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The Interdisciplinary Work of Lyss England

Posts tagged self-harm

Check out my interview with Nickola!

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We talk about:
– Nickola’s background in art and process of becoming a professional tattooer
– How being passionate about gender equality influences her professional creative work
– Why Nickola loves the medium of tattoo
Project New Moon (how and why it started and how to get involved)
– Nickola’s tattoo healing tips and a bit about what she wants her clients to know

…and more!

DONATE TO PROJECT NEW MOON HERE!

Featured Tunes by:
Ellen Torrie
Winona Wilde
Jimmy Bowskill
James Taylor

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Content: mention of self harm, suicidal ideation, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, rape, disordered eating, self-harm, consensual sex, naked bodies, posting nudes online

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There are two things you need to know about me right off the bat if we’re going to talk about this:

1. I used to be really into self harming and I also have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The combination of these things manifested for me as an eating disorder when I was a teenager and coping with trauma. I developed dysmorphia, which means I didn’t see myself the way I was. The way I saw myself was distorted.

2. I was raped when I was seventeen.

Okay, heavy, I know. But it’s all good, I’m still here. And, no word of a lie, taking and generously sharing nude photographs was one of the key contributions of my wellness plan during, arguably, the most significant time in my recovery.

I was in university, the most crushing waves of grief around my mom’s death had run their course, I had my own apartment, and I had embarked upon the most exciting a sexually adventurous relationship of my life. I was learning that sex could be powerful and sweet and absolutely filthy all at once and it was incredibly healing. This intimate new relationship also meant that I was accountable to a person who cared deeply about me and who I connected with on a level I’d barely even ever dreamed was possible before it happened. It meant I had to stop cutting and start eating, even if it was almost unbearably uncomfortable.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by obsessions, often in the form of “intrusive thoughts” that infiltrate your brain repeatedly until you’re ready to do anything to get rid of them. My intrusive thoughts focus on either contamination or suicide. I’m either obsessed with the things in food I become convinced are killing me or I’m repeating over and over in my head “I wanna die I wanna die I wanna die…”. Starving myself became one of my compulsions. I’d go through rituals around counting calories or simply restricting compulsively. When that stopped being a feasible option since it became so difficult to hide, I decided I needed to find a healthier way of feeling good and in control of my body.

The good news is that, as I mentioned, this was also a sexually explosive time in my life. I was living an hour and a half away from my new partner and, as many young couples do, we used technology to stay connected (okay, and to get off). We’d sext and send nudes and I realized how much I got off on it. I loved the intimacy, the (seemingly, anyway) undivided attention, and providing something that gave pleasure to someone who gave me so much pleasure. I got to engage with my own body on my terms in a way that felt good to me- a huge deal for any sexual assault survivor and for someone who had a history of disordered eating. I was finally feeling good in my body.

I started a blog of nude photos online. I loved the engagement, just being honest and confident in my body. Repeatedly posting photos where I had chosen the pose, the body part(s), the time of day I posted- everything. I got to choose how I responded to any comments (if at all). I got to choose my aesthetic- trashy, authentic punk girl. I came up with a name (based on a song my partner had written about my blowjob skills) and it was a blast. There’s something about repetition that really works for me. Repetition and intentionality. Writing things out (like “things that feel good“, saying things out loud a few times, and posting nudes.

I had control, I had a reaction, and I was learning what it felt like to love and appreciate the body I was in and the ways in which it contributed to me feeling good.

I read about a woman who was a professional (or semi-professional?) vocalist. When she lost her hearing, she learned to memorize the way the sounds felt in her body. That’s kind of how I  started to feel about my body when I was posting nudes regularly as a person with dysmorphia. Each time I went through the process, it felt good. So I began to associate my body with good. Being in my body felt good, and that is something I’m grateful I learned.

I don’t post nudes publicly anymore, though I sometimes send them to my partner or my girlfriends. But I still hold on to that feeling. It’s like that work during that time in my process flipped a switch for me. I can honestly say that taking nudes contributed positively to my mental health.

