Last night I was listening to an episode of Radio Lab that focused on nihilism, particularly nihilism as part of pop culture and why the current moment seems to view nihilism as cool in some fashion. A number of the people on the show mentioned that this moment in time is on a pendulum swing towards nihilism. Some moments in history are more despairing (The Great Depression, immediately post WWII), and we seem to be in one of those moments now.

There’s no real way to measure the cultural milieu of any given point in time, but I don’t think these postulates are saying anything too outlandish. A lot of people are feeling frustrated, hopeless, and angry. One of the guests on the podcast was a philosophy professor, and he told the story of teaching a class about mystics in ancient Rome, people who left the city because it was too corrupt, went out into the desert, and practiced an ascetic lifestyle in order to give themselves over to God. They denied their bodies as a way to escape the sense of nihilism.

Today, we’ve tended to use a kind of irony or sense of coolness to bypass the nihilism. Apocalyptic stories abound, dystopias are the new favorite plot device, and yet somehow we’re all a little blase about it: the hipster mentality is still strong in our desire to not appear too worried about everything. We’ll wear the garb of despair and smile while we do so, convincing ourselves and others that it doesn’t really bother us. I think it’s a cop out though: we’re not really facing what it means that we’ll die, that things suck. It’s a cheat code.

So what does this have to do with anything else that I talk about ever? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pretty serious nihilist, and I love me some depressing philosophy, but there’s a little something more I want to talk about.

Eating disorders. Surprise, I know.

Lots of people have made connections between saints who fasted and eating disorders, questioning whether there is a connection between the two. But asceticism has a long history, and I think ancient mystics can give us some insight into why and perhaps why eating disorders appear to be so common today. One theory of how to move through nihilism (not simply ignore or bypass it) is through an extreme form of love, as the mystics had for their god. They showed how little they cared for this world by dedicating themselves entirely to devotion of god instead.

There’s also simple scientific evidence that ascetic practices like self harm and restriction of food can result in brain chemistry changes that often feel addicting and rewarding. There is clearly some connection between a society wide feeling of nihilism and despair and the choice to repudiate the body. I suspect that many people with eating disorders have the same sorts of feelings. The particulars might be slightly different, especially since selfishness and materialism are often pointed to as the source of the suffering in the current moment (it doesn’t seem a leap to think that the way out of that suffering would then be to utterly repudiate the self).

The impulse to find something more lasting and more meaningful when things feel utterly pointless is a strong one, and it isn’t a new one either. Many people see their bodies as a symbol of their temporal selves, and it can easily become the enemy. Perhaps the current explosion of diagnoses says more about the purposelessness many people are feeling than it does about the media or body image.

I suspect that like wearing your nihilism as a patch of coolness, destroying the body also doesn’t actually help you face the reality of pointlessness. It numbs out the feelings, certainly, it gives the illusion that you’re doing something and moving forward, and perhaps eventually it puts you face to face with death in such a way that you have to face it, but far too often it’s just a way to hide from the things we fear.

I have no idea if there’s evidence for these claims. This is simply drawing connections between things that appear parallel or similar. If anyone has further thoughts, I’d love to hear them as I’m just fleshing out these ideas.

 

Confession Syndrome

There’s a tendency that I have when I’ve done something cruel to myself to want to blurt it out at the most inopportune moments. Sometimes when I first meet people I have to tell them about the times when I went a week without eating, or how it feels to bleed on every object you own because you can’t go a day without cutting yourself. It’s like some sort of disease. Last week at a party I blurted out the story of the most recent time I felt suicidal to a friend, describing the moment in gross detail.

Things are not real until they are witnessed, until they have been woven into words and placed in context. There’s something especially painful about living through trauma silently. You begin to doubt whether it was real, whether it was as bad as it seemed, whether it’s actually a part of you. Every tiny thing you do to yourself is somehow validated as acceptable when there is no one to contradict it. Self harm or restriction or purging is a cruel thing to do to yourself, and appropriately they often come with guilt. If you did these things to someone else, you would feel you needed forgiveness. And so when you do them to yourself, there’s a need to confess and have someone forgive you, let you know that you can continue on.

