Sleeveless

Sleeveless: a Note on Addiction

I’ve started a new job, and learned pretty quickly to brave it sleeveless. I thought I should jump right in, before it became a big deal and I got increasingly nervous about doing it.

A Note on Addiction

There’s some debate as to whether or not self-harm is an addiction. In its strictest definition, addiction means “physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance.” But I’m not really writing to weigh in on that debate, just (as usual) describing my personal experiences and hoping it helps someone.

People in recovery, e.g. from drugs, often say that as well as the physical and psychological cravings for the substance, the behaviour surrounding the addiction played a huge part. For example, I knew someone who spoke about not being able to look at teaspoons in the same way while she was in recovery from heroin addiction. I knew someone else who said that when giving up smoking, the hardest part was trying to work out what to do with his hands instead of rolling cigarettes.

A lot of the behaviour that goes with addiction is also the behaviour of secrecy: lying, going to lengths to secure a high, pretending things are ok. I recognise this as well. I remember, at first, learning to cover marks with hair bands or bracelets. As things got worse, I learned to keep my sleeves pulled right down to my hands, or wear looser clothes so that the bandages didn’t make my arms look bulky.

I think that one of the saddest things about addiction to anything is that at some point the behaviour was a useful coping mechanism. Long after it ceases to be helpful- even as it starts to ruin your life- you feel the same need for it as if it were still a lifeline. When you think about it, this isn’t surprising. How can you give up something that, while becoming increasingly useless, has also become a way of life? I learned that all these things: the secrecy, the behaviour itself- were part of a larger picture that I thought was a picture of my life. Actually, it was a picture I had painted to make sense of my life, as it seemed increasingly random and out of control.

Self-harm may or may not be an addiction in the “true” sense of the word, but for me it certainly felt like one for a very long time.

Listen, though: addictions can be broken. It’s really, really, really hard. Many people struggle for years and years- and continue to struggle for years after the actual behaviour has stopped. It’s a continuous process. I used to think it was pointless… why put in all the effort to stop when you might still want to self-harm anyway? Why use distraction techniques? Isn’t that just hiding or shifting the problem? I’ve come to see that among other things, the “point” lies in less damage being inflicted- that it’s about being truly in control.

It’s hard. But please don’t let this put you off; the vast majority of people who have been through it will tell you it was worth it.

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Sleeveless

Sleeveless: A Note on Triggers

(A path out of the woods)

I’ve been working as bank staff at my old workplace. As I’ve mentioned before, my workplace was (/is) a mental health service.

Wednesday

Resident: Can I talk to you?

Me: Of course.

Resident: Why do you have a different vibe to everyone else here? Is it cos you’ve had your own problems? I know. I saw your arms.

Friday

(Different resident)

Resident: (looks at my arms) Have you been in hospital yourself and that’s why you want to do this job?

Me: Actually yeah.

Resident: That’s nice, you know. That’s very good.

My scars wrong-foot people. They immediately make people, whether residents or professionals, question my position in the service; I have seen this happen so many times. The slow-blink when I introduce myself to a professional, the wide-eye when I do so to a resident. Surprise and then, usually, hopefully, acceptance.

A Note on Triggers

It’s been five years since I stopped self-harming, but I am not immune to triggers. The first few times I tried to stop hurting myself, I was extremely sensitive: a TV show featuring self-harm, a particular song, even a change in weather, could bring me back to a memory of self-harming. This could then lead me to hurt myself. Truthfully, I don’t know what was different this time; why I have been able to resist triggers. But however well I have learned to cope with them, they remain a fact of life.

Resisting triggers, especially at first, is really, really, really hard. For me, now, it’s a matter of being able to separate a particular scene or situation from myself. Example: someone shows me their fresh injuries. I have to check myself, remind myself that that person is not me, their injuries are not my injuries and their reasons for self-harming are not my reasons. I have to be honest with myself about the fact that I have been triggered by the situation, and at the same time accept that I am not in the same place as the other person. And all of this has to happen in a matter of minutes.

It’s particularly hard if, like me, you are someone who tends to empathise/ identify with other people and their feelings, because you also have to take yourself out of their shoes before you can move on.

So I’m not going to say that I am in the best position to give advice, or that my advice will help. But here are some thoughts/ ideas on how to resist self-harming when triggered:

  • If it is safe or practical, remove yourself- even if only briefly- from the situation. If it is a TV programme, leave the room or pause it to catch your breath before continuing. If it is a real situation, and you are faced with a real person, consider whether it is safe to leave them long enough to, say, make them a cup of tea. This is both caring for them, and safe for you.
  • Think of the ways in which your situation is similar and different to the situation you are presented with. Maybe you identify with some elements of a person’s story. Embrace that. It makes you who you are. But figure out what has put you in a different position from them at this exact moment in time.
  • If the trigger is something non-concrete (for me, it could be as simple as a particular scent in the air that reminds me of hospital, for example), you can either think about why that is, and try to move on, or think about it in a different way (could that particular scent also remind you of eating an ice lolly? Could you eat an ice lolly?)
  • Use any list of distraction techniques at your disposal. I am not going to suggest any because what’s helpful varies drastically from person to person.

