TRIGGER WARNING: this post contains general information of a self-harm event but has no graphic details. There are no images.
I said it was small, and it is. But it’s gigantic for me.
This week I swapped which wrist I wear my watch on.
Earth shattering, isn’t it? And surely not much to do with the stigma against mental illness. But there’s more to it than what meets the eye.
Fifteen years ago I was self-harming pretty regularly. It was probably a daily occurrence at the time of this event. Sometimes I knew what I was doing, but others I was dissociated and really not aware of the harm I was doing to my body. I would realise afterwards when I was mopping up the damage.
On one occasion I cut my (right) wrist. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, but I know for certain that it was not some kind of suicide attempt. But don’t ever believe that this makes it better. I don’t believe this [although I acknowledge that some readers might find my thought concerning].
I realised pretty quickly that this large wound was going to need sutures and I didn’t seem able to control the bleeding, so took myself to the local hospital. At the Emergency Department, I encountered a doctor who had perhaps had his fill of self-harmers. I’m not going to make excuses for him, even this much time later but I do acknowledge that the job of an emergency doctor is a difficult one.
He told me what he thought of me in no uncertain terms and that I was completely wasting his time. There were, apparently, more important people than the likes of me. He said that as I had cut myself without anaesthetic, he was going to suture my wrist (15 sutures) without anaesthetic too. He proceeded to do so, although he left me waiting for what I’m guessing was as long as he possibly could.
That night I was vulnerable and scared. It was the first time I had gone to an Emergency Department after self-harming and had no idea what to expect. What I did know was that my self-harming was getting out of control, and I desperately needed help.
What I got was stigma. Against self-harmers and against mental illness. I concluded what I guess I already knew but was hoping that help might tell me otherwise. That I was a bad person, and I had wasted his time.
As soon as the wound healed I switched to wearing my watch on my right wrist for the sole purpose of hiding my scar. I knew some people would think I had attempted suicide. Others would think it was self-harm. There was little chance that anyone would think it was accidental. I was best to hide the evidence. From the world, and also from me. Hiding it from myself as much as possible would save me from the graphic reminder of the person that doctor had said I was.
Fifteen years later and most people in my life wouldn’t know that the scar even exists. I’ve hidden it that well, from everyone. But this past week I came to the conclusion that it’s time to stop hiding the scar from myself, and from anyone else who might see it. I’ve switched the watch back to my left wrist. It just seems right.
I don’t self-harm anymore. I’ve been about five years free. I know that if I got myself into a bad space then maybe I might again. I hope not, but I’m just honest with myself.
Because I have shifted cities and changed friends, most people aren’t aware of either this scar or the many others that litter my body. I’d have to virtually tattoo my whole body to be able to hide all of them and I don’t have that much money or that many ideas of what designs I’d choose.
But I’ve come to a conclusion. Those people who really matter will cope with the sight of my right wrist if and when it comes in front of them. For anyone who doesn’t cope with it, won’t matter anymore. And for those who don’t know me, they don’t matter anyway.
This is one small part of my voice against stigma. People who self-harm are important and do matter. Every time I see the scar on my wrist I am saying that doctor’s attitude doesn’t count because it was so wrong. I don’t have to let him keep telling me that I’m a bad person. And that’s what was happening every time I put my watch on.
Okay so that’s easy to say, but in reality this week I have felt exposed and vulnerable. Everytime I see the scar, I want to hide it again. It’s going to take a while to be comfortable with it. One day… it will come.
And that doctor? Well, he could have helped me that day, and probably avoided a few more scars. But he chose not to and I believe that was because he had stigmatized his patient. He didn’t see me as a person in need of help. God, I hope there aren’t too many doctors like that in Emergency Departments around the world. Sadly, I know better.
“Other times, I look at my scars and see something else: a girl who was trying to cope with something horrible that she should never have had to live through at all. My scars show pain and suffering, but they also show my will to survive. They’re part of my history that’ll always be there.”
Sometimes bad is relative. Good is too, when I stop and think about it. But lately it has been hard to focus on anything beyond the bad. Not just one issue, but several, all combined to create bad.
For a moment there I considered packing my bag and moving out to my brother’s farm. There’s ‘no room at the inn’, other than the cow shed (which is small and breezy… this is after all, a mushroom farm and not a cattle farm!). I was still seriously tempted. The reason of course, being my darling niece L, who kindly gave me a few hours stress relief the other afternoon. The only problem was that I needed more. That said, I recognise for all parents out there that I might be being slightly unrealistic in thinking that living with a two-year old could be stress relief.
Still, a few hours of feeding L’s doll (it is still beyond me how one can feed a doll and it poops out the other end!) and chatting to her Dad was a very good remedy for what had been mounting symptoms of stress. After a few days of that tight feeling across the chest, and breathlessness, I realised I needed to do something fast. And so the trip to visit L.
L is, of course, a very healthy stress relief but I admit that this week not all relief has been healthy. No, I’m not sharing the details. Surely though, some things are less bad than others (I know that is terrible English but it’s warranted).
Put bluntly there are two things I am trying to avoid happening, in terms of where my brain goes. The first is suicidal thoughts and the second is the ‘need’ to self harm. If I can avoid those two, then I am relatively happy with whatever it takes. And you’ll be happy to know I have avoided both. Actually, in spite of being what I consider as addicted to self harm in the past, it has been the furthest thing from my mind. I simply have no desire to go there. Wow! Even when I stop to think of what I need to avoid, I still find I have no desire to go there. Everything else aside, I am so happy to have got to a point in my life where I can say this.
