How do I deal with a phobia that came from being around a cutter?
July 11, 2009 2:39 PM   Subscribe

What do I do about a persistent phobia and why is it getting worse? Reading this question (how scary is blood) I had an instant reaction of starting to hyperventilate a bit, though I got it under control quickly (also stopped reading). As I get older and the more I'm aware of it, this reaction gets stronger. Explanation involves a friend who was a cutter so be aware if this is a trigger for you.

Background: in high school a couple of close friends would cut themselves, at first as some sign of bravado or when under stress, and then (for one of them) as an addiction. I was under constant and severe stress at this time myself, due to family issues (parents' divorce, living with the one who was unpredictable and frequently enraged) and a mood disorder that went undiagnosed for quite a few years.

I'm afraid my brain was wired to leave me much more sensitive and anxious than a normal person. When stressed, I tend to tune out from people, become uncommunicative, worry that no one can stand me, and so on. What I've also realized is that a phobia seems to be growing connected to my friend's behavior - it's about blood and cutting in particular.

I wasn't awfully bothered by the cutting at the time. I tried to talk my friend into quitting, but was not grossed out. I used to watch all kinds of bloody horror movies, and would even seek out the worst at the video store as if I was dared to.

After a couple more intensely stressful years (they've passed), now I'm afraid to keep sharp objects around even though I haven't harmed myself nor wanted to. But I seem to have started worrying at times about doing so, through some sudden, perverse impulse I can't control. Now I can't stand to watch scenes in movies where anyone's been cut (I don't seek to watch violence, but a shooting on film wouldn't bother me). I'll start to hyperventilate if it's very bloody. I've had blood drawn at a doctor's office during a checkup and wasn't afraid of the procedure but couldn't stand to look. Yet I'm female so when I get my period every month seeing that kind of blood is no big deal at all. I just can't seem to get rid of some images in my head of that friend's arms and legs and seeing dried blood splattered on books and papers. I think it's particularly having seen the results of some very deep cuts that gets me.

I have read plenty about addictive behavior, PTSD, any and all kinds of mental health issues and I'm on medication that keeps my mood pretty stable. I can't see a therapist now, however, due to a lack of funds/health insurance. What I'm confused by, mostly, is how the phobia didn't seem to develop until about 8 years after the events in question, and why I worry about the.. imp of the perverse suddenly taking over. Has this happened to others? Anything I can do myself to deal with this?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't think that it's something coming back to haunt you eight years later. I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder and for me, once I conquer a fear or it's made irrelevant (financial worries alleviated by actually paying off the bills, for example) my trusty anxiety disorder finds something else to focus on. So my guess would be that the anxiety is the underlying trigger. It was probably something else before it was blood, I would guess.

Do you think you could find some local therapy that uses a sliding scale? If that's not an option, either, perhaps you could check out Feeling Good or some other CBT book.
posted by sugarfish at 2:45 PM on July 11, 2009

If it's the cutting -- the memory of it, the idea of it -- that's setting you off, you might want to talk to your friends about it (or, if you're not still friends with these people, maybe go online and read up on some internet resources about cutting). This particular practice is weird, because for a lot of people, the temptation of it is almost as frightening as the act itself. "Am I GOING to cut myself" becomes this big terrifying thing --- loaded with a ton of guilt and apprehension, and really scary to think about.

I had some problems with cutting awhile back -- worrying a lot that I was going to, and ultimately doing it for awhile and then doing it more, and then stopping. It's not something I'm particularly proud of, but it's also not something I consider as a huge be-all, end-all thing (I was much more worried, at the time, about alcohol consumption, because it precipitated other behaviors). But I DID worry about it, and obsess about it, and was really ashamed at the idea for a long time. At some point, I stopped thinking about it as something bad I was doing (or thinking about doing),, and then started treating it as a thing. "Oh. It's a thing I'm doing. It's not good for me, but it doesn't make me a terrible person to do it or think about it." That made it a lot easier to distance myself enough from the idea to be able to stop (or, maybe if I had done this earlier, to keep myself from starting).

I don't know why this is coming up now, as opposed to earlier -- and I'm DEFINITELY not saying that it's a good or healthy behavior (though I DO think it gets pathologized a bit, more so than other addictions that are equally dangerous or bad for you). But if you're really panicked or worried about it, remember that it's just a thing. We do things to ourselves all the time -- some of them are good, some of them are bad. You are not perverse (or possessed) by thinking about this from time to time, and it doesn't make you a bad person. Once you take that level of self-critique / paranoia off the table --- acknowledge that this is a thing you're curious about, and scared of (you can be both at the same time -- and it still doesn't make you a bad person), maybe it'll be a little less scary to think about? It sounds like you've built up a lot of kind of paranoid associations (horror movies, etc) around this thing, and demystifying it a bit might help to relieve some of your more central fears.

If you want reading material, Bodies under Siege is a good place to start. This is also a good site, if you don't have any people to talk to directly -- it has a lot of really practical advice for managing paranoia, and destigmatizing what (for a lot of people) is a really private and kind of taboo subject.

Cutting is a really scary thing, and can be a really dangerous thing -- but it's just as bad if you're thinking and obsessing about it, and educating yourself on the topic is a good first way to help with that.
posted by puckish at 3:12 PM on July 11, 2009

A friend who went through a similar anxious/phobia issue turned out to have undiagnosed OCD that hadn't manifested itself strongly in the past.
posted by Jairus at 4:41 PM on July 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was also going to mention OCD-spectrum stuff. Having obsessive, uncontrollable (or at least not easily controlled) thoughts about doing things or about things being there is a symptom of that. I knew someone who as a teen was extremely paranoid about being exposed to or accidentally doing drugs. The things they thought might have happened didn't make any rational sense, though. They would think they saw white powder on their schoolbook that must be cocaine, or that people were smoking marijuana around them. One time when we went somewhere, they asked if while we were out of the car, they had gotten into a random "dirty-looking" car near ours in a parking lot that "might have drug syringes in it" that they could have touched. We had just gone inside the store and then back to our car again, and they had not gone anywhere near the other car, but they seemingly couldn't remember if they had or not. That was the incident that made me think they really needed help. They had other OCD symptoms as well, like constant handwashing, etc. What you described reminds me a lot of their fears, and the imagining of possible exposure to the thing they are scared of.
posted by ishotjr at 6:48 PM on July 11, 2009

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