This post was originally published on March 12, 2015.
[Note to self-harmers: this piece could be triggering so please avoid reading if you’re at risk.]
Not long ago, I came to terms with the fact that I had let someone physically abuse me on and off for decades. I could have enlisted domestic violence organizations, legal aid and protective shelters, but I didn’t. I was not able to report this sadistic criminal, nor was I even able to evict my abuser. I had to continue to live with that victimizing victim, until I could work with her to turn away from hurting me. It was the only way, as in this case both the abuser and the abused were one and the same: they were both me.
I am on the long road back from self-harm, and my main focus now lies not only in refraining from the behavior one day at a time, but also in forgiving the perpetrator, once and for all. Just as with anyone who has wronged you, you can hate the behavior without hating the person, and that is how I must be towards myself, or the cycle of punishment continues. Hurting yourself for hurting yourself is a concept that belies most people’s reasoning and yet it is a cycle I have been returning to intermittently for a long ass time.
Before you assume I’m a cutter, let me disabuse you of that notion. I am way too squeamish to be involved in anything that entails blood or sharp pain, although I have broken my skin, blood bruised it and even given myself two black eyes. The self-harm began when I was a teen and it’s always involved hitting and punching myself, especially in the face, though other places as well, and almost exactly mirrors a trauma I endured from a family member as a child. For some reason, my best thinking when I’m dissociating, overwhelmed or frustrated is to hit and punch myself in the face. So probably not an intellectual decision…
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of people hospitalized for self-inflicted injury per year stands at around 150,000. Of these, it is difficult to find data which separates out how many of these were suicide attempts, and how many episodes of self-harm. The two impulses, while linked, are not the same. We also have to assume that self-harm is vastly underreported. To injure yourself so critically that you require hospitalization is quite a feat, especially since for the majority of people, self-harm is a regulating tactic that they are trying to hide from others. Most will stop short before a full “cry for help.” Many will cover up the damage with long sleeves, or make-up, or excuses, so we can only estimate, how many people are engaging in this behavior to cope. The point is, if you are one of them, you are most certainly not alone.
It is not a cognitive part of the brain that decides to self-harm. I know this because I have had decades of cognitive behavioral therapy, and it helped this issue with only limited success. “Just don’t do the behavior and the moment will pass” is just dandy for your average normie but the addict brain functions a little differently. Throw in a couple of other diagnoses (buy one, get one free!) and it is about as easy to train your behavior as trying to dress a kitten. Sure you’ll get the bonnet on eventually, but you might have to break a paw or two to do it.
In the face of overwhelming emotions, many of us are pinned down like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, eyes pried open by metal clamps to endlessly review our own shame. There is a boiling point that occurs where one can no longer endure it, and though I have gone without self-harming for years at a time, both in sobriety and when I was “dry,” it is something I have always returned to as a “coping skill.”
Self-harm is widely believed to be a maladaptive coping mechanism, developed in early life to deal with overwhelming emotions, shame, trauma, or some combination of these. The unfortunate thing about self-harm is that it is actually very effective in regulating the emotions, and might seem to an addict in recovery to be less harmful than popping a Xanax. Both affect similar neural pathways, and both are ultimately not sustainable. It is not feasible to duck out of a meeting to self-harm, though you can be assured many people do it. It is not ideal to leave your kids in the other room, to go self-harm in private, though I myself have done that. And all of these years, I have told myself there has to be a better way. But what?
Some dialectical behavior skills have certainly been helpful, in particular holding ice, or throwing it into a bathtub or outside, ripping paper—the list is quite extensive and easily available online. For cutters, drawing on yourself with red marker where you would break skin is a good one, as are tattoos or other forms of body modification. I have tried it all, and some have worked well, but usually only temporarily. Holding ice until your hands hurt is, after all, just another form of hurting yourself. Whether you are externalizing pain you already feel internally, or just trying to get yourself back into your body, lasting change must come when you heal yourself enough to know that you do not deserve this.
My self-abuse took me to what teenagers call “the choking game” and culminated in a suicidal gesture from which I could very easily have died. Cut off the oxygen from the carotid artery, and sayonara can come very quickly. I wanted to die, but really I just wanted the pain to end. And thank God I scared myself enough to finally seek a serious kind of help. Prayer and meditation had comforted me somewhat over the years, mindfulness had provided distance in the moment before self-harm, and the recovery maxim of “pause when agitated” had also made a difference. But once I passed into the land of living hell (usually after some form of real or perceived abandonment) there were no homilies, techniques or aphorisms that could help. The way out of hell involved going through purgatory, but I did eventually get to the surface, and so can you.
The way out for me came through outpatient therapy (my second stint), where I experienced three things for the first time: EMDR, brain spotting, and Somatic Experiencing, or Somatic Processing therapy. The first shifted the trauma that had become “stuck” in my brain, moving it through so that it became just another frame in the mental film of my life. The second was helpful with traumatic memories, without overstimulating the neo-cortex flight or flight response while I was still extremely emotionally unstable. And the third taught me to energetically stay in my body, even when triggered, annoyed, bored, “abandoned” or in other ways emotionally aroused.
The work was long, and arduous, and mostly quite un-fun, but I emerged afterwards, not fully “cured” or “healed” (some things cannot be cured or healed) but with a sense of self-harm as something alien to my being. I do not do it, one day at a time, just as I would not put on a clown costume and go work at the circus. I hope that eventually self-harm becomes something that may cross your mind, but with time even those thoughts will diminish and you can be on the path to diffuse your anger, turn what is left of it towards more useful things, and witness yourself dispassionately yet compassionately, as only you can.
Staying in my body is a continuous process beyond anything I had experienced with years of meditation and yoga, because it is a practice that occurs with the eyes open. For those of us who dissociate, meditation can be an excellent way to leave our bodies some more, and blissfully so. For me, I was not able to draw on that peaceful place when I got myself into an emotional maze. Meditation set the stage for a deeper kind of feeling, the kind that makes me cry in compassion for the woman who could have done that to herself. These are not tears of self-pity, but of profound self-love.
We are not defined by how others see us, nor by how we have been treated, either by others or ourselves. What defines you is your own lifelong journey to find out—your completely unique energy has not existed in the world before or since you, and try as you might, even you cannot destroy it. If you truly go within and find your soul essence, you will not be able to harm that, any more than you could punch a defenseless baby, even if it’s crying. If you are reading this then you will prevail over this habit, I promise, just as I will re-read what I have just written when I need it most. Please borrow my certainty for you, because today at least, I have it to spare.