Tag: mental illness

The Problem With Trigger Warnings – Thoughts From a Person With PTSD

The Problem With Trigger Warnings – Thoughts From a Person With PTSD

If you’ve spent an iota of time on the Internet, you’ve likely seen trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are, as far as I can tell, a social construct used primarily to advise you that something you are about to read, watch, or listen to, contains content that some may find offensive or “triggering”. You may also have seen people lambasted for their failure to use a trigger warning by someone who deemed it necessary. So, what is a trigger?

The first time I ever heard the term “trauma trigger” was during a counseling session when I was 7 years old and newly diagnosed with PTSD (for the uninitiated, that’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). I continued to see this term and grew to understand what it meant through the magnitude of reading on my condition I did while growing up. Until relatively recently I had never heard the term used in relation to anything other than PTSD. Simply speaking, a trigger is something that brings forth memories of a traumatic experience in someone with PTSD. This can be in the form of flashbacks, panic attacks, or other mental symptoms.

The difficulty with triggers is that they are often things that are difficult to pinpoint and impossible to avoid. They can be things that wouldn’t make sense to someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be genuinely psychologically triggered. I’m not talking about people who think that “triggered” is synonymous with “uncomfortable” or “offended”. I’m talking about the folks out there who have real mental health consequences to triggers.

My Own Triggers

I’m triggered by the obvious ones, like rape, pedophilia, domestic violence, etc. And then I’m triggered by the ones you wouldn’t expect, like the cologne that my dad used to wear or the smell of sawdust. I’m triggered by certain words, toys, and books. I’m triggered by moustaches. I’m triggered by old carpet. I’m triggered by guns. I’m triggered by high winds or heavy snowfall. I’m triggered by being a passenger in a car. These are just a few examples.

Now, I’m going to say something that seems to be contrary to popular opinion: I am responsible for my triggers. Me.

I don’t believe it’s the responsibility of writers, filmmakers, bloggers, or educators to tell me I might be triggered by something they create for consumption.

Crawling Out of the Darkness

Back when my PTSD was at its worst, I spent nearly 2 years without leaving my home. I had between 3 and 5 panic attacks per day, oftentimes more. I was triggered by everything. Like most people, my safe space was my home, and I was afraid to leave it. If I had continued on that path of avoiding every single trigger to my PTSD, I would still be locked away. Instead, I started to face my demons, and closely observe my reactions to them. I had to if I wanted to survive. What I learned was that by exposing myself to these triggers and learning to cope with them, I took the power away from them. I stopped letting them control me, and it saved my life.  

The problem with trigger warnings is that they make PTSD worse, not better. By avoiding everything that makes you feel uncomfortable, you can never overcome your affliction. You can never face your demons and you will never really get better. You’ll just get better at hiding.

I think most people who use trigger warnings are genuinely caring people who don’t want to hurt anybody. The main problem I have with trigger warnings, however, is that I don’t think they’re helpful. I think they’re a cute way of saying, “Look here. See? I care about your mental illness. I am enlightened. I’m talking about rape but warning you that I’m doing so.” It’s saying, “I’m putting you in a box and protecting you.” as if sheltering a life has ever been productive to growth or healing. I think building these larger safe spaces is counter-productive. You can’t learn to swim if you avoid the water.

So, how did I keep myself safe without trigger warnings? I took responsibility for myself. I didn’t expect my friends to tip-toe around me. If something was triggering me, I’d remove myself from the situation, or I’d sit with it until it went away. I spent time educating myself about my illness until my smarts outranked its strength. Most importantly, I dealt with my demons instead of letting them chase me.

Now

My triggers still affect me, but they don’t run my life or dictate what I can and cannot do. I’m not going to pretend it was easy to get to this point. Facing the things that trigger you and asking them questions rather than closing your eyes is so empowering and healing, but it’s also scary as hell. I learned more about myself doing this than anything else. What’s more is that I stopped letting my abuser and my trauma win. While I did do most of this without any professional assistance, there is a lot of help out there if you look.

