Tag Archives: suicide

Resolutions for a (Mentally) Healthier New Year

2 Jan

TW: talk of suicide, body size, dieting

It’s the beginning of a new year, which means that I’ve been seeing lots of posts on social media about resolutions for 2015 and, as always, one of the dominant themes is health. I’ve seen a lot of promises to bike to work, to eat healthier, to get a gym membership, and so on and so forth. I used to make resolutions like these, although mine were almost always unhealthy and centred around weight loss. I would frame them as “feeling better in my body,” but really what I meant was, “exercise and withhold foods I love until my body is a size that makes me feel good about myself.” Turns out that magical just-beyond-the-horizon body size doesn’t actually exist, and the methods I used to try to get there were dangerous, unsustainable, and made me feel like garbage.

I’m not saying that making resolutions about your own body is wrong; I’m just saying that they aren’t positive for me, personally. So this year instead of having goals for my physical health, I’m going to make goals for my mental health. After all, that aspect of my well-being needs more attention these days than my body itself; I’m also hoping that focussing more on my mental state will help me to be kinder to my body. Hopefully it’ll be a win for all the players of Team Thériault!

So here are my resolutions for 2015:

1. Take my medication every day, no excuses

I take what sometimes seems like a lot of meds – prescription iron pills for my buzz-kill anemia, Zoloft for anxiety, a tiny dose of Seroquel as an adjunct mood booster and Imovane, the tiny blue angel that floats me off to dream country every night. Now, naturally I’m GREAT at remembering to take my sleepy time pills at the end of the day because a) they make me feel good and b) I’m a hot insomniac mess without them. I’m less amazing when it comes to consistently taking the rest of my drugs. I really have no excuse NOT to be amazing about the Zoloft and the iron pills, because I own at least two fancy pill boxes: an elegant-lady-who-takes-Xanax-with-her-tea style box from my friend Audra, and a box with a Russian cosmonaut theme from my friend CJ. In 2015, I will travel with these boxes fully stocked at all times. I will also remember to use my full spectrum lamp every day – again, I have no good excuse not to use it, since I can set it up anywhere and get some work done while it beams sunshine deep into my cold, briny soul.

2. Be more consistent about therapy

I mean, I always go to my therapist’s office, but I don’t always go to therapy, if that makes sense. I phone it in a lot of the time – as someone who can talk forever about the most unimportant subjects, I’m really good at making my therapy sessions all filler and no killer, and often when we start to edge into scary feelings territory, I bail hard. This makes me feel like I’m doing this tepid sort of I’m-working-through-my-stuff-but-not-really dance, one where I spend more time balking and shying away than actually confronting my shit. This year I want to learn to how to better work through the balking so that I can get to the stuff that matters.

3. Check in more often with the people I love (and who love me)

I need to be better about checking with my friends and family – even if it’s just sending little text messages telling them that I love them and value them. When things start to go sideways mental health-wise, one of the first things I do is sequester myself from the people around me, which of course only amplifies the misery I’m feeling. It’s a vicious cycle – I feel awful and think I’m a terrible person, and I don’t want to subject others to my terribleness so I stop talking to them, and then this social isolation just confirms everything bad I believe about myself. This year I’m going to make more of a conscious effort to check in with the people I care about, both because it will make me a more awesome friend and also because it’s a healthier way for me to be.

4. Ask for help when I need it

Whenever my depression is bad, and especially once i’ve hit the slippery slope of suicidal ideation, I get to a place where I just can’t do it on my own anymore. Which is a very human thing, because humans are social creatures, and there’s a reason cave men lived in packs or whatever – we’ve evolved to need each other and rely on each other. The problem is that I really, really hate asking for help – not because I’m a noble solitary warrior or anything like that, but because I’m afraid that no one will care enough about me to help, or else that I’ll be taking advantage of my friends, or, worst of all, that people will help and I’ll still feel just as bad as ever. I know that none of it is rational, but when I get to a state of bone-gnawing sadness all reason goes out the window. Which is why I need to make plans and change my behaviour now, while I’m feeling relatively stable, instead of waiting until things are the Absolute Worst before trying to fix my life.

One thing on this front that I’ve found really useful has been asking for specific types of help – help with childcare, help with cleaning, help with food preparation, or even just help in the form of pep talks or hugs to keep me going when the going gets tough. I’ve also learned that it helps to be clear about what I want/need when I’m feeling down about something – sometimes I’m not in a place to process advice, and clarifying for my friends that I’m looking for comfort and commiseration only means that we all avoid frustrating interactions.

5. Learn to say no

See also: learn to budget my time better, learn to better estimate how long a given task will take, learn to set firm interpersonal and professional boundaries, and learn not to take on every writing gig that comes my way.

