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.

I was depressed. My first major depressive episode occurred when I was ten. I remember feeling sad but not having the words to describe it. I remember hating my body. I was tall, too fat for my taste, and thought I was ugly. I hated my stomach and wanted it to go away. My first cuttings were on my stomach and thighs. I found a utility knife, removed the blade, and used that to cut myself repeatedly.

There was something about seeing the scratches, seeing the dots of blood bubble up and know that I was marking the parts of me I hated the most that lead to momentary psychological relief.

Over time, the frequency and severity of the cutting increased. The first time I cut myself I inflicted about two dozen inch long cuts. They scratches weren’t deep – more red lining than anything. Over time I moved from my stomach and thighs to my wrists and forearms. Eventually I could only get relief if I cut my wrists. The cuts got deeper. I had to draw more and more blood for there to be any relief. The number of cuts needed for release increased. At my worst over a three day period I inflicted 100 inch-long cuts a day trying to feel better.

I knew how deep I could go before I ran the risk of having to seek medical help. If I needed more blood, I cut perpendicular to the veins because I could go deeper without running the risk of “accidentally” opening a vein so deep I would need medical attention. There was some level of science to my whole approach. At one point I was so bloodied and scared from wrist to elbow on both arms that I could not find skin to inflict another cut on when I needed too.

I kept long sleeve shirts in my wardrobe specifically to be able to cover the cuttings. I would forgo manicures when the scars were too apparent. Eventually though, I learned nobody actually noticed anything. I could be with a partner, strip naked and have sex and not even try to hide the cuts and they would go unnoticed.

Cutting is about disconnection, destruction, isolation and generated completely from within myself.

Eventually I just grew out of the whole thing. When I was about twenty-eight years old I stopped. I didn’t do this consciously. I had my last episode then noticed about a year later that I hadn’t had the need to cut in a while. I had depressive episodes after this, but there wasn’t a need to cut. At forty, I can sink into a deep depression and anger and still not get the need to cut.

My BDSM experiences have never been a way to subjugate the need to cut. I was involved with a Dom (albeit a very poorly trained and practiced one) at the time of my worst cutting. I engaged in basic impact play with him. The pain of impact play did not replace the need to cut. Here’s why.

For me, cutting is about destroying myself. It is about trying to physically manifest the pain and destruction that my soul undergoes during a period of deep depression. It is something very private that I do when I am alone, isolated, and really hate myself.

Impact play and other pain play in BDSM is part of forming a connection and reaching a transcendent place. It is a way that I connect with a partner that is not replicable in other ways. When I play with a Dom and we do impact and other forms of pain play, my submission to the pain is a way to demonstrate my devotion and connection to him. He creates pain for me in forms I enjoy. I like deep, thuddy impact: flogging, leather belts, ethernet cord rug beaters. I have specific areas I like stimulated: buttocks, thighs, breasts, shoulders. I am not really into stingy or bitey sensations. My Doms know this and use floggers, paddles, and other thuddy implements and tend to avoid things like single tail whips, violet wands and Wharton wheels.

Throughout any BDSM scene there is continued connection with my Dom. Sometimes it is through the touch of his hand, sometimes it is through a whip or flogger, sometimes it is his voice, sometimes it is as simple as breathing in sync with him. We feel each other’s energy and remain aware of each other throughout. In the best scenes, our breathing will be in sync and at times, even our heart rates. Pain is given, intensity in increased and decreased to create tensions and release, and all of this is negotiated prior to allow us to connect deeply. It is antithetical to cutting.

I cannot treat my depression and anger through BDSM. Depression and anger are isolating and destructive. Kink and BDSM scenes about connection, growth, and transformation. Depression is physical and psychological and chemical for me. My brain chemistry does change during a significant BDSM scene. I feel the good brain chemicals (oxytocin, serotonin, neurontin) release and my cortisol levels drop. Depression prevents me from entering the right headspace to engage in BDSM. Depression creates a block between me and my partner and I cannot submit. Depression dampens my energy fields and partners do not connect with me, making subjugating the need to cut by substituting a beating impossible.

I know that watching an actual BDSM scene (as compared to the slick and sanitized versions in popular culture) does not look loving and connecting to people who do not engage in kink. Likewise, a clinically depressed person appears to be just wallowing in a bad space by choice. The only connection between mental illness and depression is the fact that neither are understood by people who do not experience them.

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