Misconceptions About BDSM and Mental Illness

(Thank you Aunt Nan for inspiring this post with your last email.)

In the last year I have disclosed a couple of facts about me that most people did not know. I wrote a book about kink and bdsm. On my health care blog I disclosed that I was a cutter. Naturally, people have asked me what the connection is between the two and if one helps me cope with the other.

I actually spent a lot of time thinking about mental health and the connections to BDSM. I have been Bipolar since I was about 10 years old. I have been kinky since I was 13. I used to wonder if I wasn’t struggling with mental illness if I would be in the kink scene. I tried to treat my mental health issues through BDSM scenes. This is all pretty typical for people who struggle with mental illness who are also kinky.

Popular culture links a lot of things to kink that are not actually connected. Kink is linked to abusive relationships, mental illness and self destructive tendencies by people who have no understanding of kink. Outsiders think kink is only about extreme sex and pain. The reality is, for many of us who practice kink outside of the bedroom none of these things is true.

Years ago, the movie The Secretary connected kink and cutting. In the film, Maggie Gyllenhall is a cutter and lives with major depression. When she gets involved with James Spader (playing an OCD Dom) he orders her to stop cutting. She follows his command and her cutting stops. Over the course of the movie, the deeper she submits to him the more her mental illness relents.

Like everything in Hollywood, this is a fantasy version of the D/s (Dominance/submission) dynamic. People without an understanding of either mental illness or the D/s dynamic buy the idea that a Dom can tell a sub to stop experiencing a mental illness and the sub will follow the command. This assumption plays into the idea that people with mental illness are not sufficiently strong on their own to deal with their psychological illnesses. It is the perception that people with mental illness are weak, that they enjoy their illness, or that they are somehow choosing to be mentally ill.

Clinical Depression Versus Non-clinical Depression

Nothing could be farther from the truth. People with clinical mental illnesses are not staying mentally ill by choice. The emotions experienced by people with mental illness are not under their control. They are not simply moods that weak people indulge. The emotions of people who are clinically mentally ill are also not like the emotions of people who are not mentally ill.

Let me expand on that point. Everybody gets sad. Everybody gets depressed. Everybody gets anxious, angry, hyper and occasionally has grandiose thoughts. Those experiences are all human experiences. When you are in the middle of the experience, it can overwhelm your world. To you, if feels like a horrible anger or sadness or anxious situation. People without mental illness can experience those emotions but they do not overwhelm their world for long. People without mental illness tend to experience these emotions based on some triggering event. People without mental illness can move through the emotion and not have horribly distorted thinking. This is not possible if you have mental illness.

I have Bipolar I. The majority of my mood swings are toward mania. I do experience the depressive side of it as well. Sometimes these mood are triggered by external events, but often they are disconnected from the rest of my world. I can try and talk through the depression, but ultimately I cannot logic my way out of it. I do not heal from the triggering event and have the depression go away. When depression hits, it is there, ever-present and will not dissipate until there is some chemical change in my body.

For someone without mental illness, they experience depression. Something will trigger it. You break up with a partner you love deeply. You go through a period of grief and sadness You cry. You rage. You sit in the dark watching a Teen Moms marathon and eat a gallon of Ben and Jerry’s and cry and think you will never find love again. It is horrible and consumes your world. But, unlike my depression, you know yours is tethered to something real. You lost someone you love. Your depression makes sense to your friends. You grieve the lost relationship and begin to heal and the depression dissipates. Eventually you make it back out on the dating market and live your normal life.

That is not what happens for me. I might have a series of bad days. I feel down, despondent, and “out of it.” Generally there is nothing in my life that is particularly bad, but I just stop being able to cope with life. My thinking becomes fuzzy and distorted. I cannot find joy in little things anymore. My body starts to hurt. I have lots of physical aches and pains. I become extremely lethargic. Getting out of bed becomes a monumental task every morning. I stop being able to control my tears. For no reason at all, I will be wracked by sadness and need to sob for an hour. The ability to cope with the to-do’s of daily life – opening mail, checking email, paying bills, showering, doing laundry – become insurmountable tasks. As the mail piles up and the laundry goes undone, my anxiety increases. I hate myself because I do not have the energy to put a pile of clothes in the washing machine. Life becomes completely futile. I isolate. Friends cannot understand what is going on and blame me for not being happy. I get told to “buck up” and “stop your whining” and “really, its not that bad. You are being stupid for being sad.” When it is really bad, I stop being able to leave bed, even to use the bathroom.

This entire time I have an internal conversation trying to figure out what is wrong with me. I look at all parts of my life and see if there is something I can do to stop feeling bad. I yell at myself. “Buck it up girl! Pull your shit together! Stop being stupid.” I never works. I cannot connect with people and I cannot feel any love or care at the time. I remind myself of what is good in my life and I see no point in it. Seeing that my life is not total shit only reminds me that I am a weak and useless human being that no longer deserves love.

So no, my depression isn’t like what people without mental illness experience. I know you have hurt. I know it is extreme for you. I don’t want to downplay your experience. I just don’t want you to make the mistake and think you have a clue about mine.

Mental Illness, Domination, and Cutting

The idea that a Dom can tell a sub to stop feeling this is absurd. No one can tell a person with mental illness not to feel what they feel and make it go away. In fact, telling someone with a mental illness that their emotions are not valid, that they are wrong to feel what they feel makes the person going through the experience feel even worse about themselves. It only compounds our misery and reinforces that we are shitty and weak human beings who do not deserve any love or compassion. The D/s dynamic does not mitigate that experience.

Back to cutting…

I began cutting when I was eleven. It started about the same time my hormones started to change. I got my first period when I was twelve and a half. I cut myself the first time about a year before that. I started cutting not because I had seen or heard about anyone else doing it. When I was a kid, no one talked about self harm. There were no internet sites to go to (there was no internet), there were not groups promoting it, there was no status in it. This is very different than today. I started because I had an overwhelming need to harm myself