To Anyone Who’s Ever Shamed a Teenager For Being ‘Attention Seeking’

Content Notice: self-harm, suicide

The scars I have from cutting myself as a teenager have faded. If you looked at my body today, you would never know the hell that I put it through all those years ago.

But the wounds from people labeling me “attention-seeking” or “emo” or “dramatic” are still wide open, ten years later.

You could say that I have a bone to pick. And you would be correct.

When I was a teenager, all I understood about what I was going through was that I was depressed and detached from myself. Set adrift in my pain, I fell apart. I didn’t know why, let alone what resources were available to me or how to ask for help.

In a society which does not openly discuss mental health, it should come as no surprise that a fourteen-year-old kid didn’t know what to do when he was suicidal.

A decade later, I still don’t know what to do half the time. But I’m grateful to that teenager for doing what he needed to do to keep himself alive. I wouldn’t be here without him.

I can’t tell you the number of times that people saw me suffering – desperate, hopeless, lost – and, instead of validating my struggles, they wrote them off by saying, “He’s just looking for attention.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I hurt myself, only to hear someone say to me, “Quit being so dramatic.”

And to this day, I hear the word “emo” and a part of me cringes because I remember the way that word was used to completely invalidate my pain.

To set the record straight, if I was looking for attention, it’s because I needed it. If I was being dramatic, it’s because I couldn’t contain the depth of my own turbulent emotions. And if “emo” is just another word for mentally ill, then yes, I was certifiably insane but you were too busy laughing at my eyeliner to give a fuck.

Sure, I’m emo. I’m emotional. It’s called bipolar disorder, and maybe I would’ve gotten a diagnosis sooner if someone had paused to consider that maybe I wasn’t faking it.

Call me bitter, but I can’t help but wonder how my life would be different if someone had had the courage to intervene instead of the cowardice to mock me.

Yes, this one’s personal.

Yesterday – ten years after I heard the word “emo” for the first time, ten years after my so-called friend said I was pretending to be sad, ten years after a high school counselor told me my cuts weren’t deep enough – I needed help.

A depressive episode hit me so hard, I lost my balance and I hit rock-bottom. I wasn’t in my right mind.

But instead of asking my friends for support, I felt that gut instinct that’s been ingrained in me since I was a teenager – the one that tells me not to be a burden, not to be dramatic, not to bother anyone.

Suffice to say, I ended up drunk off my ass a block away from the train station contemplating thoughts I can’t let myself say out loud just yet.

Take it from a real-life “emo” kid: When you tell us that we’re just looking for attention, what you’re really saying is that we don’t deserve to be seen.

When you tell us that we’re faking it, what you’re really saying is that our pain doesn’t matter, that WE don’t matter.

When you tell us that we’re emo, as if it’s funny to you, what you’re really saying is that our suffering is a joke.

You tell us that we don’t need help. You tell us that we don’t deserve help.

And you create the kind of world where people who are struggling feel like they have no other option but to end their own lives.

You create the kind of world where people who have a mental illness won’t find out until ten years or more after the age of onset, if they’re ever diagnosed at all. That’s a statistical fucking reality and it’s the reality I’ve been living in for a long time.

You create the kind of world where young people learn to bottle up their emotions, to lie about their pain, and to go it alone until they wind up in hospital beds, on train tracks, on concrete, in graves.

And you know what? I’ll take an attention-seeking teenager over a dead one any day of the week.

I want teenagers to shout it from the rooftop. I want teenagers to write it all over the internet. I want teenagers to make their pain known in every damn way they can.

Because guess what? That’s how you survive.

And I don’t know about you, but I want a world in which teenagers who are struggling with their mental health can get attention if and when they need it. Because every one of us deserves to have our pain seen, validated, and affirmed. 

And if that makes me “dramatic”? So be it.

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11 thoughts on “To Anyone Who’s Ever Shamed a Teenager For Being ‘Attention Seeking’

  1. vjknutson says:

    Good advice, Sam. I was a cutter and a rebel as a youth – unable to articulate the pain I was feeling on the inside – and all I wanted was for someone to notice and help me. It is why after thirty years and lots of therapy I became a teacher – to make a difference – to see the kids who are hurting – to be a voice and lend an ear. Our youth are too precious to lose.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Micki Allen says:

    “To set the record straight, if I was looking for attention, it’s because I needed it. If I was being dramatic, it’s because I couldn’t contain the depth of my own turbulent emotions. ”

    Have truer words ever been shared? As a mother, and one who is on the flip side of this coin, I’m constantly shattered and taken aback by my fellow parents who tell me that I’m enabling my children when I “cater” to every “crisis.” Well, thank you, sir or madam, but I’m more willing to enable my children than to bury them.