I’ve started to call it confession syndrome. It’s a way to validate yourself and quickly signal to someone else that you trust them. But it’s cheating. There are absolutely circumstances in which you need to share these stories. They need to be heard and incorporated into your identity and forgiven by you and with the support of the people you love. You need reminders that you are still loved even with the darkest moments of yourself in full view.

But the unthinking moments of blurting out disturbing stories are not the same as honest and open communication that creates a validating environment. Instead, it puts other people in a circumstance in which they have to validate you and have to witness something about you that isn’t necessarily appropriate to your relationship. It bypasses the hard work of actually getting to know someone and shorthands to “we’re close” by disclosing personal information. And because you’ve pushed an interaction into a personal context, you’ve pressured your conversation partner into accepting and being close with you as well: validating you.

Confession syndrome is a horrible way to build relationships. One of the most important elements of trust is seeing how someone behaves over time in a variety of circumstances. You get a feel for someone’s character by doing this. It gives both parties time to increase their vulnerability on a fairly even level: one person might share something slightly more personal, then the other will reciprocate. When you drop a bomb like “I cut myself”, you don’t give the other person the option to reciprocate in any reasonable fashion. It’s a kind of emotional hostage situation: be close to me or else.

Having people in your life that will listen to the times you need to rehash the stories is important. Sometimes they weigh on you and you can’t help but need to say them out loud so that they will stop circling your mind over and over again. But learning how to be a whole human even with all the broken bits is not something to do with that person you just met or at that party while slightly tipsy. It’s for the quiet moments with loved ones. It’s for the places you are wholly safe. It’s for the people that don’t have to prove they will love you through the ugliness.

I’m putting away my confession syndrome, as best I can, moving forward. I have safe spaces to share these stories. I have people that I should tell about the things I’ve done to myself, people who want to know me more fully and who have shown they are trustworthy. These are the relationships that need these stories. These are the people who help me create myself with their narratives and their care. These are the people who want my confessions.

 

Safe Spaces: CONvergence

I am back from CONvergence and ready to post about all the fantastical things that happened there. Not really, I’d much rather just still be there, but as I don’t have that option I will console myself by reliving the weekend with a billion posts about the topics that caught my interest while I was there.

The first thing that I noticed while I was at Con, something that made me both very happy and very sad, was the high number of people I noticed who had self harm scars. Not only did they have self harm scars, but they were wearing clothing that openly showed their scars, and they seemed utterly unbothered by the fact that others could see. Perhaps even better was the fact that I never once saw or heard someone comment on scars or react negatively in any way.

To most, this might seem unimportant. Con is a place where everyone is utterly and completely themselves. I saw someone dressed as a cat walking on all fours and reacting to a “master’s” commands. I saw people in costumes, people with colorful hair of every known variety, people covered in tattoos, people who were on the extreme ends of fat and skinny, people with almost no clothes on, people walking on stilts…one of the most beautiful things about going to Con is that everyone there is presenting exactly as they want to be perceived.

And yet when I was preparing for the weekend, choosing my cosplays, getting dressed each morning, I was fully aware of the fact that I didn’t think it was totally ok to expose some of my scars. As an example, for the last two years I’ve had cosplays with short shorts (Femme!Hammer and Amy Pond):

8439_10151481244972601_938655005_n amy

In contrast, this year both of my costumes had full length pants involved (Coraline and Orange is the New Black Nicky). I made this choice purposefully because of new scars on my legs. In my mind, despite how safe Con is, nowhere was safe enough for self harm scars. I remembered vividly hearing one of my friends mention at a past Con being triggered by the sight of self harm scars on someone’s arm. I deeply did not want to be that trigger for someone else.

