Wednesday, 27 May 2015

My pain is not your entertainment

This post contains spoilers for The Others series by Anne Bishop and references the computer game Guild Wars 2. It also contains descriptions of self-harm and self-harm ideation, and discussion of various mental health conditions. As such, clicking on the jump into the post signifies your consent to reading all of the above, that you will never talk about this or mention it to my mother, and also your understanding that these depictions might distress you. Links are included to various organisations dedicated to helping the survivors and sufferers of the issues discussed. I am turning off comments for this post.

This is how I think. It's messy.

I have a fiction problem. It started when I was very young, probably four, and it continues to this day. I read a lot. I play a lot of games. Psychologists get really interested in the game thing, because video games are clearly evil, but I personally don't think it's separate from my reading habits or my endless capacity for puzzle-solving. Before I played computer games, I read and did stupid puzzles and made things. After I started playing games, I still did all of those things. It's just that now, I can do them inside a virtual world as well.

I have a lot of other problems as well. I have several physical health things that I have to deal with on a daily basis – nothing dramatic, just constant. I have quirks of personality which cause me to behave in specific ways, or respond to behaviour in specific ways, which I try to keep a lid on as much as I can because it annoys everyone. I have some philosophical, moral and/or spiritual concerns which dictate certain things with the way I interact with the world, which I have to work around sometimes. And I have some mental health things which, again, I have to deal with on a daily basis – nothing dramatic. Just constant.

I'm not unique in that, of course. Everyone has this stuff. And I'm not unique in thinking about things too much either. It's pretty common to a certain set of personality types. It's a strength in many ways, and like all unasked for gifts, a weakness in others. I spend a lot of time with my head up my arse. I spend a lot of time going over and over and over things which happened years ago. I either don't think about a thing at all, or I think about it too much. I don't have a middle ground in that regard. (I'm pretty sure I don't have any middle ground, actually, but that's a conclusion that I drew after thinking about it for months, so who the fuck really knows, right?)

In order to survive this thinking thing, and leave space in my life for boring things like eating and sleeping, I have developed the following process:
 1. I encounter a thing I do not like.
 2. I try to work out why I don't like it. I quickly give up and do something else.
 3. Over the next several weeks/months/years, I encounter other things which remind me of the original Do Not Like Thing.
 4. I add each of those things to the Thing. Then I stop thinking about it and do something else.
 5. Eventually, I hit critical mass. I realise why I Do Not Like the Thing, and I quickly sort all of the other things into arguments for or against my position. This can take a variable amount of time, from a few hours deep thought (usually while I am trying to sleep), or in the space of a conversation.
 6. I am compelled to explain about the Thing and why I Do Not Like it to everyone who is in range. At length. Sometimes for weeks.
 7. I encounter something else I do not like. (Goto 2.)
I'm fairly sure other people do this as well, but I have no idea how common it is. I suspect it's more common to do it than it is to think about how you think and then be able to come up with a list like this one, or a similar list, because most people don't constantly second-guess themselves. Or so I think. (This loop I have got myself in here is indicative of what it is like when I don't give up and do something else. I can keep this up for hours.)

So when I say I spend a lot of time analysing myself, I want you to appreciate that not only is this the naked truth, but that I have spent a lot of time analysing the analysis (to make sure it's right), analysing how I analyse in the first place, and analysing my response to these analyses. It is a constant process. I am actually looking forward to senility, because then it will (hopefully) stop. That would be nice. I presume. I have no basis for comparison, after all.

Spoilers, sweetie

A couple of years ago, I went through The Process (as I shall henceforth call it) regarding a specific Thing in Guild Wars 2. GW2 is one of the larger MMORPGs, and it would take a long time and a lot of words to explain it to someone who isn't familiar with the game, so I'm going to gloss over a lot of the details. I was playing a necromancer, and one of the skills that I had available to me was called Dark Pact. (If you do know the game, it's the 3rd Dagger skill.) The action that the avatar takes when casting this spell is taking their dagger and slicing deeply and quickly across their forearm.

It took me a few weeks to be able to structure my thoughts well enough to form a coherent argument of why I was upset by this, and why I felt it was important. In that time, I put my necro on ice, as it were, and played my other characters instead. I didn't want to delete a character I had put so much time into, but neither was I happy continuing until I could get some kind of resolution about it. I eventually messaged the Community Manager, who responded nicely about it, and continued on my way. (I never played with that skillset again though. No double daggers for me.)

