My Body Is a Trigger

Trigger warning: self harm

I’ve written before about the frustrations of having a mental illness that leaves visual signs on my body, and that it can often feel as if my body is betraying me with its scars or its size. Recently I’ve had a lot of thoughts floating around about scars in particular. Summer is coming up, and I happen to have scarring on my legs and stomach that would be visible in shorts or swimsuits. I’ve had a few incidents surrounding scarring and people’s reactions. I can’t help but spend a lot of time wondering what to do with this body that is visibly damaged.

I think there are two main elements to this problem, that often come together to create a third problem. First, my body can trigger others and that is something I don’t want to do (I do in fact have some close friends who may be triggered by the sight of self harm scars). Second, self harm and the scars associated with it tend to inspire a viscerally negative and fearful reaction from those who have never experienced self harm, in such a way that it causes a great deal of distress for everyone involved. Out of these extremely fearful reactions comes the fact that because my body itself can be seen as a trigger, my mental state is often gauged by whether or not people can see physical marks of self harm.

The question of how to approach my body when it’s probably forever marked with the signs of my mental health isn’t an abstract one: this is something that I imagine many people have to face in a very serious, immediate, and daily fashion. Every day when I choose what clothes to put on my body I have to ask myself how much to cover up, how comfortable I am with my scars, whether I will be around people who might be triggered or hurt by seeing my body as it actually is, and how I can be honest with the people around me while not waving self harm in their faces.

It sucks. My body is not only a trigger for others but also for myself, because every time I look at it I get flooded with that mental calculus, wondering if there are people who would judge me differently if they saw it. I wonder if people would pity me or feel disgusted by me or be afraid of me? And at the same time I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I want to be brave enough to leave my house while wearing clothing that is comfortable to me and not give a second thought to whether or not someone might glimpse my ankles.

There is something incredibly painful about knowing that your very physical presence can trigger someone. This is where the two problems overlap and reflect back on the individual whose body it is. It’s possible that I could be walking through my life and simply by existing cause someone I care a lot about to panic, fall into anxiety, want to self harm, or have nasty flashbacks. There are a few things out there that are highly likely to trigger people: guns, rape and comments about rape, graphic descriptions of violence, serious calorie and weight loss talk, and definitely self harm scars. It’s terrifying to be one of those things and never be able to change it.

Self harm scars in particular go one further. I am a walking trigger for people who have struggled with self harm in the past, but scars and self harm cause a reaction of terror, disgust, and discomfort in just about everyone. None of my other symptoms have ever inspired panic in the same way that self harm does (I’m still trying to figure out what it is about self harm that gets at people so emotionally). When the people close to me hear that I have self harmed or see a scar, they cannot control their emotions: they turn into fear driven creatures.

Imagine having a part of your body that if it were seen by just about anyone causes their eyes to widen uncomfortably, they start shifting back and forth and searching for a way out of any conversation, or they simply demand that you explain it to them. You can see the fear in them. They look disgusted and hurt. They never quite look at you the same again.

And this is the piece that brings me to my biggest problem with being a walking trigger: in our culture, people read our lives off of our bodies. Your size tells people whether you’re healthy or lazy or kind or generous. Your clothing tells people whether you’re nerdy or preppy or fashionable or slutty or prudish. Whether or not you smile determines if you’re a bitch or a jerk or kind. And especially for those with mental illness, people look at our bodies to read our mental states. I think I could deal with triggering people, I could talk to them, I could ask who needs what, if only my body didn’t come with the assumption that I’m fucked up and suicidal.

Usually when I identify something that’s really difficult about a certain aspect of mental illness, I try to throw out a few suggestions for ways to make it better. Unfortunately I don’t have any today. This is new for me this year, and I have no idea how to navigate the fact that my own body is a minefield. I don’t understand how to make it ok that I hurt people. I don’t know how to move towards body acceptance when my body is doing things I really don’t want it to (like communicating to others that I’m not ok, or triggering others). I don’t know how to be brave and wear my body proudly.

Some day perhaps I’ll go to a dance event and compete wearing a short skirt, or I’ll be able to go to the beach and wear a bikini. Today isn’t that day.

*note: if you are a friend of mine and you do find scars triggering, please let me know so I can make sure to cover up when I see you 🙂

 

10 Real Reasons Not to Self Harm

Obvious massive trigger warning for self harm.

There are many, many lists and articles and comments and emails and conversations and every other form of interaction out there about why you shouldn’t self harm. If you have ever hurt yourself and anyone has ever found out, you’ve been subject to a litany of reasons. There are many good reasons to not self harm and lots of really stupid reasons to not self harm. Some people find the generic lists on the internet extremely helpful, but I have never been particularly convinced when I’m in a bad place. They come from a place that assumes I believe in my own worth, and when I want to hurt myself I’m rarely in a state of mind that recognizes that. At a guess, I would suspect that I’m not alone.