I seem to have this weird belief that Corey Mason‘s dad was right and there are, in fact, 24 usable hours in ever day (even though when Corey tried to follow this advice she wound up becoming a speed addict, but I digress), so I stupidly keep adding stuff to my calendar until I barely have time to breathe. I think I’m worried that if I start turning down opportunities, then no one will ever ask me to do anything ever again, but that’s just not true. I’m going to practice saying no in the politest, firmest, most I’m-incredibly-flattered-you-asked-me-but-I’m-super-busy, let’s-do-this-another-month-instead-of-tomorrow sort of way.

In a similar vein, I’m going to try to only take on paid writing gigs this year. I’m not going to write for “exposure” anymore, and if I do something for free it will be because it’s a cause I believe in, and to which I really want to lend my voice. My time is valuable, my thoughts are valuable, and my landlord won’t accept “exposure” in lieu of a rent cheque.

6. Be more consistent about applying skills I learned in cognitive behavioural therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy was the SHIT. I took away more concrete skills from the handful of months I spent in the CBT program at CAMH than probably any other therapy I’ve ever had in my life. When I can manage to breathe deeply, evaluate what I’m thinking/feeling and ask myself if it’s a logical reflection of what I’m actually experiencing, it becomes much easier to  squelch an oncoming meltdown. Of course, I don’t always remember/feel capable of using my CBT skills when I’m mid panic-attack. What I need to do is start practicing these mind-tricks when things are less critical, so that implementing them becomes a habit and feels less like a mental workout.

7. Learn to better live in my body and not just with my body

I have this habit of treating my body like a mostly useless bipedal meat vehicle for my brain, by which I mean there’s a part of me that honestly believes that my body only exists to transport my beautiful mind from place to place. This can lead to me feeling like I’m not so much living in my body as I am grimly tolerating my body. This year I’m going to try to actually love my body – the way it looks, how it moves, the rad things it does – rather than treating it as if its only value lies in its utility. Because not only is that view pretty unkind to myself, it’s also very ableist. Bodies aren’t just good because they can do things – they’re good because they exist, and they’re us, and we have value as people.

8. Become better at identifying my mental state

Identifying my breathless, sobbing, oh-god-the-world-is-ending meltdowns as actually being panic attacks was a huge turning point for me in 2014. I went from thinking that I am just this bad person who can’t control their emotions to recognizing that this is an actual thing that is happening, a thing that has a name and has been described by other people and is generally recognized by doctors and lay-folk alike. This gave my panicked weeping on public transit a sort of validity that it had been lacking, and made it seem more like a solvable problem and less like a huge personal flaw. I’m not saying that this is something that will help everybody, and I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything wrong having meltdowns on buses that aren’t panic attacks, but for me, personally, this has been really useful.

I also think that in general I need to be better at identifying what I’m feeling and, if applicable, why. Sometimes even just naming things makes them easier to handle, you know?

9. Practice self-care

I pay a lot of lip service to self-care, but I’m not always the greatest at practicing it myself. This year I’m going to make sure I have more downtime, more comforting rituals, and more ways of recharging. My friend Audra has a self-care chalkboard that reminds her to do things she enjoys and that are good for her specific body – stuff like swimming, hula hooping, and drinking tea – and I think I’m going to steal her idea. I need to remember to use my me-time for stuff that I love and that rejuvenates me, rather than wasting it refreshing my Facebook page 50,000 times in a row.

10. Be kinder to myself

This is definitely the hardest one, because my natural inclination is to treat myself like garbage. I’m the type of person who’s always ready with a laundry list of all my worst qualities, and my ability for negative self-talk is unparalleled. I don’t just sell myself short – I’ll argue with you about why and how I’m a complete waste of money, time and space. But this year, that’s going to start changing.

My goal for 2015 is to give myself as much love, patience and understanding as I would lavish on the folks I care about. If I can treat other people decently, then surely I can do the same thing to myself? This is going to be the year of giving myself the benefit of the doubt, going easy on myself when I fuck up, and giving myself more space to breathe.

Happy 2015, y’all

Looking forward to the new year with a cool head and a clear eye

Looking forward to the new year with a cool head and a clear eye

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On This Day In History

7 Aug

It’s my birthday, y’all. I’m 32 today.

I had a personal essay go up on Jezebel today (trigger warning for talk of suicide)

I also had a serious scholarly article about Anne Boleyn go up on The Toast.

It’s been a big day.

We drove for three hours to see my grandmother in St-Bruno, then drove three hours back to Kingston, where we’re staying with my mom for the week. I only got to chill with my Nana for about two hours, but it was one hundred percent worth it because I get to see her once or twice a year tops. My Nana is a really rad lady, in case you were wondering.