And I was certain that if I did show scars, there would be a comment or a look. The special ones. The ones that say “I have no idea how to react to this, I’m so uncomfortable” or “gross, that’s so fucked up”. What I forgot was that the community of people who actively seek out geeky nerdy activities has a huge percentage of people who have had major struggles in their lives. It draws in people who have been bullied or ostracized, people whose day to day lives hurt too much to stay there in their fun time, people who need an escape and unmitigated acceptance. If there was any place that I would find a group of people with similar experiences, people who have needed to use negative coping mechanisms, it would be here.

And so while these scars can be triggering, and there were a few iffy moments this weekend, I really appreciate how open people were with their bodies. There is such vulnerability in having your worst moments visible on your skin. It’s so easy to choose not to let others see them, even when it means you are less comfortable. But it is not only brave for yourself to show them, but also brave in that it normalizes the fact that many people have these struggles and continue their lives and survive and are amazing. It is a wonderful stigma reducer and community builder to have these small (or large) signs that show to others “I have hurt myself and I’m still here. You don’t have to be afraid of me, and you don’t have to be afraid of yourself”.

And it also creates an undercurrent of self acceptance. Not everyone has to feel comfortable showing all of their body, but when people appear to be wearing what they feel like wearing without worrying about judgment, it shows a lack of self judgment. It takes a great deal of self acceptance to openly wear scars, whether they are from self harm or not. People are hardly encouraged to expose their scars, and while we can never know someone’s exact motivation for being willing to show their scars, we can assume that they’ve managed to slough off some of the societal expectations that were harming them.

Being able to see that around you is wonderfully comforting. It tells you that you can do the same, that you’ll be welcomed, that there are others who have been there and understand even if you’re not quite there yet. It says to me that I’m in a space people are building to be safe for themselves, not in a space that is built in the image of patriarchy or racism or heteronormativity or beauty culture.

And so while Con does a million things to make their convention safe (and I absolutely love them for it), the thing that makes me feel safest at Con is the other people who are brave enough to feel safe.

Featured photo is this year’s cosplay.

 

This Is A Rant: My Clothes Are A Lie

Every evening when I get home from work the first thing I do is shed my office clothes and pull on a pair of shorts. It feels amazing. Of course I only do this if I’m home alone, or if I’m not planning on leaving the apartment again. If I’m going to wear shorts out of the house, I make sure to throw on leggings under them. A few weeks ago I went out in a romper without anything underneath and I’m still feeling anxiety over it.

It’s not like I’m a particularly modest person. I wear backless dresses and low cut tops and tight clothes. But my legs have self-harm scars on them, and when people see those they give me a special disgusted face that I don’t feel any particular need to see on a regular basis. Every time I leave the house I have to think about whether there is something that people will learn about me from my body that I don’t want them to learn.

Not only is this a pain in the ass, but it’s also emotionally taxing. I feel like I’m lying to everyone around me simply by wearing clothes that cover things I would rather they don’t see.

Who would want me if I didn’t falsify what my body is really like? I portray an image of youth, of athleticism, of health, and yet the moment you raise my hemline you’d find that my body is really marked by violence, self hatred, death, and ill health. I have found myself frustrated in the past about people giving off an image of being stable, having friends, being well adjusted, only to find out after becoming enmeshed with them that in fact they are deeply screwed up people.

It’s one thing to be with someone and slowly develop these fucked up scars after you’ve already trapped them. It’s another thing entirely to ask someone to fall in love with you when the moment they look at your body, your real body, your unhidden body, they see clear evidence of instability, violence, and self hatred. Who can love someone like that? Perhaps that is why I marked my body in the first place, to illustrate to people what it is that I actually am when they think they’re falling in love with something else.

But now that I’ve made it clear just who and what I am, made it clear for an indefinite period of time (because who knows when these angry red worms inching their way over my skin will disappear), I don’t know if I am capable of accepting the rejection, the disgust, the confusion, the fear, the pity, the anger. No one simply reacts by saying “yes. That’s you. That’s ok”. No one reacts like they would just seeing a pair of legs. There is no such thing as simply existing when your body is the site of damage.