As for suicidal thoughts, I haven’t gone there this past week either and again, that is a major victory. This past week I have (almost) been able to accept (or at least acknowledge) my despair, my anger, my hurt and my loneliness (and I’m not talking about needing a partner, I’m talking about feeling apart from people when I don’t want to be). I could ‘be‘ with those feelings, and not think that I needed to destroy myself. Don’t get me wrong, none of this has felt very nice but I haven’t slipped straight into destruction mode as I usually do.
So why the difference? Well, to be totally honest with myself I’m talking about the last week, and I have no idea of what the next week will entail. That said, I realise that I am a good person. I realise that just because others do me wrong (and yes, they have done me wrong!), it does not make me any less of a person. And perhaps most of all, I realise that at some stage (who knows when?) I will get through this. I will heal.
There’s so much truth to those three words I will heal.
When all those bad feelings dominate my life it is almost impossible to tell myself the truth, that I will come out the other side. When I’m depressed, I don’t even care about ‘the other side’ because I simply can’t see that far. Maybe right now I’m not so much depressed as very badly hurt several times over. Maybe that’s why I can see that I will heal, in time.
Meanwhile I keep up my stress relief. So some of it may not be as healthy as it could be, but it’s kept me alive and physically unharmed. That has to be a good thing. I’ll worry about the rest when I get to a point beyond the hurt. It is going to happen, and while I wish I never was hurt in the first place, I know that I will heal and grow. If I could just keep telling myself that, then I’d be fine. But I might need a few more visits with L because after all, I’m only human.
I just wish that humans could treat each other better. It would avoid all this need for healing.
“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”
NB.: There are no images of self harm in this post.
It was about a year ago when a friend, who had previously engaged in regular self harm, told me she had a revelation that would bring an end to her self harm behaviours. I was really pleased for her because I knew it had been a hard battle for her to overcome. It always is. If you think it’s as easy as throwing away your blades, you’re very mistaken. It is so difficult to break that pattern of abusing your body, hating yourself that much and for many, to also break the addiction that it becomes.
I was really happy that she had found a reason to stop. I knew well enough that anyone else’s reasons were not enough, but that if she had found a reason for herself, then she had a good chance of breaking the hold self harm had over her.
At the time, I was on my own path to recovery from years of self harming in a number of ways. I admit that I didn’t have any such profound revelation, and even though I could tell her’s was going to work I knew that at that point, her reason wouldn’t be enough for me. And that made me a little sad.
I was simply taking it one day at a time. A significant motivation for me to choose healthier coping mechanisms than self harm came from wanting to set an example. At the time I was running an on-line peer support group for people recovering from self harm, and I wanted to demonstrate that recovery was possible (even when I was only a few steps ahead of most in the group).
It’s now well over a year since I last self harmed. I haven’t been one of those people who counted the days and weeks self-harm free. I simply kept going, and hoped I could keep going in my resolve to be free of self harm.
It hasn’t been easy. While I have got past the point where it was an almost automatic response to a bad situation, there have definitely been times when I’ve wanted to reach for that blade, or starve myself… or any number of ways I used to use to cope. I admit that I can still see the attraction and seductiveness of self harm, but I also know that I have beaten the urges sufficiently to believe I can keep choosing healthier options.
I have just finished reading Keira Van Gelder’s book ‘The Buddha and the Borderline’, about her recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). In the last part of the book, she discusses her adoption of a Buddhist lifestyle. Something she highlighted was that if she wouldn’t harm another person, then why would she harm herself.
It made me think. Would I take a razor blade to another person? No. Would I take a razor blade to an animal? No. Would I deliberately starve another being? Absolutely not. The questions go on, and the answer is always no. I would never seek to harm another being. Perhaps if I look at myself as being just like another being then I can choose not to harm myself.
A year ago, while I was happy for my friend (when she used this same reasoning), I wasn’t at a point where I could use this means of thinking as a way to stop my self harm. But now, I think I can. Now I intend to use this as my reasoning for choosing not to harm myself any more.
I’m human, and I’m not infallible. I know well that there may still be times when I want to self harm and so I need a strategy to enable me to say ‘no‘. This seems like a good one for me. Compassion is something important to me, but I have failed to extend that compassion to myself. It’s time to include myself in that choice to not harm others. It’s time to value myself, value my body and to keep saying ‘no’. To make a conscious decision to treat myself with respect and compassion.
“You’d be surprised how easy some things can be, things you never thought you’d do, when you take self-respect out of the equation.”
Yesterday, after a particularly difficult time in therapy, I was thinking about my family who had to stand by and watch me try to self destruct over and over again, as the years went by, and I struggled with mental illness. At the time the relationships in my family were a bit different from they are today. In addition to that my father, who was perhaps my staunchest supporter has died, and there is a whole new generation of nieces and nephews, who actually are still too young to know what pain my family went through. I know that it is not just my pain, they bore theirs too.
I also know that while I pushed many friends away, there were a few who also had to stand by and watch me in my determination to self destruct. I admit I don’t really know what they went through. I have been in the same situation of watching others go through this journey, but I have always had my own experiences as a kind of backdrop to understanding what was happening.
This morning a friend posted some music on Facebook. Often I pass by other people’s music post but the title caught my mind and I chose to listen (and watch) this time. It’s amazing. It is from Ashley Jordan
I was fading away… right in front of my family and friends. They had no idea how to make a difference, and I know that I made it difficult for them because I was so intent on destroying myself that I didn’t want them to get close.
My fading away took the course of a physical fading as I starved myself through Anorexia. But I was also fading away as the heavy doses of medication took from them, who I was. I was different to the person they had known and loved. They didn’t know how to be with this new, angry but desolate me.
