[TW mention of self harm/eating disorder]
I’ve been largely absent from the internet (apart from twitter) for the last couple of months, because I’ve had a lot going on. In particular, I just finished the first term of an MSc yesterday, so much of my free time has been taken up by reading papers and writing assignments. But this is always the way – I blog much less frequently when I’m studying, partly because having routine, structure, and goals to occupy myself distracts me from all the crap in my head, and partly because I’ve never been any good at focusing on more than one thing at a time. When I’m studying, I study, and when I’m not studying, I’m lost, and so more likely to stumble back to corners of the internet where I might find parts of myself lurking.
I have other things I should be concentrating on this morning, too. I have four different modules with exams/assignments due in the first couple of weeks of January, and right now I’m supposed to be reading about theoretical accounts of memory. But I’ve decided I need to briefly prioritise something else.
The problem with monitoring your own mental health is that you’re basically using your brain to monitor how your brain is doing. I don’t mean that in an entirely biological sense, or in reference to psychosis, although I know from experience how bloody difficult it is to work out whether your perception of reality actually matches reality. During the times I was unsure what was real and what was not I always erred on the side of terror – anything that seemed possible, however unlikely others thought it, should be kept in mind so I couldn’t be taken by surprise again. Ten years ago I would lie in bed watching a stuffed toy my first boyfriend bought me, seeing its expression became malevolent, anticipating it flying across the room to suffocate me. Some distant part of me, screamed into submission, still whispered that the real danger in this situation was not the toy, but that I had become so detached from reality that this seemed not only likely, but probable – but in the moment I couldn’t stop watching, just in case. There are many other examples I could use, from my conviction aged 13 that my teachers had put electronic bugs on me and were listening in the staff room, laughing at everything I said, to the insect-variety of bugs I see when I’m very tired or stressed out these days – but fortunately, the latter are decidedly less convincing. The point is, I never told anyone what I was dealing with at the time, because I didn’t realise there was anything to tell.
There are experiences of other types that follow similar patterns in terms of my ability to recognise, in the moment, what is happening. My eating disorder is another. Unintentional undereating due to illness or stress or lack of appetite or general busyness, followed by selective inattention (not quite accidentally-on-purpose, more like malicious naivety, or stubbornly prideful avoidance of the truth that I really am still so vulnerable) to warning signs that all-is-not-quite-right, concluding with genuinely deliberate restriction, and in just a few days I have a relapse to deal with that will take weeks, if not months, to undo. I rarely notice before I get to steps 2 or 3, and by that point I can’t work out what to do about it, because by then it’s too late, it’s impossible to separate my will from the anorexia. The desire to keep going burns harder than hunger, and I can’t see through the heat haze. It usually takes somebody else throwing a bucket of water over me before I realise how close I was to self-immolation.
Last winter was similar. All throughout 2014 I didn’t notice, ignored, or tried to reason away red flags that all was not right, and it wasn’t until maybe the third or fourth time I’d cut myself after years of not doing so that it occurred to me I should probably ask for help. It seems obvious in hindsight.
This morning I’m wondering again how close to the edge I am, and how I can do this over and over again without noticing until the last minute. I had a fight with my dad over the weekend – a long story, but based on him treating my little sister like shit in the same way he treated me a lot as a teenager. While standing up for my sister, any attempt to tell him that that his behaviour wasn’t appropriate was met with insistence that I am too sensitive, my perception is warped, I’m remembering things incorrectly. It set off trains of thought in all sorts of directions, including but not limited to: beating myself up for convincing myself that dad was the safe parent, when actually he’s just as damaging as mum; wondering why I bother staying in touch with them at all when we have no emotional contact at all, it’s all so superficial, or otherwise dangerous; hating myself for being so sensitive and unable to be their version of acceptable; being angry with them for not being the parents I needed; being angry that I am angry with them when they are both completely fucked up and don’t understand that their behaviour is wrong; feeling lost and alone and rootless; hating how affected I am every single day by all of this and blaming myself for not just getting a fucking grip; internal accusations of melodrama and appropriation of experiences of people who had *really* been abused; and so on.
Red flags: all that confusion. The sense that I want to shrink into the back of the sofa. Being unable to express any of it due to circumstance – being at university yesterday and today, having deadlines I had to focus on. Feeling heavy and leaden. That nasty combination of mental pain, numbness, and agitation. Vivid dreams of being tortured and cutting myself to cope.
It wasn’t until I woke up from the last violent dream this morning that I realised I should probably pay attention, because when I dream about self harming it’s usually because I am not coping with trauma-related triggers, and am very vulnerable to actually acting on self destructive feelings. The same dreams happened when I was visiting my parents over the summer, but because I was in their house dealing with their shit every day it was easier to recognise how distressed I was and why. I struggle far more when I am triggered to all hell and then have to swallow my reaction for whatever reason (deadlines to work on, for example). Then the reaction is far more likely to pop up again a few days later in the form of nightmares, intense urges to harm myself, terror that I am getting depressed again (and I just can’t work out why…).
It’s like I woke up from a nightmare to find that I had sleepwalked to the edge of a cliff, where I am now debating with myself whether I am imagining and making an unnecessary fuss about just how high it is, or whether I should call for help.