This topic comes from my thinking about recent posts on a list serv that I am on (yes, I am learning a bit about technology). The people on the list are mental health and other professionals as well as trauma survivors, many of whom work in a professional capacity in some way. The list is designed for people to share resources on trauma and trauma-informed care.
As often happens when the topic of self-harm comes up, the conversation became intense rather quickly. At first I twinged when a doctor that I respect, who has done groundbreaking work addressing the impact of childhood traumas, used the word “cutter” to describe people living with SIV. We weren’t people who sometimes cut, we were simply being described as “cutters.” Rarely has that served anyone. Yet this type of labeling happens often, whether in the mental health system, public conversations and articles and even amongst people who themselves self-injure.
The conversation got most intense for me when the posts about the term “self-inflicted violence” (SIV) got going. People, mostly consumers (!), got really pissed at the term. The term I began using over 20 years ago. Some of these are people I know and respect, yet I felt myself whirling about accusations that people who live with SIV are not violent, that what we do to ourselves is not about violence but about coping and self-soothing and many of the other things that we already know…. It was as if the reason behind the action should mean the action itself is not violent.
I argued that the term SIV does not imply motive, it is only descriptive. Of course violence is uncomfortable. Of course sometimes I used SIV to prevent being violent towards another person. SIV helped me survive so much profound pain and distress and disconnection… and it is still violent behavior. My SIV was violence as an act of self-defense. I prefer nonviolence. For a long time I found a deep need for violence in the form of SIV. I am relieved that I was not violent towards another person. Besides myself. I was violent with myself. Physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. Like many abuse survivors, I am not alone with that. Now I am no longer physically violent and that is a relief. I am working daily on the other ways I am still cruel to myself. Life has never been better.
We all have the right to do with our lives as we will, for the most part. We do not have the right to harm others (except in self-defense). Some of the ways we bring harm are not illegal, nor necessarily violent. I can call you an asshole, tell you that you are worthless. That may or may not impact you. It will likely hurt you if you are my child. What if I say the same words to myself? How many of us are actually comfortable with the way we “speak” to ourselves?
But I digress. What really got me in my gut were the words a colleague that I consider a friend wrote. In her post she wrote that if a psychiatrist used that term (SIV) with her, she’d have to slap him upside the head. I sat back and said “wow.” Being so upset at the use of the term to want to be violent upon the person who used it. Of course this is a response to the great harm still done in the mainstream mental health industry as people are labeled and categorized and disempowered or blatantly hurt in many ways. Many of the cruelest acts in the name of psychiatry happen to people who live with SIV.
But to threaten violence? It was a great comment, as it took thinking about all of this to a whole new level. I hope.
If I slapped you “upside the head” would that be an act of violence? Would it matter why?
If I slapped myself upside the head would that be an act of violence? Would it matter why?
What is the meaning of a knife in the hands of an assailant? Of a surgeon? Of an abuse survivor needing to cope?
These are questions that need many conversations.
The term “self-inflicted violence” is a strong and painful one. So is what it describes. And the most pain and turmoil come from what drives the need for the SIV to begin with. This is all hard. Judgment is not helpful, not from within or from others. The word “violence” is descriptive, not judgmental, but many react to the word as if it implies immediate, profoundly negative, judgment.
It has taken great self-compassion to kindly accept the violences I have done to myself. After all, they were acts of self-preservation at the time. I am relieved that I was not violent towards others, and there were times SIV gave me the out to avoid that. When options are limited and distress is severe, life is narrow and survival is a priority. Without compassion and understanding, from self and others, it is even more difficult to risk change and expansion. I hope that language, while we struggle with it, does not become a barrier to that process.
I wonder if the intensity of the conversation on the list serv has anything to do with the distance many survivors of violence keep between themselves and those who perpetrate violence. Those of us who have needed self-directed violence to cope with our woundedness often bring great discomfort to others. I wonder if being “associated” with the violent other, the “bad guy” is what is so triggering. If that is so, then how will people heal from violence of any form? How separate do we need to keep ourselves from each other? I don’t write that lightly, I think it is an interesting question.
This post was a long time in writing as it brought out many questions in my mind. It has been a rich, and not easy, time of growth and learning. If any of you are still reading these posts, I’d be eager to hear your thoughts…
In the meantime I’m just glad that I don’t slap myself upside the head any more!