She hates having her picture taken, but here’s an awesome picture of my grandfather I found while I was there:

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Also this is how big the fucking hedge is in my grandmother’s backyard (Theo pictured for scale), so whenever I’m there I feel like I’m chilling in a fairytale forest, which is obviously something I’m into.

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I love that stupid hedge an unreasonable amount. I used to play hide and seek in there with my cousins when I was a kid. Also we turned part of it into a fort where we did secret things. And by secret things I mean played house.

We made it back to Kingston by early evening, and I paid my yearly tribute to Hiroshima. They hold a Peace Lantern ceremony here in one of the parks downtown, and the ritual of making lanterns, folding cranes and singing Pete Seeger songs has become an important part of my birthday. It’s kind of weird to feel so tied to this horrible event that happened decades before I was born, but I’m also weirdly thankful for the moments of sad remembrance on what is otherwise a happy day. The bombing of Hiroshima feels like a part of who I am, in a way that I can’t really properly articulate.

Anyway.

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Making lanterns with Theo

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The boy beside us, Yuto, made the lantern below. As you can see, there’s Pikachu and also an illustration of the bombing of Hiroshima. He was adorable and a great artist. I think that placing these two scenes side by side really makes a statement.

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Making paper cranes:

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My crane:

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The lantern procession:

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Getting ready to float them out on the water:

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Perfect.

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This birthday was one of the good ones.

Pharmacopeia, or, The Drugs Don’t Work

11 Jun

TW for talk of suicide

Some days, as I rush around the apartment trying to get ready to face the world, I can’t help but feel like a traveling pharmacy. Inside the vast expanses of my purse, along with my laptop, my wallet, my keys, my book-du-jour, two shades of Sephora lipstick (neutral pink “charmer” and come-at-me crimson “tango”), my headphones, my phone, assorted bandaids, bobby pins and hair elastics, I neatly arrange the bottles of multicoloured pills through which I measure out my life like those metaphorical coffee spoons. Blood-red prescription iron supplements, safety-vest-orange Zoloft, dingy red-brown Seroquel, electric blue Imovane and, of course, the virginal pink birth control pills. My own private stash.

The pills are like little hand-holds to grab onto as I swing myself through my day. Orange and red with my breakfast, to keep my mood somewhere above apocalyptic-crying-level and to boost my energy, red again with supper, to keep my iron levels up over night, then red-brown, pink and blue at bedtime to respectively “enhance” my anti-depressant, make sure that I don’t accidentally bring forth another life onto this dismal planet, and then float me off to sleep the sleep of the innocents.

I’ve been on psychotropic drugs since I was sixteen, and can give you a poetic sort of laundry list of all the different types I’ve tried: Paxil, Prozac, Remeron Effexor, Elavil, Ativan, Wellbutrin, each at varying and increasing dosages. Paxil was the first one they tried on me, and when it perform as expected, they kept increasing the amount until I was a miserable wreck: twenty five pounds heavier, lethargic, awake all night and falling asleep in class. The funny thing was that my doctor kept telling me that it was working, that he was seeing improvements. Never mind that I felt worse than ever – to him, it definitely seemed as if I was getting better. It took months of arguing before he agreed to try a different drug.

The latest addition to my personal valley of the dolls is the Seroquel, typically used as an antipsychotic. I wondered if my doctor was trying to tell me something. I asked Nathan if he thought my doctor was trying to tell me something.

Me: It’s an antipsychotic. Do you think my doctor thinks I’m psychotic but just doesn’t want to say anything in case it upsets me? Am I psychotic?

Nathan: The medium isn’t always the message, Tiger. [Editor’s note: he likes to call me Tiger. Sometimes also Buddy or Slugger or Buckaroo. One time it was Tex.]

Me: But Marshall McLuhan said it was!

Nathan: Heritage Moments aren’t always right.

But then again, sometimes they are. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

I’ve never really been able to tell if these drugs help at all (except for the sleeping pills, which are an insomniac’s best friend, and, of course, the birth control, thank god). Sometimes I take them and things get better, but it’s hard to know if that’s from the pills or from the natural dips and rises of my inner life. But I keep taking them, even after I swear that I won’t. They’re well-marketed, these drugs, and at my weakest moments I always find myself acquiescing. The doctors make a good case for acquiescing.

