My experience of self harm

Obviously this one is going to be totally unsuitable for some people. I talk about self harm frankly. I do not describe graphic accounts, but some methods are mentioned. There are no images. Please take care. 

I rea​d an article yesterday, called But Still, by Samantha Van Zveden. It reminded me of my own experiences, the fear, the ambivalence, the sense of compulsion, driving inexplicable need. It’s taken me most of my life, but it no longer has me by the throat. It’s an experience that bewilders people, and into the gap in our understandings pour myths, fears, and a kind of casual brutality that can still bring me screaming to my knees. 

They’re just doing it for attention. Doing it to be cool. Doing it for acceptance by other kids. Doing it to annoy her parents. Doing it because he doesn’t have enough to do. Doing it because it’s ‘in’. 

Falling far down the rabbit hole of trying to prove pain to people who do not believe you. Their belief, their compassion, their acceptance of your sincerity is an unwinnable thing. So many years and so much suffering poured out seeking it. Every day going down, deeper into self destruction, closer to death. I grew up in a world where pain was only real if someone else believed in it. Many people still live in that world. It took me a long time to escape it and reclaim my own mind.

Self harm is complex and full of contradictions. Something I often remind people is that it is common in the animal kingdom. Animals and birds experiencing inescapable pain – loneliness, captivity in an unsuitable cage: too small, too stressful, too close to predator species, overcrowded, or physically ill and suffering, many will head bang, pluck their own feathers, chew or lick off their skin, tear out nails and claws. On one level, self harm is a nearly universal response to certain kinds of suffering. This is the context, the broad picture. We are mammals, part of the world, nervous systems wired this way. 

Zooming right in, we get vast diversity in who, how, and why. Some find a single cause and many more a complex web of reasons, needs, struggles. 

Some harm to punish themselves. Some to break out of dissociation and stop feeling numb. Some to reclaim their own body. To mark important events, the way some cultures ritually scarify children becoming adults. To discharge suicidal distress and make it safely through the night. To trigger numbness when feelings are overwhelming. To push the boundaries of skin and self and rules of what is acceptable. To prove their pain to themselves or someone else who isn’t listening or doesn’t believe. To ease the screaming panic. To mark the empty days. To annihilate, piece by piece, every last bit of themselves. To get revenge on those who think they own us. To be ugly so we will not be desired and harmed. To make ourselves beautiful. To let out the badness. Because it simply, inexplicably, felt right. 

What it is not, and has never been, is the circle I hear so often. They self harm because they are mentally ill: we know they are mentally ill because they self harm. 

We self harm because something is wrong, because of pain, because it is the best way we’ve found to meet a need we don’t understand or accept or can’t express. 

I remember the first day I bought blades with the intention of self harming. I was suffering from severe PTSD and my world had become nightmares and panic and rage in a bed of grey, empty, exhausting apathy. I felt so utterly weak and damaged, all the time. Buying blades I felt powerful, defiant against all those who required that I show no sign of my suffering. That I should not be changed by my experiences. Breaking those rules felt like being true to myself. That link between owning my own pain and harming myself was powerful and took many years to understand and find an alternative for. Because for me, it clicked so strongly self harm immediately became an intense, consuming addiction. 

I experienced such relief from my anguish in self harm it was electric. Physical pain created an intense focus for my thoughts, it shifted me out of the mundane world into a deeply needed altered state and created a powerful sense of ownership over my body and proof of my pain to myself. It eased suicidal despair and sated my constant self loathing. For a short while the internal litany of how stupid, ugly, selfish, pathetic, and what a miserable freakish lonely failure I was would go quiet. It was peace. I felt strong instead of weak. I felt I’d proved something to myself. I felt like I could finally take off my armour and rest for a little while. 

The next morning I was drowning in shame, and the self loathing intensified beyond anything I’d previously experienced. The sight of the wounds would trigger rage at myself. Why was I so weak and pathetic? Such a drama queen. I sided with others brutal assessment of my character and motivation. 

Once the wounds healed and were less visible, I would feel panic. I needed to see them. I would desperately want new wounds. The longer I went without seeing my own blood, the more compelled I felt. I tried to meet this need in other ways, considering I have endometritis and adenomyosis and was bleeding heavily literally half of my life I couldn’t understand why that wasn’t enough blood, why it had to be this, too. 

So the experience, like all addictions, created the conditions to feed itself, becoming its own trigger and containing both the problem (shame, pain, self hate) and the remedy. Once inside the locked room I was trapped. The compulsion felt simultaneously too powerful to fight, and extremely minor, a mere suggestion that I was choosing to indulge. I could snap out of it anytime, stop anytime I wanted to. I felt divided.

When others reacted with intense anger, shaming, and minimising (you’re just copying someone else because you think it makes you interesting), I merely switched from my preferred methods of self harm to things that caused pain and distress but left no marks on my skin. They were a poor substitute for the rituals but not doing anything felt impossible. 

I read books and articles about it, talked to my doctor and shrinks. Nothing made the hunger go away. I tried ‘behavioural extinguishing’ where you simply refuse to engage the behaviour no matter what, and over time the urge will disappear. It did not. In 8 straight years of not harming at all I still struggled with the urge often. Some days it was louder and some quieter but always there. I often dreamed about it in terrifying ways, saw images of it unbidden in my mind when close to blades or while cooking, and when distressed or on seeing wounds or scars on others would intensely yearn for the release. 

I remember a friend confiding in me their teenage child had been self harming. I come home from the conversation to howl in bewildering agony – why do they get blades and not I? As if I was deprived of something essential to my survival. Part of my mind listening in, in absolute confusion and disgust. How could I be this messed up? 

I remember another friend confiding in me that they’d been to see a shrink and shared their awful compulsion to cut with them, and the shrink had brightly and inanely suggested wearing a rubber band on their wrist and flicking it when the urges come, to simulate the pain. It was like comparing a glass of water to a tsunami. I needed to scream so loud it tore my world apart, set the sky on fire, turned the rain to blood. I was drowning in unspeakable suffering, dying in plain sight, and the world of psychology offered a rubber band. My friend and I were mutually speechless at the gulf between our experiences and their understanding. The trivialising of the darkest hours of my life drove me further into darkness and further from understanding myself. What the hell is wrong with me?

I stayed away from medical care, aware that other’s responses fed the need on me, their callousness filled me with violent rage against myself, their compassion made me want to do it again to be treated with warmth and gentleness again. I listened to a young peer who turned up at ER one day, wild with pain and afraid she would self harm. They told her they would not admit her unless she had current wounds. So she walked out of the hospital and gave herself some, then walked back in. Then they admitted her. In that context, it was simply the admission fee for ‘care’. I noticed you often had to increase the dose over time to get a similar response from mental health staff. I called this ‘the language of symptoms’ and I fought not to speak it. With some peers, self harm was treated as the ultimate proof of your pain. It bypassed skepticism and got you into the club of people who had done it tough. I fought not to internalise this either. I read frightening books that made suicide seem the ultimate way to show other people you were genuinely hurting, and make them regret their indifference. I fought that framework too. 

I learned that for me, self harm was often about proving my pain, not only to other people in my world who were minimising my distress, but also to myself. It was a way of proving the suffering of the night before to whoever woke up the next morning. A kind of memo, written on my skin, that said: pay attention, we are hurting. Something that I could not ignore, could not find a positive light for or put a good spin on. Something animal and savage the intellectual part couldn’t explain away, something dark and forbidden the rule abiding part couldn’t condone or ignore. 

On bad days I spent hours in the bath, in self imposed quarenteen until I felt safe to walk past the knives in the kitchen. The longest bath like this I’ve taken was 9 hours. Letting out the cold water and adding more hot as my fingers and toes wrinkle. Waiting until the need reduces to manageable or the dissociation numbs it.

Substituting the need was my best approach. Less instant and complete, I learned to be patient with the alternatives and put up with partly met needs. It was by far the best relief I’d found. I developed Ink not Blood and discovered in a strange way that I was equally ashamed of simulated self harm as I was of actual wounds. The shame was more about the visibility of my pain than it was about the taboo of self harm. I felt deeply embarrassed I needed such a thing. Wrist poems continued to weave their way through my life as an alternative too. Talking to myself on my skin.