As I repeatedly tried to kill myself, they were left wondering just how long it would be before I achieved my goal. I know this because one of them had the balls to tell me that he wondered how much longer he would have a sister. He even said in a letter that in some ways he wished I would achieve my goal… and then at least my nightmare would be finished and there could be peace.
In addition to the anorexia, heavy medication and suicide attempts, my nightmare journey also consisted of constantly worsening self harm, reliance on drinking and over-medicating to get me through the day… or the night, not to mention the repeated rounds of Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT). The ECT also saw their sister, daughter, grand-daughter, wife, friend fading away as my memory was badly affected and to some extent just never returned.
Cate was fading before their eyes, and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it. Those that could, poured money into treatment but it produced no results. Those who I allowed, tried to let me know they loved me. But then I was pretty determined to not let anyone near, and I had a husband who enabled that to be in his thinking that he was doing the right thing. He kept them away.
And as for the husband, now an ex, I have little idea what was going through his mind. While he wasn’t the right person for me, he still was an essentially good person who had somehow landed himself in the situation of loving someone who was fading away fast.
There is a chapter in my book, Infinite Sadness, about the role that family and friends took. Of course it is written from my perspective, and not theirs. Their perspective is hard for me to even imagine, but I know it had to have been rough.
“…It is strange how when I most needed people I couldn’t bear to be with them. I hid from many phone calls. The answer phone and Dave proved very useful. When people knocked on the door I hid and pretended to be out. I couldn’t stand myself or my feelings and I couldn’t handle the thought of others seeing me like that and maybe agreeing with me. What if they couldn’t stand me either? I maintained that I was not lonely but rather just very alone. There is a difference and being with people wasn’t going to help me. Many times being with people left me feeling totally out of the real world. I didn’t fit. I didn’t like what I saw of myself and I didn’t want others to reject what I knew they would see….”
“…So why did I push them away? Part of it was what I didn’t like about myself, that they might see if I gave them a chance. But more so it was because I didn’t think they could understand. Perhaps too, at times, I felt it was partly their fault that I was suffering so much. Of course it wasn’t their fault. There were definitely things about my life growing up with my family that were now affecting me, but equally there were things that had happened since I had become an adult. I couldn’t blame my family for those things – but I did. For a while everything was their fault. I didn’t want to see them or hear from them. Dave, thinking he was doing the right thing, made this easy….”
(p. 174,5 Infinite Sadness, 2009)
So why am I choosing to write, and cry, my way through this today? Because when I listened to that song I heard, and thought about my family and what perhaps they felt as they watched me self destruct. I know for me I constantly thought they didn’t get it. The truth is that they probably didn’t. How could they? They had never faced this before and they were seeing me fade (mentally and physically) before their eyes. To watch someone you love do that must be devastating.
When I was caught in that nightmare there was little time or even inclination to stop and think how what was happening to me, was affecting those around me. I will never know how some of it affected people, but I know now that I am not the only person who suffered as a result of my mental illness. Somehow for me, it is important now to be able to look beyond myself a bit.
I don’t have the perfect family. Not at all. Aside all of this, most of us have been through some very traumatic experiences in the past couple of years, what with earthquakes, deaths, health issues and more which have taken their toll on us. We’re like any other family and some of my family actually had roles in the causes of my illness. My friends are just like anyone else’s friends. Human, with feelings and limits.
The good news is that I came back from fading away. I know plenty of families don’t get their loved one back. We are all different now, and the scars are clear, but I guess what matters is that we are here.
It’s worth thinking about sometime. How it might be for our friends and families to watch. They are pretty much helpless and generally don’t, or won’t understand for their own reasons. Writing this has made me cry a lot today, because there have been losses. Isn’t it amazing how a random piece of music (and video) can take our thinking down tracks we weren’t expecting?
And on a slightly lighter note…
“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
CAUTION: This post contains discussion of self harm and may contain triggers for some people. There are purposely no disturbing images contained in the post, but if self harm is an issue for you I recommend caution in reading.
Sometimes when you have to compete with a chronic illness, there can be a delay in the process of the idea of a post to actually seeing it to the point of ‘publish’. Thanks to fibromyalgia, this is the case, but it’s not always a bad thing. It might mean that I am posting about an issue several days after the rest of the world, but at least it gives me time to think over what I want to say. Meanwhile I guess I’ll never be ‘hot off the press’.
It doesn’t take much for some of us to be triggered by what we see and what we read. A few days ago I got wind of the issue of Justin Bieber and self harm whirling frantically on social media. First let me say that I never, in a million years, thought I’d be writing about Justin Bieber, but then it’s not really about him, is it?.
A few days ago a well-known website encouraged it’s viewers to self harm and send pictures of that self harm in ‘protest’ to news of Justin Bieber smoking marijuana.
“let’s start a cut yourself for bieber campaign. Tweet a bunch a pics of people cutting themselves and claim we did it because bieber was smoking weed. See if we can get some little girls to cut themselves”
You can see a report of that (without images of self harm) here. Social media went mad, and images of young people, either showing their dripping wounds or showing fake wounds, flew around with ridiculous abandon.
I saw some of the images on Twitter and Facebook and was very sad… and angry. As well as the images, were the conversations that followed about people who self harm. This is what I found the hardest to take. Seemingly they are weak, attention seekers and from homes with poor parenting.
The problem with that is that it will have all been read by, not just Justin Bieber fans or people who know nothing of the harsh realities of self harm, It will also have been read by those struggling, trying to recover from self harm. They will all be like bees to a honey pot.