Those doctors always sell me on the antidepressants by telling me that I have a chemical imbalance, a lack of serotonin that causes my brain to short circuit and makes me want to die. That’s the best way to describe what it feels like to be suicidal – a short circuit, a glitch in the system, a design flaw. Killing yourself becomes the answer to everything. Your mind becomes like a record needle that jumps the groove, a sort of skip in your mental process where instead of going forward and thinking up solutions to your problems, all that you can come up with is, the only way out is to kill yourself. And the drugs are supposed to fix that skip, supposed to make it so that your record can play all the way until the end, and then you can flip it over, then put on another record, and so on ad infinitum, happily ever after.

The idea of a chemical imbalance is supposed to make you feel like you’re not crazy in the 19th century meaning of the word;  you’re not some kind of incurable case about to be shipped off to Bedlam. What’s wrong with you is physical – like a diabetic who lacks insulin (they’re always comparing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs to insulin for some reason), you just need a little medical help replacing something that your body is failing to make on its own, and then you’ll be fine. It’s not really a mental illness so much as it is a physical condition with mental manifestations. You’re not like those people.

By those people they mean, of course, the people with schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder or some kind of nonspecific psychosis. Doctors never let you forget that there is a hierarchy of mental illnesses, one which you might slip down at any given moment. Doctors want you to remember that your place in the mental illness food chain is a relatively coveted one, lest you get any big ideas about going any crazier.

It’s easy to internalize the stigma against mental illness. Sure, you’re mentally ill, but you’re not like them. You don’t ever want to be like them.

Never mind that you already are one of them, no matter how you frame it. Never mind that all of your attempts to distance yourself, to other, only make things worse for everyone. Because you’re basically giving healthy people permission to other you.

You and your delicately imbalanced chemicals.

The chemical imbalance theory has been around since the 1960s. There was never much research done into the idea; it was just something that seemed like it could be right, and everyone sort of ran with it. Maybe they couldn’t properly test for that sort of thing back then. Maybe theories were the best they could go on. But now, fifty years later, it might be time to re-examine those theories.

According to Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, doctors have known for a long time that the chemical imbalance model is likely flawed. In an interview on CBC’s The Sunday Edition, he says,

And as early as 1998, the American Psychiatric Association in its textbook says we’re not finding that people with depression have any abnormality in their serotonin, but because it’s such an effective metaphor for getting people to take the drugs and sell the drugs, it’s continued to be promoted.

According to Whitaker, people who take psychiatric drugs were more likely to still have symptoms five years later than those who didn’t take psychiatric drugs. Because, see, here’s the catch – people who take SSRIs but don’t have low serotonin to begin with begin to rely on those drugs to manage their serotonin levels. SSRIs actually reduce the brain’s ability to produce serotonin.

So maybe the drugs have never actually been helping me, or any of us; maybe all they’ve done is create a population of people who are dependent on psychiatric medication.

And maybe The Verve were right after all, and the drugs don’t really work, they just make you worse.

It bears thinking about, anyway.

I’ve been reading about lobotomies recently (as any good mental health patient does, I suppose), and I came across this gem in Ronald Kessler’s The Sins of the Father describing Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy:

We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.” The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. “We put an instrument inside,” he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backwards….. “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” ….. When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like doctors take the same approach – albeit on a much smaller scale – with psychiatric drugs. Increase the dosage until the patient becomes incoherent, or at least docile. Push the pills until they don’t feel anything, because feeling nothing is better than feeling sad or confused or anxious. Don’t offer counselling, or therapy, or life management skills. Just fork over pills pills pills until some kind of effect (or affect – little psychiatric joke there for you) is achieved.

The truth is that we don’t know how psychiatric medication works – we just know that sometimes it does. If you’ve ever taken the pills, you know that it’s a lot of trial and error until you find something that gives you some kind of relief. Which is great and everything for the people who benefit from it, but where does it leave the rest of us? We become guinea pigs of a sort, choking down brightly-coloured pill after pill, praying that something, anything will work. Because, honestly, it’s better than the alternative.

The alternative is, of course, that the brain is still a vast unknown. That we are only just barely beginning to grasp its complexity, and we may never fully understand it. That those of us who suffer from mental illness are sailing in uncharted waters, with no stars to guide us. What looks like Cassiopeia or Orion to everyone else is just a jumble of unknown lights to us. And maybe for some, the drugs make the stars realign into their proper order – but for the rest of us, maybe we need to begin creating our own private constellations to ferry us from one point to another.

The thought is terrifying, and I feel unequipped to deal with it. I’m not an astrologer. I just want the same stars as everyone else.

I’m going to keep taking the drugs, at least for now. They feel like a sort of safety net, and I know that I’m not ready to walk the high wire without them. But someday, someday soon, I want to begin to chart my own inner universe. I want a map of my own personal stars, and there isn’t anyone else who can do that for me. If I’m not willing or able to play amateur stellar cartographer, well, then, what’s the point? A lifetime of one brightly-coloured pill after another, each with its own dreary side effects, none of them even remotely effective. I can’t live like that.