Psychosis resolved through body painting, full body art with simulated blood. Gold drips from my mouth, splashes of red across my hip. Simulated self harm and altered state on a massive scale with not a blade in sight. A wound in me heals, the need weakens. 

I read about the Bloggess, she discusses her self harm frankly, with neither pity not rage, simply that she ‘fell off the self harm wagon’. She dusts herself off and climbs back on. No one screams at her or takes her kids away. I can’t see anyone forcing her hands over to show mutilated wrists and dropping them with a lip curl of revulsion. I envy her. Self harm as a bad night, not a moral failing.

Then I’m pregnant and the proximity of children quietens the need. Star and Poppy arrive and it continues to fade away. The self hate stays, a near constant companion, the daily voice “I hate myself”. The nightmares of graphic self harm; dismemberment, self immolation, degloving, stop and don’t come back. The triggers lose their power, evoke a pang rather than a desperate thirst. I watch it drain out of my life with relief and confusion. I take less baths, wear less gloves and wrist cuffs, write fewer wrist poems. 

I still don’t entirely know why it’s gone, or if it’s ever coming back. Has it gone with some wild part of me I’m losing touch with? Is it a good thing that it’s eased? Has it been replaced by the depression, the sense of choking failure that haunts me? Health is not merely the absence of a symptom. Why didn’t it take the self loathing with it? What does it all mean? 

I don’t know. I’m glad not to be struggling with it, it was a many headed hydra that seemed to grow stronger the more heads I lopped off. Most days I’m glad my scars are so invisible. Some days I regret my restraint a little. I’m glad to have found that the symbol of harm, the imitation of it, has so much power for me, and learned that self harm is in itself a symbol of something else, a word in language you don’t yet speak but must learn to decipher. 

I don’t hurt like I used to hurt, stuffed full of secrets and bewildered by my pain. It’s in the open now and I have names for it (queer, trauma, multiple, altered state, creative). I’ve got other ways to scream and I don’t ignore myself so much. 

It’s such a victory, and yet, while the self hate remains it seems in many ways a hollow one. However far I go, it’s not enough. Have I won the war, or just stopped caring enough to bother fighting? Is it still a blessing if the screaming stops but the pain remains? I don’t know. I’m still working on it, feeling into it, trying to understand it. I’m glad to be out of the shame spiral, the snake vomiting its own tail. I’m glad my girls don’t live with it as a daily reality for their parent. I’m under no illusions though, I know exactly what it feels like to live with people who hate themselves and I try to be mindful of that, to decode it when I must and protect them as I can. 

I’ve come a long way. I’m not done yet. Self harm, for me, met a need. It also fuelled that need. Finding other powerful ways to meet it broke the spiral. (you don’t break addictions, you replace them) It’s nothing to do with the drug of choice, and everything to do with the environment. I had to make very hard, very painful choices to change my environment. In some ways much more painful than merely cutting myself. It was a substitute, a symbol, a signal of how trapped I felt in that life. 

I left. I severed relationships and found new ones. Came out as multiple, then again as bisexual, and again as genderqueer. Made art. Nurtured others. Found self compassion. Stopped trying to find my salvation in my own blood. Learned to live with the scars and the places where there aren’t scars. Go home and scream when people tell me self harm is attention seeking, but in the moment try to validate their bewilderment and anxiety, gently correct attention seeking to connection seeking. Try to bridge the gap and make the incomprehensible make some kind of sense, engender some kind of compassion. Try to make people rethink their instinctive revulsion, to question their belief self harm is always fundamentally wrong, that it deserves involuntary disgust of the kind usually reserved for rapists.

Our skin, like our bodies and our lives, is our own. It’s shame that kills us. Loneliness that destroys our lives. Love that saves us, that makes the pain bearable and heals the screaming wounds. It’s not always enough, but is always necessary for life. 

Understanding Emotional Flooding

Oh, the joys. I’ve been wanting to write this for ages, but it’s large and complex. I haven’t entirely done it justice here and I’ve touched on some areas that I’ve covered in other posts in more detail so I’ve linked instead of repeating myself. A lot of us with troubles with flooding get diagnosed with things like Borderline Personality Disorder, and although having a word for it can help, it can also leave us feeling very powerless and different from other people, which in some ways can hurt a lot worse. I don’t think we are either powerless or even particularly different. I think we are experiencing powerful things that our culture isn’t good at handling, and often convinces us to respond to in the worst possible ways.

What do I mean by emotional flooding? That place in which you are drowning. Emotions are so intense, so deeply felt, and so long lasting that you feel like your very identity is dissolving in them. You can’t clearly remembering not feeling this way and you start to lose hope you will ever feel differently again. We have a term for this when the feelings are really good ones – mania. But for the black depths of emotional pain or the anguished hypersensitivity of the chronically triggered, we don’t have a lot of words. Which doesn’t help! Decompensation is one way of putting it, but it’s not pretty and describes the effect of it, not how it feels on the inside.

I call it flooding. It’s the opposite to numb. It’s breaching containment. It’s not just taking the lids off boxes full of strong feelings and painful things you don’t like to think about, it’s falling in and having them snap shut on you so you can’t get out again.

Flooded can be an enduring state or a temporary crisis. I’m really familiar with it because I’ve spent a lot of my life flooded. It’s the state of being without ‘skin’ described by people trying to recover from trauma. It’s the ‘highly sensitive person’ label used by those who flood easily but don’t usually identify trauma. It can be hell. Exhausting, overwhelming all your resources to cope, and rapidly getting you to the point where you hate yourself and your life. It often leads to a state of frantic agitation which can be dangerous. People feeling frantic distress may resort to self help measures that seem crazy to those around them, and often to themselves once the crisis has passed.

I can only really describe flooding from my own perspective and much of this may be fairly unique to me, but I’m hoping there’ll be points of recognition and useful ideas for others too.

I flood quickly under certain circumstances. The first is when I’m chronically triggered. That might be a particularly bad week where a lot of big triggers happened to line up, or it might be that I’m particularly vulnerable at the moment and triggers I could otherwise handle are setting me off. One big trigger can cue a level of sensitivity and vulnerability that make me exquisitely attuned to all other triggers around me – I lack psychological ‘skin’ and can’t buffer the world anymore. Everything gets ‘under my skin’, everything feels personal, I can’t shrug anything off, and the littlest things feel like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’ve touched on these issues before, you can read a little more about them and my coping strategies:

The opposite process can also flood me, not triggers from outside but the result of internal processes. When you’ve come through anything that causes big feelings and intense thoughts and questions, most of us learn that to get out of bed in the morning we have to contain them. We put them in a mental box (or the cellar, or walk away from the big pit, or however our mental landscape works) and go focus on the rest of our day. This is a really useful skill. However it has a couple of risks. One is that triggers can set off a really huge reaction if they breach this containment. That’s why I can go from completely fine to a panic attack or overwhelmed with tears about baby stuff at the moment. My miscarriage is fresh and I have a lot of big stuff in boxes that can flood out and overwhelm me. The second risk is that, once we’ve boxed up the big stuff, we can find that walking back towards it voluntarily takes a bit more courage than we can coax up. Worse, our culture of ‘move on and get over it’ and our warped ‘recovery oriented’ mental health supports – when they think recovery means not feeling big stuff, can punish us for opening those boxes and warp our mindset to a point where we think that being in pain is sickness, failure, or us doing something wrong.

At that point we can shift our focus from containment – a highly necessary skill! to suppression. Where containment boxes stuff up so we can focus and be safe and do day to day things until we have a safe and appropriate time to feel and think and open the box back up, suppression coats the box in concrete and drops it in a lake. We box things up with no intention of ever going back for them. When they rattle and howl and start keeping us awake at night, we concrete the lake too. The trouble with this is that this stuff has buoyancy. The deeper we push it down, the harder it pushes back up.It also contains key aspects of our self. Little bits of us gets boxed up too. The reason the stuff wants to come back up is because we need it. Like iron filings trying to reach a magnet, it tries to come home. But we have split off from it and don’t recognise it as ourselves anymore. It’s like your lost cat turning up on the doorstep in a storm, wet, covered in mud, howling like mad. We freak out and slam the door and shut the windows while it cries, growls, and starts to attack the door.

