Down the Road or Across It?
We need to talk about self-harm... again.
*Trigger Warning: this post talks about self-injury, suicide, and mental illnesses. Please take caution while reading.*
When I was in high school I remember a particularly hot day where I was standing at the crowded bus loop waiting for my bus to take me on the hour and half long journey back to my house. There were two kids next to me, fellow classmates that I knew who were joking in earnest with each other and were taking no effort into keeping their conversation to themselves.
"So would you do down the road or across the road?"
"Well, if you do down the road, you're just asking for attention. You only go across the road if you're serious."
If you're not immediately appalled at this short exchange of words then you don't understand what these kids were talking about and you should know.
These two high school students were casually joking about methods of self-harming. "Down" and "Across" the road are directions in which self-injurers harm themselves.
I was astonished and disgusted at the same time. How could they joke like that about something so serious? How could they minimize someone suffering with such callousness? How could they condense such a huge problem down to wanting attention?
And then I was angry, like that scary silent anger that doesn't speak to anyone because opening my mouth would unleash a fury like none had ever seen before.
People were suffering, kids were committing suicide, mental illness was running rampant among the general population. Why would they, how could they joke about something like that?
I'm going to play devil's advocate here for a second. If you can bear with me to take just one second to understand it, you might become a little more enlightened than you were yesterday.
If not, no hard feelings.
Teenagers think they are invincible.
I grew up in an era where these things were still "coming out." The generation before me, my parent's generation, attributed mental illness to the kind of mystical, fantastical things as their parents before them did, but now we had a name for it. Our generation decided that the hiding and "rehabilitation" of our illnesses did not work for the preceding generations and pushed heavily for awareness.
I was a teenager when celebrities started coming out about their mental illnesses and the kinds of debilitating aspects of it. I listened to some of my favorite singers talk about the kind of darkness they suffered and how long their self-injury went unnoticed. Their countless hours of therapy and rehab, the way they hid their illnesses from their family so expertly that I started using some of the same methods myself.
How could anyone laugh at that?
Any good psychologist will tell you that the human brain doesn't finish development until the 20s. One of the very last parts to develop is also one of the most important parts of what makes you, you. Your prefrontal cortex balances your judgment, personality, critical thinking, and long-term decision making.
This part of you is developing a lot during your teenage years. You are still trying to understand your place in the world outside of your friend groups and other individuals. This is when you experiment, when you test your boundaries, and when you prepare to step out into the real world.
They are hopeful. They can solve all the world's problems with pure determination. They are young and agile with innovative minds while their parents and politicians are old and outdated. They are fearless. They are fierce.
They are invincible.
It is this time where they also develop productive and proper coping mechanisms to deal with stress and hardship.
A neurotypical teenager that faces stress and learns a proper way to cope with that stress along with supplemental aid from supportive family and peers begins to believe that if they were able to deal with their stress, others should also be able to and succeed. To them, those that don't probably have some kind of character flaw or are of weaker constitutions.
It's difficult, as a teenager, to understand why some people have a more difficult time than others solving personal problems and self-injury is even more difficult to understand because the element of physical pain is added. Pain is to be avoided, pain is a sign that something isn't right, pain is chaos.
Seeing someone else causing themselves pain is confusing.
External things are supposed to cause pain, things that we can see, that we can touch; the bully in your school that punches you, the wet floor that you slip on, the heavy book that falls on your foot. Those are all things that can be identified by sight. When we can't see a cause, it befuddles us because we trust our eyes so much more than we should.
But what about the reasons we can't see? Any self-injurer knows that there are a lot of reasons why different people self-harm. Whether it is a form of punishment, distraction, a way to combat the void of numbness or whatever it may be, self-injury takes inner turmoil and manifests it into physical symptoms.
So then, I understand why they chose to joke about it. It's all they could really do. It's an uncomfortable subject that talks about something forbidden to the invincible teenager, a weakness that can be so easily exploited, an abyss that drags you to a point beyond return. They don't know how to respond to it and they don't know how to communicate it. Once they witness people around them suffering through it, becoming less immortal by it, it terrifies them so they make fun of it to make it seem less frightening.
Self-injury conjures the devil that we're all fearful of, the one that we are all afraid of fighting because it would mean putting those terrible thoughts about ourselves that we try so hard to bury on trial and question their validity. It would mean confronting a pain so deep within the fabric of our being that it has almost become a part of us.
Some people silence that devil and slay their dragons head on while others run from theirs to hide or get help. Each method is a way to stay alive, but some work for people better than others.
The people that choose to hide or run away to get help aren't weak. They're just trying to survive. And like I've said before, those people are so much stronger than we give them credit. They have to navigate the world with their mental illnesses and that's admirable. Sometimes, running away for help means seeing someone that can help them deal with their illness better than they can. Sometimes hiding until they have a solid plan is better than facing the dragon unprepared.
I wasn't mad at the two kids behind me that day. I knew they didn't know better. I knew that getting upset and trying to lecture them on their inconsiderateness would've gotten me nowhere. I wasn't equipped to deal with them, because I couldn't even deal with myself yet.
I made it a duty to pick my battles wisely. I hope the children I've counseled as an adult will too. I hope wherever you are in your journey—at the start line or way past the finish—you remember that we all reach the end. Some will stumble every step of the way and some will run a perfect sprint.
But not everyone will finish the same.
And that's what makes us amazing.