TW for SI and mental illness after the jump:
It’s self injury awareness day, and my very reluctance to write this post is the reason I should do it. While very few mental illness related issues are understood or treated ideally at the moment, SI is probably one of the most misunderstood, probably because those who are affected by it are often very shy about it.
It is, frankly, embarrassing. We live in a culture where the primary impression of self harm is as a playground joke from the mid 2000s. Emo was a big thing when I was a teenager, and self harm was a stereotypical thing to accuse people from that subculture of – even though the vast majority of emos I knew didn’t engage in SI, and non-emo kids that I knew did.
Do you know the only real thing that linked the self harmers I knew as a teenager? Mental illness. I refuse to believe that people were hurting themselves because of fashion, or because music brainwashed them, or whatever weird death cult rumours the Daily Mail tried to spread at the time.
But what happens to people – whatever music they listen to, however they like to dress – who don’t ‘grow out’ of SI? It seems like such a teenage thing to do – a way to express nameless feelings, a way to control a body that feels out of your power, a way to claw back some autonomy – that adults with SI problems rarely feel comfortable talking about it. Of all the things wrong with me, all the conditions and quirks I’m host to, self injury is by far the hardest thing to discuss. I don’t know if I could even do it verbally outside of the GP’s office.
I find it mortifying. It feels so childish. I recently had to have my medical records printed out for an unrelated matter, and seeing it written there in black and white was horrendous – my GP eventually tip-exed them out for me so I could use my files for a work thing. Sitting in the loud silence of the doctor’s office being forced to go into detail about locations and methods is excruciatingly embarrassing – it makes me want the ground to open up and swallow me to have to calmly tell a professional adult stupid things I have deliberately done as if I’m describing a persistent cough or a topical rash.
This all started when I was about thirteen, and has been going on for a decade. I’m an adult now, and while I’m not currently engaging in SI, I relapse fairly regularly in very bad periods. The most recent incident was in the last twelve months. I have never explicitly told anyone about this*.
The extent to which embarrassment and stigma have kept me silent is frightening. It’s not a cry for help or attention because I go to extreme lengths to conceal it – I use out of the way locations and keep the majority of my skin covered most of the time. If it became easier to talk about – if more people felt able to share their stories – our perception of SI as something embarrassing and teenage and pathetic would change, making it easier for people like me to ask for help when we feel we need it.
For me, SI is one of the only things I legitimately ever feel triggered about. Depression, even suicide, doesn’t really ever freak me out as a thing on TV or in conversation, but graphic depictions or descriptions of SI make me feel horrible. It’s like there’s an ache under my skin that I need to dig out. Sometimes my skin hurts so badly that I have to force myself into a public situation so I can’t do anything about it. As a teenager, I’d lie down with my hands under my body for as long as I could stand it to calm down.
The nature of my illness means that when I’m very depressed, I’m tired and apathetic and don’t really have much urge towards SI, but when I’m mixed, or restless, or agitated, I think about it alarmingly frequently. There’s something about having too much energy at the same time as you are violently resentful towards yourself that really makes SI a huge risk. I think the idea that only deeply depressed people engage in SI needs to be challenged, as does the idea that everyone who does so also suffers from suicidal ideation. While the two things are often linked, in many people self injury has no link to a desire to deliberately end their lives.
I guess the main points I’m driving at here are:
- SI is not an exclusively teenage phenomenon and normal adults with normal adult lives can suffer with it without anyone ever knowing
- Not all people who engage in SI want to die, or even seem particularly depressed
- There are a huge range of reasons and feelings behind someone turning to SI, which are different for everyone
- Somebody’s taste in music or fashion sense has really no influence on their likelihood to turn to SI
- Probably a lot of people would like to be able to talk about SI if we lived in a culture where it was less of a taboo/had less stigma attached to it
- SI is a lot more common than you would think
And I guess the punchline here is that I have a My Chemical Romance tattoo. Do with that last tidbit what you will, if you want, but please – if you are somebody who struggles with, or has beaten, SI, consider talking about it openly today. Let somebody who feels embarrassed and ashamed and wrong read that you are like them. Help us open up a conversation about SI, which will enable us to develop better coping strategies and pave ways to better treatment.
Head over to Rethink Mental Illness if you want better information about SIAD. You can access LifeSigns, an SI support network, here. And don’t forget to tweet using the hashtags #SIAD and #selfinjurywarenessday if you want to join the conversation over there.
*As an adult