Are you Helping or Hindering?

TW/CW: PTSD, trauma, eating disorders, food fears, trigger warnings

I’ve been thinking lately (I know, weird!) and I’ve started to realise that while some allowances we make for our mental health are good and constructive, there are others which could be damaging to our recovery.

This is a difficult one to explain so I’m going to do it by example.

Found these cool topical face masks online while I was looking for my usual surreal imagery, and while I’m no advertiser, I must give credit where credit is due

Mask Wearing

For me, at least recently, mask wearing brings up trauma and the reason for it doing so is not entirely trivial. Let’s go back a little, back to that day. I was in a glass tube that was rapidly filling with smoke with no clear route of escape. I had to cover my face with something so that I wouldn’t breathe in the smoke, it was difficult to breathe, and before long I couldn’t see. I felt the warmth of the fire on my face. When I wear a mask, I feel the warmth of my breath on my face, I struggle to get enough air and the fog on my glasses impairs my vision. It’s like I’m back in the bus. I start to panic and the breathing problems only get worse to the point where I have come close to passing out.

You might be thinking “maybe you could get a medical exemption?” And maybe I could but would that really be helpful?

My psych seems to think not. He won’t exempt me, and I’ll tell you why.

The reason he won’t exempt me from mask wearing is because in terms of recovering from PTSD, avoidance of triggers is entirely unhelpful. Also, panicking over the trauma will not kill me, where not wearing a mask could very well end up that way, not to catastrophise (is that even a word?!) too much. He says the worst thing that can happen when I panic inside my mask is that I will pass out, it will not kill me and so the best thing I can do is panic, panic as much as I can and to prove to myself that I come out the other side unharmed. Eventually, the panic will lessen and I will (hopefully!) will stop panicking altogether. We took a similar approach to get me catching buses again, and I hate to say it, but it works.

This is what got me thinking. Are we, as a society, as a friend, as a family member, making other allowances for some mental illnesses which are counterproductive to the sufferer in a similar way. Of course this doesn’t apply to all mental illnesses, this only applies to those in a position to directly have an effect on their condition(s), such as anxiety disorders, panic disorders, PTSD and possibly even eating disorders (though I am going to stick with what I know here). I asked my psych about making allowances for the depressive or manic episodes of bipolar and he assured me that this is very different as I cannot hope to control those circumstances, there’s nothing I can do to improve my condition other than take my pills and wait it out. There are lifestyle changes you can make which may impact when and how often you have episodes, but once an episode hits, you no longer have control.

I kept thinking about the conditions I have experience with and two of the three are conditions where the choices I make at any given time can either aid in my recovery or push me deeper into the disorder. These are the PTSD and the eating disorder. Here are some examples of unhealthy allowances that I thought of, and I have certainly been guilty of some of these with other people:

  • Getting off the bus when I panic – or as a friend, offering to get off at the next stop because I’m panicking
  • Only eating where your friend with an eating disorder considers safe during hang outs (there are caveats, more on this later)
  • Getting a medical exemption for wearing a mask on the grounds of PTSD
  • Never lighting a fire/talking about fire/watching movies with fire around me
  • Avoiding talking about food

This is not an exhaustive list, but I’m sure you get the idea. All of these things support avoidance of the problem where in order to recover we need to face the things that scare us.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are tricky ones, because triggers can make the conditions much worse, at least for a short period of time. So when I said there are caveats, what I meant is that these allowances should not be made for a person who is actively in recovery, that is they have seen/are seeing a specialist/team of specialists. If a person is still in denial about their eating disorder, and not seeking treatment… well, to be perfectly honest, I’m not quite sure there is a “correct” way to behave, every case is very different and so I’m not going to make recommendations to this effect.

For a person in recovery from an eating disorder, it’s likely that their psychologist or dietician is telling them to actively challenge their food fears, and while these challenges should be done on their own terms, it helps to remind them of the normality of eating such things. For example, when I was struggling with restriction I avoided burgers and pizza because I couldn’t handle anything too greasy and thought it would make me gain weight. This led me to avoid events where there was likely to be burgers or pizza, but should I end up at such an event it is entirely unhelpful for everyone else to decide to eat something that I would be okay with. The idea of challenging food fears is that we realise that having these things here and there is not going to cause us to automatically gain 10kg of fat and avoiding this only reinstates or supports that fear.

Trigger Warnings

Trigger warnings, I think, fall under this category as well. I think that if you are seeking to recover from your condition, you should not avoid reading things with a trigger warning on them. The trigger warning only serves as an alert that you might face difficult content within so that it is not a surprise to you. This might allow you to move to a safer place to read the content, but it should not prevent you from reading the content altogether.

Amy, what’s you point here?

My point here is that you should think twice before making allowances for people on the grounds of their mental illness. If your friend, family member, partner or co-worker wants to recover from their condition and not get deeper and deeper into it, then you should help them by making choices that support that recovery process, even if it feels a little like you’re making it worse. This should only be temporary. Panic is not necessarily a bad thing.

Disclaimer: of course, you should talk with the person about what they think and don’t take my opinion as absolute truth.

If you are seeking help, follow the link below for a list of Australian resources

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