Content: mental illness, mood disorders, mania, depression, anxiety, smoking, cannabis, xanax, blood, suicide attempt, suicide threat, hospitalization, self harm, parent death, friendship

 

For years before we met, people told me I would love you. So many of our mutual friends used to tell me about how similar we were, with so many mutual interests and mutual mental health issues. And when we finally met, we connected instantly. I remember sitting on the bed in the spare bedroom of my apartment, window wide open, chain-smoking cigarettes and exchanging stories about the fucked up things that had happened to us, fucked up things we had done, and weird shit we experienced. You intermittently popped Xanex, while I packed bong bowl after bong bowl of Indica strains. We had some overlapping clinical diagnoses, and some similar but different ones too. I could see myself in you, like a mirror image. After twenty-something years of feeling isolated and loved by my other friends, but never really seen, you saw me.

We both lived with mood disorders, eating disorders, anxiety disorders. We were tattooed smokers, self-harmers, daughters of long-dead mothers. We both loved sex and the occasional drug binge. We both had wonderful, long-term, committed partners. We both longed to be well while simutanteously accepting that mental illness was a permanent part of our lives that we couldn’t help but romanticize and struggle with and commit to in our own ways.

I remember asking you what to do when you inevitably became manic. We made safety plans. I remember you asking me what to do when I inevitably self-harmed. We made crisis plans. I remember discussing how much we should discuss our weight and our eating habits. We made resource lists.

And then the time came when I looked into your eyes and it wasn’t you, it was this live wire, electric version of you. You started lying to me about things like if you were using or if you were hanging out with people who you knew I knew used. And then you told me about things and acted in ways that weren’t in line with the way I knew you wanted to be and I fought my way in to advocate for you as well as I could while trying to keep you relatively safe.

And then a time came where I was so depressed and had been texting you about it that you broke into my apartment early in the morning, nearly in tears, to find that I was still alive after all.

And then there were all those times I drove you to the hospital, or offered to drive you to the hospital because that was the only way you felt you could be okay.

And then there was the time where I told you about that really bizarre recurring experience I have that 99% of people don’t know I have that only you can even begin to understand. Because you’ve been through it too.

And then there was that time where you told me that you hated me and wanted to kill me. You told me I was faking my mood disorder and that if I saw you on the street, I’d better run, because you were going to kill me. But the moment I looked you in the eye, I knew it wasn’t you. It was that live wire version of you again.

And there were times where we both told each other that we couldn’t be there for each other all the time, that we needed to focus more exclusively on taking care of ourselves.

And then there was that time that your partner called me to tell me I needed to come over because our worst fear had come true and I made it around the corner just in time to watch as the paramedics wheeled your seizing body on a stretcher from your apartment into the ambulance. And I stayed back while your partner spoke to the cops and cleaned up the bloody vomit on the kitchen wall and went with your partner to the hospital where they told us they needed to take you to a bigger hospital. And then, when your stepmom called me at work the next day to tell me to come say goodbye, I raced to the hospital from work to slip my hand in your limp hand and and sang you Bad Religion songs.

“There will be sorrow no more”.

That last thing nearly ruined our friendship. But it didn’t. It took time and space. It took me adjusting my expectations and you forgiving yourself. And I am so beyond grateful that you lived. And even though we both know that we will both continue to struggle from time to time, the history of our own lives and of our friendship proves that no state is permanent. It will always end. There will always be another time for us to sit on the bed, drinking tea, and smoking, and laughing way too loudly. Because we see each other. And we’re learning to navigate what it means to be a mentally ill person with a mentally ill best friend. And that’s a pretty magical kind of friendship.

