In Ann Patchett’s craft essay, “The Getaway Car,” she explains that all of her novels follow the same basic premise: a group of strangers are thrown together by circumstance and form a society.
She goes on to talk about how many writers have a similar pattern of telling essentially the same story in different incarnations over the course of their writing careers. I have found that I am no exception. So many of my fiction pieces can be summarized as: young woman experiences trauma, copes badly, has an “a-ha moment,” ambiguous ending.
One example of this plotline was in a short story I worked on for about a year before abandoning it. Titled, “The Wreckage of Our Past,” it followed a troubled, twenty-something woman named Kennedy who was trying to curb her alcohol consumption after an unspecified trauma that occurred before the story actually began. Based partly on my own experiences and drawing a lot of inspiration from Sarah Gerard’s True Love, my goal for this story (aside from personal catharsis) was to put readers in the mind of someone who despises herself and punishes herself accordingly. It probably comes as no surprise that this story was really, really depressing. Ultimately, I abandoned the story, though I still have a copy of it somewhere.
The driving force behind this story was that Kennedy had no identity outside of her trauma and her constant need to punish herself. Her interior monologue is a constant barrage of insults and put-downs. When I was in the process of writing this, it was very easy to slip into that headspace. In the two years between when I penned this story and present day, it has gotten much harder to put myself in Kennedy’s shoes.
Questions of identity arise frequently in my writing as well as my personal life. When the possibility of my having borderline personality disorder (BPD) arose, one of the indicators was that I lacked a sense of identity. In order to prove that I did not, in fact, have BPD, I began to look for evidence of an identity. I wanted a simple answer, a catchphrase that would definitively prove that I knew who I was and know who I am.
What I have come to realize is obvious: identity is almost always in flux. Not only that, but it is significantly more complex and personal than can be encapsulated in a few questions on a psychiatric screening. When I was assessed at the Mayo Clinic and asked, “Do you know who you are?” I was speechless–not because I did not know, but because I did not know where to begin.
There have been times when I felt I was defined solely by the traumas I have experienced, when I thought the essence of my identity was the hand of a rapist on the back of my neck. I gave that hand so much power, let its grasp squeeze the light out of my life, until its hold over me was pervasive and absolute. When I took matters into my own hands, I found no respite. I turned against myself with so much misdirected anger that I spent the next couple of years hurting myself with an ever-increasing frequency and no plans to stop. If I had any identity at all, it was “she who hates taking care of herself,” and every time I self-harmed, I was only reinforcing the negative core belief that I was worthless.
I have been relatively stable for about two years now, which means I have stayed out of the hospital, haven’t had to deal with many significant medication changes, haven’t called out of work due to mental health, and have gone back to college, where I am excelling. However, self-harm has continued to be an issue. As I’ve gotten older, rather than growing out of it as I hoped I would in my teenage years, the habit has only gotten more severe.
My goal with Kennedy’s story was to force readers to understand what it’s like to be in the head of a self-loathing, self-destructive character. I was going to make Kennedy’s outlook on life make sense to the average reader. Looking back, Kennedy’s actions don’t even make sense to me. Similarly, I have never been able to successfully explain my need to self-harm to those I have been (and in some cases, still am) close to.
Over time, I’ve tried various strategies to stop self-harming. I tried stopgap coping skills: holding ice cubes or tearing up paper when I wanted to break my own skin. I tried different kinds of therapies, everything from acupuncture to dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). I tried workbooks and writing poems and stories. I tried praying for the urges to vanish. And I still found that I could not stop.
It may be a cliche, but no amount of therapy can help a person if the person is not willing to do the work. For a very long time, I sat in therapy as the passive recipient of information and coping skills, waiting for my a-ha moment, a “shift,” as described in Ned Vizzinni’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, where the protagonist’s viewpoint shifts and he is freed of his depression forever. I, too, hoped that someday something would just click, that I would be in recovery, or better still, recovered, without having to really do anything.
This is where those stopgap coping mechanisms failed. By the time I was so agitated and worked up that I was trying to make the decision between harming myself or lighting a candle, I was already in too deep. Strategies like this were about as effective as telling someone who’s already having an anxiety attack, “Just relax, everything’s fine.”
For quite a while, I saw my options as either continuing to self-harm or alternatively, giving up what little sense of identity I did have: “she who hates taking care of herself.” Despite how well things were going externally, I still found myself in the shower with a razor blade a few times a month. I would tell myself the same lies I’ve been believing for the past decade that I’ve been doing this.
“It’ll be different this time.”
No, it won’t.
“The relief you’ll feel will be worth the remorse that comes later.”
I don’t know, last time I felt pretty bad for a few days, and the relief lasted about two minutes.
“It will definitely be different this time.”
“Does it matter? Who cares if you feel bad? You feel bad anyway because you’re you, so who cares if you shed a little blood in the process?”
Maybe this sounds like a really weird and overly dramatic back-and-forth exchange between the proverbial angel and devil on one’s shoulder, but that is genuinely what my interior monologue sounds like in the moments before I make the decision to self-harm. Looking at it now and having it written out like this feels uncomfortable, and I am hesitant to put this out into the world for people to see. But I highly doubt that I am alone in this dichotomy, so I hope that others will see this and realize that they, too, are not alone on this journey.