Often we know we would be better off to not look at something, but we do it anyway. For me it’s images of self harm (it takes me back to my own past of self harming as a way to cope). It is also images of people with anorexia (I don’t want to be that thin again but the reminder of the control I felt at the time is enticing). Images of pumped bodies in gyms, remind me of the hours and hours I spent trying to tone my body to what I thought would be ideal, all the while damaging my body.
We know we would be better off not to go there, but we can’t help ourselves sometimes. All the hashtags (which I’m purposely not including) which search the images freely for us. We get there, and then we feel judged and very alone. Just because the millions can search those images, does not mean they can, or even want to, understand the reality of self harm.
Self harm is not about sharing photos. It is so easy to share a photo now days, all too easy, and we end up with this crazy, constant stream of triggering images of which no one has any control. Self harm is also not some publicity stunt.
Self harm is a serious problem. While it’s not about suicide, there are unfortunate occasions when self harm ends in death. There are regularly serious consequences.
It’s really hard to beat self harm, for anyone. It’s an addiction for many people, and was for me. It takes years of battling urges and triggers, and finding effective ways that can distract you from the desire to harm.
It is a daily battle, even an hourly battle. It’s not about attention usually, and certainly not about some celebrity. If anything, sufferers try very hard to hide the scars of their harming. Actually the trying to hide is what gives the secret away often.
If anyone thinks self harm is a joke, let them try to give up a serious addiction, probably with little help. The people who are fighting to recover from self harm deserve our support, and our admiration for beating something so hard. It takes guts to beat this thing, something of which most people have no understanding.
They don’t need ridicule. Let’s give them our love, support and our acceptance.
“Other times, I look at my scars and see something else: a girl who was trying to cope with something horrible that she should never have had to live through at all. My scars show pain and suffering, but they also show my will to survive. They’re part of my history that’ll always be there.”
“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
Last week in my post What Battles To Fight?, I was frustrated by having too many battles I wanted to fight. Too many things I disagreed with strongly. I knew I couldn’t tackle every battle, and if I did, it simply wouldn’t be any good for both my mental or physical health. It was nice to know (from the comments that followed) that I wasn’t alone in this frustration. I’m suspecting that perhaps there is a certain type of person (of which I haven’t yet defined) who just can’t let go of the need to try to make things better in this world.
One of the battles I mentioned in that post was about how news media, social media and some mental health organisations were handling the news of a suspected suicide of a young woman who had a pretty hard time at the hands of others before she apparently took her own life. At the time, I made a comment on a blog post hosted by a mental health site but elected not to get involved any further. As time as gone on though, I have got more concerned by this situation.
I’m purposely not giving specifics here because I refuse to add to the mayhem. I’m sorry if you find that frustrating. I guess the issue got personal for me yesterday and I came away from that really worried about the consequences of when things ‘go viral’ on this wonderful invention called the internet.
Yesterday I was asked by another young woman (through social media) to view a video she had made and placed on You Tube. I was reluctant, but agreed to watch it simply because I was concerned about what message others who I have contact with, might end up watching and possibly be disturbed as a result of viewing.
It was disturbing. It covered topics of bullying, mental illness and self harm. It was in a very similar style to the original video I had been concerned about last week. The video, that I understand has now been freely viewed by more than six million viewers. After watching the new video I had the opportunity to talk briefly to the young woman who made it, and asked me to watch it. After setting some boundaries (based on the role that I was in) I asked her what she was hoping to achieve by making and posting the video. Her reply?
“I don’t know” Actually as our conversation continued, I became more convinced that she did know, but she just didn’t expect anyone to question her intentions. I can only guess at her intentions now, because shortly after she ended the conversation (apparently I took the matter too seriously), and she was gone.
I certainly hope that this doesn’t end the way of the original video, (Please God, no!) which she had pretty much copied, although added that she herself was a bully and individually named some people who she considered were also bullies. In the time we spoke, I had enough information to be concerned, but not enough to warrant trying to get some professional help for her. I also didn’t have the time as she elected to end the conversation. But this much I know… she needs professional help and I hope she reaches out and gets it.
At that point my responsibility had to turn to others who also witnessed my exchange with her (including some who also watched the video and made same connection I did). Maybe this was all about trying to seek attention? I don’t know. If it was, then she got some attention, but perhaps not quite what she was hoping for.
My concern is about how many other hurting people are seeking attention, or crying out in a similar way to the first person? How many millions watched that first video (perhaps after being encouraged to watch it by media organisations) and assumed this was the way to get noticed, get attention, make someone hear that they too are struggling. How many chose to self injure, and then show evidence of their injuries because perhaps they got that idea from what they saw? How many choose to act out suicidal thoughts because they think that is the only way to be noticed, and to end the pain they are in?
When I questioned the author of the original post (from where I had got the original video link), why she had provided her readers with the link to that original video I got the reply that everyone else was doing it so why shouldn’t she. A further comment to another reader also suggested that young people will see harmful stuff everyday, so somehow it didn’t matter if she encouraged viewing. She also added that it was the wish of the mother of the dead young woman, that people see and learn about the realities of bullying.
I have no desire to hide from the reality of bullying, mental illness or self harm. Actually I think it is important that these issues be discussed openly so that we avoid stigma, and also so that the secrets that some people carry with them, do not have to have the harsh consequences of shame.
That said, how these issues are discussed is crucially important in taking care of the people who view. The mother of the dead woman apparently wanted other parents to watch the video her daughter had made because other parents need to be aware of the risks of bullying. I totally accept that was her wish, and I don’t mean to criticise that at all. The problem I have is that those parents are not the only people who watch such videos.