Suppressed material isn’t trying to torture you, it’s trying to finish a key part of a process that you started – reconciliation. When we never make space for it, it randomly ruptures through a thousand feet of concrete and bursts all over our life with the intensity – and sometimes the unseeing rage – of an abandoned child. When we finally get it back ‘under control’ we feel vindicated that of course this is the right way to deal with it, because it is completely irrational, intense, dangerous, and unmanageable. It is flooded. But the truth is, this is the outworking of our process.

In suppression, we often turn against ourselves with shame, rage, fear of this feeling of being out of control, and often harsh self punishment. This is what does the harm, not the flooding, but our misunderstanding of it and response to it. Intense feelings and confusing questions are a normal part of life. They are frequently but not always triggered by experiences of change, loss, or trauma – not always our own. They are not mental illness or weakness or brokenness. They are our responsibility to figure out how and when to deal with them. Being flooded is not an excuse for flooding or abusing those around us. But it’s not a bad thing, not something to be ashamed of. It’s just human. We need food and air. And sometimes we need to feel very big feelings and ask very hard questions. There’s nothing wrong with us.

Shifting from suppression and self loathing (I hate myself) back to containment is possible. When suppression has been used a lot, initially the mind fights all forms of containment. Even putting aside little feelings can become impossible because you have broken trust – your mind no longer has faith that you will come back for anything you manage to compartmentalise. In an effort of elf preservation, it tries to stop you adding anything at all to the massive, growing collection of suppressed material you already have trying to break back through into awareness. Basically it doesn’t want you to feed the volcano any more. As you start learning how to safely let out small amounts of contained stuff, without blowing up the whole volcano every time (it’s not always possible), your mind shifts gears. It gets that you’re back on board and starts working with you to contain things. You have to coax and prove that you’re trustworthy, but it can turn around surprisingly quickly. This can simply start by inviting your mind to help you put aside your reactions to a trigger until you can get home, and then promising you will make a cuppa and sit in the back yard and let the feelings and thoughts come up – or however it is you prefer to feel big things.

For those of us with multiplicity, parts can be flooded, that can be their role. We often hate the part instead of hating and dismantling the role. In fact, whole groups of parts can be flooded. While they can feel like the worst thing imaginable, and impossible to let out or connect with, they are probably what stands between you and a lot of big stuff. They flood so you can feel sane and think straight. For me, I have taken on the idea that my job isn’t to reject them but to start to figure out how to look after them. If my most likely to self harm part comes near the surface I push her away until we’re home safe, and the she can sit in the bath or write in the journal or paints inks on our skin as she needs. (Wrist poems)

Another common trigger for being flooded is approaches that treat the flooding itself is useful. Ideas around catharsis, ‘letting it all out’, the need for big ’emotional releases’, and some approaches to anxiety use flooding  because on the other side of flooding is some outcome they want. A common example is people who have a perfectionist approach to therapy or self improvement and try to ‘process’ all their feelings or triggers all the time. I explore this more in

Flooding can activate attachment and makes us bond to others nearby. This can be a very valuable experience of being safely supported and connected with when we are overwhelmed. It can also be a form of dangerous trauma bonding in which attachment figures are sometimes experienced as safe and sometimes so frightening or intrusive that we flood – and in response to that flood they shift back to being caring so we bond. Some parenting approaches teach parents to deliberately induce flooding in children using methods such as restraints, because the resulting bonding is thought to be helpful – however, most therapists argue that bonds created under such duress are problematic and that the experience of being so intruded upon and overwhelmed that you are pushed into flooding does long term harm to a child’s perceptions of safety and autonomy that the trauma bonding merely conceals for a time. When this occurs without good intentions on the part of the adult the same process may be described as ‘child grooming’.

Some approaches to phobias also deliberately flood people ‘Flooding’ is in fact another name for ‘exposure therapy‘ where someone is deliberately overwhelmed with triggers to try to break the link between the trigger and the flooded state. Forced to confront what they would far rather avoid, for some it may reprogram that link so that trigger no longer evokes panic. It can be a powerful way to reality check a broken internal alarm system – see, you were so scared, but nothing bad actually happened. For others they may simply snap from being flooded into being dissociatively numb. The way exposure therapy is timed – some therapists take patients beyond the point of hysteria, while others move extremely slowly and practice relaxation and calming skills through the process, and the way it is handled – if the patients wants it or is being forced into it, possibly impact which outcome occurs – a genuine changing of the trigger or simply a dissociative break.

We ourselves can trigger these same dynamics with rapid changes of approach to our own triggers and vulnerabilities – going from extreme avoidance to extreme confrontation of triggers is common for those recovering from trauma. It often sets off cycles of being flooded and numb. We also feel deeply frustrated that ‘no matter what we do’ we still feel out of control and overwhelmed.

We can cycle between numb, ‘normal’ and flooded. This makes us feel chaotic and crazy! We can also get stuck in a flooded or numb space. For those with multiplicity, this kind of cascade switching can be a system desperately attempting to self regulate by giving each kind of part some time out. (Multiplicity – rapid switching) The problem is that you don’t get to choose when it happens and feel horribly out of control. You also probably use all the times that you’re numb or feeling okay as ‘proof’ that you’re not ‘really’ needing extra care or having big feelings, you’re just kind of faking or being weak and need to try harder – ie need to suppress more. Self care becomes suspicious self indulgence in your mind, especially if it acts as a trigger and the mind assumes that self care means its an appropriate time to let out some big feelings. It doesn’t work, we think to ourselves. It just makes me weaker and sicker! Being mean to myself is much better, it makes me stronger.

Other people being kind to us or praising us can have the same effect – sudden flooding can be cued simply by feeling slightly emotionally safe. This can make you try to self regulate by maintaining a chronic feeling of being unsafe. Over time you exhaust as well as emotionally starve and your containment starts to fail. Flooding becomes a regular part of your life and you are at constant war with your mind to keep it at bay, using what has always worked in the past – punishment, self hate, chronic anxiety, and staying away from people who treat you well. Traumatic replay of horrible events can easily be part of this dynamic too. These approaches make complete sense but they take you nowhere good in the longer run! Bits of them here and there aren’t the end of the world on bad days, but if this is how you always approach flooding you are in for a rough time.

For me, being pushed for intimacy instead of invited into intimacy can also trigger flooding. Some situations (eg therapy with someone I don’t trust yet, or a relationship where connection is being demanded) will inevitably flood me. If we are being asked for things that are currently in our mental boxes, being contained – whether that is ‘be more vulnerable with me’ or ‘I need you to show me how you feel’, my mind will open all the boxes  if that is the only way to be obedient or to have a connection. That isn’t the end of the world unless I or the other person don’t cope with the flooding or I get stuck in it. I’ve had this happen a couple of times and ruin friendships. These days I’m a lot more careful of this dynamic. People who have empathy for your vulnerability will usually cue it just by being attentive. Those who demand it are often those who are least equipped to cope with it.

Good trauma therapists are familiar with these dynamics and don’t panic if someone floods, but they also don’t try to open all the boxes at once. I recall a great example given by Barbara Rothschild where she uses the metaphor of carefully opening a shaken bottle of fizzy drink bit at a time, so you don’t get yourself covered in drink. Here’s a talk by her about this idea with a couple of easy to understand examples like that one:

It takes some practice to learn containment again and work with your mind when you’ve been using suppression and feeling intense fear or shame about your flooding. It’s especially challenging when your social network doesn’t get these ideas and supports the suppression-and-shame approach without realising what that’s costing you. A lot of the ideas around phase-oriented trauma therapy is giving people time and support to really learn, experience, and trust this different approach before opening the really frightening boxes. Of course, you don’t need a therapist to change how you think about and respond to flooding, and many therapists will actually make this process worse. I know of one locally who would insist that any client who wept must leave the room and stand outdoor the closed door. They were not permitted back until they ‘had themselves under control’. Bad therapy frequently confuses obedience and suppression with ‘recovery’ and would make this process of turning towards yourself, tuning in to yourself, and working with instead of against how your mind is trying to work, much more difficult.

