The beginning of the semester has been a welcome reprieve from my unsuccessful attempts to fill the void.
Over break, the days yawned out before me, with little to do aside from work. I don’t exactly thrive in situations where I am without structure, and I found myself feeling constantly empty and alone. My mind will go to such great lengths to convince me that everyone hates me, that all my friends think I’m annoying, that even my mom wishes I would leave her alone. I can look at the evidence, which plainly shows that I’m not nearly as awful as I think I am, and twist it until it’s unrecognizable and just feeds this cognitive distortion that I am a burden to the people I love the most.
It seems that the void will never truly go away, that I will always be dealing with it to some degree. What I mean when I say, “the void,” is that I feel this huge emptiness within myself, this longing for something I cannot name, something that may not even exist. It is this chasm of yearning that has kept me stuck in self-destructive and self-defeating behavior for so long.
Don’t get me wrong, overall life is very, very good. I am going into my third year of my most stable period to date. My third year! That’s saying something considering there was a time when I was a “revolving door patient,” at the psychiatric unit nearby. Stability and success are much more than staying out of the hospital, though. I’ve been on the same medication for a while now, a combination of daily capsules and a monthly injection. Because of this effective medication regimen and my progress in therapy, I’ve seen drastic improvements in other aspects of my life. I’m thriving in college, active in extracurricular groups such as Hillel, and have become a reliable employee at my job.
And still, the void lingers. Part of me feels like this is not real, like I will never escape my status of “sick person,” and that my dreams, which seem so very tangible, will always be just out of reach. One critique I frequently hear about my fiction is that my characters don’t seem to have much control over their circumstances and lives, and that they should exert more control. So it goes in my own life as well, which is to say that I am in control of how I fill the void, and if I want to redefine my relationship to it, I definitely can.
Knowing this and actually applying this are two very different things. And continually applying this takes a lot of mental effort and work. I’ve spent a lot of fruitless therapy sessions arguing with anyone who would listen about why self-harm is okay, why it’s “only hurting me,” and why I would never stop intentionally injuring myself. My current therapist doesn’t pester me about my self-harm habit; rather she says we’ll talk about it when I’m ready. One thing that many people in the mental health field seem to agree on, though, is that nothing will fill the void in the same way that self-harm can, and that if someone is going to stop self-harming, then they need to be okay with finding other, more effective, and healthier ways to fill that void. For years, I’ve had zero interest or desire to find alternate void-fillers. I had convinced myself that I am, at my most basic nature, a self-destructive person, that my essence is self-loathing, that I was destined to be forever a slave to this counterintuitive need to hurt myself.
I built large parts of my identity around being someone who doesn’t take care of herself. Between the self-harm, an eating disorder, and a lack of concern for my own wellbeing, I got pretty comfortable in this “I don’t care what happens to me,” persona.
And then, I started running.
I’ve never enjoyed exercise until now. I’ve never even exercised in a non-eating disordered fashion, but running has truly been the catalyst for a sweeping change in my mindset. I can’t explain how drastically different I feel after just a few short weeks of incorporating a run into my day when I can. I don’t keep track of how far, fast, or long I run because I think that could reactivate my old, eating disorder mentality and I don’t want this amazingly helpful skill to turn into an self-punishing obsession. I just note what time I leave the house and approximately what time I return. I don’t punish myself on days I don’t run, and I don’t force myself on days when I’m feeling tired or sore.
My relationship with my own body has changed too. Gone are the days of looking in the mirror and saying, “I hate you,” to my reflection, as are the days of scrutinizing every part of myself that wasn’t perfectly flat. Still, before I started running, I experienced my own body mainly as something to be looked at. There was no connection between my mind and body. I felt like I was a passenger in a car, while now I feel more in control and aware of my body.
It’s been a little over a month without self-harm, and interestingly, about a month since I began running. While I have been quite stable this past while, I have still needed the easy out that self-harm gives me when I can’t cope with life’s challenges in any other way. One thing that dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) teaches us is that self-harm isn’t something that “just happens,” rather it is a series of events and responses that can be interrupted before things get so dire that self-harm seems like the only option. Since I have started running, I find myself able to interrupt the cues that might cause me to self-harm and redirect those urges in different ways. A lot of times, it’s just talking myself through the absolutely nonsensical reasons I come up with in order to justify the behavior.
Here’s an example. On the first day of the semester in my Senior Research class, I was called upon to give a very brief synopsis of my proposed research project. I intend to write a creative research project that deals with Jewish and LGBTQ history. I have several pages of the narrative written; it’s a story with a huge scope that deals with big, unanswerable questions, what it means to be a woman, what it means to be queer, and what it means to define God on one’s own terms. I faltered, though, and gave a very vague explanation.”So… it’s like The Odd Couple?” replied my professor. Completely panicked and convinced everyone else in the class was thinking about what an inarticulate dingus I am, I just started agreeing with the professor in order to conclude the interaction and move onto the next student.
This probably seems like a really small thing, but it felt soul-consuming in that moment. I was so embarrassed. I contemplated dropping the class, dropping out of the university, and directly off the face of the earth. And by the time the class period ended, I could practically feel the marks I was going to make on my body to punish myself for… Well, I couldn’t quite figure out what I needed to be punished for. How will this help? I asked myself. You already feel like shit, and this is just going to reinforce that feeling. Not to mention, I’d thrown away all my blades a while before, and I knew that if I went out and bought more I’d be letting myself down. How will this help? I returned to the question, and the obvious answer was that self-harm would not help if the goal was to get my professor to understand my project. Not only that, but self-harm is really, really isolating, not only in the sense that the act itself and the cleanup are time consuming, but also that it puts a barrier between my friends and family and myself. So, I talked about it with some friends. Three of my classmates, who had heard my Jewish-tinged poetry confirmed that they knew the professor had misunderstood my idea, and one friend even mentioned that he’s also quite intimidated by this particular professor.
Had I chosen to self-harm in order to cope with what was a truly minor interaction that day, I don’t think I would’ve been able to talk about it with anyone. It would’ve solidified my perception of myself as a bumbling fool and I would have been punishing myself for something that really wasn’t in my control–which brings me back to the void.
For a long time, my conception of the void was that it was this menacing, evil thing that would swallow me up if I did not fill it with my sadness. What I am now seeing is that the void is nothing but empty space, nothing but possibility. Just as a blank canvas can become a masterpiece, so too does the void yield itself to reinvention of self. If I want to be a person who takes care of herself, who copes with stress and anxiety in a positive way, I absolutely can be that person.
As for running, I don’t know if I’ll keep the habit up during the summer months when it’s very hot outside. I also don’t have to worry about that right now. Most important is holding onto the knowledge that I have finally found something that helps me regain control of areas of my life I once felt were completely out of my hands. Perhaps the goal isn’t to find something that does the same thing self-harm does, but is instead to create a life I don’t need to escape from by such dire means. I am becoming increasingly more comfortable with the prospect of being a person who chases her dreams, not her demons.