If people want to use trigger warnings on their writings? By all means, be my guest. On their own, a trigger warning is little more than a disclaimer and not harmful by itself. It’s just information. The real problem arises with the talk of mandatory trigger warnings, or when people allow themselves to become upset at content creators who don’t use the warnings. It’s simply unreasonable to expect the world to contort and become your personal Safe Space. Living with that sort of mentality will only hurt your mental health in the end. A large number of triggers are unavoidable out in the real world anyway, no matter how many people vigilantly use trigger warnings. Sooner or later, a person needs to take responsibility for their own healing process rather than expecting everyone around them to act as an emotional airbag.

Her Morbid Fascination – Digital Death

Her Morbid Fascination – Digital Death

Something I’ve never shared with you guys is a weird addiction I’ve had surrounding death, which started a few weeks after I was widowed several years ago. If you asked me for a reason why I started, I’d say I just wanted to feel like I wasn’t alone.

I might as well just come out and say it: I’ve been obsessed with death and everything surrounding it. There have been times where I’ve spent hours watching videos of people dying. Hours clicking link after link, each one taking me to some new horror: Here’s a man putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger; I see blood pour out of his nose and mouth like a faucet turned on full. His white shirt turns red in seconds. Another link takes me to a video of a beheading, where a man’s screams turn to gurgles before falling silent as a machete removes his head from his body. Another video shows a group of angry people in some part of Africa burning men and women alive. They keep kicking them back into the flames until they stop trying to get back up. One man submits to his fate and I watch his skin char and peel away, exposing pink flesh underneath.

A slew of suicides. Violence, hard to comprehend a reason for. Murder, up close and personal in the era of camera phones and surveillance streams. All of these video clips sought out by a girl who desperately wants to desensitize herself to her past. A coping strategy that, rather than hiding from it, brings death front and center and stares it in the face. No death is unique. It’s an inevitable part of life for each and every one of us. After watching thousands of people meet their end, it’s become apparent that no death is special or more tragic than another. Life is life. Loss is loss. Whether you get sucked into a jet engine or bleed to death from a fatal stab wound, the end result is the same. People will mourn the ending of your life, and for those closest to you, it will be earth shattering.

Has subjecting myself to this morbidity helped me in any way? It’s hard for me to make that judgement. I do know that it has provided a sort of comfort during some dark times, but I don’t believe I’m desensitized. Where Internet pictures and videos are concerned, I can watch anything without flinching or really reacting at all. While it doesn’t apply to real life scenarios, it’s disturbing to me that I can watch a video of a woman hanging herself and not be negatively affected by it. The people I see in the photo files and video clips mean nothing to me, aside from the fact that we are fellow human beings spinning through life on the same rock. When I look at their faces: the eyes, noses and mouths of people who had lives and loved ones, I don’t see anything familiar. They are just faces, but I feel a disconnected love for them.

It is only when someone close to you dies that the mechanics of death begin to suffocate you. You know what was lost. You felt them; heard them breathe. You had conversations and secrets. You knew what made them happy and what made them cry. You made memories.

I’ll never be desensitized to the icy sting of death. I no longer want to be, because that would mean I’d have to lose more people I care about. I’d have to keep losing them until I couldn’t feel anymore, and what kind of existence is that?

An Update: Abandoning My Antidepressants

An Update: Abandoning My Antidepressants

It’s been over a month now since I quit taking my antidepressants (Wellbutrin). If you didn’t see my original post on this topic, you may want to check it out here. To briefly summarize, I hated how it made me feel in that it made me feel nothing at all. Now that its effects seem to have subsided, I wanted to give an update on how things are going.

So… what are some of the differences I’ve noticed? first and foremost, I can feel again. Things have begun to affect me the way they used to. I’ve been writing again. I’ve been thinking deeply again. I feel more present as opposed to like I’m watching my life go by through a foggy window. I’m okay.

I’m finding myself torn. On one hand, I’ve always been a big supporter of medical science and getting help when you need it. When someone is suffering, I always recommend going to a doctor for antidepressants or other therapy. Hell, I work in a mental health clinic and help people get their prescriptions every day. I think for a lot of people, medication can be a life saver and the answer to their problems.

