Attention-seeking is a common behavior of anyone who’s been sexually abused. Frequently the only real attention we got as we were growing up was negative. In fact, our best choice was often to become invisible, thinking that perhaps invisibility would save us from the abuse we knew was coming. We’ve been starved for positive attention for years. When we get into treatment, we find people who care, people who listen. Their attention is like a drug to us, and we quickly become addicted. When we need an “attention fix” we go seeking the drug we need. So we start doing things that people sometimes term a “call for help.” We throw temper tantrums; we walk around looking sad or glum, hoping someone will ask us what’s wrong. Or, a few of us, like me, made a habit of escaping every time I was hospitalized. Part of it was that I liked the challenge, but a bigger part was the attention I knew I would get. I knew that while they were looking for me, they were all thinking about me. I was occupying their attention, and when I returned they would spend time with me trying to understand and help me understand what I was running from. Truth is: only the first time I escaped, was I running. After that it was for the challenge and the attention.
I also used my predilection to cutting. Sometimes cutting wasn’t about suicide at all. Sometimes it was about anger, and others it was all about attention-seeking. We grow up with manipulation and learn to be master manipulators ourselves. I used my skill quite effectively. I learned how to get the staff to worry about me, and I fed on that attention. Eventually, the staff figured out what I was doing, and I was “busted.” It still didn’t stop me. I was a slow learner. We use the same behaviors at home to get the attention we need from the important people in our lives. We become a perpetrator as we abuse them by causing them to constantly worry about what drama they would have to face that day.
My attention-seeking was cured in just four days when my doctor had had enough. He moved me from the trauma unit in the hospital where I’d been to the county lock-up. I was only allowed to take shampoo, soap, and a change of clothes. No makeup. No reading material. No stuffed animals for comfort. The people there were truly ill and most were under a court order. Therapy couldn’t benefit the people here. And I was in their midst for four days. Some had no boundaries and walked right up to me and behaved completely inappropriately. A few tended to violent outbursts, screaming and throwing things. One or two were watched closely, because they had a history of physical violence. There were big, burly techs who walked the floor in an effort to keep the peace and avoid inappropriate behavior. After a couple of encounters in which the techs had to intervene, I learned to just stay in my room. There were no groups or therapy to break up the days. Nothing to do. Nothing to read. So I sat in my room, contemplating what had gotten me there, just as my doctor had hoped. I hid on the floor or slept. Sometimes I stared out the window in my room at a tree that, barren of leaves in the winter, struck quite a striking pose. All these years later, I still remember the spartan beauty of that tree.
My doctor had made his point. I felt duly chastised. He explained to me that if I needed his attention all I had to do was talk to him. He wanted to give me positive rather than negative or punitive attention. Those four days cured me of my attention-seeking behavior. I learned to accept the calm, reassuring positive attention they offered me when I reached out to them. I had to trust that using words to express my hurt was more effective than anything else I could do. Talking allowed them to give me the attention I really needed. I stopped cutting for attention and quit breaking out of the hospital. My relationships with my doctor and therapist improved tremendously when it was based on mutual trust. My progress improved as I focused on healing rather than trying to get attention. It was an important step forward in my recovery process.
Attention-seeking is a distraction that keeps you and your therapist focused on something other than your recovery and keeps you stuck. You can’t afford to lose one more day on your journey to wellness. Leave any attention-seeking behaviors behind. Today.