It would be interesting to view some statistics of those who watched the original video. How old were they? What was their reason for watching? Did they have some personal issues of their own which were reflected in the video? And perhaps most important to me, did they have somewhere safe they could talk about what they saw?
There are consequences when things go viral. Both positive and negative. Yes, we get a message ‘out there’ about the need to stamp out bullying, but we also get already hurting people, hurting more and probably having nowhere to turn to get help and support. On what do I base my opinion? That I am fairly sure that had I watched that video five years ago when I was trapped in self harm behaviour and addiction, I would probably have felt the need to harm myself as a response to what I saw. Thankfully that is not my reality today, but I suspect for many it would be.
I read an interesting blog post on this subject today. The writer took a different approach to mine, but s/he made a good point:
“We cannot kill the current state of the internet to protect people, because keeping the internet open and free is a great means to protect the very same people.” (1.)
The internet serves a good purpose in providing an access to support for many people. There is no doubt about that in my mind. But it can also be an access to triggering and emotionally disturbing material for those same people.
All I would like to see is that both sides of the coin are considered equally. Personally, I would not have left the original video on You Tube. It could be useful in some monitored setting, but the potential harm is too much to risk, in my view. Immediately on viewing it I could recognise that there were potential triggers for people regarding suicide, bullying and self harm. I am sure it could have been edited to eliminate some of these triggers, but still keey the message her mother wanted. It could also have had help-line contact details at the end, so that people needing help could access it.
Yes, I am an idealist. Ideally, this young woman who died would have been spared the pain she went through. Ideally, she would still be alive today. Ideally, others would not be traumatised by watching her video. Ideally, viewers would have got the message that young woman’s mother wanted to get across. Ideally, the other young woman, with whom I had contact yesterday, would also have found another way to feel loved and important. Ideally she won’t go on to self harm further, and she will get help.
I know we don’t live in an ideal world, but I am convinced that we can take more care. When things go viral, we need to consider all the consequences.
“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”
CAUTION: This post contains details of self harm (although no images) which may be disturbing to some readers. Please take care of yourself in reading.
“Everywhere Peter turned, he felt bombarded by misconception about self-harm. Why couldn’t anyone understand what he was going through? It was as if he had awakened to find himself on a different planet, where everyone spoke another language. It’s not that he didn’t understand that self-harm can be scary and confusing to people who don’t harm themselves. He did. But the thing he couldn’t understand was why they couldn’t get beyond their misconceptions and hear what he was saying. Just last week, he had got into an argument with an ER nurse about why he’d cut himself. No matter how much he insisted that he had no intention of killing himself, she kept telling the other staff that he’d attempted suicide, and paged the psychiatrist on call to get him hospitalized. Then, to make matters worse, the next day his father accused him of cutting himself to get attention, even though he’d tried to hide it from everyone. Why couldn’t anyone understand that he was just trying to relieve some of his pain and cope with his depression?”
– Kim Gratz & Alexander Chapman, Freedom from Self-Harm (p. 23)
As part of Mental Health Awareness Week I want to talk about self harm, because I believe that it is one of the hardest things for people to understand and get their head around. It’s not often talked about, especially in polite company, but it’s out there happening, and literally tearing lives apart.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues in terms of it getting understood in the wider community is the shame that people who self harm carry with them. It’s incredibly hard to talk about openly, especially if you don’t fully understand the reasons why you do it. It’s fairly hard to avoid judgement, and even if you can, you are so fearful of what reaction you might get, that it’s simply easier to pull down your sleeves and pretend it’s not there.
“That night I started scratching my arms raw with my fingernails. I would scratch and scratch with no feeling of pain. Eventually I would look down and see the red, raw and bleeding skin. I would realise what I had done and be horrified. It wasn’t until I looked down at it that I would finally feel the pain. The pain was bad, like a friction burn.
I was disgusted that I could do such a thing to myself. I had never had an urge to do anything like it, but had now just found myself mutilating my arms. How? Why? Questions flooded my mind. What was happening to me? But then how could I answer those questions, for that would entail admitting to another human being the horror of what I had done.
By the next day, I knew I needed help. I wondered about the 24 hour Surgery but couldn’t bear the thought of a strange doctor questioning me. Eventually I decided I would tell my friend Amy. I knew I had to tell someone, and I thought that through her friendship and her nursing training, she must surely know what I should do.
I went to Amy’s house. We drank coffee. We talked for an hour and a half, but I couldn’t find the words to pull up my sleeves and show her the damage of the night before. I left having not told her. I think that I was so disgusted by what I had done that I just could not bear to admit it.” (p. 106,7)
I was 30 years old, so note that self harm is not just a teenage fad. It’s serious, and it affects people of all ages. Scratching my arms was never going to be a suicide attempt. I simply made one heck of a very painful mess. As for attention? That was the last thing on my mind, simply because I was so disgusted by what I had done.
I didn’t even know what self harm was. I had never seen evidence of it on anyone else, nor had a read anything about it. It was completely new to me. And in case you’re wondering, by that time I had spent a lengthy time in a psychiatric hospital, and while I accept that I was very sick at the time so might not have been very observant, I didn’t notice any sign of self harm amongst other patients. The reason I say that is because a myth that exists is that people ‘learn’ self harm behaviours from watching others. I didn’t.
Back to the story though. Several days later I finally plucked up the courage to confess what I had done to both my doctor (a very wise, and trusted General Practitioner) and my psychotherapist. By that time I had also self harmed again, but still had little idea of why I was doing it, or what I was achieving.