It can be done. You can normalise flooding and have compassion for yourself in this state without just being overwhelmed by it or fighting it. You can learn how to open and close boxes again – not perfectly, not always exactly the way you would like, but enough to be both human and able to function. You can find value in the intense states and learn with experience that you do pass through them. It’s not fair that some of us have a much rougher road and a lot less skin and we build up huge amounts of intense stuff to deal with. But it’s also part of a more profound experience of life. Intensity isn’t just about mania or despair or depersonalisation. For myself at least, there are also experiences of deep connection, spirituality, the profound, the sublime. I envy the undisturbed a lot less when I realise how deeply connected to my own heart I am, the passion with which I have lived my life. It is precious to me that I can feel, even that I can be stripped of name and self, that I can find myself at 3am naked on the cliffs before the void in my own soul, in a kind of utter freedom. That I can sink so deeply into love, contentment, peace. I have lived deeply, and I would not have it any other way. I have suffered, but my heart has also been made larger. The size of the cup that brings pain and bitterness to my lips is the size of the cup that brings joy. Even in pain there is something of value, something human. To be deeply moved, to know passion, to know life. To know and recognise and be able to sit with flooding in others without being swept away. It takes courage to live in hard times, to live with an open heart. It can be a thing of great beauty.

Hypnotherapy and Dissociation

I see myself, standing in the forest of Princess Mononoke. I’m robed, head down, hands outstretched, holding a wide, shallow basin which holds dark red blood. I’m offering it.

In my mind, silently, I say the words over and over “this is not something you’re taking, this is something I’m giving.” It’s done with the full awareness of pain and distress, of past trauma. They are not gone or silent, they are present, and yet it is still done. It is a choice, it is a cost in pursuit of something of value, an exchange, a sacrifice. These are things I understand.

About 15 years ago a traumatic incident triggered a sudden phobia of blood tests and drips for me. I’ve battled it mostly unsuccessfully since then, seen trauma specialists, dissociation specialists, and anxiety specialists. Nothing much has worked. Sometimes it’s been so bad I can’t sleep the night before a test. My hands sweat, I tremble, go white, dizzy, weak, and vomit. My head explodes with distress, people screaming and crying, begging us to get away and get the nurse away from us.

This week we went off for a session of hypnotherapy with a woman who’s particular interest is blood or needle phobias. Of course, we had to do some work to calm her anxiety about working with a multiple, as she was quickly overloaded by the complexity of our situation, and embedded in a ‘dysfunction’ model of multiplicity. We said to her “forget all this, this is just details. We’re still human. We have the same needs and fears.” She said to us “hypnosis is just dissociation by another name”.

She did a session, talking about safety. We switched a lot and had an intense inner conversation, figuring out what the block has been (the parts who are not afraid do not inhabit tender body places such as inner elbows), which part is needed (our night poet who is deeply familiar with ‘strength in vulnerability’), what the challenge was (they live in night, in solitude or under stars, fluorescent lights and a blood clinic are about as far from their territory as we can get), and some work arounds for it (draw on the skills we have in theatre to take over and own a space, dress in their clothes, they don’t have to be present for long, use a character or setting that fits to focus on).

So we did, and it worked. Yesterday was the first blood test I’ve had in 15 years with no trace of phobia or trauma reaction. The shrink didn’t do it to us, or fix us. She came into a space with us, that’s all. It’s the same space our night poet inhabits naturally, it’s the same space we access when we do focusing. In that space, we connected with each other and had a complex conversation that lead to answers. We can do this ourselves. We will start a new journal for focusing. This is powerful. There’s hope in it.

There’s also risk. The phobia has been sustained by many things, including an attempt to prevent self harm. We made a call that stopping self harm was no longer going to be our focus, that it was not the real problem. Pain, loneliness, and self hate were the problem. So the phobia isn’t needed. Other things are in this box we’ve tipped over, like traumatic memories of medical procedures as a child. Like a desire to claim and own our own body. Like fear of and fascination with the medical. Like a history of Endo and Adeno that involves a lot of pain and blood. I don’t know where it will take me, but I’m ready to find out. I don’t want or need this bogeyman, this self induced nightmare to try to protect me anymore. I’ll risk disruption and self harm to be able to actually engage with this territory and make some progress through it. I’m not finished, it’s not over. I’m just beginning.

Poem – Finding the end

Sometimes I must let thoughts swirl all unformed, nebulous, stars seen through water, no patterns or constellations, just points of light.
I wait and I follow
One thread and then the next, one path
Then the next through the labyrinth, as
The kaleidescope gently tilts and the light changes to green
Then amber, as floor becomes wall and then ceiling.

I found a limit this week, an end of myself, of my capacity
To believe, to hope, to conceal my terror like stuffing all the things
I don’t know what to do with into a spare room and closing the door
Like so many times before it isn’t like the ending of a film
Or a piece of string or the daylight but
Like stepping out of bed in the dark and padding down the hallway
Opening the kitchen door to find
A gaping hole where once there was a floor
A cliff that tears downwards and a dark wind rushing up with the smell of water
The house, the earth, the country itself all fallen into the sea.
That is the coming upon the end of my strength.

At first I am hysterical.
I howl like a dying animal and force my palms into my eyes as if to stop the rain
I take my body and my mind like they are metal I can beat upon an anvil, hot with self hate, and turn into a bridge between
Who am I now and who I wish to be
Who I owe to my loves to be, to my child yet unborn, to the world.

Sanity returns as we start to topple.
I do what all do who stand upon cliffs, and become still.
And there’s a place on the edge that’s without pain
Or joy or hope or love. Blood no longer runs in veins,
There is no more screaming. I look
Perfectly normal. Where my heart used to be
Is an empty restlessness, the dangerous torment of the numbed.
I am alone on a dead planet.

Later I take a step back. My thoughts return
Like gulls wheeling over me. All the threads snapped. Only fragments remain. A memory of skinned
Raw anguish from which all decent people flinch.

I draft no plans and write no treaties
Just rest in the night with the gulls wheeling over
Listening to the tiny whirring of the compass inside me
That will say ‘that way’ and then there’ll be
No night or cliff or screaming in my mind
Just a path and the moon and the next step waiting before me.

Fat Shaming

Someone I hardly know has just had a go at me on my facebook page for daring to mention that I’m sick when I also happen to be overweight. Fat shaming is pretty endemic in our culture, and random attacks from near strangers are often the price I pay for the public way I’ve chosen to live my life. Being open on a public blog and willing to ‘friend’ strangers unfortunately means that every now and then a kind of critical mass builds up and those who have been silent in the wings decide now is the time to speak out. It’s happened before and it will happen again. It always hurts, it always makes me angry. There’s a sense of betrayal about having honesty and openness rewarded with judgement. But every time I’m also so aware that I’m actually okay. This kind of bullying is now reasonably rare in my life. I don’t let the bigots and the bullies near me anymore. People who scare me, shame me, put me down, or abuse me don’t get to be part of my inner circles! How many of us can’t say this? How many of us suffer because this happens, not with a stranger over the net, but at the dining table every Christmas, or in bed with our partners? I’m pretty tough, and I’ve got great friends. I’m not drowning anymore in negative messages about myself. I’ve escaped those environments and left those people. Every now and then I just have to cull my online networks a little to prune out the people who don’t get it, and who think my patience is a free ticket to hurt me. It’s not such a big deal for me, but it’s a huge deal for so many of us.

Sometimes I’m harassed for being openly gay, and that can range from daft to really frightening. Sometimes it’s about my alliance with some kind of minority group. Today it’s ostensibly about my weight. And of course, I can argue. I could justify myself in so many ways. I could talk about how I suffered severe joint pain back when I was a healthy weight, in fact much worse pain than I do now, pain so crushingly severe I was in a wheelchair. Exhaustion so debilitating I could not raise my arms over my head for more than a moment. I needed assistance to wash my hair, at times even to dress or eat. I could talk about how my weight is partly the result of medications I have to take to manage another chronic pain condition. I could talk about how my health is actually better now, at the weight I am today, than it used to be when I weighed less, how my blood cholesterol is lower and my diabetes indicators have gone away! I could talk about our lack of understanding of the relationship between weight and health, how our assumptions are wrong and profoundly unhelpful. I could talk about my history of an eating disorder and how tender and sensitive my relationship with food and my body can be, how vulnerable someone like me is to shame and self loathing. I could talk about how my weight went up during periods where I was homeless, on the run from domestic violence, and doing intensive, exhausting, terrifying caring for a suicidal family member. How issues like weight become so irrrelevant when you don’t have anywhere to sleep, when you’re sitting up late again eating service station food because you don’t have anything to cook on, and the person you care about needs to be watched so they don’t try to kill themselves in the night.