But I haven’t lost faith that I can, somehow, find a way to live.

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Life Goes On And Other Garbage

18 May

The main problem with life is that it goes on. And on. And on.

People say that like it’s supposed to comfort you. Like, if you don’t get the job you wanted or your dog dies or the guy you’re so smitten with just out of the blue stops calling, your mom or your friend or your boss will inevitably say, oh, well, life goes on. As if i’s supposed to make you feel better, somehow, knowing that not only do you have to deal with this stupid bleeding heartache, but even while you gingerly nurse that hurt you still have to keep making your stumbling way through this magnificent/godawful old world.

Life goes on even after you’ve poisoned every good thing that’s ever come your way. Life goes on after you’ve single-handedly destroyed every relationship that was important to you, as if you were on some kind of mission to prove just how unloveable a person can be. Life goes on after you’ve fucked around so much at work, knowing all the while that you’re fucking around and hating yourself for it, that you face the very real risk of being fired. Life goes on, and you’re left standing amid all the sad wreckage of your little self. Life goes on even on the days when you can’t get out of bed. Life goes on especially on those days.

Life goes on after the good stuff, too. Like that walk home from the bar with your lover, when both of you were tipsy enough to find everything perfect and funny, even the things that were neither perfect nor funny. It was summer then, a real big city summer where daytime heat smashes you hard against the pavement, but  that night was a sort of reprieve. The baking stillness of the day was gone, and there was a delicious breeze coming from somewhere, maybe the lake. The leaves on the trees were broad and green and made a soft shushing sound above you. The streetlights hazy, and the world smelled like fresh cut grass. You knew that when you got home you would fuck and eat junk food and watch cartoons and then fall asleep in a tangled pile like a pair of puppies.

It was the kind of moment that you feel nostalgic for even as you’re living through it – you catch yourself mid-laugh and realize how happy you are, and then you instantly feel the sharp pang of longing for the thing you’re still in the middle of experiencing.

But life goes on.

You don’t get to hit pause or take a break from living. Even if you stay perfectly still and will everything around you to do the same, life still steamrollers over you. There’s no chance to sit back and appraise the situation, no time to collect your wits or figure out what you’re going to do next. You have to stay on your toes, you have to keep running, or else life will crush you. But even once you’re crushed, life goes on.

I have such a deep ambivalence about living. Things are either painfully, frantically wonderful or else they’re bitterly terrible. I love this world, but I love it with a suffocating zeal that can’t possibly be maintained. I rarely ever seem to hit that balance of peaceful contentedness that other people seem to manage – I’m always running headlong into something, trying to create some feeling that would otherwise be lacking. And if I do somehow manage to hit that point of effortless happiness, I always manage to sabotage myself. I’m like Shiva, the destroyer of worlds, except that I’m Anne, the destroyer of boring, petty human lives.

Which isn’t easy.

I mean, you really have to work hard to be this consistently vicious and miserable all of the time.

It’s not that I want to be unhappy, it’s just that my brain is an expert at leading me on these circuitous little journeys that always start out so promisingly but end with me stabbing myself in the back. I’m an ouroboros of anguish, both the giver and receiver of all my own pain. I’m hell-bent on being the wrecking ball that smashes through the wall of my own house. I’m all-the-other-semi-accurate-and-very-dramatic metaphors you can think of.

And, I mean, we could delve into all the reasons why I act this way, but frankly the story is long and unoriginal. Suffice to say that shit happened, some of it was my own fault, and now I’m here. The rest I’ll save for my therapist.

Because life goes on and I’ll have another therapy session this Wednesday and then I’ll come home and crash into my bed and try to sleep but probably I won’t be able to.

And then I’ll get up and putter around the house and maybe wash the dishes or start dinner since life, of course, goes on.

I wish that I could wrap this post up on a hopeful note, maybe with a line of trite wisdom that you might find on a greeting card or in a particularly terrible self-help book. I want to be able to tell you that everything’s going to be fine, that sure, life goes on, but it’s all in what we make of it and we have to take the good with the bad and there are other fish in the sea. I wish I could tell you that I wasn’t sitting here in a seething fury of fear and self-hatred, but that wouldn’t be true. I wish I could tell you that I wasn’t a self-indulgent, oversharing little brat, but. Well. Here we are.

The most that I can do is offer all of this up to you. Maybe you’ll see some of yourself reflected here. Maybe a sentence or two will strike you as being quite true, in a way that you were never able to articulate before. Or maybe this will help you be more compassionate or some junk like that.

