Getting off the dirt path

By , June 21, 2011 5:42 pm

I had another meeting with my doctor today, Dr Cook. It was the first since he gave me my assignments last week. The appointment was tough, but ultimately productive. (I hope!)

One of the things I’ve said, which I’ve discussed here before, was my frustration at still feeling lousy. That is, I’m doing what I want to be doing: transition(ing/ed), performing, writing, freelancing, dating. In another way, I’m doing all the right adult things: getting my teeth cleaned, paying my bills, shopping for groceries, and so on. So if I’m doing everything ‘right,’ why do I still feel like shit? Why do I still want to hurt myself?

In response, my doc talked a lot about how we ingrain our behaviors and – ultimately – write certain paths in our brain. When I was younger, wanting to hurt myself as an escape was entirely legit. (Wow, it was awesome to have a medical professional validate that.) I couldn’t transition, felt like I couldn’t come out, was developing in ways that were absolutely wrong for me, and felt very trapped in many ways. In that situation, the escape of self-harm (which I fortunately did avoid) is a release valve when everything else is stuck.

But now, everything else isn’t stuck. But my brain is still trained to go straight for that release valve.

Dr. Cook talked a lot about What The (Bleep) Do We Know?, a movie which apparently discusses this idea a lot. That, in our behaviors, we not only develop habits but actually strengthen certain connections and physiological paths in the brain. That makes sense to me as a performer and as a pianist, because I know how doing something a certain way over and over absolutely – and seemingly magically – causes connections to strengthen. And, suddenly, you know your lines. Or the fingering for a specific song.

But what Dr. Cook argued (and, apparently, the movie argues as well) is that these paths aren’t only created for lines from a script or notes from a song. That every behavior builds up or breaks down these mental and neurological paths. Until you reach the point where, even though there’s no longer an external need to be so anxious or depressed or inflict self-harm, the internal path still exists: slight amount of stress equals MASSIVELY DISPROPORTIONATE negative mental response.

And so, I keep  walking over the same well-worn dirt path, reinforcing the very real neurological consequences.

The question, then, is how the hell to get off the dirt path. Dr. Cook said the What the (Bleep) Do We Know? has some good visualizations, but also just to think about going back to those assignments. To internally use positive ‘I’ statements following praise, or even just when feeling down. To acknowledge successes before failures. Dr. Cook admitted this all sounds a little touchy-feely, and that upping my antidepressants is still a backup option. But he said, and I agree, that it’s much better to retrain the brain to do the work itself than simply give it the chemicals that’ll do the work for you.

So here we go!

(And in that vein, I’m proud I wrote this blog post today, instead of procrastinating.)

4 Responses to “Getting off the dirt path”

  1. violet says:

    And in that vein, I’m proud I wrote this blog post today, instead of procrastinating.
    It’s a pretty good blog post! May your newer, awesomer thought paths develop quickly!

  2. AF says:

    I’m really struggling, as I often struggle with discussion of self-harm like this. I was a cutter in high school, it was bad, I stopped for a bit and then cut again for a while in college, as well as several phases of punching myself til I was covered in bruises. I don’t generally cut anymore, I harm myself through more passive methods like cigarettes and a poor diet and not sleeping enough. A couple weeks ago I got in a big fight with my brother and I was so angry I punched myself in the arm hard. So hard that a large blue bump formed almost instantly. I kept punching for the next week or so, til my entire left forearm was black and blue and swollen. I stopped because I’m an adult with a job and I can’t hide it in the summer. And because it’s a slippery slope.

    So I struggle when reading about self-harm impulses from someone without a history of self-harm. I got excited when I saw self-harm mentioned, because I was going to get to read about an experience with which I identify. It was a chance to connect with you over something too painful to bring up to just anyone. But I can’t identify with your experience. I can’t identify with not acting on that impulse to hurt yourself, because it took me years to learn to resist that impulse. Because the impulse was so strong as a teenager that slicing my legs with a straight razor felt as natural as breathing.

    I was hesitant to write this comment, because I respect and admire you and you are my friend in real life. I don’t want to offend you or invalidate your pain, your real pain that is completely valid and true. But it feels like appropriation to me to say “But my brain is still trained to go straight for that release valve.” Because it doesn’t. You’ve never used the release valve, in high school or now, so how does your brain go straight there?

    I posted this to open up a dialogue with you and other commenters, and to explore this feeling I always get when I hear people talk about cutting who aren’t cutters. Please know this is coming from a genuinely perplexed place, I don’t understand how someone can devote posts to their experiences with self-harm when they’ve never physically harmed themselves. Thanks for listening, and I hope I haven’t upset anyone.

    • Rebecca says:

      But it feels like appropriation to me to say “But my brain is still trained to go straight for that release valve.” Because it doesn’t. You’ve never used the release valve, in high school or now, so how does your brain go straight there?

      and

      Please know this is coming from a genuinely perplexed place, I don’t understand how someone can devote posts to their experiences with self-harm when they’ve never physically harmed themselves. Thanks for listening, and I hope I haven’t upset anyone.

      I think that’s legit, and appreciate your bringing it up. I guess I’d say that I tried to write from my own experience. I don’t have a history of self harm, you’re right, but I do have a history of fantasizing about or focusing on self harm. I’ve tried only to talk about that. Because even the thought of self harm – though a different experience from acting on it – is going further down that path than lots of my friends have done. So I do want to be able to share and think about what that experience has been like, even thought it is different from those who have acted upon their desires.

      Does that make sense?

      I certainly don’t want to appropriate anyone’s experiences or history. At the same time, I do want to be able to talk about my experiences and history. I don’t know what it’s like to cut myself. In that way, we are in different places. But I do know what it’s like to want to cut myself, even though I readily admit that’s far from the whole experience of self harm.

      Does that make sense?

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