Both these health professionals immediately (and quite separately) told me that my self harm was a good thing. They were both pleased that I had done it because I was apparently expressing my feelings. I admit that I had great difficulty up until this point in expressing my feelings. I simply didn’t have the words, and expressing feelings was not something I had ever been encouraged to do. Tearing my arms to shreds was apparently a good thing. Of course no one, including myself, knew what those feelings were that I had been expressing but that didn’t seem to matter.
Fast forward 15 years. In that time I graduated onto more serious, and dangerous methods of self harm. At times I was self harming while dissociated, and this was the case in the worst damage I ever did to myself. Now though, I have fought back and found other, healthy ways to express myself (if that was what I was doing), and to reclaim control over my life.
Beyond what was suggested initially I worked out that I self harmed because I felt totally out of control, and if I cut myself then I would somehow bring everything back into control I also self harmed sometimes because I needed to see physical blood, and experience physical pain to comprehend the emotional pain I was in. I self harmed sometimes to punish myself. In this respect, it was more a case of thinking that I didn’t deserve to not harm myself.
While I don’t believe this is the case for all people who self harm, the self harm became a kind of addiction for me. It was something I needed to do, and I had to break that pattern so that I could recover.
I don’t accept that self harm is ever a good thing, and while I still have a lot of respect for those people who told me it was, I completely disagree with the stance they took. Recently I read something (which of course I can’t find now) that suggested that self harm shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. The article I read suggested that by judging the behaviour of self harm as bad, then we are judging the person as bad. I don’t agree with this either. Anything that we do that harms us has to be a bad thing, but that is not a judgement on the person.
I also don’t accept that one form of self harm is better or worse than another. Yes, some forms are more dangerous, and can have more lasting consequences, but any harm that we do to ourselves has to be bad.
There are a lot of myths relation to self harm, some of which include
it is the same as a suicide attempt
superficial self harm is fine, and is not dangerous
people use self harm behaviours to manipulate others. and to get attention
self harm is a female problem
if you self harm, you must have a mental illness (no doubt, Borderline Personality Disorder)
only teenagers self harm
self harm is a copy-cat behaviour
if you self harm you are a danger to others
self harm is a response to childhood abuse
Self harm is difficult to understand, if you’ve never felt the urge to do this. If you haven’t, be very thankful because the fight that goes on internally is terrible. It’s made more difficult because of the stigma related to self harm. The inclination is to think that a person who engages in self harm is ‘completely screwed up’ and maybe even ‘beyond help’. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is hope. Recovery is possible, but it takes a lot of work and unfortunately many of the people struggling with this don’t get the long term therapeutic help they need. Because of some of the things I am involved in when I’m not blogging, I know many people (men and women) who are fighting this battle every day, and also many people who have won the battle. It is possible. It is a really hard battle to beat this, but it is possible.
Self harm is a dangerous activity but the people who use it in order to cope, are no different from anyone else who might use destructive behaviours. They deserve compassion, acceptance and help… just like any other human being.
An interesting story to end with shows this isn’t always available. It is my experience of seeking help after my worst self harm, about ten years ago. I had cut myself badly while dissociated, so actually I felt nothing. I went to the Accident and Emergency Department of my local hospital (it was after-hours) and the doctor who treated me refused to give me a local anaesthetic while he stitched the large wound. He told me that I had done this to myself, so I could take a bit more pain. And yes, it was very painful. Whether he thought he was being smart, or teaching me a lesson, I don’t know; but there certainly wasn’t much compassion or acceptance of the struggle I was having that night.
“Do no harm & leave the world a better place than you found it.”
― Patricia Cornwell
Gratz,K.L. & Chapman, A. L., ( 2009). Freedom from Self harm: Overcoming Self-Injury With Skills From DBT And Other Treatments. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Sutton, J. (2007). Healing the Hurt Within – Understanding Self-Injury And Self-Harm, And Heal The Emotional Wounds. Oxford: How to Books Limited.
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentime filled with your tears… “
– Kahlil Gilbran, The Prophet
Recently, through a number of means, various people have commented to me that they see me as a very strong person. It always fascinates me when people say this because it’s not how I see myself. I know that I am on a journey of healing and that I am stronger than I have been in recent years. But actually I’m just as fragile as the next person.
A bubble is very strong, but it doesn’t take much to burst… and then it is gone. I feel very much like the bubble. It looks beautiful and great, but in one breath or movement, the bubble can burst and the strength is gone.
This past couple of weeks have been difficult for me. I’m not able to share the details of why that is, out of respect for someone who is very dear to me. That bubble has been floating around, being buffeted and blown. Sometimes it has felt sure of its ability to remain that bubble, and other times it has felt on the brink of bursting and simply being left as a mere droplet of water and soap.
Actually it is hard to talk about because I know there are people who take hope in their own ability to heal, because of watching the journey I am on. I hate to disappoint, and I would hate for anyone to lose their own hope because of me.
The bubble burst yesterday. It wasn’t because of anything concrete that happened, it’s just that the bubble got weakened by the constant buffeting it had taken recently. There were a lot of tears. That’s not something unusual right now, but I guess they took on a new intensity. In my desperation to numb the pain, I lashed out at myself.
No, there was no self harming as there has been in the past, and actually there was not even the urge to self harm (the urges can be the worst of the self harm journey). But in another way, I was harming myself. I chose to do something, I try to avoid now days. I have learnt my lesson in the past, but yesterday I didn’t care anymore. I just needed something to ease the pain I was feeling. So I poured myself a drink.
