Trigger warning- self harm
When I was in the 7th grade, I cut myself for the first time. I didn’t even really know why I was doing it. I just knew I was hurting and so far, my attempts to get someone to take the way I was feeling, had failed. I told a family member who I trusted, and still trust, that I didn’t think I felt right. I was sad, but more than sad. Depressed didn’t seem right either because even though it was more than sad, it wasn’t big enough to cover all those feelings. I felt angry, I didn’t know why, and it would come from almost out of nowhere. I felt insecure about everything, but I knew and understood my talents and best features. I felt scared, but what is there to even feel afraid of in a place like Locust Fork, Alabama? I felt empty, but I was feeling too much.
At 23 I’m still in no position to self-diagnose, but my 12 year old self still struggled to attach something to my feelings and I told my family member that I thought maybe I was bipolar. My family member laughed and although I know now that this person meant absolutely no harm or disrespect, it crushed me. This family member said, “That’s being a teenager” and went on about how much I had going for me, I was smart, funny, had friends, and a decent home life. People were worse off, and we have family members with bipolar disorder, I had no idea what that really meant. This person was, for the most part right, and definitely right about me not understanding bipolar disorder. This amateur diagnosis came from my extremely limited understanding of the disorder and that was basically just experiencing a lot of highs and lows. I knew I was experiencing a lot of emotions and I knew it was more than just sadness.
I had attempted to put into words as descriptively as my 12 year old tongue could manage the overwhelming feeling of not-quite-rightness and was told it was all inevitable and normal. So, at this point, words had failed me. I needed to do something else. I had become familiar with “cutting.” I had heard that people cut for many different reasons like to feel something, to have control over something, a number of different reasons. I didn’t start cutting for any of those, even though I would later go on to use several of those excuse. For me, it was purely an attention-seeking behavior. If anyone had suggested that at the time, I would’ve flown into a rage over the suggestion. I didn’t want to be associated with that. At the time and for years afterward, I would look down on other attention-seeking behaviors like extremely personal/emotional social media status’, people posting pictures of themselves crying, people making what I saw as heavy but hollow statements or threats. I wasn’t like that; I refused to see myself like that. But I was. I was just like all of them, maybe even more committed to the attention-seeking in some ways. My cutting mostly happened only when I was 12-13. I’m 23 now and most of my scars are still very visible and pronounced.
The thing that would only further baffle people about mine and so many other’s behavior was that when people actually would see and would ask, I would flat out lie about it. I switched between them being cat scratches or briar scratches because we’ve always had tons of cats and my brother and I stayed playing in our overgrown woods behind our house. People usually left it despite it being quite a stretch to think a cat or even the worst briar patch could do that to arms. People who knew were almost always relentlessly hateful about it. Plenty of times this was out of what was meant to be genuine concern for my behavior, but it only made me feel a million times more isolated. Why would no one ask why and look at me with genuine concern? Why did no one stop and consider there must be some deeper issue for my behavior? Eventually, I would find other ways to self-harm that weren’t as out-right obvious as scarring my arms where I knew I’d eventually run out of canvas anyway. But I continued to get better at hiding things. This is the perplexing nature of attention-seeking behaviors.
I wanted and needed the attention desperately, but I would run at the first sign of someone picking up on them. This is the place where most people, including myself in the past, give up on attention-seekers and I can understand the frustration. But please don’t disregard these things and write people off for a behavior that they themselves don’t completely understand. It’s so easy to say “I wish I would have known something was wrong,” “If I had known, I would’ve done something to try to help,” but the truth is, most people who die by suicide, have exhibited warning signs before a suicide attempt. So, can we put our words into action? Can we stop shaming attention-seeking behaviors? Can we stop making light of them and stop saying things like, “it’s just for attention.” My behaviors never led to an attempted suicide, but it led to several thoughts of it, especially during my late high school, early college years. I stopped attempting any constructive help-seeking behaviors at all. I was constantly worried about being labeled as an attention seeker, even though that’s exactly what I was, and there should have been no shame in that. I needed help, I couldn’t do it all on my own, I should have sought professional help long before I did. But the fear of anything I did being labeled attention-seeking held me back. So please, take the time to practice patience with behaviors you don’t yourself understand. It could mean enabling healthy help-seeking behaviors, it could save a life.
Valentina Cedillo is a 23 year old social work student at the University of Montevallo. She is passionate about destroying stigmas surrounding mental illness and our ability to openly discuss mental health struggles. She also enjoys laughing until she snort laughs, Bob’s Burgers, and taking pictures with her super chubby cat, Sylvester.
Valentina can be found on Twitter.