You, the people reading this, are the only thing that make these garbage essays about my garbage feelings worthwhile. Because you always seem to glean some kind of meaning from them, even when all I can see is a morass of bad prose. You’re the way that I manage to justify bleeding this way all over the internet. You somehow make that bleeding important.

Against all odds, you give me hope.

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To All Of The Girls Accused Of Just Wanting Attention

6 May

TW for talk of suicide

Also a note to mention that I recognize that it’s not only women who are accused of being attention-seeking – however, it does seem to be a highly gendered thing

The first thing I need you to know is that there is nothing wrong with wanting attention. Asking people to notice you does not make you needy or pathetic or anything of the other things people have called you when you’ve somehow been too honest about your want. Wanting attention is human nature – we’re social creatures, and it’s perfectly natural to want some kind of social regard from other people.

The second thing that I need you to know is that your feelings – whatever they might be – are valid. If you want attention because you are lonely or sad or scared, you shouldn’t be ashamed of that fact. Those are very good reasons to ask for attention. Try not to let people discredit your feelings because your emotions make them uncomfortable. That is their issue, not yours.

There are so many good reasons for wanting attention. You might want to be complimented, or comforted, or distracted. You might need reassurance that the people around you love you and value your presence in their lives. You might just need that little boost to get you through the rest of the day. There is no wrong reason to want attention. Attention is not a bad thing. In fact, attention is necessary to our survival – we need attention in order to grow and thrive and develop as people. As mammals, we need other members of our species to love and care for us from the moment we’re born. That’s what sets us apart from other animals.

The third thing that I need you to know is that the best way to get what you want is to ask for it. You’ve been taught your whole life not to ask for things, to sit passively and sweetly until they come to you, but try to fight that urge. Be as clear as possible about what kind of support you want – it’s unfair to expect people to guess. If you want a compliment, then say so. If you want cute pictures of animals or funny gifs, then ask for those. If you want a shoulder to cry on or space to vent, then be honest about it. It’s hard for people to give you what you need if all they have to go on are vague suggestions.

The fourth thing that I need you to know is that you have been socialized from a very young age to compete for attention. You’ve been taught that other women are the enemy and men are the prize. You’ve been told in a thousand subtle ways that what’s most important is that you are pretty, charming, and sweet. You’ve learned to cut other girls down in order to make yourself look better. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I need you to know that you can ask for attention in a way that is not at another girl’s expense.

I also need you to know that accusing another girl of just wanting for attention is another way of cutting them down.

The fifth thing that I need you to know is that you are worth so much more than how you look. There’s nothing wrong with wanting compliments on your appearance, but you should know that your value does not depend on how pretty you are. I know that you’ve been taught since day one that beauty trumps everything else, but please, please try your hardest to unlearn that lesson. You are a smart and talented and creative and interesting creature. Seriously, I cannot stress this enough: you are so much more than your looks.

The sixth thing that I need you to know is that not all attention is created equal, and what might feel affirming in the moment might create damaging patterns in the long term. If you cannot feel pretty without having other people confirm your prettiness, asking over and over for that validation will not change your self-perception. And maybe that’s not your goal – maybe you don’t want to change. You’re allowed to not want to change. But you should know that it is dangerous to base any part of your self-esteem on the opinion of other people.

Finally, for anyone who might roll their eyes at someone who just wants attention, I need you to know that sometimes that attention – even if it’s just a hug or a phone call or a quick text message – can make an enormous difference. Sometimes it can even mean the difference between life and death. Studies show that suicide is an impulsive act, and, contrary to popular belief, if someone intervenes most often the survivor will not immediately go find some other way of killing themselves. Your text could be that intervention – you have no way of knowing what type of mental state anyone else is in, and if you sense that they need some kind of help, you should offer them whatever you can.

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When Getting Better Is No Longer An Option

27 Apr

Trigger warning for talk of suicide

I used to think that I would outgrow it.

I used to think it was just hormones. The same hormones that caused the constellation of angry red pimples on my face and back. The same hormones responsible for the dark, wiry hair between my legs and nearly unnoticeable A-cup-sized swell of my chest. I thought that once the hormones settled down, I would feel better. Normal. But even once I grew used to my new body, even once I hit my twenties and everything was supposed to level out, I still felt it. The same howling misery, the same blind, raging creature whose claws and teeth were sunk somewhere too deep to find, was still there.

I did not outgrow it.

I used to think that I would get better, if by getting better I meant being cured. I used to think that I would find the right combination of drugs and therapy and life choices to make this thing, whatever it was, go away. Or maybe I would just wake up one morning and it would be gone, instantly and inexplicably, the same way it had come. I thought that it might recede like the tide going out, and then, like a bare beach scattered with seaweed and shells, I would go back to being the person I’d been before, only with a few small relics left over from what I’d been through.