But really, so what? So what if my extra weight was simply because of my lifestyle? So what if all my medical problems stemmed directly from my weight? I don’t actually need all these justifications to say that fat shaming is wrong. I’ve worked in Eating Disorders. I’ve worked with people who starve, binge, cut themselves, dissociate, and put their lives at risk. I’ve worked with people who were beaten as children when they gained weight at the weekly weigh-in. People who were starved through deliberate abuse or chronic neglect. People who spent parts of their childhood stealing food and eating out of bins. People who tried to cut out their own fat at 12 because they were being bullied. People who compulsively hoard food because they so often went without. Forget about weight being a health issue for a moment. There’s some grey area about how exactly all that works. What I can tell you, is that shame is lethal. It kills people. It profoundly distorts our sense of self, of being an okay person. Fat shaming makes people hate their bodies. It makes us embarrassed to eat in public. It makes us burn our skin. It makes us hide food in secret stashes that we consume with the guilt and craving of an addict. It makes us starve ourselves. It makes us refuse to be naked with our partners, or unable to imagine we might one day have a partner. It makes us settle for terrible partners who fat shame us and abuse us, who make us feel worthless and lucky that someone is willing to put up with us, and even to have sex with us. Even if sex hurts, even if it makes us feel degraded and scared. It makes us scared that we’re being passed over at work, constantly judged as lacking in self control or self respect. It makes us obsess over the weight of our children in ways that shame them also. It makes us kill ourselves.

So, if this is about health and caring for people, don’t shame. Don’t make someone’s weight the first or second ever conversation topic. Don’t assume that those of us with health problems and illness have them caused by our weight, it’s often more complex. Don’t assume laziness and self indulgence. If you want to demonstrate your caring, be open, listen, openly reject shaming. Acceptance and compassion are the places where people might open up to you. Public struggles like weight can be exhausting and leave people tremendously vulnerable and isolated. Be friends. Be vulnerable yourself. These are the places where people feel safe enough to share and ask for help. These are the ways we can start to have conversations about what’s going on and how you might be able to be a support. Not all of us who are overweight have shame issues, other things can be at play. Sometimes a kick in the pants for a person who thinks they’re immortal can be a help. But many of us are vulnerable. So unless you know us very, very well, and know how to pull off a kick in the pants without shame, don’t ever kick. Reach out.

Fat shaming isn’t about caring. It’s partly about making yourself feel superior to a clearly visible group of people. It can be about narcissism, it can be about insecurity, it can be about shame! All the traumas I’ve just described can make people engage in fat shaming too! Whatever the cause, it leverages your own sense of being okay at someone else’s expense, and that’s really the heart of bullying. In this case, I think it’s also about silencing people with disabilities. I have often been told that I’m not supposed to share my bad days. People are uncomfortable with hearing about things like chronic pain, sickness, vulnerability, incapacity. It’s scary to think it could happen to us. It’s awful to feel bad for someone and not be able to fix it. Being exposed to someone’s disability can leave us almost vibrating with this urgency we can’t manage. We want to fix it or run away, and often we manage this by blaming the person or shaming them into silence. I share so much that’s positive. So many good days, so much about my thoughts and ideas that are hopeful and excited and full of healing. The ratio is a very good one, far more positives to negatives. But sharing that I suffer from chronic pain can still make people tremendously uncomfortable. It’s hard to walk alongside those of us who have been forced to become living reminders of everyone’s mortality and fragility! Silencing becomes a way to maintain cultural denial. It keeps things comfortable if people like myself don’t share. If we’re still shut away in back rooms, or locked up in institutions. In some ways it’s almost worse if we can be articulate about our experiences, if our sharing evokes a kind of unwanted empathy. It’s painful. People who don’t know what to do with that pain can cope with it by lashing out. I get that!

But we need people like me to talk. In fact, we need everyone to talk! We need to listen to each other and hear the tremendous variety of life experiences out there! We need to know that we are mortal and fragile, these are things that make us kiss our children before bed every night, that makes us hold our tongue when we want to spit cutting words at someone. We remember that we’re human and that life is often painful and overwhelming, as much as it is also beautiful and amazing. None of us need more shame. None of us need to feel alone, afraid, trapped, less than human. We all deserve to live our lives as openly as we wish, to share our experiences and be known, to be vulnerable and to love with courage. Don’t shame each other. Don’t let those who do shame you into your heart. You have the right to feel worthwhile, you are no more, and no less, than any other person. In our imperfections are the seeds of our humility. We can meet each other with love.

What to do with a suicidal part

I am so damn tired. It’s been a rough week with a lot of stress in my head and the lives of a few of my close friends. On the upside, I have a lot more material for the part of my book that’s about managing overwhelming emotional pain… sigh. Silver linings!

One of my big stresses recently was a part becoming suicidal. This can be a huge issue for multiples! I get a lot of emails and contact from people who are struggling with one or more parts who are in absolute meltdown. Whole systems can fall apart under the stress, and processes which were fair or reasonable can become abusive and totalitarian.

Most people who have felt acutely suicidal have experienced that disjointed place of desperately wanting to die and being terrified of your own feelings and actions at the same time. It’s a profound conflict, an inner struggle that consumes all resources and leaves people utterly drained and deeply afraid of themselves. For multiples the struggle and the conflict can be more polarised and even more intense. Parts who don’t feel suicidal are often terrified of being killed – as far as they are concerned, not by suicide but murdered. Fear does not make us kind. We recoil, disconnect, and attack when we feel like our lives are being threatened. Systems can rapidly devolve into massive power struggles, and outright war with other parts trying to permanently suppress or annihilate suicidal parts. Child parts especially may become so terrorised that they dehumanise a suicidal part and see them as a witch, demon, monster, or other evil creature. Being trapped in a body/mind with a suicidal part can be very traumatic. Experiences of fear, horror, and helplessness may contribute to the development of severe trauma responses in other parts, including PTSD. As a suicidal part becomes increasingly attacked, dehumanised, and alienated from the rest of their system their despair usually intensifies, their behaviour becomes more dangerous, and the restraining factors of empathy, connection, and a sense of responsibility to the rest of their system are eroded. Sometimes this ends in catastrophe. The loss of anyone to suicide is utterly devastating. Having spoken with frightened, non suicidal children and other parts in the hours or days prior is almost unfathomable.

Versions of this dynamic tend to repeat themselves with parts who self-harm, have addictions, re-contact abusers, suffer eating disorders, or have other frightening and self destructive behaviours, with varying levels of intensity. There is no one magic fix for this situation, and different multiples manage it in many different ways. I can share some thoughts and ideas that I’ve found useful and you can possibly use them as a spring board to trial your own approaches.

My first observation is simple but important. When we are frightened, we will try to control. When we are frightened of someone, or some part, we will probably want to reject, dehumanise, and alienate them. It’s okay to have these impulses, they are human! It’s okay to feel everything this horribly stressful situation makes you feel – scared, frustrated, confused, angry, overwhelmed, defeated, hurt, exhausted, burdened… It’s a really hard place to be in. Some of your feelings are going to want to make you act in ways that will feel right but make the situation worse. You have every right to feel everything you’re feeling, but you need to be careful before acting on impulse.