Recently, I borrowed a set of books from a friend: Written In Red, Murder Of Crows, and Vision In Silver, by Anne Bishop. They are the first three books of the Others series, of which there are going to be at least a couple more, if I am any judge, although probably not more than 7 in total. I reviewed the first book for Cannonball Read, and then I stopped reviewing. I like to review in the order I read in, but I couldn't manage it this time. I skipped the other two parts, and moved on to the next book I read after that. I didn't stop thinking about it. (This should come as no great surprise to anyone by now.)

The Others series revolves around Meg Corbyn, a runaway prophet from a brutal organisation which uses the girls with this particular gift in a variety of horrible ways. They are variously called cassandra sangue, blood prophets, or sweet-bloods, depending on who is doing the talking. They are all female, and they all see visions of potential futures when they are cut. Meg's escape precipitates the rescue of some of her fellow prophets, but many more of them die. The investigation also leads to the realisation that once the skin of the blood-prophets has been scarred beyond further use, they are bred or bled until their bodies give out, with their daughters being used as they were, their sons destroyed, and their blood turned into one of two potent drugs.

Analyse this

There is so much that hurts me to think about in this world, it's hard to know where to start. It's hard to explain what doesn't bother me as well. Obviously, I am not fine with children being kidnapped, psychologically tortured, bled, bred, and dumped, but I accept it as part of the narrative of the books. If anyone thinks that is a good idea in real life, they are quite categorically a monster. In fact that's the real message of the books: humans are more monstrous than creatures who literally feed from humans. The graphic description of a young pregnant girl throwing herself under a truck because she was made to believe that her baby would be killed if the Others found her was intended to elicit an emotional response from the reader that is the same as the response of the characters in the book: horror, revulsion, grief, and rage. So far, so fantasy.

What I hate is the need Meg has to cut. She must release the prophecy, and when she does, she gets a sexual release from it – one she is not actually aware of, because she is in a prophetic trance at the time. Meg can avoid the trance state, and hence being turned on, by refusing to speak her prophecy – but it costs her a lot of effort and a huge amount of pain to do so, and she only chooses to when she has no other choice: she has to release the prophecy, but she has no-one to tell it to, so it will be “wasted” if she can't keep quiet.

The descriptions of Meg's need grow more graphic as the books go on. Part of this is a narrative investigation into the nature of these women and girls, and it's possible that Bishop intended it to be an investigation into the addictive nature of self-harm and the feelings that it engenders in self-harmers. The crawling of her skin, the way the desire increases further and further until it is all she can think about, the exquisite relief when it is over: these things are familiar to everyone passingly familiar with cutting.

If that was Bishop's intent though, I think she badly failed in her execution. Self-harm is not a thing people do without reason, nor is it rare to find it as (effectively) a symptom of another underlying mental health issue. People self-harm because they want to feel something, anything because otherwise they can't; because they need something to focus on, because otherwise everything is too scattered or difficult; because they cannot vent their rage or disgust or hatred in any other way; because it has become a routine that they have to keep; and for countless other reasons that I cannot think of or understand.

There are, however, various different ways that people think about their own self-harm, and some of them are far more susceptible to outside influences than others. Any rationalisation whereby you are bargaining for something is by far the most dangerous in this regard. It is most commonly associated with the various forms of OCD, and it's also a lot more common in children and adolescents. “If I do this, then that will happen”. We've all thought it before, but some of us are unable to stop thinking it.

For those people, Meg (and my necromancer) represent both a literal stimulation to self-harm – it's really very hard to see or read about when you are a sufferer without feeling something of the desire for it -  and potentially a new way to rationalise what they're doing. Meg sees visions when she cuts: she gets a tangible benefit from cutting herself. The books question, over and over, whether Meg can be stopped, if she will die from it, and what will happen when she eventually runs out of skin; but I am afraid for those who encounter it when they are most vulnerable, because people are drawn to the forbidden, to the romance of suffering, and to the starkness of the imagery involved. And thus far, the books have not provided any solution to the addiction.

In fact, by not providing one, they make the addiction that real-world self-harmers have more difficult to address. All forms of self-harm have an element of psychological dependency to them, and that is hard enough to deal with; but the body responds to pain with endorphines which can become addictive in the “physical requirement” sense, and that is a very daunting thing to try to get a handle on, especially when you're already in emotional distress.

