Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Invisible Wounds

It’s almost a given that you have scars, that the person next to you has scars, that the person down the road has scars. Most people have scars, of one sort or another. Accidents, injuries, violence. Scars can come from all kinds of sources. If course, anyone reading this blog is probably already aware that there are also scars that don’t come from outside sources, that aren’t accidental, and aren’t received in any traditional way.

Self harm is a fairly common symptom and side effect for people with depression or other emotional issues. It’s not universal, by any means, but it’s common enough that it gets its own entry in most manuals and information centers. It’s common enough that you probably know at least one person who has engaged in some form of self harm, if you, yourself, aren’t that person. It’s common enough that it often overshadows other potentially more harmful or dangerous elements of these issues. It is also, despite being so common, frequently misdiagnosed, which can lead to whole new problems.

Contrary to popular misconception, self harm does not equal suicidal. It is actually kind of amazing how often people make that mistake. The two are certainly not mutually exclusive, and one can lead to the other, but they are not the same thing. If you make the mistake of jumping straight to the suicidal assumption with a person who is engaging in self harm, it is even possible that you could be making the situation worse. Concerns over not being understood are, after all, often among the leading causes of these issues, especially among younger people, who are more often the ones expressing through self harm.

Here’s the deal: Most people who engage in self harm are doing so because they do want to make things better. That is the opposite of the usual suicidal expression. For these people, if they were to suddenly stop cutting or branding (or whatever their particular version of self harm might be), that is when you should be most worried. If there was not a lead up to stopping, if the person has not already been getting help and working on these issues, there is a good chance that suddenly stopping indicates giving up, and that is when self harm is most likely to turn into suicidal fixation.

That is, ultimately, the real danger from self harm. It’s a solution that doesn’t work, or doesn’t work effectively, at any rate. It can create a temporary release of pressure, but that pressure always returns. As time goes on, the release becomes less and the interval becomes shorter. If left unchecked, eventually there will be no release and no interval, and that’s when the real problem kicks in. Whatever stress was leading to self harm has continued to be there and has usually continued to build. When the coping mechanism stops working, the consequences can be catastrophic.

If you have been following this blog then it should come as no surprise that I am speaking from experience. In my case, the self harm came in the form of burning or scarring. I would usually heat up a thin metal object, most likely a needle or a pin, and use that to burn designs into my arms or hands. Oddly enough, for me this usually happened in public. I say “oddly” because people who self harm usually try to hide it. That is the psychological expectation, but my most most commonly used heat source was a Bunsen burner in science class. I would even draw attention to it (careful to make sure the teacher wasn’t noticing, of course) and laugh at the shocked reactions.

This is important to understand, because I was still hiding. I was doing exactly what is expected from a psychological standpoint, I was just doing it in a different way. My method was like the magician waving a brightly colored scarf with one hand, while the other hand is pulling a trick coin out of his pocket. Misdirection. By drawing attention to the spectacle, and even laughing about it, I was diverting attention away from the underlying issues. No one was going to ask what was wrong with me while I was being a clown. Not in any meaningful way, at any rate. The general assumption was that there couldn’t be anything seriously wrong if I was being such a goofball about it.

I think most of us know better now. There has been so much awareness raised over the last couple decades - Public Service Announcements, After School Specials, in school programs, and even just more and more people speaking out - that we now better comprehend that laughter can really be a mask. Though we do often forget, we understand on some basic level that sometimes the ones who laugh the most are the ones who are hurting the most. This point was driven home for many of us on August 11 of last year (Has it really been a year already?) when Robin Williams took his own life. Beloved funny man, universally recognized as one of the greatest comedians of the modern age, lost to suicide. We may never know exactly what happened, but few people who were paying attention will ever again believe that being funny automatically means being happy.

“Scars are the wounds that we all show,” but there are many wounds that we don’t show. Sometimes these wounds end up leaving different kinds of scars. Sometimes they do worse. These invisible wounds may not always leave the kinds of scars that people know how to look for, but they do inevitably leave their marks. Sometimes the wounds we can’t see leave the biggest scars.

My own scars have faded over time. You can’t see most of them anymore, and even the ones that are visible are pretty easy to miss, unless you know where to look. I know where to look. I know where each scar is, even the ones that are no longer visible. I remember each of them. That’s usually how it works. Scars may fade, but they don’t exactly go away. Hopefully we learn from them, maybe we learn not to do what caused them, and those of us who make it learn that we can survive, maybe even thrive, despite what caused them.

My scars are some of the lessons I’ve learned, and I hope they can be some of the lessons I teach as well.

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