“I was becoming too dependent on drinking. Dave (now ex-husband) was concerned about what he saw me drink. It wasn’t that much. Maybe a couple of glasses of wine a night. What he didn’t know was just how little I was eating through out the day, or about the vodka bottle hidden upstairs amongst my clothes. I knew he’d have a fit, if he knew I was having more than he saw…
…I also hid my drinking. Mark and Sharon (nurse and psychiatrist at the time) both wanted me to consider detox. Alcohol became a way to get through the day, or the night. A close friend of mine made a comment to me about alcoholics who lie in parks with their bottles in paper bags. He said they were the scum of the earth. I didn’t lie in parks, but I did lie at home with my bottle in a paper bag. It was easier to drink straight out of the bottle. I hid my bottles under my clothes in drawers. I guess I was scum…
…I had a problem. I had become dependent on being able to drink until I passed out. That way I didn’t have to think. I could still exist, even if I didn’t have access to alcohol but I was fast becoming alcoholic, and I hid it well. Even Dave didn’t know. He might guess that I had a glass of wine before he came home from work, but he had no idea how much I had actually had. He didn’t know that I would continue drinking after he went to bed. He didn’t know that I would pass out regularly.”
That was 15 years ago now, and when I chose to stop drinking like that, I made a decision to never again, drink alone. Perhaps I should have stopped drinking altogether, and for a while I did, but I didn’t appear to have any problem when drinking with others and so my decision to only drink moderately in the company of others, seemed like a wise decision. Actually, on the whole, it has worked okay for me.
I was terribly ashamed of my drinking, in my sober moments, partly because my father was an active temperance man. He promoted the alcohol-free way of life at every chance he got. He knew I drank, but until he read my book four years ago, he never knew what a problem it had become for me. No one did. Not even my ex-husband knew the extent of the problem. In some ways I guess drinking was a kind of rebellion, but more so it was simply a desperate effort to blot out the despair that I was feeling.
The despair I felt yesterday was different from the despair of 15 years ago, but I found myself trying to soothe it the same way. The old behaviour returned. This time I was more aware of what I was doing, and aware of the need in me to anaesthetise my pain and wish it all away. Before doing too much damage I was able to see the old patterns return. Suddenly it felt like I was back 15 years, but at least this time I eventually had enough awareness to stop.
I don’t usually have alcohol in my house, purposely to avoid such things happening. But recently I had felt so much stronger and thought I could handle it. I could… for a while. But once I got weak, I couldn’t again. I know that had someone else been here, I would not have gone near the bottle, but then I have to take responsibility. I did what I did, and it is no one else’s fault.
So I might seem strong, but I’m not. I am as fragile as anyone else. When I least expect it, I can burst my bubble and be hurt, despairing and alone too. The only difference for me is that now, the morning after, I can see what I was doing. Actually I could see what I was doing at the time, and I had a terrible battle in my mind last night as I struggled to decide whether I cared or not. I did care. And so I stopped. And then cried some more.
Maybe now I have better awareness but don’t be fooled into thinking the battles aren’t the same. I am still a bubble, just like you, and I fight to make that bubble survive sometimes.
Today though, I am blowing a new bubble.
NB. Names have been changed to protect privacy.
“You see, we cannot draw lines and compartments and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.’ He paused, considering what he had just said. ‘Yes’, he repeated. ‘In the end, it’s all a question of balance.”
Perhaps it came from moving a lot when I was young. My father was a preacher, and in those days preachers and their families, shifted churches every few years which meant moving to different parts of the country. These shifts became more traumatic for me each time they happened because I was having to leave behind people who had become very important to me, as well as facing the daunting task of getting to know new people.
I eventually found myself a way to take with me the people I had to leave behind. I still use it today. When I was 12 we left yet another home and I found that move particularly hard. Part of the reason for that is that there were two people who had become like surrogate grandparents to me and I couldn’t bear to think of not having them around. Both of these people would be over 100 today if they were still alive, but to the 12 year old me, they were gold. One was my Uncle Cyril. Actually he was my father’s uncle and my grandmother’s brother, and he was the closest person I had anywhere near me to a grandfather, particularly a grandfather who I felt loved me. The other was an elderly lady called Thelma. Even as a 12 year old I called her by her first name, and she kind of adopted my brothers and I as extra grandchildren.
When we left, what I learnt was that while I couldn’t take them physically with me, I could take them in my heart. And that’s what I do today for the special people in my life who I can’t have with me. I carry them in my heart. And for me, it works. It feels like they are with me. It feels like I am not alone and it can be enough to give me the strength to do the hard things that otherwise I would struggle to do.
Yesterday I had a really hard day. For the sixth day I was in a whole lot of physical pain, which left me unable to do any of the things I normally need to do. The pain was getting worse by the day. I knew the cause of it. It was being caused by nicotine withdrawal combined with existing fibromyalgia. It was much worse than what I am used to, even on a bad day with fibro, and was complicated by having no access to adequate pain medication. See my previous post To Earn Trust After Past Mistakes for why that is.
I felt very alone and what scared me is that I could feel my mood slipping into my boots. That feeling of mood slipping is always a pretty powerful indicator to me that I need to do something to correct the situation. I couldn’t afford to let it slip further, especially because I recognised in myself that I had the urge to self harm, and that was one thing I just didn’t want to let happen. And don’t worry, it didn’t.
The reason I felt so alone is that I momentarily (well, for more than a moment) lost sight of the person I was carrying in my heart. He wasn’t there physically and in my pain, I lost sight of him in my heart.
Why? It was that I lost the ability to hold onto what I know, that I am loved. I lost my ability to hold onto what I knew, and actually that was much scarier than dealing with the physical pain. That’s why when I realised my mood was slipping, and that this was the result that I knew I had to do something. And I did.