I hope these help a little bit, and try to remember that however scary it is, however wildly out of control things seem, you always have at least one of the answers in your head, at least some of the power in your hands. And if you don’t manage to “beat” the trigger? You’re not weak. You are strong for every split second you tried to resist.

Sleeveless

Sleeveless: A Note on Embarrasment

(Photo: me, reflected in the frame of an oil drawing I made).

At a shop near my house, there is a security guard who really likes me. He’s an older gent, and always calls me “a very nice lady.” Yesterday, after a run, I went into the shop with my sister, wearing a T-shirt.

We exchanged our normal chit-chat for about 2 minutes before he noticed my arms.

“What happened?” he asked.

“It’s a long story,” I told him, politely but pointedly- to which he proceeded to ask me an exceedingly long string of questions including, inevitably, “why did you do this? Will you tell me your long story someday?”

My sister and I agreed that he was pretty harmless, more curious than anything else, and meant no harm… but it did make me think a bit about how people see me, before and after seeing the scars. Whether their opinions change and to what, from what? It also made me wonder why, in some circumstances, I feel so embarrassed by them.

A Note on Embarrassment

Sadly, for anyone with something different about them (which is to say, everyone) embarrassment is more or less a given at sone point in their life. Weight/ height/ hair/ whatever-you-can-think-of, are all things that cause all kinds of people to feel embarrassed.

For me, when I think about my scars, I do sometimes feel embarrassed. With the benefit of hindsight, sometimes self-harm doesn’t seem like the most sensible route to have taken. But at the time, it helped, and knowing this helps me to accept it.

Acceptance is not a cure-all. My scars are something I have come to terms with and I no longer feel shame when I see them (shame can have its whole own blog post!) Now that I am in the process of forgiving myself for the damage I have done, I am no longer seized by guilt at the thought of them. (Again- guilt can have its own post!) But that doesn’t mean that sometimes, at moments like yesterday’s run-in, I don’t feel an acute jolt of embarrassment about them. There may always be moments like this- but I am determined they will not run my life anymore.

If you have scars… if you never show them, or if you are showing them for the first time… they may make you feel that way. But it gets better.

Gradually, it does get better.

Sleeveless

Sleeveless: A Note on Stability

The weather is warming up and the short sleeves are out again, which reminds me that it must have been almost a year since I started this blog! So much has happened since then, both in my inner world and in real-time. I am in a really good place right now. People’s reactions to my scars can still bother me and, if I’m honest, I still often change my mind about what to wear depending on who will be there/ what the occasion is. But I feel more confident and I think a huge part of that is due to the support I’ve received from you lovely people. So I want to say thanks. I guess now as summer nears, I’ll be posting more again, so watch this space…

A Note on Stability

This morning I was washing the dishes. I hate cleaning, so this was in no way a fun experience for me, but it occurred to me as I squirted some Ecover onto a sponge that I have really changed. I never really thought my life could be calm and normal and, more’s the point, I never thought I could thrive outside the chaos.

People who have met me in the last 5 years or so probably wouldn’t believe the height of the chaos and drama at which I used to live. And I, six years ago, couldn’t have imagined that I could be any different. I thought I didn’t deserve better; I thought I was incapable of doing better; I didn’t believe I could get better; most strangely, maybe, I thought getting better would change me for the worse. That probably sounds counterintuitive, which is probably because it is. I really thought my creativity depended somehow on self-destruction. That if I slowed the pace I would come to a stand still. But that’s not how it has worked out for me. I still do things passionately, feel things intensely, I am just doing and feeling them within a safer framework. I’m not saying it’s easy, and I don’t mean to come across as self-satisfied. I’m not perfect. I am really, really lucky.

Stability means different things to different people. For me right now it might mean washing the dishes at 10am and suddenly realising things are going well. For me in part of 2008 it meant living in a strange party flat in Amsterdam, intervals of weird and wild behaviour, but going to lectures and a job and feeling happy enough within the swirl of life. For me in 5 years, who knows? I might be living some other kind of dream. I’m starting my PhD in September, I might end up lecturing anywhere in the world! Normal is relative.

And for you? Stability can be found in different places and ways for different people. I feel at the moment as though a lot of elements of my life have levelled out very quickly, but it’s really got that way through stages. Years of baby steps. So maybe stability is running once a week. Or volunteering. Or writing. Or even having coffee at the same time every morning. And maybe these things build up, or maybe they don’t, or maybe that takes a very long time. But I realised this morning, it’s worth it.