Exactly the same goes for the suicidal part/s. You probably can’t make them stop feeling the way they do and rejecting their feelings and pain will probably intensify them. They have every right to be feeling the way they are, it’s their impulse to act on them that is the issue. I have one part who has a strong desire to self harm, and at least two who are very vulnerable to feeling suicidal. So how come I’m still here (touch wood)? My observation has been that parts who are at greatest risk of killing themselves are parts who:

  • misunderstand the nature of multiplicity and think they can kill the body without the rest of the system dying. This is pretty common and important to check with any suicidal part!
  • are disconnected from or rejected by their own systems and don’t feel empathy towards the other parts
  • are being abused by their own systems
  • are being abused by other people in their lives
  • are angry and resentful towards their own systems and deliberately seeking to frighten or punish
  • do not feel loved
  • do not feel hope, and feel responsible for finding a sense of hope for the whole system
  • have horrific roles within the system – for example, the part who remembers all the bad things, the part who feels all the shame, the part who acts out all the stress for the system, and so on
  • do not get their needs met
  • do not feel safe
  • feel overwhelmed by guilt or shame, believe they are evil, believe their death will protect someone or make the world a better or safer place

Obviously there are other risk factors too. Some of the protective factors I’ve found support suicidal parts are:

  • having a safe place or person to express their intense feelings without censoring or judgement by their systems – other parts often feel shame about these feelings and may refuse to allow a suicidal part to speak to a therapist, write honestly in a journal, and so on.
  • feel a sense of connection and love from their systems. They work together as a team to manage the feelings and impulses. Their system expresses empathy for their situation, and they can feel empathy for the situation their feeling puts other parts in
  • understand that suicide will kill everyone in their system
  • are able to allow other parts or people to find or create hope in their lives, accept support from others
  • are able to negotiate some role changes when needed
  • are given respite from demands of life. eg. when out, these parts are allowed to stay in bed, email the therapist, not leave the house etc, or they are willingly switched back inside if functioning is needed that day
  • are willing to compromise on ‘needs’ – so eg if the intense experience is a ‘need’ to cut, they work with their system to find alternatives that sate that need somewhat, such as Ink not Blood.
  • are treated with respect and gratitude for their role
  • are treated as though they are important, valuable, significant members of the system

As you can hear, a lot of this is about relationship. This kind of connection takes more than an afternoon to build, and for a system under such extreme stress it’s a hell of an ask. On the other hand, it could save your life. In my experience there’s usually one member at least who is able to connect and empathise better with a suicidal part, and it can become their role in the early stages to intervene on behalf of a suicidal part and the rest of the system (assuming a system of more than two parts). Part of the basis for this can be realising that there is a lot more common ground to your situation than it seems at first. Suicidal and non-suicidal parts are both often feeling trapped, stressed, scared, overwhelmed, and unhappy. If you keep seeing the problem as being the suicidal part, all your reactions and solutions will be about controlling or eliminating them. If you can see the problem as the experience of being suicidal, you can approach the part with more empathy and team up with them to help manage that experience. Here are a few approaches that people sometimes find helpful:

  • directly influencing a part’s feelings, memories, or autonomy. Some systems or parts can do this, some can’t. Sometimes you can directly engage to dial down intense emotions, shift who is ‘keeping’ bad memories – perhaps spread the load a little more evenly, or keep a part inside in lockdown while they are a danger.
  • engaging suicide on a symbolic level such as allowing a part to ‘exit’ from life, refuse to come out, disengage from relationships, change their name and so on
  • killing or supporting the part to die without affecting the body. Some systems can do this, some cannot. There are complex ethical concerns here that suggest this as an option of last resort.
  • containing the part except for safe locations – eg. hospital, in therapy, in a ‘safe’ place where they can express feelings (safe is dependant on their likely methods of suicide – it may be an empty beach if drowning does not appeal, or a craft room if scissors are not a concern, etc)
  • increasing the part’s dissociation so they are buffered from their intense feelings and less likely to act on them. eg. sometimes if a suicidal part is close to the surface whoever is out in my system will trigger dissociation by surfing the net, watching tv, sitting in the bath, anything that makes us ‘zone out’ until we feel safer
  • comforting the part internally by doing things such as hugging them, talking to them gently, singing to them, making a safe nurturing space for them internally (not all multiples have internal worlds, and not all multiples can communicate internally)
  • take on the parts’ unmet needs as problems the whole system needs to engage and manage. eg. if they need better social support the whole system works on building stronger supportive friendships or finding a good support group online, or if they need a musical outlet the system works together to save money for an instrument and lessons. Take the burden of solving problems, finding hope, and meeting needs away from the part who isn’t coping.
  • explain the part in non-frightening ways to scared system members such as children. Humanise them and help to develop empathy towards them. Sometimes kids will have the most profound and effective connections with deeply wounded parts.
  • make the most of the multiple experience of never really being alone. Support and be with each other.
  • stagger behaviour in order from least to most harm done. If an extremely bad night is going to be survived only with self harm then better that then death. I write more about this kind of approach in ‘Feeling Chronically Suicidal‘.
  • merge or fuse a suicidal part with a hopeful or naively optomistic part to create a more balanced single part from them both
  • try taking a caring, invested, parental approach to a suicidal part. Coax, coach, nurture, and set limits with them
  • understanding and affirming that no systems are invulnerable without also being psychopathic. Part of what it means to be human is our capacity to feel shame, suffering, and hopelessness. We also have the capacity to heal. Most people who survive a suicide attempt later feel far better and are relieved they did not die. I’ve no reason to think that parts are fundamentally different. Keep these things in mind if killing or otherwise removing a suicidal part is your intention, there may be unintended consequences assuming you are successful.

In some ways, what helps suicidal parts is pretty much what helps anyone. Other approaches are more specific to being multiple. Some of these ideas may seem increibly far away or even impossible for you, especially if your system is at war. Please be assured that even small steps make huge differences. Little gestures of compassion or connection can start turning everything around. Only you and your system can find what works best for you, and only you can decide your own take on the values and ethics with which you will engage these very challenging situations. Please be assured that you are certainly not alone in these struggles, and that it possible to live with suicidal part/s. Wishing you all the very best.

For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.

Pain

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I’m home again from my weekend away at the Medieval Fair, curled up in bed, listening to the saddest music I can find, and dreading a full day of college tomorrow.

I’m glad I went, it was wonderful and I enjoyed myself. A bunch of people were very kind to me to make it possible, driving me around, petsitting and all sorts. I bought some lovely things, had great food, spent a lot of time sitting around fires and hanging out with good people. But my fibro was very bad, pain levels very high. At the end of the weekend my head is a mess, partly because I’ve been trying to keep it together until I get home. I’m okay but also on the edge of serious trouble. Parts range from placid acceptance and wanting to tidy the kitchen to extreme distress. There’s a lot of head noise and huge self loathing. We’re fragile about the fibro flare and the changes in business plans, a sense of desperation, failure, and hopelessness dog us. Fear that maybe it’s all over, that dream of income and business success, self sufficiency. Not enough sleep, too many triggers and reminders of my past, too much trying to be strong, too many emotional shocks and bad news.

Under the place where I’m fine, there’s a sense of building panic, someone screaming out for help. It’s been a hard week. A few more dreams curl up and die, and we can’t figure out who to hate. The more gracious we are to others, the more we drive the knives into ourselves.  We also bite easily, like a frightened dog, and hate ourselves for that too. Terror and rage. I have to keep reminding myself we have value, we don’t have to let anyone in we don’t want to, we’re allowed to reject, refuse, shut down, retreat. Tonight, in bed, with Radiohead weeping on my mp3 player, it’s good to be alone. Someone in me screams and someone cries and someone sharpens their claws, and the sense of being different, of being inadequate, of being misunderstood, eases just a little. I can be a savage shape here and no one gets hurt. I can despair and no one drowns but me. I can hate myself without new fuel for that feeling as self loathing warps my perceptions and behaviour with others in ways I also hate. Arrest the spiral. Just be, even if I’m resting in a place of profound distress. Just be what I am and nothing else.

I breathe in failure and exhale despair. My joints cry out in pain of wasted effort. Someone sobs and someone soothes and someone cries ‘I hate myself’ over and over again like it’s a spell to keep away the bogeyman.

Outside, the night is still and cool and speaks to me of freedom from suffering and grief. There’s a song in it that calls my spirit and the yearning is painful but it also calls me back into my body. So I lie here, without blood, without screaming. I just breathe, and hurt. I breathe in the shadows and breathe out the pain and my bones weep and my mind is a city crying out in a great darkness but even that is a song if you know how to listen for it.

Pain is good, black earth to grow new dreams in.

Scars & stigma

We’re in the process of job hunting in my world again, or at least, Rose is. Some industries tend towards the kind of contract or short term grant based work that make this a regular occurrence. I remember the days of job hunting before I came down with Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia, and it was a pretty simple business. Write a nice resume, arrange some referees, and send them out.