Much to ‘stubborn Cate’s’ disappointment I decided to smoke again. If you’re disappointed in me then it is nowhere near as big as my own disappointment. But I realised that I was trying too much and so I will bear my disappointment. I am already in the process of weaning off medication, and then to deal with this worsening pain without the help of adequate pain medication, was simply setting myself up to fail.
Admittedly when I stopped smoking last week I didn’t realise the analgesic effect of nicotine and I didn’t realise the effect that the nicotine replacement patches I was using would have on my fibro. It had just never crossed my mind. Now I do know, and I can plan a way of making quitting possible.
I was reminded last night that it isn’t a good idea to try to quit two things at once, which I had inadvertently ended up doing. So once I have finished coming off the medication I will try again, but not without having a long, hard talk to my doctor and getting adequate pain relief. By then he will have one less reason to not give me some. I will also be arguing that I don’t want long term, heavy-duty pain medication. I simply want enough to make the quit process happen next time. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.
There were lots of tears involved in getting to this point yesterday, and then, I admit, I feared having to admit here what I had done. I felt so alone because I lost sight of what I knew, that someone loved me and would stand by me. And he did, and I don’t feel alone.
Going back to childhood lessons I remember being taught that faith is the promise of things unseen. I didn’t really understand that as a child. Actually I’m not sure that I have understood it that well as an adult, but I’m beginning finally to understand that love, and people, don’t need to be seen to be experienced.
PS. And if you’re wondering, the pain levels are much better today. They’re back to a ‘bad fibro day’ and I can cope with that for now.
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“I am a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and
I didn’t have the heart to let him down”
– Abraham Lincoln
A few years back I was really depressed. I was very despondent and lacking all hope for any sort of recovery of my mental illness. It was before my diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and I had been dumped in the ‘treatment-resistant depression’ box. I hate that box because it’s like ‘they’ decide I am not doing my bit to recover and so am just left to founder for myself. The public Mental Health System had ceremoniously dumped me off their books because I didn’t respond to the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) they offered and they simply didn’t know what else to do with me. And yes, they told me all this. The public Eating Disorders Service also dumped me off their books at about the same time because they couldn’t work me out or figure why I did the things I did, and didn’t respond to what they tried to get me to do.
I was seeing the therapist I still see, and thankfully he held out hope for me. But it wasn’t enough. I thought at that time that the only reason he held out any hope for me was that I paid his bill at the end of the month. No matter what he said or how super-therapist he proved to be, I could only imagine that he just saw me for the money.
You name it, I’d tried it. I’d had years of therapy (from several different therapists),I had tried masses of different medications, I had tried Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) three separate times, I had two lengthy stays in a therapeutic community and had many hospitalisations (which really never did much except maybe keeping me alive.), oh and did I mention that I left my marriage on the expectation that doing so would cure me (many doctors told me this would happen). It didn’t… although it did bring an end to my suicide attempts and alcohol abuse so I guess that was a good thing.
I had sunk to a new low. I thought I had tried everything and nothing worked. It seemed like nothing was going to help and while I hadn’t acted on suicidal ideation for some years, the thoughts were constant. I started to realise that this was going to be my lot. I was always going to be depressed (because that’s what everyone still thought I was). Another 50 years of this was not a good prospect. Life as a depressed person did not look like a good prospect and actually I really couldn’t see the point.
I stepped up the self harm, cut down the eating and tried to come to terms with the fact (or what I assumed was a fact) that this would be my lot. I kept telling my therapist that he was only in this for the money and actually no one really cared about me. For some reason he kept on seeing me regardless of my attitude about his apparent money-hungry ways.
Fortunately I had someone who believed in me. My Dad believed in me, believed I was a good person and believed that one day I would be healed and restored to health. I have to admit that I was very clear that Dad felt that way, but I really just thought it was him being him. He was very much a ‘glass half-full’ positive person to the extent that it drove me to anger at times. I thought it wasn’t really real and that one day I would do something to smash that glass and he would realise that the hope he held for me was just thin air.
With a lot of patience and perseverance Dad kept on at me. Somehow (and I can’t remember exactly how it happened) I slowly started to think that maybe I should hold onto his hope for me. I had no hope for myself but I kept hearing his belief. Somehow he convinced me that his hope for me would be enough. His hope for me would get me through this. I had no idea how that could be possible but I decided to hang onto life, because he believed it would get better (even though I still had no hope myself).
It worked. Not overnight by any means but it kept me going day to day, without choosing to opt out of life. Actually making that decision to hang onto his hope also helped me stop self harming. The urges were still strong but I could see that if what he said was right and my life was going to be restored, then I didn’t want more scars on my body. And that was somehow enough for me.
Dad died suddenly last year. It was a huge shock and one thing that really worried me is what I would do now that he was gone. What would happen to his hope that was keeping me alive? I’ve realised though (with time) that his hope can still keep me alive. He’s not here (physically) anymore but I believe he is somewhere watching over me, and as such he probably still holds that hope for me.
More than that though, I’ve realised that I have a little bit of hope for me now too. I’m not expecting a total cure from the difficulties I face but I can see that it is possible to live a satisfying life in spite those things. So with Dad’s hope, and my own new hope I can keep going.
Borrowed hope really works. I am living proof of that. So I want to say if you don’t have any hope for yourself, look around and see who does have hope for you. Pick someone who you trust and can believe that something could be so because they think it is. Then hang onto it tight. You don’t have to understand it, just give it a go. What have you got to lose?