The real value of distraction

Trigger Warning: Post discusses self-harm and avoidance strategies.

Distraction

When interacting with mental health professionals they often advise you to distract yourself to avoid doing something dangerous.

It can feel like they’re being dismissive “just distract yourself”.

Sometimes distraction really doesn’t work, but most of the time it just buys time. Buying time is valuable though, often the impulse to do something dangerous isn’t strong enough to last a significant amount of time. By distracting myself Igive time for the impulse to fade, and when it does, I’ve “won” – I haven’t hurt myself.

For example, today, I wanted to burn myself. I don’t keep a kettle on hand, which means heating up water to burn myself in a saucepan is going to take a significant amount of time. Today, by the time I’d put water in a saucepan, and started heating it, the impulse faded giving rise to the thought “what on earth am I doing”, at which point I poured the water down the sink and went out.

Usually 20-40 minutes is the estimated time for a normal impulse to last. The problem is when I disassociate, as that can last for hours, or even days. Disassociation is a when I feel disconnected from reality, and it’s as if my mind is still operating, but I’ve lost control. The best analogy I have found is it’s like being in a car, with the brakes broken, accelerator locked down and doors jammed, hurtling towards the edge of a cliff. You can steer to adjust how you fall, but you can’t avoid falling off the cliff.

It’s like being in a car, with the brakes broken, accelerator locked down and doors jammed, hurtling towards the edge of a cliff. You can steer to adjust how you fall, but you can’t avoid falling off the cliff.

Me

There’s very little that can be done to prevent me from hurting myself in that scenario, unless another person realises what is happening and gets in the way. As I’ve discovered that is incredibly unlikely, see below about seeking help.

Similar strategies can work. In this scenario I find myself tricking myself into doing a quite long sequence of steps is needed to be completed before I can do that final action of self-harm.

The steps can include procuring the items I need, decontamination related to my OCD, or tidying up my room/flat under the reasoning that whatever happens I’m left with nothing to clean up, or whoever has to deal with what I’ve left behind isn’t left with much to do if I’m suicidal.

Seeking help, personally

Trying to indicate to someone that I need help when distracting myself is something I find incredibly difficult. When in crisis I can’t justify threating to do something dangerous or preventing myself from doing whatever it is. Hence the most I can justify is giving a minimal indication that something isn’t right. Generally people will have no idea that it indicates a crisis, but if they know me well enough they might or might not realise what it means. So technically I’ve left it up to an unlikely chance whether someone stops me, which as far as I’m concerned at the time isn’t the same as getting someone to stop me.

Part of the difficulty in seeking help is wanting to avoid being viewed as threatening to do a dangerous act. Not really seeking help is, as far as I am concerned at the time, very much not threatening to do something. From my point of view as I’m not actually saying anything about doing something dangerous.

Included in that is that I don’t want to bother anyone if I’m not actually going to hurt myself. Unfortunately by the time I know whether or not I’m going to it’s too late to seek help, as I’ve already done or not done it.

There’s also the fear that I’m not worth the help and support. As far as I can tell that is entirely irrational. At the time though, it’s hard to believe that.

A lot of the time when professionals realise something is very badly wrong, it’s way too late and I’m already need A&E for treatment.

I have requested help before a crisis, but it’s usually a long time before when there isn’t any immediate threat.

That can make helping me difficult, as I’m aware, and make me seem unpredictable. I’m not sure how to break the thought patterns so that seeking help is viewed as a valid option.

If you can seek help, do!

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