    Thank you for sharing your scars so that others may learn from your experience. Hugs and warm wishes to you, Sam.

    XOXOX

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Laura P. Schulman, MD, MA says:

    Yikes. That term “emo” wasn’t in use when I was a young person, or even when my job as a pediatric and adolescent ER doc was still happening. That’s just over the top cruel.

    As doctor trainees we were taught that there are two kinds of suicide attempts: Serious, and More Serious. No such thing as “just to be dramatic,” because even if someone swallows a bottle of Tylenol just to get their boyfriend back (it happens, unfortunately, and that’s also a sign of terrible loneliness and not to be laughed at), Tylenol can kill a person.

    It’s horrible that you were bullied for your pain. A former lover, who was born in a male body bit was actually a lesbian, used to tell me that “childhood is nothing but training camp for Lord of the Flies.” Social Darwinism at its worst. He and I were both bullied as children for not fitting into “proper” gender categories. He had multiple suicide attempts/self harm episodes behind him, and I am still a recovering anorexic and other things I’d rather not mention here.

    The “counselor” who told you your cuts weren’t deep enough should live to regret that. I don’t like to sound vengeful, but in this case I actually am. That is exactly the kind of blatant cruelty that can push a struggling kid over the edge.

    SDF, I’m proud of you. You made it through that gauntlet of hazing and bullying. You have major, major battle scars to show for it. And you’ve been coming out to us with those scars. And you know what? You are very likely saving lives. You’re validating feelings and experiences that people don’t talk about.

    Although I don’t “do” blog awards, I’m giving you the only one I’ve ever accepted. Please forgive me if I already gave it to you…you can have it again! It’s the Warrior Child Award, to be given to someone who has survived, fought their way up, scars and all. You don’t have to do anything, no busy work or chain lettering or 10 of anything. If you’d like to put the badge on your page, just stop by my blog and pick it up. This too is optional. You’re also welcome to bestow the Warrior Child upon anyone who you feel deserves it.

    Thank you, SDF, for being, and for sharing yourself. You are truly OUT and I sure appreciate you.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. bobcabkings says:

    Strong post Sam. It is absolutely true that there are few, if any, things worse in life than to have our pain, whatever the cause, mocked or dismissed or denied, or its expression made wrong. If I were having a heart attack or a broken bone I would seek attention, and the world would be OK with that. It must come to be the same with the pains of the mind and heart. re-blogging

    Liked by 1 person

  5. caelesti says:

    I hate that phrase too. It has a lot of sexism attached to it too, though in a way that gets used against people of all genders. Also “drug-seeking” (when someone may actually need meds!) and hypochondriac/attention-seeker when you try to get a diagnosis. Our society is way too obsessed with weeding out the “fakers” when it comes to anything health/disability related. We can’t fund/support any type of services, it might help a few fakers!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. BipolarOnFire says:

    Wow. This one hits hard. You remind me so much of me as a teenager. I was shamed for being such a pain in the ass. People just wanted me to shut up. It makes me sad to think about how teenagers are shamed and how their feelings are discounted and invalidated.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. jerbearinsantafe says:

    Thanks for speaking up. I believe in being a positive influence to those younger than me. I remember how difficult being a teen was long before there was an Internet, texting, social media, et all to amplify the bullying that goes on in schools, communities and yes, sadly, in homes. Thanks for speaking up. The world needs more people like you. Virtual hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Laura Ryding-Becker says:

    Sam, you rock! Letting the world into the inner workings of your brain and heart is such a courageous (and necessary) thing to do. You are undoubtedly opening peoples’ eyes to the struggles of the trans community, people who suffer from mental illnesses, and anyone trying to figure out who they really are and if life is worth it. You are very brave, and I, for one, am proud of you. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ivy Willow says:

    The time lapse is so horrible. It took me 13 years to get a diagnosis and meds that work. 13 years with Bipolar type I. 13 years with an inability to lead a productive life, 10 years of cutting… just tearing myself apart, because, like you said, we were just being dramatic right? *sigh*
    Thank you so much for all your writings and have a beautiful day sunshine. Keep rocking the astounding awareness writings!

    Liked by 1 person

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