Sleeveless

Sleeveless: The Journey Never Ends

I have two job interviews this week, so yesterday I went shopping for new clothes. Though it’s early in the year, every shop seemed to be selling short or mid-length sleeved tops. After a bold start last year and a continued dedication to being Sleeveless, this week I suddenly, for the first time in ages, felt scared. What will people think of me? How will they react? Will my scars impact negatively upon whether or not I even get the jobs? It’s led me into a whole spiral of negativity about my body in general, and the scars in particular.  I am really struggling with this at the moment, and for all I’ve said that people are no less bold, no less honest, no less brave, if they choose not to show their scars- and I truly believe that- I do feel a bit like I’m letting myself/ other people down by deciding to stay covered up this week (and possibly for the foreseeable future).

For all that I’m feeling down about this, I like to end these posts on a positive note, so here, have…

A Note on Perseverance

A few weeks ago, M and I went on a long walk through the forest.  Bear in mind two things.

  1.  I am more of a runner than a walker, largely due to impatience and;
  2. I am really scared of dogs.

We encountered several dogs on our walk (I think I counted 8) and each time I had to overcome a fair amount of fear.  We also walked for about three and a half hours, which is extremely long for me.  We had a lovely time along the way, looking at various trees and streams and interesting things, and lost in conversation.  But impatience and dogs did occasionally mar the experience.

The journey with self-harm and recovery is similar.  It has moments of intense fear, along with moments of impatience- and when I say moments, I may even mean months.  I was always so impatient with myself when I self-harmed that it would inspire a whole new bout of shame, self-hatred and probably more self-harm.  Later on, I wanted to drag myself through recovery by the wrists.  With time I learned that perseverance doesn’t have to mean “fighting through everything no matter what the barriers.”  It can mean simply carrying on, whether that be by opening your eyes in the morning, or by running a marathon.

I suppose this is the most roundabout way of saying: if you are struggling, you can persevere.  There will be moments of terror amidst moments of irritation.  Probably frustration and boredom, too.  But there will be beautiful moments mixed in with all that, and maybe more are waiting in the trees.  Just stick with it.  Keep going.  You have it in you.

This is part of the Sleeveless journey too.  I am having to learn (again) to persevere, even at times like this where I feel angry and frustrated with myself, fed up with other people and simultaneously terrified of what they might think.  Whether I buy short-sleeved tops or long, whatever choices I make, I am persevering with this journey, building up my resilience as I go.

 

 

Sleeveless

Things I Have Learned About Mental Health

 

Things I Have Learned About Mental Health

That sometimes, the image of success
is a half-defeated man getting out of bed.
That sometimes it sounds like the water
running from a shower-head.

That resilience sounds like a woman
calling the father of her children, knowing
they might not want to hear her anymore,

or

the thousandth knock on the door
of a dismissive consultant,
who chalks your desperation up
to a behavioural flaw.

That the mark of honesty can be a tiny truth
wrapped up in the minimising lie:
“I’m ok, but I…”

That the hardest question to answer,
is “are you alright?”
when the desired answer is “yes”
but the truth is, we’re doing our best to survive
and we disguise our pain behind a smile.
That we should ask twice, but we don’t always think to.

That a battle can smell like a bottle
being tipped down the sink.

That bravery sounds like speaking out
but also like the silence of a secret
that’s painful to keep.

That sometimes strength looks like weeping.
That tears can be red, can be read
like a map on the skin.

That the hardest person to look after
is often yourself.

That all this is invisible,
unless you take the time to read the signs.

That we should take pride in the huge victories
that may appear small,
when it’s difficult to recognise they’re victories
at all.

That not every battle can be won.

But we are bold to fight at all.

We are brave, and strong.

Sleeveless

A Note on Success

N.b. I can’t actually do the Rubiks…

Every time I show my scars, I am telling a part of my story. Other people have described a similar experience, of people looking at them differently, the way that you look at a character in a story differently each time something new about them is revealed.

One thing I am very aware of is how my story can be perceived. For some people, I can see my scars make them uneasy. Maybe this is because I struck them as “normal”, and showing my scars makes me seem less so.

For others, or sometimes for the very same people, I can see that I am perceived as a “success story.” I don’t hurt myself anymore; my behaviour is “normal”; I have, and can hold, a job. I am, for these people, a picture of someone who has come through on the other side, scathed but not ruined. I am more of an “us” than a “them.” I notice this because people make comments about “them” in front of me without blinking. They can see that I have scars, but they don’t think I am like the others. I’m different, they think. I’m OK.

While I am grateful and happy that I can now behave normally and hold down a job, I am also wary of this perception of success. At work recently I overheard someone say it was a pity that “most of these people can only be treated… it doesn’t go away.” For many people, myself included, it’s true that it doesn’t go away. I don’t believe ongoing treatment is a marker of non-success. I am also uncomfortable with the idea that if I am a success story, others actively self-harming may be considered to be failing.

Self-harm is not a failure. Every day that you survive, you have succeeded.