At this point, I’ve mostly kicked the habit of self-harm, and I think it can be really helpful for those who have been there to share what helped for them. So here is my list of real, honest to god reasons that I have stopped.

 

This post has been moved to my new blog at Aut of Spoons. Check out the list there.

Pay Attention

There is a fairly common trope that is directed towards people (primarily young, female, white people, often those who self-harm, attempt suicide, or have an eating disorder) who engage in unhealthy behaviors that they are only doing it for attention. You’ve heard it before. “She only hurts herself for attention, it’s no big deal,”. I’ve had this trope directed at me before, and absolutely seen it directed towards my friends. I don’t like it.

 

At first glance it seems fairly insightful, and provides a reason to not give the individual the attention they want: don’t want to reward bad behavior do we? Nobody likes an attention whore, and we absolutely don’t want to feed in to their need for attention. None of us particularly want to deal with negative, difficult situations, and if you can avoid them while telling yourself that your actions are positive, then all the better. But despite the first blush appearance of good advice, this kind of attitude relies on some extremely negative premises and is actually incredibly unhelpful to the individual struggling.

 

First and foremost, this trope rests on the idea that it’s not ok to want attention, or that you’re bad if you do something strictly because you want attention. It suggests that wanting attention is an inappropriate motive, and that it undermines the entirety of an act. This is straight up wrong. Pretty much every human being in the world wants attention. It’s part of what makes us social creatures. We want others to listen to us, to hear our troubles, to help us out, to be with us, to tell us stories. This is part of what confirms to us that others care. Mutual attention is how we form relationships. Wanting relationships is good right? So wanting attention is good.

 

Interestingly enough, when someone engages in what’s viewed as a positive behavior in order to gain attention, we often praise them and give them the attention they want. Imagine the star football player in high school: if someone were to become the quarterback because they liked the popularity, we wouldn’t think twice about it. Those individuals still get the support and attention of the school and their peers. We understand in many circumstances that trying to get attention is good. So why do we use it to undermine certain behaviors?

 

The second element of this trope that kicks into play even if we do accept that wanting attention is acceptable is the idea that we shouldn’t reward someone for negative behavior. We know from little kids that if you react to someone throwing a temper tantrum, they’re getting what they want and they continue to engage in that behavior. If you don’t want someone to hurt themselves, then you shouldn’t give them what they want when they hurt themselves, right?

 

There are two elements that can be important to remember here. The first is that even if someone is being ineffective or unhealthy in their behavior, that does not mean that their motivation is inappropriate or wrong. This is something we forget a lot about all sorts of emotions. Let’s take anger for example. Oftentimes when someone gets angry and yells or breaks something we tell them that they shouldn’t be angry. However there may actually be a perfectly good reason the individual is angry. What is not appropriate is the action they undertook with the anger. So while you may recognize that someone is doing something unhealthy or inappropriate with their need for attention, you can still recognize a very real need and true emotion that needs to be addressed.

 

In addition, you can address someone’s needs without promoting or validating what you view as a negative or unhealthy behavior. For example if someone is cutting and you believe it’s because they really want and need attention, the way to deal with it may not be by getting extremely upset with them or by focusing on the cutting. You can give them attention without connecting it to the negative action right away. Asking them how they’re doing, what’s going on in their life, or simply asking them to hang out are all good ways to give them the attention they might be seeking without indicating to them that you’re doing it just to get them to stop cutting. Of course at some point down the road you may want to bring up the self-harm, but only giving attention to stop the symptom is not a good way to go.

 

If someone is desperate enough to hurt themselves, to attempt suicide, to restrict food, to purge, to do drugs, to drink excessively etc. just to get someone to pay attention to them, then this is a fairly good sign that they really do need more attention than they’re getting or that something bad is happening in their life that they need help with. Many times these techniques may be the only way they can get someone to pay attention, and that indicates that they really do need something from those around them. If someone wants attention that badly, they truly do have a problem. When we blow off people’s negative actions by saying “she just wants attention”, we seem to be saying that the problems are not real if they were motivated by the desire for attention. We are telling individuals that those desires for attention invalidate all of the very real struggles that they might be going through. We tell them that their problems are fake, made up, or not worth our time and energy. It gives us an excuse not to do anything and it invalidates all of their feelings.

 

The motivation of attention does not make something trite or unimportant. It doesn’t turn a problem into a joke. In fact it’s a good indication that the problem is real and severe and requires attention. Let’s stop blowing off the very serious problems of people we just don’t want to deal with by casting aspersions on their motivations and step up to the plate to find a healthy way to give them the attention they clearly need.