Cutters, Druggies, and Alcoholics

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Cutters, Druggies, and Alcoholics

Apparently characters who cut, does drugs, or drinks alcohol, even though this is obviously self-destructive behavior (thus should be considered as flaws), are complained about.  Yeah, I know there are some writers who don’t do their research about why people do these things and what harmful effects could happen to their character and the people around them, but this complaint is complained about so much that it has started a mass paranoia of every writer’s skill and talent.  It’s become an automatic thing to point at a character that cuts and says, “Ugh, not another emo!”  I’ve caught myself doing that—reading that a character cuts, roll my eyes, and then is apprehensive about the character throughout the story—and I know it’s wrong because this character usually has his or her reasons, but even if this writer didn‘t do their research and made cutting, drugs or alcohol seem like it‘s no big deal, I wouldn‘t tell them to just have the character not do these things.  The writer at least attempted to give these characters flaws, so give them credit where it’s due and tell them how to make it better and real.  First, let’s discuss the meaning of “addiction.”

When you hear the word “addiction,” what do you think of?  Drugs and alcohol are the typical responses, but some people can also think of hoarding or gambling as an activity that can be addictive.  Cleanliness is another answer especially if someone knows a person with germaphobia and OCD-like behavior and obsessions with cleaning; however the truth is that you can become addicted to practically any activity or any substance.  Even water can become an addiction.  Addiction is derived from Latin for “enslaved by” or “bound to,” and the simplest way I can define the possibility of something becoming an addiction is: anything or any activity that causes pleasure or the desired “positive” effect for the person.  Note that I quoted the word “positive.”  

Obviously drugs and alcohol aren’t positive, but for those people who are under the influence, such as alcohol, it makes the person not care.  It makes them feel like whatever problems that they have just don’t matter while they are under the influence.  In fact, even functional alcoholics that have jobs and can take care of their family don’t view their drinking habits as something bad, but it is.  The alcohol, besides obvious liver damage and other health issues, causes an emotional detachment from their loved ones, and that hurts their ability to make new relationships and even keep old relationships.  They are isolating themselves even when they are enjoying a TV show with their children.

So, yes, despite what every person who smokes marijuana tells you, even weed can be addictive to somebody, even if doctors “recommend” weed for your pain or whatever health issues that you have.  Pharmaceutical drugs can addictive, and that’s why some people need a specific prescription.

Of course not everyone will become addicted to something even if the statistics of something being addictive is against the odds of the person.  It depends.  You’ve probably heard of people being addicted to the internet or videogames, and yes, some people are addicted, but not everyone who spends a lot of time on videogames or the internet is addicted—they could just very much enjoy these activities.  In order for someone to be classified as addicted they have to feel that they have to do these things even when they are aware of the health, social and emotional risks, they have withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit, they give up other enjoyable activities or relationships for this one thing, they make sure they have a good supply that will last a while, they may steal for this substance, or may risk their lives while under the influence (such as drunk driving), they feel like they need this substance or do this activity in order to solve or get away from their problems, they’re usually in denial of their addiction, they do this activity or consume the substance in excess, they feel that they have to hide it, and they can have financial difficulties because of this.  People who just enjoy something can quite or take from it with no regrets or feelings of loss, while a person who is addicted feel that they can’t quit or, if they do try to quit, end up having withdrawal symptoms and are anxious to get back on this substance or activity.

For now, let’s just focus on drugs and alcohol, and I’ll get into cutting later in this entry.  Despite all of the information out there about drugs and alcohol, and all the years in school about staying drug free, why are people still getting into these things?

Curiosity is normal, and it is also a powerful thing.  People who are curious usually think, “It’s just one time.  I won’t get addicted to it if it’s just once,” but even this one time can evolve into an addiction.  People who want to rebel also turn to drugs and alcohol to prove that they can do whatever they want without consequence.  Promotions on TV and internet ads have been proven to appeal to teens that it’s cool to do these things and to reinforce this substance which is why there are no cigarette commercials anymore.  Some are desperate for money so turn to dealing out the drugs, and perhaps trying them out themselves.  Despite all of the information, there are some that are in a bad situation and want a way to ease this trauma and stress.  One other reason, once trying whatever substance, they may continue its use purely because they enjoy it.