On the other hand I feel a bit like a hypocrite when I see things differently for myself. I think maybe some people are just meant to feel things more intensely than other people, and maybe that isn’t a sickness; when you take away the ability to feel you take away the ability to create. I’ve talked to a lot of fellow creatives on this topic and nearly all of them have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness. Many of the old greats have been diagnosed post-mortem with depression or anxiety or bipolar. A common theme seems to be the inability to create on medication. It numbs the senses crucial to the act of creation. I’ve tried two very different antidepressants now and they both essentially did the same thing: one brought me to an almost violent serenity and one brought me to a sensory deprivation tank filled with my own blood where I lay there smiling with no care in the world.

I was afraid that maybe this time I wouldn’t wake up again. After a couple of weeks passed and I was still struggling to form a coherent thought or to care about certain things I thought maybe whatever part of my brain was responsible for it was killed off or left on permanent vacation.

To my immense relief, I was reading an article one day and it actually made me emotional. Shortly thereafter, I started to get a lot of really great ideas for writing, or little projects I could do. This went on for a week or so. Then, I seemed to have some sort of second breakthrough where I started to take better care of myself. I started going to the gym again. Today was my day off from work and I’ve had a lot of really wonderful time to myself to think, and the epiphanies keep coming. I want to re-embrace my minimalist lifestyle and do another wardrobe purge. I want to  go back to eating 100% paleo (a diet in which I felt healthier than I ever felt in my life) but to avoid my usual urge to dive in with both feet. A gradual change is hard, but it’s what I want to do this time to make sure it sticks.

Overall I know that going off of the antidepressants was the right choice for me. It’ll be a difficult path but a beautiful one. I don’t want this to come across like I’m promoting living with mental illness unmedicated. I’m very much a believer that everyone should walk down the path in their own way and find what makes them happiest. You should talk to your doctor before making any changes in your medication. For me, twice was enough to know. While there might be a medication out there that would work for me without killing the emotional side of me, I’m not willing to try anymore. At this point, I’m going to keep going with what has worked for me in the past, which is keeping my creative outlets open and fortified strong against my demons.

 

Snapped

Snapped

I jumped and the rope snapped. Not all at once, but it slackened enough to save my life in the exact moment I decided I wanted to be saved. We’d used similar rope in the barn to lift thousand pound beams to brace the ceiling. I was lucky.

I jumped when my dad snapped. His loaded trigger finger sent a bolt deep into the tree over my head where he forced me to stand with a photo of my mother held around my head with elastic. He usually had terrible aim. I was lucky.

Third time’s the charm.
Hi Dad.

My Scars – A Brief History of Self Harm

My Scars – A Brief History of Self Harm

I’m going to try and be brave today. I’m going to talk about something I’ve never spoken of publicly. In fact, it’s something that only those closest to me in my life have been privy to, and even then, only bits and pieces of the whole story. It’s not something that is easy for me to talk about because the emotions surrounding it are very complex and difficult to put into words. It’s something I’ve been ashamed of; a deep, dark secret I’ve kept from the world: I used to self harm; a recovered cutter.

Now… you might be wondering what would cause me to bring self harm up now. A few months ago, a friend of mine disclosed to me that he would occasionally hurt himself physically when he was upset. It was something difficult for him to talk about. He felt scared, confused, angry and alone. When I asked him why he’d never talked about this with anyone else, he explained that it was because he didn’t want people to know he was ‘fucked up’. He was ashamed, and so had kept his feelings and his behavior to himself. As a person who believes that emotions are best talked about, I was forced to examine my own reasons for keeping my history of self harm a shameful secret.

I felt compelled to tell my story because I want my friend (and others like him) to know that not only are you not alone, but that it’s okay to talk about it. Self harm is something frequently joked about, but it isn’t funny. There are so many misconceptions surrounding self-harm that are doing nothing to help those suffering through it. I’ve seen it treated as a fad, with websites glorifying it. I’ve seen it treated as a joke and something ‘only emo kids’ do. I’ve seen people chastised for it and accused of trying to get attention. Today, dear readers, I’m going to share my own story and experiences with self harm to give a realistic view of what it’s been like for at least one girl to have lived with it.