There is an intensely broken feeling to all of this. Even though I have no desire right now to date or even be desired sexually, it’s really fucked up to feel like the only way someone could want me is if I hide myself. I know that I will always be wanted “in spite of” not because of. How can I feel like any sort of relationship (even a friendly type relationship) is based on openness and honesty and all the values that I care about when every day of my life I consider and carefully cover up certain facts about myself?

What kind of a human being am I if I feel that I have to bury things about myself to everyone I know (except a select few that I feel brave around)? What is wrong with me?

Intellectually I understand that what is fucked up is not me but is in fact a society that says we need to hide every ounce of evidence that we might have mental illness, a society that indicates that someone who self harms is unstable, possibly violent towards others, immature, attention seeking, and completely different from everyone else the world except others who self harm (because seriously who does that it’s so fucked up), a society that polices bodies.

But emotionally, I cannot stop feeling as if I need to expose myself just to see if anyone I know would still treat me the same. I can’t stop feeling this desire to scream to everyone that I have scars, that I’m fucked up, that I hurt myself. My body is not what you think it is. My body is not appropriate. My body is not healthy. My body, simply by existing, fucks with your norms and I don’t know if I’m ok with that because someday, maybe, I might want someone to just look at me and not have questions or fears or emotions, but just see me.

I don’t know that there’s a point to this post, just a fear. A fear of my body and what my body has become, of the permanence of scars. A fear of what people see when they look at me. A fear of the fact that I’m hiding because if there is one thing I hate in this world it is hiding the reality of my self. And somehow, I don’t think it matters how many people do see, how many people I am brave to. Because every time I put on a pair of pants and meet someone new, I’ve hidden something. I’ve chosen not to let them see a truth about me.

I suppose we all do this every time we meet people, but the physical act of covering something brings it home in a way unlike any other, and it’s a way that is intensely guilt inducing. It isn’t simply “not sharing”. It is actively hiding. It’s a choice, every single morning, every single time I change my clothes and I am so sick of weighing myself down with guilt over it.

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 🙂

 

Assorted Poetry (TW: Self Harm, Eating Disorders, Ennui)

Note: No one freak out about mentions of symptom use. These are all just capturing feelings, not literal.

 

 

Last night I took a blade to my skin

Blood letting for the soul

The foul humors escape.

There is more life within me than the flimsy walls of my body can contain

Bursting and breaking through in fits

A quick slice so much easier

Draining an abscess

 

Have you ever felt a nostalgia so melancholy your breath flees?

Or fallen in love with the golden caricatures of humanity?

Do you walk the streets in the twilight, breathing in the scents of rain and promise

And wonder if you could live forever?

Have you ever run your hands over your body and wondered

How easy it would be to rip it open

off

just for the freedom?

 

Sometimes when I love too hard, I refuse food

A quiet prayer that my body disappear

To give me more space to stretch and love you more deeply.

Did you know that a body can burst if you fill it with enough loves?

 

Some girls bend their bodies into contortions, hoping to confuse the fire within

into fading out

Their skin paper thin

They glow as lanterns

Until they concoct an emptiness to kill the flames.

Their insides were yearning for people, for places

So they replaced passion with need

for size 2, for vodka, for death

And now their skin simply crinkles, hollow

 

I let the heat bleed out of me when I can’t carry the weight

But I can breathe flames on days I am strong enough to stand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A single face, glimpsed

A face that might be the face of one I once loved

is enough to leave me shaking with nostalgia

 

At night my feet know that it’s time to leave

but my mind has no destination.

My heart supplies the names of everyone I have every shown myself to

truly

and my feet anxiously trip through memory and longing

 

I can’t escape the way that feeling so much is always pain

And the flood of insecurities that returns with each face

I am sitting alone in the dark

The razor blades of my eyes cutting over each ounce of fat

And everyone I’ve ever loved is not here

Object permanence has escaped me, and they are lost

 

I am more, I am more than ennui

I could be more, and perhaps I could collect each face for good.

But I am already too much

And they cannot fit into my long list of labels.

I cannot chase lost souls.

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.