Kennedy’s story involved themes of abandonment; she was terrified of being alone and her priorities were out of order. With hardly a year of sobriety under her belt and scared of her own shadow, Kennedy’s days were mainly filled with trying to attract attention from coarse men and swiping through Tinder with her location turned off. She embodied the “I hate you; don’t leave me,” mentality that is associated with BPD. She says things like,
How strange that even though there are several flyover states between us, I know the sound of his voice so well that it’s sometimes in my dreams like white noise. I replay the first few seconds of the recording and then tap back over to Snapchat.
What I want to say to Brandon is, “If you were here, I would make a home out of your body, a home or a bomb shelter, or a food pantry. A library or a chapel. Whatever you’d let me. I would let you be my surrogate God. I would, I would, I would. I would spread you out over me and gather you up in all the places I needed you, and this would keep both of us warm. I would bunch you up and stuff you into the holes in my soul. I would write to you even when you were right there in the other room and I would poeticize the most mundane aspects of us, I would become a part of you and I would finally, after everything, I would…”
My phone rings. Someone, not my mom, is actually calling me. It might be Sage from a different number. My fingers tremble, and I’m reminded of what felt like a lifetime ago, detoxing in my shit hole apartment, my whole body shaking. My phone feels like the world at Atlas’ back.
While this is, perhaps, a bit dramatic, it certainly paints a clear picture of a person waiting to be told who she is. By the time I was ready to abandon Kennedy, I was ready to find myself.
As it happens, I was not lost. I was in transition, and transitions can be a time of uncertainty and discomfort, to say the least. During the first month without self-harm, I was white-knuckling it. I was telling myself to hang on just until the morning. For a few consecutive days, I woke up with skin intact and sheets not bloodied, and thought, “Wow, I am glad I didn’t give in last night.” I put together a few weeks of mornings like that.
A month went by, and thoughts of, “I need to hurt myself,” were then followed by, “What if I went for a run?” Those what-ifs became actions, and I began to acquire a very small set of extremely reliable coping skills. A common theme I’ve noticed in a lot of treatment center settings is a “toolbox,” of coping skills. I understand the logic: if you have a lot of complex problems, you need a variety of solutions. However, a lot of these rather generic suggestions (lighting a candle, holding onto ice, making a vision board) do not have a big enough scope to address what I needed. I have found a few things that have helped me succeed on this journey away from self-harming and towards self-love and acceptance.
Running has been instrumental. I used to resent my body for existing and needing even the most basic maintenance. If I could have existed just as a cloud of consciousness, I would have. When I started running, I realized that my body is more than just a placeholder for my mind. (Shocking, I know.) When I start scrutinizing my appearance, I just throw an old towel over the mirror. When I feel like I hate myself because I hate what’s been done to my body, I put on a big shirt and go for a run. And when I’m out on the bike path, sweating, panting, and pushing myself, I feel powerful. I feel like I am greater than the sum of the parts of me that have been hurt.
Pretty soon, I started looking forward to running. “I’ve got to go for a run,” became, “I hope I have time to run today.” I started getting up a little earlier in the mornings so I could run before work. As someone who used to sleep for upwards of eighteen hours a day and never woke up before noon, that’s a pretty big change.
By the second month, I was cautiously getting acclimated to the possibility of a life without self-harm. My therapist suggested that I get rid of anything and everything I owned that was related to self-harm. “Even the blood pants?” I asked.
“Especially the blood pants.”
She was right, though. It all had to go. Just as getting rid of my scale was crucial to ED recovery, and just as an alcoholic in recovery would not keep beer in the fridge, my arsenal of sharp objects, bandages, towels and other textiles that I saved for purposes of cleaning up all had to go. Equally important was getting rid of the images of the injuries I’d created and saved, “in case I needed them.” (I don’t know in what universe I would need a blurry picture of my body after a self-harm episode, but they are gone now!)
I did a thorough search and left myself with no chance to “accidentally” forget that there was something stashed here or there. I tossed everything in the trash, half of me rejoicing, the other half muttering, “Well, I can always get more…” And so far I haven’t needed to.
For a very long time, I thought that a life without self-harm would be unbearable, that if I did not have this outlet, then I would constantly feel on edge, that I would never be okay. I magnified my own faults and wrongdoings and minimized those of others. The memory of that hand on the back of my neck had as much control over me as a hand on a steering wheel would. I felt that I needed to be punished for the crime of existing, that I would be forever atoning for some sin I could not even articulate. Somehow, I always imagined my life caving in without self-harm as the infrastructure of what was holding me together. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It’s been three months now, three months without self-harm, three months full of laughter, poetry, creativity, friends, and good food, three months of a very difficult semester, butting heads with a couple of professors, falling behind on reading and then catching up. It’s a milestone because I haven’t ever amassed this much time without it before.
If I do go back and give Kennedy’s story another shot, she’s going to get a better ending. I want more stories of triumph, of overcoming obstacles, of resilience. I had no idea I was capable of making this much progress. I wonder what comes next.