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I’m going to periodically dedicate some time to unpacking the relevance and reality of various media depictions of mental illness. For some folks, especially the younger generations, these depictions are the first exposures they have to mental illnesses. If I have anything to say about these portrayals, I’ll pass it on to you all!
“Is it on Netflix?”
For many (at least, for me), this is the first question I ask when someone suggests a TV show to me. “HBO?” is a common follow-up. Probing a new introduction or acquaintance’s brain for their favorite Netflix show is a good conversational crutch, and I often receive a pretty fascinating range of responses when I bring it up. Within the last couple of months, the most common response I’ve heard is the new HBO mini-series called Sharp Objects.
I don’t know if its success can be attributed most closely to Amy Adams’ or Gillian Flynn’s involvement, for I can’t think of many other reasons it would have become so popular. It was a pretty interesting book; Gillian Flynn, though a bit dry in style, is a gifted suspense builder. I read it when the show was first announced, and while it was gripping, I was certain at the time that the show would flop. If the dark premise was relatable to me, there was little chance it would be relatable to most, right?
As with 13 Reasons Why (which I will definitely be getting to, in time), I was surprised by how fascinated my generation was by the dark world of mental illness. Sure, it was a fantastical, TV-ready version of mental illness, but there was clearly something about the nature of the darkness that spoke to the vast audiences these two shows pulled in. As someone who’s really lived the main premises of the two shows, I hope that my perspective on the ailments depicted can help contextualize their offscreen reality for my fellow Netflix and HBO subscribers.
Finally, before I get into it, I am really only comfortable writing this because of how far removed I am from this particular aspect of my mental illness. I’m going to steer clear of a few of my issues because they are too current, dark and raw. My last sharp experience was around three years ago and my worst time period was around four/five years ago, an amount of time that I can recently say is robust enough to count as a former phase of my life. This distance, I think, allows me to objectively analyze the issue while still being able to provide an inside account.
Amy Adams’ character uses a razor and other sharp objects (roll credits!) to self harm. Her “thing” is using sharps to carve words into her body such that when the wounds scars over, the words are still visible on her skin. Both scenes in which we see her scarred body and scenes in which she harms herself are shown on screen. I’ve been in my fair share of outpatient and inpatient therapeutic environments, and while self harm was nearly unanimous among my fellow patients, I never encountered anyone else who carved words with their sharps.
The most common sources of self injurious behavior are mood disorders and trauma. OCD, Borderline, and Anorexia/Bulimia are also often underlying. The most popular demographic of self harmers is adolescent females (although around 40% of self harmers are male), and approximately 15% of adolescents will engage in self injurious behavior. You have definitely met someone who has self harmed, and perhaps know someone who is actively doing it. The most common method is cutting, but hitting and burning oneself are also prevalent. Overall, Sharp Objects does a passably good job of portraying these circumstances in the amount of time it dedicates to doing so. Amy Adams’ character, Camille, is a young adult with scarring, meaning her self injury likely started in adolescence (in the book this is clearly established).
Other than myself, the fictional Camille is the only “person” I’ve heard of who self injured by carving words into herself. While I certainly wasn’t raised by a (spoiler alert!) murderous, poisoning and verbally abusive mother, Camille’s apparent underlying motivations are similar to what mine were, with her methodology echoing mine as well.
In 8th grade, freshman year, and some of my sophomore year, self harm was a notable part of my life. Like Camille, I’d use various sharp objects(!) to carve meaningful words into my legs. My words of choice were selfish (the most common), fat, slut, and bad. Unlike Camille- who selected dozens of words and spread them across her body- I mostly stuck to these four words, over and over on my thighs. Though this wasn’t understood at the time, my OCD selected these words from my deepest emotional insecurities and necessitated their bleeding into the physical world. Cycling through these words in my head, over and over, wasn’t enough. I needed a release, and seeing these words blare red on my skin did the trick.
Both in the book and show, Camille spends time in a psychiatric hospital. Given that self harm, while not inherently linked, is a good indicator of potential future suicide attempts, her stay in the hospital is realistic and a welcome inclusion. It’s unlikely that a doctor would hospitalize a patient purely because they are self harming, but self harming is indicative of deeper emotional suffering that can escalate to suicidality if untreated. I have only met a small handful of psychiatric patients who’ve managed to exclude self injury from their mental illness journey.
I was lucky; my entry into intensive therapeutic treatment more or less ended my self-harming stint. Faint scars of these words are only barely visible on my thighs, now, all former rosiness faded. It’s been theorized that Excoriation serves a similar function for me, but they are diagnostically and technically very different and I have found many useful ways to resist any urges that have arisen since I stopped. Like Camille, many people who self harm find it exceedingly difficult to stop, and continue the behavior into young adulthood and beyond. Self injury sticks as a coping mechanism, albeit one of the worst.
Another aspect of Camille’s portrayal that I appreciate is the contrast between her self injury and how she is seen by the local town-folk of Wind Gap. Camille Preaker was, especially in her teenage years, seen as the most beautiful and popular girl of her age group. Smart, rich, and well liked, few in the town would have suspected that she took a blade to her skin. Why would she? She was gifted in every way. There is a common stereotype of people who self-harm as “emo,” dramatic, unpopular, weird. In reality, while some of the people who self harm may fit into these categories, in my experience, self injury is non-discriminatory in who it affects. Its underlying issues of mood disorders, trauma, OCD, eating disorders, happen to nearly every demographic: wealthy and poor, young and old, all races, genders, and sexualities. By writing self harm into the Perfect Camille Preaker’s story, the audience is exposed to the radical opposite of the self-harming stereotype. Hopefully this wedges a bit of perspective into the popular stereotype of the self injurious person.
Truly, the only commonality self harmers share is the suffering they endure that leads to their behavior. Typical reasons for self harming include a desire to feel in control, to punish themselves, release intense emotion, or visibly cry out for help. For myself and likely for Camille, the words I carved were a way to release the painful intensity with which the words blared in my head.
If there’s a main takeaway to be gotten from the show, I’d like to think it’s that all kinds of people can experience inner pain, and that self harm is not an uncommon way for folks to cope with that pain. Not only that, but there is a way out of that pain. Camille entered into treatment and moved away from the most direct source of her pain (her familial conflict). This pain haunts her but in a distant way, and it’s only when she comes back to Wind Gap that her wounds, in both senses of the word, are re-opened. Disclosing her suffering to loving people in her life (her editor and his wife) proves crucial to her health and recovery. Self harm is present in the lives of people around you whether you are aware of it or not, and it may even be present in yours. Let my story and the story of Camille serve as examples of how self injury can be de-programmed and circumstances that lead to it can, and will, improve.
In the meantime, if you discover that anyone you know is self harming or know currently of anyone who is, make sure that a trusted adult (counselor, doctor, etc) knows- for self harm is a legitimate and potentially acute safety concern and therefore should never be kept quiet- and try your best not to judge the sufferer. They are enduring a difficult inner battle, and until it inevitably improves, it deserves your patience and sympathy.
Stay tuned for a somewhat differently toned take on 13 Reasons Why!