I strive never to sit
To create something still
I crave movement
It’s gotta do something ’cause
I’m permanently restless
I’m self-loathing when I
Rest
I’m exhausted though still
Spinning
Depleted and dancing
Short on breath
Restricted airways
From all those times
I’ve skipped through
Agony
Darkness
Lines across my arms
From all those times
I’ve struggled out of the grasp of
December’s long, ragged claws
The ones so
Carefully polished
Wondering if this winter
Will finally bring
The ultimate stillness
Where maybe,
For the first time
Since I can
Remember
I feel held.

Content warning: all the usual stuff, but also specific mentions of self-harm, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts.

 

The stereotype of mad people goes something like this: unable to get out of bed, unable to take care of basic needs (ie. food, hygiene), engaging in impulses, suicide attempts, active self-harming, medicated, attention-seeking, manipulative, engaging with any and all delusions or hallucinations- and the list goes on. Some of these things hold truth for some people (heck, all of these things may hold true for some people!), and that is valid. But those are not things that hold true for me.

I identify as being a mad person for a few reasons:

1. I was diagnosed with Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, and as experiencing occasional quasipsychosis when I was fourteen. I was then treated by a team of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and my family doctor through various therapeutic practices and also with medication.

It should probably be noted at this point that I feel strongly that if I were to undergo a full psychiatric assessment at this point in my life, eleven years after my initial evaluation, I would be given a pretty different set of diagnoses. It should also probably be noted that, while I believe first and foremost that everyone ought to have the right to treat their madness/illness/body in whatever way they feel may work best for them at the time, I am extremely noncompliant with medication and do not believe that it is helpful for me or conducive to my healing process at this point in my life. I also want to acknowledge that there was a point in my life where I did feel as though medication was helpful.

2. Sometimes, I feel mad. I feel crazy. I feel out of control. Sometimes, I am so depressed I want to die for no reason at all. Sometimes, I am so anxious, leaving my apartment takes hours because I have to check and re-check that i’ve unplugged everything in my apartment. Sometimes, I hear, and see, and feel things that other people don’t hear, or see, or feel. More often than not, I wake up throughout the night, either already breathless from sobbing in my sleep or completely paralyzed, as though there’s an alien laying on top of me. 
3. Other people (sometimes) identify me as mad. When I’m having a panic attack, or when I disclose to a close friend that I am feeling “low-key suicidal” as I call it (meaning I am experiencing suicidal ideation but don’t plan to carry anything out/am safe overall), they identify me as mad.When I disclose things to doctors, they also identify me as mad. When my family has to put up with me unplugging everything constantly and panicking about it as I drive away from home, or my partner wakes up to me crying again, they identify me as mad too.
Whether I want it to be or not, madness is a big part of my life, and, given the day, I’ve been known to argue both sides. However, the stereotype of mad folks doesn’t fit for me. No matter how unstable I am feeling, I will always get up, force myself to eat, force myself to drink water, force myself to get dressed, force myself to go to work, force myself to prepare meals beforehand, force myself to maintain relationships, force myself to take time to rest and recharge, force myself to have boundaries, force myself to care for the people in my life. I haven’t attempted suicide in eight and a half years, I haven’t self-harmed in five years, and in that time, I have graduated with an undergraduate degree (with honours), maintained a long-term romantic relationship, improved my family relationships, maintained several long-term friendships, started my career, and found stable housing (finally). I am what people call high-functioning.
I work, I volunteer, I take care of myself, I maintain relationships and extra-curricular interests. People who aren’t close to me generally don’t even realize I’m mad, and in a way, that is a privilege. However, like with any invisible, chronic condition, there is something to be said for experiences being erased by what fits more easily: physical and visible manifestation of symptoms.

The fact that I am high-functioning does not negate my experiences or the validity of my healing process.

Sometimes, I feel guilty for taking up space in therapeutic settings or online support groups for mad people. Sometimes, I feel guilty because I feel as though I’m appropriating language around mental health to describe my experiences. But the reality of the situation is: just because I don’t kill myself, doesn’t make my nearly constant suicidal ideation any less significant to my lived experience. Obviously, that’s the most extreme example I could give, but you get the idea (and I do love the dramatic…).