As far as alcohol and drugs in stories are concerned, all I really ask is to do your research.  What do these substances do?  How is it consumed?  What are the health risks?  Are there any environmental risks (such as reusing syringes or using a syringe found in the trash)?  Do they have a high probability rate of someone becoming addicted?  Look up articles and interviews with someone who was addicted to this substance.  What’s the legal status and age requirement?  If it’s a psychedelic drug, what are some stories of what they’ve experienced when under the influence?  Also look up if people have used a combination of drugs or substances all at once?

Also look up withdrawal symptoms and stories of when people tried to quit.  These may be just as powerful as while under the drug for your story if the character decides to try and quit.

Now, let’s get into self-harming, which can also be classified as an addiction.  Feeling pain is obviously not “pleasurable,” it is supposed to hurt, but people who self-injure do find the temporary relief that they are craving just like drugs and alcohol.  They also have withdrawal symptoms and anxiety when they try and quit, just like drugs and alcohol.  What baffles people who don’t resort to this activity is why precisely do people want to feel pain when drugs and alcohol can relieve stress without the pain.  The pain of cutting, picking scabs, burning, pulling out hair, drinking or eating poison or other toxic substances, scratching, poking the skin with needles, self-bruising, breaking one’s own bones, the point is harming one’s self somehow, even if it causes pain.  That pain is the addiction because feeling that pain usually means something to the person for one reason or another.  That pain is the drug, and like drug-users, there is a risk of an overdose.  Drug-users risk overdosing on heroine or cocaine, just as people who self-harm risk killing them on accident by cutting too deep or getting an infection.  

People who self-harm actually don’t want to die, but do this for the same reason that people take in drugs and alcohol and are caught in that vicious cycle of addiction.  Once they experience that “positive” effect and acknowledge that they want to keep doing it, it becomes everything.

(Getting piercings or tattoos can become an addiction, but isn’t considered as self-harming unless they do it solely for the pain one feels.  People who are addicted to this sort of body modification or body art usually do it to feel the adrenaline of the preparation for pain, or to feel the body‘s endorphins kicking while getting the tattoo which relieves the pain.  The reasons for resorting to tattoos, specifically, can be comparable to drugs and alcohol in the sense of enjoyment of the endorphins, and also to show rebellion and freedom through art.  Also, just as someone can be addicted to collecting books, someone can be addicted to collecting tattoos.  There are various reasons, but just know that someone who is addicted to tattoos isn‘t always doing it to self-harm or solely to feel pain.)

I know what you’re thinking.  Pulling hair and picking scabs are considered self-mutilation?  Yes, they can be.  Pulling hair (Trichotillomania), may sound like it’s not a big deal, probably because you’re thinking of only yanking a few strands and then stopping, but people with this can pick out their hair from their scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, and pubic regions strand by strand for hours, and some may even do it by the handful.  Picking scabs (Dermatillomania) is just as misunderstood.  Yes, I occasionally pick my scabs, and it’s usually because I’m bored, but I don’t constantly look over my entire body just to pick them all, nor to I scratch and pick myself so badly that I have scars or have disfigured an area of my body.  Granted, some people who do this don’t go to that extremes, but this should still be looked into and treated with as much caution as cutting.  Just like hiding the scars on someone’s wrists, people try and hide the bald spots or the odd-shaped scars and make up stories to explain them.  Just like drugs and alcohol, even this hair pulling and skin picking can be isolating because outsiders don’t tend to understand that just stopping isn’t always possible for someone who’s going through it alone.  It can be embarrassing and shameful for people who are going through this—throughout the entire self-harming spectrum.  

