Monday, October 10, 2016
NOTHING BUT MODERATION - TO MY YOUNG FRIENDS
TRIGGER WARNING - SELF HARM
A young friend recently talked about her experience of self harm. She commented that she had stopped doing it some time ago, but that her depression and anxiety were no better. Other friends weighed in and agreed. They had found other things to do, like exercise, but felt their depression, anxiety and sense of unstable identity remained. What to do once you've stopped cutting and burning?
I want to say some things to my friend, and if I sound too knowledgeable or confident or technical I apologize. It's just that I talk like this. Some of what I am saying is plainly obvious, but I think it is worth saying it as an expression of support. I don't have the experience of self harm. It wasn't around when I was young. Granted, I have known women my age who have done it, and I once had a flatmate who cut her breasts and vulva and was duly hospitalized, but it wasn't in the zeitgeist. I may have been miserable and lost at times, but it never occurred to me to hurt myself.
The first thing to say to my friend is that the reason her depression and anxiety didn't get better after she stopped cutting herself was that cutting was not the problem. It was a worthy attempt to solve the problem. The problem was the depression and anxiety (Did I mention that what I am saying is plainly obvious?!) I am not suggesting it's a good thing to harm yourself, as it has its own problems. It can become kind of addictive and lead to more risky self harm and outright deformity. I have known a young woman do very serious damage by using oven cleaner on her legs, for example. It's like Homer Simpson says of alcohol - it's both the problem and the solution. When self harm is seen as the problem, however, you miss the point. Perhaps professionals should say - that's great that you have found such a meaningful and adaptive method of handling intolerable difficulties. Now let's look at dealing with those.
One of the issues about self harm is that it tends to be associated with young people, and especially young women. In which case, society hasn't a fucking clue what to do with you anyway. Welcome to a world in which it must be really hard to establish some sort of stable and significant identity among the wreckage of terminal stage capitalism. I am truly sorry it has come to this.
Self harm is also associated with Borderline Personality Disorder, that grisly appellation hurled by the frustrated clinician at the fleeing patient.* I have written before about BPD in three blog entries with the titles "The Borderline Society and is Discontents'. In these entries I claim that BPD is an adaptive response to a society that denies true moral and spiritual development to individuals, and decouples us from nature. For now, let me just say that if you hurt yourself repeatedly you may well at some time 'attract' (love that term!) a diagnosis of BPD or its traits. And yeah, if you hurt yourself a lot you probably do struggle with intolerable feelings, deep sensitivity, and an unstable or at least fluid identity.
Self harm is indeed the problem and the solution. You may find it useful for lots of reasons. It might stop you feeling stuff if you feel too much. It might make you feel if you feel nothing at all. It might distract you. It might focus you. It might serve for beauty or pleasure. It might express congruence, in that it is an outward showing of your inner self. It might point up lack of congruence, reminding you of the secret of your inner chaos or agony. You can hide it, display it, turn it into art. What's not to like? But whatever the reasoning, self harm changes your brain. It injects you with cortisol, adrenalin, oxytocin, lactic acid, endorphins and anandamide. Really, what's not to like? And it's free!
So when you stop self harming, it may be because you realize its problems outweigh the benefits, or you have moved on to other ways of replicating the chemical hits mentioned above, or you just find it no longer does it for you. You then look for place holders or activities that do the same chemical brain thing. Substance use is an obvious one and of course has its own problems. Exercise was mentioned in the conversation among my young friends, as was being tattooed. Being pierced can also be a substitute. There are slightly more oblique versions - brief and risky sexual encounters, sexual fetishes, extreme sports, all take one 'out of oneself'. At the other end of the spectrum, I think some of the older women I have met use reading as a way of gaining a total distraction or vanishing for a time, and light reading is sometimes even called an 'escape'. There are two aspects to all the activities mentioned here - pain or its promise, and distraction or leaving the quotidian self behind. The third aspect of self harm is aesthetic, and art of all sorts has its place here.
I want to be a bit non judgmental about all of the activities mentioned above and the reasons behind them, and about self harm itself. Let's look at all of these things as ways of managing intolerable internal experiences. A talented and courageous alpinist uses mountaineering as a way of managing depression, panic, and a pervading sense of not being good enough. She achieves remarkable things and is one of our most foremost climbers. When she doesn't summit, her depression absolutely crushes her. She then uses all her skills of self talk and self love to stay alive. This is hard going. I don't know how she does it. But it is her life, it makes her able to live on the heights. I must not romanticize this - I can't claim to understand it, but I can support it.
In the end, for my young friends who suffer depression and anxiety and instability of identity, I would urge nothing but moderation. Study and learn about your difficulties, but temper that with love. Rejoice in your sensitivity, and seek those who understand it, and also acknowledge that life is just plain hard for everyone and we need to somehow rub along. Harden the fuck up when you have to, and spend a day in bed when you can. Seek nature. Seek friends. Seek solitude. Be beautiful, but never perfect.
The photo above is of a trans woman called Macy Rodman and has nothing to do with self harm. I didn't want the stock images of miserable girls or blood stained arms. I think Macy is gorgeous, and gender fluidity provides us with another way of thinking about identity and diversity and caring. That's all.
* This is a quote, but I can't source it. Wish I'd said it first!