A lot of the issue comes down to the nature of psychiatry. Lists of symptoms fit the criteria of a mental illness, as defined by the  DSM V, so people are diagnosed and received the treatment that is supposed to alleviate those symptoms. Although this process has been life-saving in many different ways for many different people, there are tons of problems with this way of identifying and treating madness.That is an essay within itself….
The one problem with this that I want to draw attention to within this particular essay is that there exists this binary of “well”/“not well” or “sane”/“mad” or “functioning according to capitalist standards”/“not functioning according to capitalist standards”. While I’m all for resisting capitalism and not defining wellness or worth according to levels of productivity, I also happen to be a person who copes (and literally survives) by functioning. That is my way of resisting feeling like shit. This doesn’t mean that I think I’m better than (or more well than or healed than) people who are not high-functioning, simply that my way of working towards wellness and healing happens to look pretty high-functioning.

This also does not negate my experiences or the validity of my healing process.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been able to access many years worth different kinds of therapies. Maybe it’s because I was medicated for a few years. Maybe it’s because I have some wonderfully supportive, stable people in my life. Maybe it’s because my number one priority is my healing process (even when it may not seem like it). Maybe it’s because I’m a capricorn. Maybe it’s because it’s just the way I am. Maybe it’s because I was brought up in a WASPy, upper middle class, white family, and not being high functioning simply was not an option. It’s probably because of all of these things that I am a high functioning mad person.

Regardless, my experiences and my healing process are valid, even as a high-functioning mad person.

go for a walk- Sometimes getting up and moving helps the time pass faster and elevates your mood. Go for a walk around the block or walk to a place that makes you feel calm, such as a river, the lake, or forest trails
ground yourself- Make a list of what you can see, hear, taste, smell, and physically feel around you in the moment or describe something in your space (in great detail) to a friend that they may not have seen before. Being mindful of what is physically around you can de-escalate the intensity of your emotions to wait for them to pass. Create changes to what you’re sensing if you want: light some incense, take a bath, light a candle, listen to music. 
breathe- Focus on breathing in for 3 seconds and out for 5 seconds. This will encourage your parasympathetic system to kick in quicker and will give your something slow and rhythmic to follow to pass the time and take the place or racing or intrusive thoughts.
hydrate and top up your blood sugar- Drink a glass of water and have a snack. Better yet, make yourself a full, tasty meal. Your body deserves to be taken care of, and if your body is not being taken care of, your brain isn’t functioning at it’s full potential.
set a timer- Set a timer on your phone or stove for 5 minutes and sit in a chair. Count down with the timer for that five minutes. If the feelings still haven’t passed after 5 minutes, set the timer for another minutes. And then another. Keep counting, sitting, and breathing until the feeling passes. It will always pass eventually. 
reach out- Talk to a trusted friend, partner, or relative about your feelings and spend time around other people. It’s very common for people to isolate themselves when they’re feeling depressed, but you deserve support- even if you don’t feel like you do in the moment. There are a lot of people who would care if you weren’t around. Reach out to one of them. If you experience self-harm impulses and/or suicidal ideation often, make a list of people you feel supported by and keep it somewhere consistent, like your wallet or on your fridge. If you don’t feel as though you have people who are supportive around you, call a local crisis line. There are trained counsellors available 24/7 to guide you through navigating these feelings. 
distract yourself- Do literally anything to distract yourself from the negative feelings. Create some sort of art, colour in a colouring book, make a collage, go to the gym, free-write, do yoga or stretch, learn a song on an instrument, research recipes, clean, reorganize your cupboards, walk your dog, brush your cat, paint your nails, learn something new, watch a trashy t.v. show, read a book, call a friend.

engage with the vibes- Write down your negative feelings and burn the piece of paper, do a tarot reading, pray, sing, do whatever makes you feel loved and in touch with your spiritual side, if this is a thing you’re into.