I did not get better.

I might never get better.

These past few months have been hard ones. Really hard. And I don’t know how to talk about this, except that I think I should. For the last weeks of March and the first few weeks of April I was suicidal. Suicide was all I could think about. I didn’t want to die, exactly, but I didn’t want to be alive, either, and I couldn’t think of any other option. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t read. I’d injured my hamstring, so I couldn’t really do yoga. I couldn’t string two thoughts together. I couldn’t even follow a conversation. All that I could do was get up in the morning and drag myself to work, and then drag myself home and cry. On weekends Matt would take over childcare, because I couldn’t get out of bed. Everything seemed awful, without any understanding of why it was awful. I felt like I’d come up against a brick wall, and all I could do was scratch at it until my nails broke and my fingers bled. I couldn’t imagine what the future would look like, other than more of the same but worse.

None of these are especially good reasons for being suicidal. But the thing about being suicidal is that you don’t need a good reason. You just are, and you don’t know how to get out of it. What makes it even worse is that you can’t talk about it – suicide is too big, too scary to bring up with your friends and family. And if you mention it to a health professional, well, I mean, forget it. All they want to do is lock you up so that you can’t do it (and rightly so), but they don’t seem to want to talk to you about the whys and hows of the way that you feel. Which means not only is everything awful, but on top of that you don’t have any kind of outlet. Because you don’t want the worry or the pity or the fear of the people around you.

So you just don’t talk about it.

Things are slowly improving now, but I know it will come back. That’s the funny thing – when I’m well, I’m constantly aware of it waiting for me, biding its time, sidling around me like a constant threat, and yet when I’m in the middle of a breakdown I can’t imagine that I’ll ever be ok again. When things are bad, the only thing that exists is the pain I feel. That is my only reality. While some part of me logically knows that it’s a cycle and eventually I have to come out of it, there is just no way to make myself believe that fact. The only fact I can trust in is how terrible everything is in that moment.

I’m learning to live with the fact that I am not going to get better, if by not getting better I mean that I am probably going to live with depression for the rest of my life. This thing, this goddamn soul-sucking thing, is not something that I can cut out, or drown, or poison. I can’t look at a CT scan and point out where it is. I can’t even really know anything about it, except that it lives inside of me and feeds off of me and leaves me aching and exhausted and so sad that sad isn’t even the right word for it. I don’t know what the right word is; maybe there isn’t one.

I’m also learning to live with the fact that I am never going to be the person I was before all of this started. I’m not even sure that it makes sense to want to be her anymore – she’s an absurdly hopeful little thirteen year old girl with no life experience and little understanding of how the world works. She’s the last memory I have of what I was like before this dark creature began nesting inside of me, and for a while I clung to her image as something that I could maybe someday achieve again, but I need to recognize that she’s gone. She’s gone and she is never, ever coming back.

Mental illness destroyed who I was. And I’m at a place now where I’m trying to recognize that that’s not a bad thing. I mean, I don’t think that it’s a good thing either. It’s just a thing. A fact. A truth. My family and I have had to adjust to this reality; we’ve had to mourn the loss of who I was and who I might have been, while at the same time accepting the person who was left behind. It’s a funny sort of thing, a weird feeling that I’ve somehow lived two lives – like a building gutted by a fire whose façade stays the same but whose interior, once restored, is entirely different.

I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.

So I’m learning to live like this. I’m learning to ask for concrete things – help with housework, help with childcare, help with routine daily tasks. I’m getting used to the idea of talking to my employer about my mental health, and negotiating the possibility of time off when I need it. I’m trying to be better about accepting the fact that sometimes I just need to lie in bed and do nothing. I’m trying to be better about accepting all of this, because fighting it tooth and nail has gotten me nowhere.

I’m trying to tell myself that I am not weak. I am strong, and I will get stronger. The person that I was might be gone, but this version of me, the one that exists now, is just as good as she was – mentally ill, yes, but kind, compassionate, smart, funny, and with so many people who care deeply for her. She, too, is worthy of love.

If you are depressed, experiencing suicidal thoughts or otherwise need someone to talk to, please call 1-800-273-8255

For international readers, here’s a database of crisis centres listed by continent

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Slut-shaming, Suicide, and Mrs. Hall

6 Sep

Most of you have probably already seen Kim Hall’s post FYI (if you’re a teenage girl). Both the original and the many, many brilliant take-downs written in response have been circulating social media this week, so it’s been pretty hard to avoid. If by some chance you’ve managed to miss out on all the fun, I highly encourage you to take a moment to go read Mrs. Hall’s open letter to all girls everywhere. It sure is something.