Now, the resume is only the start. Rose spends entire days writing long, detailed letters that must address each point of a job description. It’s basically like a math equation given in word form: If John had seven oranges… You have to repeat all the information that’s already in your resume, in interesting sounding ways, and big note yourself for pages whilst also sounding humble and grounded. Then you might get to an interview. This often requires bringing in a truly astonishing collection of forms already filled out. Some interviews also contain written test components and require you to wait while they are scored and then be called back. One really frightening one went for most of a day and involved a bunch of psychological assessments and group work with all the other hopeful applicants. I find myself increasingly jaded by the whole idea that this is a good way to select an appropriate employee. It seems like a good way of recruiting very slick, charming, narcissistic people, and probably a good few psychopaths. I know a lot of brilliant, caring, highly committed people who would never shine in this kind of setting. Fortunately, Rose does.

We were chatting with friends today about issues of disclosure around mental health when job seeking. For those of us with visible scars from self harm, it can be very challenging to confront questions in interviews. It always plays against you, no matter that is often part of a past that involves a lot of wisdom and strength and self awareness to have survived. There was talk about checking over the organisational policies to try and get a feel for their stance on mental illness in their employees. The consensus was to wear long sleeves and keep it hidden. One friend did that for the entire duration of her job because the organisation treated employees with mental health problems as liabilities. This was a mental health organisation, offering support to people in the community. The wrongness of this makes me sick.

All these places talking about stigma as if they have the answers, as if they, the enlightened few are here to tell everyone else, the ignorant masses, how to be better people. And these places are so often hotbeds of systemic stigma and discrimination. I remember when I spoke at Parliament House about mental illness, disability, and barriers to employment. I was asked what the government could do to encourage employers to retain people with disabilities. I said – lead by example and show it can be done. Demonstrate how to overcome every concern and issue the wider community expresses, with transparency and dialogue. Then people will be less afraid and more willing to engage. It might have been my imagination but this didn’t seem to go over brilliantly. The problem is never with us, and the solution is never ours to implement. It’s always someone else’s fault and someone else’s responsibility. We stand around telling each other to be brave and honest and  our every other sentence is a lie.

I’m very angry about this tonight. My faith and my hope keep being rewarded with hypocrisy and harm. Oddly enough, I’m starting to be glad that the Dissociative Initiative has been so hard to get off the ground, that most of those who shared my dream have been occupied by other dreams, or become too overwhelmed by the needs of their condition, to continue with me. It’s breaking my heart, but it’s also saving me from a form of failure that comes wrapped in a package that looks frighteningly like success. I’m starting to think that organisations or any kind of corporate structures should not have anything to do with the support of people in pain. But oh, how I do miss my little team. How my heart hurts every time someone emails me saying, please when is that Bridges group starting again? And how angry I feel every time I confront the sick reality of the profoundly flawed frameworks we have constructed with which to engage the most wounded, vulnerable, lost, and suffering members of our community.

Why do I need a job and an income? Can’t I just open a shelter for everyone who needs it? How do I engage without burning out? How do I not scream with frustration at the burden of all the terrible things I hear, when I walk in a world that is mostly unaware of this suffering? Trapped in secrecy and lies and the requirement that we pretend not to be what we really are, as if self harm scars are slave brands or the tattoos of a criminal, shameful pasts that you cannot escape but must forever conceal. As if being human and having suffered is something to be ashamed of, a weakness, a liability. This is wrong! I hate it! I hate it and I refuse to have any part in it. I will not lie, I will not conceal, I will stand and be counted, I will use my voice to speak for all those who cannot, because the risk to job, or to family is too great. This is wrong. Structures without courage or integrity cannot ever really serve people. They may abuse openly or poison slowly, but they always do harm. There is always a cost for engaging with them. It’s always too high.

Using Anchors to manage Triggers

Anchor is a term I use to describe deliberately using a trigger to help me function. Triggers get talked about lot in various communities – those of us struggling with various forms of mental illness such as eating disorders, those of us working on recovering from trauma, and those of us with multiplicity. For an overview of triggers and a range of different suggestions about managing them, please start by reading Managing Triggers. This post has stories about using anchors to help manage anxiety, trauma issues, and other ‘mental health’ problems. Information about using anchors to manage things that trigger parts for people with multiplicity is coming in a couple of days.

Some of us just drown in triggers. Our world feels like a giant pinball machine where we are constantly ricocheting back and forth, never able to be still or to direct our own course. Some of us are not this chaotic, but we find our efforts to reach goals and build a good life get randomly capsized by triggers we can’t seem to get a grip on. Sometimes this sensitivity is something we can harness instead of trying to overcome. Sometimes the best way to mental health is to find and use the strength that’s hidden in the ‘weakness’ or vulnerability that’s overwhelming you. If being less reactive to triggers isn’t helping, maybe you can use your reactivity in a useful way. Sometimes the goal isn’t to stop feeling things, it’s to feel things that are helping you build your life.

That’s where anchors come into things. An anchor is a trigger you deliberately use or cultivate to help buffer you from the effects from other triggers. It’s strong enough to overwhelm the impact other triggers have on you.

Here is one of my old anchors:

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Yep, it’s a bag of stones. But not just any stones, MAGIC stones! No, actually, just stones. Ahem. This started when a stressed younger part in my system stole a stone from a potted plant at our shrink’s office. It was something she could look at later, to remind herself of good conversations and a sense of acceptance that we experienced in that place when they seemed unreal and distant. It was a way of finding some Object Constancy. A few other stones were added later, such as one from the garden of the shelter we stayed at the first time we were homeless, as a reminder that we’d survived. They could be carried everywhere, tucked easily in a pocket or the bottom of a bag. They were tactile and comfortable to hold or rub with fingers. And they triggered something, they evoked a strong sense of connection to people, places, and times in my life. When I felt empty and hopeless, that sense of freefalling and disconnection, these anchors reminded me that all those things had really happened. They helped to connect me to my own life story.

I often use perfume as an anchor to literately and deliberately overwhelm my own hypersensitivity to the smell of strangers, which is a strong anxiety trigger for me. I’ve written about this before as part of ways to help manage Using Public Transport. Heightened senses can play a huge role in our sensitivity to triggers, and it’s common for people who have been traumatised or who have PTSD to find that certain senses seem to always be straining, very alert and very receptive. Instead of getting caught in the chronic hyperarousal, with all the frustration and irritability that a sense on high alert all the time can bring, why not see it as a superpower and use it to your advantage? For years the smell and proximity of strangers made public transport, crowds, shopping centres, and concerts almost impossible for me. I spent a long time trying to dull this useless, hypersensitive awareness, trying to make it normal again. I ricocheted between dissociative numbness and agonising sensitivity, flooded with sensation.

I finally started to realise that problem might also be the solution. Scents evoke memory in a powerful way. I once smelled a perfume that took me right back to my childhood, playing in the garden, so powerfully it took my breath away. I think my beloved elderly neighbour must have worn it. I have a bottle of it now myself. It’s very precious to me. When I smell it, I feel loved, and beautiful, and carefree. I started to explore scents. I bought an oil burner, essential oils, and books on how to create blends. I joined forums about fragrances, and discovered a whole world of people for whom scent is a complex ecstasy, people who visited perfume houses, who reminisced about perfumes now unavailable, who . I bought samples of strange perfumes from eBay and discovered that a heightened sense can be a source of delight. I grew fragrant plants in my garden and loved the way I could still smell them hours after brushing past them. I learned how to wear perfume as an anchor, to lift my wrist to my face when the smell of someone very afraid, when the odour of hospital cleaner, when the tang of blood overwhelmed me. Any Sensory Supports can function as anchors if you respond to them.

As a young person struggling in school, I used to carry my journal everywhere. It was one of my first, most successful Grounding Techniques, a place I could honestly express all the intensity that burned in me. I wrote myself into being, wrote myself through pain, back from the edge of self destruction, asked myselves questions and pondered the answers. Tried to make sense of my world. The actual journal itself became an anchor, a physical representation of all that writing meant to me. I could walk back into school with the weight of it in my bag. I held it to my chest like a shield. I used it as Artificial Skin when the world was unbearable.

