I never imagined that at 25, I’d be stuck with the same bad habit I developed at 13.
Self-harm can take many forms, but commonly manifests as purposely cutting, burning, scratching, and/or hitting oneself. While I have made significant progress in so many other aspects of my life, I still have not managed to completely give up harming myself when in distress.
It started when I was about thirteen. I was being bullied in school, and spent my lunch periods in the middle school library reading psychology books in an attempt to figure out what was “wrong” with me. I was tired all the time, things I used to love like choir rehearsal and Star Trek no longer interested me, and I began to obsess about everything I perceived as being wrong with my body. I figured it was nothing, that I was being dramatic, and that I’d snap out of whatever melancholia was ailing me.
Instead, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and prescribed psychotropic medication to remedy the problem. It was a very long road to the correct combination of medication and an even longer one to the correct diagnosis (which is still debatable). When my self-hatred manifested as anorexia, I eventually overcame that. I did a lot of trauma work to get to a point where the symptoms of PTSD don’t interfere with my daily life. I am compliant with my medication and am largely free of hallucinations and delusions. So why can’t I stop self-harming?
I’ve been going to the beach a lot lately. I like to go there and walk until I find a secluded area where I can dance, sing, and talk to myself. When I was a bit more attuned to my Higher Power, I used to wake up early and go there to pray. Now, though, I simply walk along the edge of the waves until I feel calm. “What would someone who cares about herself do?” the ocean asks me.
If I had to pick a place where I feel the safest, it would be the beach. This week, my therapist asked me to come up with a mental “safe place,” that I can go to in my mind when I am distressed. I slacked off on the assignment because the danger is in my head. The danger is that impulsive, self-destructive imp in my mind that tells me I have to harm myself in order to quiet the noise in my head. Wherever I go, there I am. My therapist pointed out that the danger for most people is in their heads as well, but that the safe place is also mental.
“But the beach is cliche!” I argued.
My therapist pointed out that this is not English class and there are no penalties for not being original. She asked me to name specific things I like about the beach. I decided I like it because there’s not a lot of stimulation, it’s usually pretty quiet, the waves of the ocean are predictable, and the sand has a pleasant texture. In her office, I secretly decided that this was a stupid exercise and that I would never, ever conjure up images of the beach in my mind no matter how stressed I get because…
Well, I couldn’t think of a good reason except that the question, “Do I want to feel better?” is more difficult to answer than it should be. Sometimes, I feel married to my pain, both the emotional pain and the physical pain that I inflict on myself due to the painful feelings. At thirteen, I was convinced that I needed to feel bad all the time so that I could create better writing. I am well past that notion now, but I still frequently feel lost when it comes to figuring out what to do with these feelings. Sometimes, I will practice the art of doing nothing and just ride them out by sitting on the couch with Archie until I feel ready to go to something else that doesn’t involve self-destruction. Other times, though, I feel so agitated that doing nothing is not an option.
A few days ago, I was listless on a hot afternoon that felt like an eternity, my interior monologue doing backflips simultaneously trying to justify and avoid self-harm. “What do I do, buddy?” I asked Archie. (He did not respond.) Sometimes, all I really need is a distraction, but I get so caught up on picking the “right,” thing that I become paralyzed, which only leads to more frustration. I had recently finished the final draft of a short story and didn’t really have any writing to work on, so I grabbed my camera, thinking I’d do a self-portrait. And then, the goofiest thought came into my head: What if I put on every pair of underwear that I own and take a photo of that?! I have no idea where that thought even came from, but I decided I’d indulge in my own weirdness and the result was a bunch of really bad, unflattering, and just plain odd photos. However, the experiment still did the job: by the time I was finished with everything, self-harm was far from my mind.
This is a little video I made with my phone as I was walking on the beach. It’s a little bit raw and cluttered, but that’s how I’ve been feeling lately. Again, it’s a distraction technique. Although the videos are short, they’re time consuming to create. And when I’m finished making them, I have a final product that I am proud of instead of a torn up body.
I am always hesitant to post things like this here because I don’t want anyone to worry about me. But I also don’t want this blog to become a mere highlight reel. I never want to be preachy here, and I never seek to give advice. The purpose of this blog is merely to share my experience as I navigate life with mental illness, and the reality of that is no matter how far along in recovery one might be, there are always going to be bumps in the road. In a recent email to my therapist, I bemoaned the fact that it seemed like I was “doing everything right, but I still feel like shit,” and she reminded me that’s life. Mental illness or not, there are always going to be days when I feel bad, days when I want to self-harm and have to practice extra compassion for myself, days when all I do is survive.
This is Bukowski’s take on it. At first glance, it’s a pretty bleak poem, but for me continuing to wait in “that space,” indicates hope. Even though we know the place in the heart will never be filled, we continue to wait. Just as I may never be fully able to practice self-love every moment of every day (as most people are not either, I might add), I will still aspire to be the best version of myself that I can be. I will strive to fill the space in my heart with positive things, things that remind me that I have worth, that I do not deserve to be in pain just because someone else treated me badly, and that I do, indeed, have a future.