Similar to how there are triggers that make people want to smoke a cigarette or drink alcohol, people who self-harm started off doing this only from similar triggers until their addiction takes over to the point where they wanted to harm themselves even without trigger.  These triggers include the feeling of stress, anxiety, losing control of one’s life, or even feeling numb.  They want this pain in order to feel like the least they can control is their physical pain if not the other aspects of their lives, to know that they can feel pain when they otherwise feel numb, and otherwise to reign in their intolerable feelings instead of burdening their friends or family with their emotions.  Only a few admit that they harm themselves because they like it—that it feels good and that they get a rush out of it.

Unlike drugs and alcohol, most who resort to self-harm aren’t under the delusion that if it makes you feel better, it’s fine if you continue to do what you’re doing.  They know that the relief is only temporary, and that the initial trigger will still be there after the distraction is over.  Most people want to stop.  They know it’s bad, and that it’s risky even if they keep thinking that they’ll be careful, but they don’t know other healthier ways of coping, and it’s so hard to just stop all at once even when they find another coping mechanism.  People that keep asking, “Why don’t you just stop?” don’t understand that this is an addiction and that steps need to be taken just like an alcoholic anonymous support group meeting.  

Then there are people who cut—usually teenagers—like it’s some sort of fad.  Yes, as ridiculous as this is, it’s out there.  Some teens use this as rebelling, or hold it up as a cool thing to do without resorting to cigarettes, drugs or alcohol because they think it’s not as harmful as long as they’re careful or something that is illegal and hard to get a hold of.  Because cutting is held up to this standard, some teens feel pressured into trying it out in order to fit in, or may even cause a previous cutter to relapse and start self-harming again.

It’s also not uncommon for self-harmers to also get into drugs and alcohol, and even though self-harming isn’t initially an attempt at suicide, it can lead to it.

For your stories, do research just as I said for drugs and alcohol.  What are some methods of self-harming?  Why resort to this method?  How long did they think of self-harming before they tried it?  Look up articles with personal stories including how they stopped.  What kind of “tool kits” are there?  How did they hide this?  What are other coping mechanisms for the periods that they couldn’t self-harm (some snap rubber bands on their wrists)?  How do they feel before, during, and after self-harming?  What areas of the body are affected by this behavior?  What does cutting or taking in toxins feel like?  At what point do people realize that their self-harming needs to stop urgently?  Did they ever go to the hospital, or lie to doctors to mask what they had done?  How did their family and friends feel after they found out?  Did anyone see them as just seeking for attention?  For people who view self-harming as a fad, why did they see it that way?

As long as you do your research, and give your character a reason (even if they view self-injury, drugs or alcohol as a cool thing to do for one reason or another such as rebelling against their parents or something), it should be fine, but I won’t guarantee that this will protect you from readers who view these things as a pitiful way of forcing empathy and sympathy for a character.  This complaint will probably be around for a long time, so if you get a comment from someone complaining about a character being stupid for resorting to drugs, alcohol or self-injury, despite you portrayal of the thought-process and emotions behind it, just ignore it because they are still stuck in that biasness towards these acts.  If someone claims to have self-injured, or was into a certain drug or alcohol and complain that that’s not how they felt during which, I suggest taking it with a grain of salt because: (1) if you did your research as thoroughly as I’m hoping you do, then you’ll realize that different people can have different experiences while under the influence, and (2) it’s the internet.  I’ve seen comments from people who have claimed to cut themselves and were able to stop, just like that.

Yes, I know, some people can stop on their own, maybe even cold turkey, but I’m still skeptical from these comments.  In addition, it could be that their self-injuring hadn’t become a strong addiction, and that they hold their ability to stop as a be-all end-all or the only possible scenario.  People who talk like that or submit comments like that get on my nerves more than people who attempt to write characters who resort to their addiction (not that I have any personal experience about this stuff that validates anything).

My main point is, especially with characters that self-harm, do your research, express their reasons for doing this against other healthier ways of coping, and portray their needs accurately.  The last part can be hard to do, especially if the character that self-harms isn’t the main character, or if the story isn’t written in the self-injurer’s perspective.  Their emotional status may not always be obvious, so it may be hard to understand fully what the character’s feeling or going through.
If you haven't, please read my Mary-Sue: Who is She? Series first.

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