When struggling with the overwhelming urge to self harm, one of my approaches is the Ink not Blood idea. In very bad times I have painted ink wounds on my arm and bandaged them, and that bandage has become an anchor, something to touch and hold, for fingers to worry at, a physical reminder of pain and of loving choices made when in pain. It is comforting in the way that a healing and tended wound can be comforting for some of us who struggle with self harm.

When I’ve written about managing chronic suicidal feelings, I’ve talked about things I use as talismans against death, things that keep me holding on.

They are my talismans against the dark, and they fail when the darkness is great. I hold one until its light goes out, then I put it back and take out another. The power of feeling suicidal is that it strips meaning from that which means most to us.

Some of these talismans are ideas or experiences or quotes or relationships. All of them trigger something in me, some courage, or hope, or acceptance. Some of them are physical things that could be understood as anchors. They are things that weight my soul in life, that help keep my boat here when the tide is pulling me over the edge of the world. The stub from a concert ticket. The peace lily my friend bequeathed me after she died. A poem on my wrist, or a Ray Bradbury book. A bag of stones. They are things that keep a good, healing story about my life alive for me.

Anchors are about taking your sensitivity to triggers and learning to use it, to hone it like an instrument and play beautiful music with it. They are not always the answer, they are not the only way to manage triggers, and they don’t always work. But they can be beautiful, turning what has been a curse into a blessing. Sometimes we live best when we embrace what it is to be human, to be vulnerable and moved, full of memory and feeling. If the only song triggers ever play in your life is the one of suffering, perhaps it’s time for some new music.

For more information about using triggers to support your mental health if you are multiple, go to Using Anchors to Manage Triggers – Multiplicity.

Dark bodypainting self portraits

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It’s been a rough few days. Yesterday, I barely spoke all day. I remember when I was living in a caravan park, this used to happen. Days in a row would go by in which I was silent, except for my journal, except for the weeping. There’s a relief in it, sometimes. I hide from the world, lock the doors, keep the curtains drawn. My paints sang to me and the day turned into a collage of sleeping, body painting, and photographing myself. When all else makes no sense, make art. I have my souvenirs from the underworld. Yes, it’s strange, but it’s cheaper than hospital. I’m still cleaning paint off the bathroom floor. It’s better than cleaning up blood. These are a small sample of the photos I took.

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So many questions. Why the psychosis? How is it linked to art? Why does creativity, not just any art, but the dark kind, help? How much of this do I need? Can I pre-empt the fraying? How do I fit this into my life plans – a job, sharing a house, becoming a mother, when it’s strange, anti-social, dark? I want to get my camera fixed, the good one, and buy a tripod. I’m supposed to be going back to college soon. I can’t fit it all in. My inks are singing to me. Is this how I heal? Ink not blood, and Wrist poems, and Making art. I don’t know. This is not about pain. There’s something else down the bottom of this well, this rabbit hole. Something I don’t understand. The voice of the night wind perhaps. Something – some one – needing a voice and a place at the table, even if the cup is chipped and the soup is watered down. A sense of freedom from the world, a place where my identity is solely that of ‘artist’.

Wrist Poems

Wrist Poems are an art form I have been exploring since my youth. During school years I would write poems or draw images onto the skin of my wrists, arms, and breasts as a way of communicating, connecting with myself, owning my own skin, and protesting a highly censored and restricted environment. I have since come to love body painting, tattoos, henna, and other forms of skin based artwork. Wrist poems continue to be part of my art practice and my own self care.

I have struggles with self hate and self harm. I use wrist poems as an alternative to bloodletting. There are no images of real self harm or blood anywhere on this blog. These are part of my Ink not blood response to the impulse for pain and self destruction. The titles of each are links to more images or information about that Wrist Poem.

Blue Rose:

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This is not my Hand:

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Alone at 4am:

Alone at 4am

Looking for self compassion:

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Body Painting Glove Project:

Body Painting

Wrist Poem – Nobody:

Nobody wrist poem

Wrist poem – Broken:

Wrist Poem - Broken 1

Sickness and Health:

Health & sickness 1

Ink not Blood city:

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Ink not blood city

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Tonight I’m deeply sad. Treading water, far from land, memories that chill me slowly numb. Wrists that want to weep. The comfort of self destruction, mind turning over all the most delicious ways to die. Riding it down as night falls in my heart, as winter falls, as the sirens call to me with their tongues like knives and I find myself wishing for blades, wishing for someone who would beat me until I could cry and melt the frozen place in my heart. Some part of my mind separate from the engulfing despair, enough control to get the car safely home, no kissing trees with bumpers, enough to shuffle us into bed with inks and books as substitutes for blood and torture and loneliness.

I have memories of love and brokenness, some nights the ghosts rise from graves and their chill comes over me and I’m haunted by that which once comforted me. Smaller losses evoke larger ones, the petty indifference of day calls to the memories of an indifference so large and collective it tore spirit from flesh, it first sang blood into my life.

My inks speak to me and for me and of me and of pain. Sleep aches in my bones like desire, in rest will I be sanctified? [‘I went to reach a pannikin off the shelf, in it was a dead man’s brains’] I’m standing in a field of snow, enchanted by glitter until I realise it’s glass dust from a lifetime of broken dreams. The secret seems to be to love anyway, to be willing to bleed, to dream just one time more. It’s ground into my skin, in the light I have a halo, in the mirror I’m an angel with a scarred face and ruined breasts, ink running from my mouth.

Love, I say to her, darling, (they don’t give a f**k about you, like I do) this is my spirit which was broken for you, put your fingers into my palms and believe.

I need a drink

Today was hard. I want to use a lot of swear words but I’m being censored internally. Working a lot lately, trying to keep up with some big new work opportunities, that generate a hell of a lot of admin for us. So my life is currently gigs and admin with the occasional housework and sleep. Nowhere near enough sleep.

If we have the excitable ones out it works okay, they thrive under pressure and work like dogs. Today sucked however, it was freezing cold and wet. It was supposed to get warm and sunny but didn’t. We left our jumper home, so slowly chilled through the day. This is not at all good for pain levels with the fibromyalgia. Due to the weather there was hardly any work, which is emotionally exhausting. You’re on display the whole time and have to stay cheerful and friendly, even if the occasional nutty person treats you like scum (why is it some people think face paint should always be free?). There’s always some wonderful people which is usually enough to make the day worthwhile. But a 5 hour shift, very cold, in a lot of pain, for very little pay, and an hour and a half driving either side of it after a previous two days of work, pain, and sleep deprivation was too much today.

I also got into a conversation with someone who thinks face painting is easy money, and someone else was clearly a bit confused that I find the drive home really hard. It is so depressing some days to deal with the chronic pain and invisible disability, to be held to standards I can’t meet. More than depressing sometimes, triggering. We were rocking quietly the whole afternoon, a major warning sign, we’ve learned the hard way.

Between lots of coffee and more food than I wanted to eat I was able to get back down the freeway without having to slap myself on the face to stay awake like I had to the previous week. I got to Rose’s place where she was just waking up after her night shift to put on some dinner. We crashed into a shaking, weeping, exhausted, nauseated mess. It isn’t helping that Rose and I are both working hard and at different hours so most of the time we spend together one or both of us are trashed and sleeping on a couch. Dinner was beautiful, I’m so lucky to have a girlfriend who’s an amazing cook. Rose napped and I watched the box feeling like I had a javelin in my back. Crashed into a weepy conversation which was badly timed and going nowhere good, switched, played around a bit before Rose went off to work, then went hunting an open bottle shop because sometimes too much sobriety is bad for your health.

Adelaide is lousy for that, at only 10pm nothing was open except for a bottle shop in North Adelaide, which turned out to also be shut but hadn’t bothered to update it’s hours online. So, I came home with 4 litres of milk and a bag of salt and vinegar chips, which wasn’t what I had in mind. At home I raided my liquor supply, which considering my hopeless liver severely restricts my drink intake, is in pretty good shape, and decided the evening would look better through the bottom of a large glass of black sambuca and ice.

I was right. I’m now in bed, wearing an old jumper of Rose’s, with a kitten, watching Dirty Harry. I feel pissed off and sore, but a hell of a lot more stable. Nobody will be cutting tonight. Boots firmly on the ground.