A lot of really smart folks have written some incredible posts touching on Mrs. Hall’s contribution to societal problems like slut-shaming, rape culture and body image issues. I don’t have anything new or brilliant to say on those topics, but I do want to talk about an aspect of Mrs. Hall’s message that hasn’t really been touched on yet: the very real link between the ideas that she’s putting forward and the recent rise in cyber-bullying, online slut-shaming and teenage suicide.

When I read Mrs. Hall’s letter, the first people that I thought of were Amanda Todd, Retaeh Parsons, Audrie Pott, Cherice Morales. In each of these cases, photographs of the girls that showed them either in various states of undress, or else showed them being sexually assaulted, or in some instances both at the same time, were circulated on social media. In each of these cases, the girls became social pariahs. In each of these cases, the girls committed suicide after enduring bullying and slut-shaming both online and offline.

I am not saying that Mrs. Hall is consciously suggesting that her children should shame or bully their classmates, especially those who have been sexually assaulted. If you asked her, I’m sure that she would tell you that those ideas are so far from what she intended to communicate as to be almost laughable. But still. Slut-shaming, ostracizing and bullying are the end-game of everything she is teaching her children.

When she writes:

And now – big bummer – we have to block your posts. Because, the reason we have these (sometimes awkward) family conversations around the table is that we care about our sons, just as we know your parents care about you.”

And:

And so, in our house, there are no second chances with pics like that, ladies. We have a zero tolerance policy.  I know, so lame. But, if you want to stay friendly with our sons online, you’ll have to keep your clothes on, and your posts decent.  If you post a sexy selfie (we all know the kind), or an inappropriate YouTube video – even once – it’s curtains.

What she is really telling her children is that girls who do not conform to her particular ideas of “modesty” are bad. She is telling them that the girls who post sexy selfies are worth less than the girls who cover up. She is telling them that the girls who pose with an “extra-arched back” and a “sultry pout” are not good enough to associate with her children. Worst of all, Mrs. Hall is telling her sons and daughter that it is fine – in fact, actively encouraged  in their household – to shun and ostracize these girls.

By saying that these teenage girls do not respect themselves, Mrs. Hall is teaching her kids that they are undeserving of anyone’s love or respect.

And that’s a pretty fucking toxic message.

If you think that this is too much of a reach, think about it this way: when Mrs. Hall and her family sit around their dining room table and critique the selfies posted online by her sons’ female friends and Mrs. Hall announces that yet another girl needs to be blocked because she’s showing too much skin, what her children learn is that the way that those girls are behaving is shameful and they deserve to be shamed in a way that makes them face real-life consequences. And when a Hall boy goes to school and tells his friend that he’s not allowed to hang out with so-and-so because her pictures are too slutty, and that friend tells a friend, and that friend tells a friend – well, it’s not hard to imagine what those real-life consequences will be.

And, of course, in high school, as in the Hall household, there are very rarely second chances.

When Mrs. Hall advises her son’s female friends to, “take down the closed-door bedroom selfies that makes it too easy for friends to see you in only one dimension,” I can’t help but wonder how many dimensions her sons and her sons’ friends saw those girls in before they heard those comments. Probably they saw them in the same way that they saw all their other female friends: as girls who were funny, girls who were smart, girls who were good at sports or art or music. Probably the Hall boys saw them as brilliant, well-rounded individuals, each contributing in their own interesting way to their lives. Probably they saw them as people.

But now?

Well, now they likely only see them in, as Mrs. Hall says, one dimension. That dimension being, of course, their physical bodies. Mrs. Hall has successfully reduced these girls to little more than pretty, shiny, skin-baring objects. And it’s pretty fucking easy to treat an object badly. It’s pretty easy to treat it cruelly, sub-humanly, even, because objects don’t have feelings. Objects don’t have thoughts. Objects exist only for the pleasure of others.

Objects are not people.

And so I worry about those girls, the girls that have already been branded as impure and immodest. I worry about the other girls that her sons will meet and, armed with their mother’s opinion, brand on their own. I worry for them because of the teasing and humiliation that they might have to endure; I worry about them because of the ways that the Hall boys and their friends might other, might even dehumanize these girls. I worry that when these girls tell adults about how they are being treated, they will be made to feel as if it is entirely their own fault, as if they were asking for it. I worry that they will start to think that, as Mrs. Hall said, there are no second chances. I worry that these girls will feel like their worlds are closing in on them, that one stray picture has ruined everything forever, that there is no way out of the mess that they believe they’ve created.

I worry for these girls’ lives.

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