Content Warning: contains content warning

However, and here I refer you back to The Process, I then hit a wall with my reasoning. I don't believe that artists have any right to force people to experience their art in only one way, that's ridiculous, but I also don't think that art-consumers have the right to force artists to avoid everything that might be construed as triggering. But we do all have a responsibility to approach sensitive subjects with sensitivity, to provide clear warnings where appropriate, and to provide further information and resources to help when we can. That is why the first paragraph of this essay is a big long warning.

Inevitably, content and trigger warnings annoy some people, who then bang on about political correctness gone mad, or social justice warrior hug boxes, or bleeding hearts liberals, or whatever stupid little phrase they use to make it seem like they are being reasonable and rational and the people using or requesting them are ridiculous and childish and wrong. And certainly, they can be used poorly and improperly, or worse, as weapons to keep the wrong sort of thinkers out of a debate, where “wrong sort” is “anyone who doesn't think exactly like me”. But I don't think that treating a serious mental health issue as a throwaway skill in a computer game, as a plot device in a novel series, or as a joke by a frighteningly large number of people is something that we should dismiss just because “well it doesn't offend/affect me”.

Because it does, in fact, affect you. It's really hard to get data on stuff like this, but current estimates in the US are 2 million individuals, or 0.6%. That seems like a small amount, right? But most of us know far more people than just 100 by name or face. And that 2 million is current self-harmers, not those who have managed to stop, or those who will at some point start. Contrary to popular belief, of those who require repeated hospitalisations due to self-injury, less than 60% were female and the mean age was 34. (Link to PDF here.)You almost certainly know someone who self-harms, and you probably don't know about it.

We don't talk about mental health issues in the West, for loads of different reasons including but not limited to:
 1. Sexism (emotions = female or some such bullshit)
 2. Culture (stiff upper lip what what)
 3. Mind/Body duality in medicine (increasingly out-dated fyi)
 4. Fear of being seen as weak (cf point 1)
 5. Fear of predators (actually this one is totally valid, people with mental health problems are far more likely to suffer from domestic violence or straight-up be murdered)
 6. Not wanting to be seen as crazy (see every tabloid paper ever)
 7. Not knowing how (if we never see it being talked about, how do we even know the words to use?)
But you know what doesn't make a thing better? Keeping it completely silent and never talking about it at all. That makes people worse, not better. There are so many people who could be helped by us all being more open about mental health issues and struggles and triumphs, and most of them you don't even know about, because they've never told you any of it.

There's another aspect to the use of self-harm as a plot hook, or as a spell to cast: it makes entertainment of real-world pain and suffering. In so doing, it contributes to the culture of dismissing self-harmers as attention-seeking, or as just another emo kid, or as hysterical women, or some other such diminishing and damaging phrase. That perpetuates the cycle of dismissing such behaviours, and isolating those who, for whatever reason, are compelled to use them. I don't believe that creators of art and entertainment should overlook their contribution to maintaining the status quo, especially when the status quo damages so many people.

Rather than infantilising people, content warnings empower survivors and sufferers alike to make the best decision for their own self-care. If I had known about Meg or the necromancer skillset before I encountered them, I might not have chosen to read the books, or play that character. Or I might have done so anyway, knowing that at least the creators cared enough to warn me that I might be upset. Most of the hurt I feel from these situations isn't the specific sensations or feelings triggered by the acts, it's the fact that none of the people involved in the creation of these things thought about it at all; or if they did, they just dismissed it.

I don't think that The Process has finished for me, as far as this particular Do Not Like Thing is concerned. There are a lot of things that have to be sorted by whatever part of me sorts things when I'm busy saving Thedas or laughing at Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs or laboriously working through an elaborate number puzzle. But this is far more important than the time when I spent a few weeks working out why I hate bananas or why I get a little manic when I'm taking antibiotics (both related to childhood tonsillitis, if you're interested), and it affects far more people. So go start your own Process, and see what you can do to help change the world. I know I will. You know, while I'm doing something completely different at the same time.

Links and phone numbers

Samaritans (UK): 08457 90 90 90
Mind: Various factsheets aimed at different groups of people, link is to the specific self-harm one. Links to UK numbers but info is good for everyone.
Self-harm hotline (US): 1-800-DONTCUT
Various national numbers:
Befrienders Worldwide: