Interview: Author and Educator Vanessa Vega
> 7/16/2007 12:41:33 PM

Last Friday we had the distinct pleasure of speaking with educator Vanessa Vega, whose book, Comes the Darkness, Comes the Light, was released this past May. In Comes the Darkness, Vega shares an intimate and occasionally graphic first-person account of her struggle with self-injurious behaviors. When she's not working as a high school teacher in Texas, Vega travels the country to speak with groups in her effort to raise awareness about self-injury. To learn more about Ms. Vega, visit her website, and stay tuned for our review of Comes the Darkness, Comes the Light tomorrow.

Treatment Online: To start off, for whom did you write the book?

Vanessa Vega: That is a good question. Because originally it didn’t start off as a book, originally it was a collection of writings that I did for myself as part of my therapy program. The book got conceptualized later as I started to piece material together. I realized that if there were reasons behind my behavior, then there were probably reasons behind other people’s behaviors and they just didn’t know it yet. So I guess I wrote the book to answer the questions “What were you thinking?”, “Why would you do things like this?”, and “What do you get from doing things like this?”

So originally I think it was a book addressed to those who self-injure, but as the book began to come together, the implication became even larger. It was for parents, school counselors, nurses, medical professionals, and therapists, because so few people in any of those areas know about self-injury.

TOL: Do you think that people are becoming more educated about self-harm? Or do you think that there is still much more of a mystery and disgust clouding the issue of self-harm than other problems like eating disorders?

VV: No, eating disorders are considered acceptable right now whereas self-injury continues to be very stigmatized, very much shame-based, very much in the shadows. Few people know about self-injury. They don’t know how to identify it; they don’t know how to tell the difference between it and a suicide attempt. And so there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to educate people about where this disorder comes from, what are the symptoms, what are the treatments. You know, eating disorders and self-injury are sister disorders. It is very common for someone with self-injury to also have an eating disorder. So it behooves us to educate ourselves about both of these so that we can treat both disorders.

TOL: Another question I had was more about the style of the book. When you are talking about the thoughts that you had, are you trying to portray exactly what was going on in your head or are you simplifying it and making it more coherent and more dramatic so that it reads better as a book?

VV: No that is exactly the way that I think when I am self-injuring. The very first part of the book was an exercise that I was asked to do as part of the weaning-off process. My therapist asked me to write down exactly how I felt the next time I felt the need to self-cut. I can remember sitting at the computer, just so upset, frantically trying to type what all of these voices are saying, and what I’m thinking, and what my hands feel like. And seeing the tools there. Because I’m alone, so there is no one else that can have that snapshot image. I’ve got to create that. I want other people to know how venomous that inner dialogue is, how powerful it is. Because you would NEVER think that about me. I appear to have everything together; everything in my life is perfect and all that. There is such a duality there. So no, that is exactly, word for word, how I think.

I cannot tell you how difficult it was to try to separate those voices, and to put that down on paper. Because even if I am in a room by myself, sometimes it is like there are four or five people in there with me. Just shouting a barrage of messages at me. So to be able to find enough of a stillness to be able to stop and identify—that negative is coming from this direction, that one from somewhere else. To give these voices enough of a distinction so that other people could figure out that they were different voices was very difficult.

TOL: Do you think that pinpointing the identity of things and their origins, like where the voices and impulses come from, is a crucial part of the recovery process?

VV: Oh my God! It is so critical. It is so important for people to realize that there are actual reasons for feeling the things that they do. I always thought that my behavior was part of some genetic kickback, that there was nothing I could do to change it, that it was just part of who I was. I never knew anybody that self-injured, I had never seen it, or heard about it. I literally felt like I was the only person on the planet that did those things. Once I really started to work with my therapist to figure out that these are actually behaviors that have rooted causes. And identifying those causes means that I have some control that I never thought that I had. And if that’s true, it means that I can then choose other more positive behaviors. So it has been this tremendous process of understanding, of insight, of digging very deeply for answers. Forcing myself to go to emotional places that I ever wanted to go, in an effort to find that healing and get some of those answers for myself.

TOL: It is difficult for anyone to try and figure out why they act the way they do, so it must be especially difficult when exploring a taboo subject.

VV: If you have some sort of bad habit that is not socially stigmatized, you can probably ask your family about it. You can say, “Gosh, do any of you do what I do? Is it really weird?” But I could never ask anyone about that. So to try to find those answers when you are in seclusion is very, very difficult. Trusting someone with that secret so that you can unravel it is a huge part of the process.

TOL: Do you still have the impulse to cut?

VV: Yes.

TOL: And do you?

VV: It has been a year.

TOL: You do not bring in any scientific research into you book, is that something that you ever considered doing?

VV: No.

TOL: Do you think it was better that you focused on one story?

VV: This book is my story. For me at that time there was no scientific research, there was no understanding that it was a problem larger than myself. I had no clue that other people did this kind of thing. I had frantically looked in bookstores all over the country for any sort of book like mine that could reassure me that I was not alone. I had seen things in clinical books, but I didn’t understand what that meant, I didn’t know if that was me. I needed someone who could say, in very basic terms, this is what I do and I am not alone. And because that didn’t exist, I hope that my book now will fill that void. Hopefully someone else will be able to say, “Oh my Gosh! She has voices too!” Completely clinical stuff is not what the average person needs. They need something very accessible to them, which means that it comes from a regular person, which would be someone like me. The question that I hear most often is “Gosh! You don’t look like someone who would do that.”

TOL: Does that annoy you?

VV: (Laughs) It almost kind of shocks me because I’m thinking “What would someone who did that look like?” It just lets me know how much education is left to be done. Very few people have a disorder that is obvious to the world. If you are a sex addict or a heroin addict, unless you are rail thin, no one is going to know. A lot of people function within their dysfunction. So you should not be surprised that I don’t look like someone who does that. I have worked very hard to hide my secret, and for other people to know meant that I wasn’t successful. Of course people aren’t going to know.

TOL: And yet, at some points in your book it seemed like you thought that people should have been able to know what was going on with you...

VV: It is kind of a double-edged thing. I was so lonely that I felt that if people truly cared about me as much as they said they did, then they would somehow be able to see through the facade that I had created. I thought that they might dig deeper, that they might save me from myself. Unfortunately, every time someone tried to help me they were met with “Why are you interfering?” I would slap their hand away.

Do I still believe that people could have done things? Absolutely. There were definitely changes in my behavior before I self-injured. But I think we live in a world where people don’t want to get involved. They don’t ask the right questions. But I also understand that people are not mind-readers, and it’s really not fair to place all the blame on them.

TOL: You place a lot of blame on your father, did he ever talk to you about the book?

VV: No.

TOL: Does that upset you or have you reconciled yourself with it?

VV: I’m proud of myself that I was able to do this. He never said, “That’s not true,” or in any way invalidated any of the things that I wrote. So I guess I interpret that as a silent endorsement. I feel sorry for him that he wasn’t strong enough to overcome the things that he was struggling with, but I have to accept him for the way he is.

TOL: Do you accept yourself for the way you are, or are you still seeking perfection?

VV: I am still looking for perfection.

TOL: Have you gotten it to a level that is manageable? Would you still be happy with your life if you did not become a famous author?

VV: There is always something that I am working on. Always something that I am trying to achieve. It is never enough for me. I have more awards, more pieces of paper, than I can fit on the wall but that doesn’t mean that I am going to stop. I need that outside validation that I am a successful, good person. But I am working on not letting who I am be defined by what I do. I think that I left the book with a sense of that struggle, so that it wasn’t a neat tied-up-with-a-bow ending so that people realize that I’m still a work in progress.

TOL: Were you very frightened of what the reaction to your book would be?

VV: Absolutely.

TOL: Was there ever a point when you thought that writing the book was a mistake?

VV: Absolutely not.

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