When it Began

The first time I remember hurting myself was when I was 8 years old. I remember being upset to the point of crying quite hard, then grabbing a Lego and jamming a corner of it into the top of my thigh. On some level, the pain acted as a sort of emotional release.

Things got much more severe once I entered adolescence. The first time I remembered actually ‘cutting’ was when I was 12 or 13. I was emotionally distraught and in the heat of the moment, grabbed a piece of broken glass from a jar that had broken in my room earlier that day and made a series of small cuts on the back of my forearm. This was the first time there was ‘evidence’ of my self-harm, and once I calmed down, I felt scared but I was also comforted by the cuts. If I was at school and some kids were bullying me, I’d press my fingers against the cuts through my shirt and the pain would somehow center me and drown out the taunting and name-calling. I wore long sleeved shirts until they were healed, but it didn’t stop there.

A Worsening Problem

My episodes of self-harm got worse when I entered high school. The cutting became more extreme and more frequent. I would do it when I was angry. I would do it when I was sad. I would do it when I was feeling any extreme negative emotion. Most of the cutting would be done either on the backs of my forearms, or on my thighs. For a while, I would do it on the insides of my calves. The cuts became deeper and the bleeding took increasing amounts of time to stop. I started collecting some of the blood and mixing it in with my oil paints and then painting with them. Cutting became the way that I handled my increasingly turbulent emotions and developing mental illness. I was a dark, demented kid from the beginning and this was just one more layer of who I was. I told a few friends about it, and kept my cuts (at various stages of healing) hidden under layers of baggy clothing and long sleeves.

I continued cutting when I was upset/stressed out/angry well into my adult years. However, I didn’t do it as frequently. It was always a very personal and intimate thing for me and never felt self-destructive. I always felt somehow liberated by it all. In my deepest, darkest moments, it gave me some control over what I was feeling; like a shore I could swim to.

Motivation to Stop

The last time I cut myself was a week before I found out I was pregnant with Darwin. Dave had just had 3 seizures over the course of the night and I’d been up all night researching to see what could be causing them. I was overwhelmed, scared, and frustrated that doctors didn’t seem to care. I cut myself on the leg and went to sleep shortly afterward. I told Dave about it the next day and we had a long talk about it. He said some things to me that made me realize that hurting myself was hurting him. When I found out a week later that I was pregnant, I felt that my body was no longer mine and so it didn’t seem right (on multiple levels) to do anything negative to my body. When Dave died, I was incredibly tempted and came close to cutting a few times, but it just didn’t seem right to hurt the body that was nourishing Darwin, as silly as that may sound. I think by the point when breastfeeding ended, I’d already had to develop other methods for coping with pain and didn’t have the urge any longer. I had kept away from it long enough that I became somewhat cured.

Recovered

It’s now officially been over 5 years since I last cut myself, which is the longest I’ve gone since I was 8 years old. All that are left now are some faded scars, most of which are barely visible on my pale skin. I believe that having a good enough reason to stop cutting myself in the first place forced me to learn how to handle my emotions in a healthier way. I’m still tempted sometimes, when life feels like too much to bear, but I remind myself that I made it through the most difficult time in my life without cutting. After that, everything else seems too trivial to warrant it.

Truth be told, I haven’t known many other people who self harm. Given the intimate nature of cutting and the attitude society tends to have towards it, I’m not surprised that most people hide it. I know that you’re out there, though, and if you’re reading these words, maybe you want to talk to someone about it. I want you to know that I am a safe person to talk to, and whoever you are and however you see yourself, you have a friend in me. If you want to vent or just need someone to talk to, send me a message on Facebook or at wendyblacke@gmail.com.

I debated showing the following photos for a while, but then I figured in the spirit of this post, I’d just go for it. So here they are, folks: the most visible of my scars, and I am not ashamed of them.