befriend strangers in a way that protects me from other people’s fears and ignorance without burdening myself in an already difficult moment or putting undue pressure on the people I’m interacting with.
I am a relatively independent person and can get around by myself, but life is more fun with friends, and I have found that without putting any pressure on my friends, simply having one or more companions helps me reduce the risk of being attacked or ‘rescued’ by people who simply don’t understand my condition.
I’m also able to create a reasonable facsimile of this effect by being friendly and open to conversation. Once you create a connection with another person, they are much more apt to chat and ask questions than to assume an emergency and react strongly.
Notice, I’m not talking about hiding away or shrinking into yourself, but rather about being so self-assured and/or protected by the presence of folks who care that you can minimize your stress and maximize your enjoyment of whatever it is that you are choosing to do!
I hope that you can find a way to apply this concept to your life.