As a therapist, I’ve often heard this phrase:
‘Oh he/she is just trying to get attention’.
I’ve heard this said about children and teenagers who are struggling with major transitions, adults who are battling depression, people who have threatened or attempted suicide, and so on.
They are just trying to get attention.
Most of these people were genuinely struggling with life situations that were proving too much for them to handle, and doing it in an under-resourced way with very little support. Illnessses such as eating disorders and depression are not something anybody would consciously choose to have. They are incredibly painful ways to live.
But when loved ones struggle to make sense of what’s happening, they feel helpless. If they’re encouraged to view behaviour as ‘just attention-seeking’, it can reduce their worry and stress.
Research shows that up to 80% of people who later went on to attempt suicide had talked about it within the month prior to doing it. This challenges the common belief that if someone talks about hurting themselves, they won’t really do it. The truth is they’re often working up the courage, and many in this situation would dearly like someone to step in and give them an alternative.
But society’s tendency to view these behaviours as ‘attention-seeking’ means we miss crucial opportunities to genuinely understand what’s going on for a loved one, and to find an effective way to help them.
My Attention Seeking
My aunt tells me about the only time she saw my grandmother cry. I was 3 and we were living with my paternal grandparents. I had my first bout of tonsillitis, and my mother insisted I eat everything on my plate, even though it took me up to an hour to do. It hurt.
My grandmother was one tough woman – she lived on the land, rode horses, and I still have a photo of her proudly holding up a snake she killed by herself. But my mother managed to reduce her to tears more than once with her behaviour towards me.
The second time I had tonsillitis I was 8. I’ve always been a slow eater but I was getting even slower. My furious mother took me to a doctor to prove there was nothing wrong with me. The doctor ordered me up to the hospital immediately. My tonsils were so swollen and infected they needed to come out the following morning.
I was told I would be asleep when they took them out. So when they came and gave me an injection, I expected to go to sleep. When I didn’t, I lay there alone, worrying they wouldn’t realise I was still awake, or worse, maybe they had decided not to put me to sleep while they took them out.
I became more and more anxious as I waited for them to come and take me to surgery. Of course when I got to theatre, they put the mask over my face and the ether blessedly put me out. I woke up feeling like a truck had run over me. They removed my adenoids as well, so the first thing I saw was blood on the plastic lining under my head.
My mother, who was a nurse, was there but quickly announced that since I was obviously just going back to sleep, she was leaving because she had things to do. I begged her to stay – the blood scared me because I didn’t know why it was there, and I felt so awful. But off she went.
The nurses were lovely to me. There was no room in the children’s ward so I stayed in the adult ward and they loved fussing over me. This was new to me, being treated as though I was special, surrounded by smiles and concern for my wellbeing.
I decided I wanted to stay.
My father told me not to be ridiculous, and I went home the next day. But for years afterwards, I became obsessed with the idea that I had appendicitis. The doctor must have had some idea what was going on, because he gave me what I think were placebo tablets – for ‘wind in the appendix’.
It wasn’t a conscious thing at the time, but I was trying to get back to the place where I felt loved. To this day I still have a perfectly healthy appendix.
I recently watched as a friend posted photos and updates on Facebook as her little boy went into hospital to have his tonsils removed. She stayed with him the whole time, fretted while he was in surgery, and shared how proud she was of him afterwards. I was stunned.
What’s Your Need?
It was easy to dismiss my fixation on my appendix as ‘just trying to get attention’. It’s true, I was. I was trying to get a need met the only way I knew how.
Of course there were more effective ways to feel loved and supported but I had no experience of them, so I tried to return to the only experience I knew. Many of us are very clumsy about this, but is that a reason to dismiss somebody’s very real pain?
If you’ve been told you’re just trying to get attention, think about what it is you really need and ask yourself the following questions:
- If my life was exactly the way I would like it to be, what would be different to the life I have right now?
- What are some ways I could go about bridging this gap, even a little bit?
- Who would I need to ask for help, and how could I best go about that?
- What other resources do I need to utilise?
Then do what you can as soon as you possibly can. For me, it meant building a big friendship network around me. Knowing I had such great friends meant that I couldn’t be as unlovable as I felt, otherwise why would these people bother with me?
I also learned to change my self-talk, and to question the negative views I had of myself. Once I did this, I forgot all about my appendix.
Reach out. It’s ok to seek attention, as long as you do it as constructively as you can. It could improve your quality of life. It might even save it.