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A Note on Self Harm

Trigger warning: this post talks about cutting and self harm

This is probably the most difficult subject to talk about, but that might be why it’s the most important to talk about in order to fight the stigma of living with mental illness. That’s the theory I’m working from, anyway, because that way the pain of talking about it publicly has a purpose.

I have used cutting and other forms of self harm such as bruising myself and using diabetes as a weapon – binge eating without giving insulin, or even eating normally and purposefully not giving extra insulin – since I was a teenager. As a teen I was not allowed to ask for help when I needed it, so I would cut myself – usually on my face – to show people I needed help. I stopped doing this until I was in my early thirties.

I was in a toxic marriage and needed help but wasn’t getting it, so I started cutting again. The urges surprised me since they were so strong and I haven’t felt them since I was a kid. All of my pain in my marriage was invisible, so the cuts, the blood, the scars were all proof that I was in pain. It was outside of my head, which was a relief.

My marriage ended and I started cutting again. My life was suddenly in chaos. I lost everything: my house, my family (in laws), my job, my car (totaled it), my jobs (lost two in a row), my dog (liver failure), I almost lost my dad to complications of surgery, and I was trying to survive on my own in an upside down world. My depression was spiraling downward at an alarming rate, and I started cutting again. I dug into my legs with a sterile needle (always sterile, I don’t want to do damage, I just want the pain) as a way to gain a sense of control.

If I cut I bleed. If I bleed there’s pain. Cause, effect. Very straightforward. Absolutely nothing in my life was straightforward, I was in control of nothing, none of the causes had effects that made any sense. Surgery is supposed to heal, not try to kill. Working hard is supposed to give you job security, not take it away. Dogs are supposed to live forever. But I know exactly what happens when I put a needle on my skin. This year when my marriage ended and I lost everything was what led me to my second ever psych-hospital experience, but I will go into that story more another time.

I had a counselor recently whose response to me talking about my cutting was, “Most people grow out of these urges eventually. Almost no one continues to cut after age 30.” Yeah, well first of all, you’re talking to one of us over 30, so check your facts. Second of all, that’s not true at all, there are many adults who self harm. But people over 30, this arbitrary age when life is supposed to magically get better, don’t feel like they’re allowed to talk about it. I told this counselor, “I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me. Do you think I’m doing something wrong?” She said no, I was doing nothing wrong, I was just using an old coping mechanism. She said the urges should be getting fewer and further between. I said they’re not, they’re more frequent and getting stronger. And I know I’m not the only one. I’m not an anomaly of her inaccurate statistic.

There are many many many adults who hurt themselves in secret, suffering in a very painful silence. There’s an Instagram account I follow that is called Faces of Fortitude: “This project lays a foundation of healing thru portraits of those affected by Suicide & Mental illness.” A photographer takes pictures of people who have survived depression, suicide attempts, trauma, and self harm, and tells their story in the caption. There are amazing stories and powerful photos, and it is inspiring to read. In one of the stories the person advised against tattooing over or hiding your self harm scars, but advised wearing them proudly because they are reminders of what you survived and of how far you’ve come.

I respect this sentiment, and if it were anything but self-inflicted scars I would agree. But I still have times when my own scars can be triggers for me to want to hurt myself. I have gotten several tattoos that cover my scars, and I did it because I wanted to turn something painful into something beautiful. That is what I would rather look at than scars, reminders, of painful moments. When I have the urges to hurt myself, they are difficult to shake. The pain is actually what brings me relief. Totally intuitive, right?? So when I see the scars, the memory of the pain makes me want to cut again. It’s all complicated.

Cutting and self harm are complicated. We don’t do it for attention. We do it because the pain, the blood, the bruises, the scars give us something that we need so desperately that we have to hurt ourselves in order to get it. Maybe it’s validation we need, or a way to ease our depressive thoughts without trying to kill ourselves, or maybe we need to get the pain out of our heads and into the outside world. Whatever our reasons are, we don’t have to be teens. We are mature, fully functioning adults with hidden pain that we don’t know how to express otherwise.

When you see us in the wild, don’t judge us. Just know we are in pain, or at one time we were in pain. You can understand and relate to that. That’s all it is, so I wish it didn’t have to be a secret. Thank you for letting me share a little bit about my experience.

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In the Moment

I wake up early. I never used to, but, and I guess I’ll blame age, now I wake up at around 5:00am every day, no matter what time I go to bed. This morning I was an overachiever and woke up at 4:30 feeling fully rested and ready to start the day. We are vacationing at the beach right now, and when I got up early I realized that the ocean also gets up early while the seagulls sleep in.

Time to go to the beach.

Despite the inclement weather and the fog and the inability to see the sunrise, the ocean was beautiful. The waves rumbled and crashed against the shore, the fog blurred the horizon, the low tide painted the sand with rivulets still streaming with salt water, and there were seashells everywhere. No one had come to pick them over yet and I decided to collect them.

I hesitated, though, before walking out to the surf, and tried to pinpoint why. The ocean is larger and more powerful than anything else my brain can imagine. When I’m not face to face with it, I can’t even imagine the depth of its power – one wrong move, all alone on the beach, and I could be erased. I took that in before deciding to carefully begin my shell hunt and getting lost in the moment.

Except I hesitated again because the first shell I found still had a creature in it, and that was more terrifying than somehow getting sucked into the ocean. To my credit, I did not scream, and I fully own that I am a wuss. But I began finding shell after shell.

Former homes of unknown animals peeked out from under the sand, and I rushed over to dig them up. The more I walked the more numerous they became and I got better at spotting them. The only thing I could hear was the waves, the only thing I thought about was spotting shells, the only thing I felt was happiness. I was so wrapped up in my activity that I even got physically lost, which is hard to do when you’re walking in a straight line. I was one hundred percent in that moment.

With anxiety and other mental illnesses, it’s hard to lose yourself in a moment. There’s always that part of us that is screaming, demanding our energy and attention or even altering our perception of the world so that we can never be fully present in any given moment. Even in the important ones, and it’s a big burden to carry.

This beach moment wasn’t a ceremonial rite, or a significant event in my life, but it was important to me because for that small piece of time, the negative messages paused, the gnawing worry dissipated, the weight of depression lifted. I didn’t want to hurt myself, and I didn’t want to go back to bed. I got a break from all of that. It’s even held off a little since then.

If you can’t find an ocean today, I hope you can find a moment where you get a break. I hope you can lose yourself, even if only for a few seconds, in something that brings you joy. If you can’t, just remember that you’re not alone. I’m over here in your corner, cheering for you.

Remember – you woke up today! You are a badass!

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To Shamelessly Adult

I’ve known how shameless of a person I am for a long time. I spent formative years, from age four on, fighting type 1 diabetes and realizing that if you make a mistake (and kids never make mistakes, right?) with my medical care I could die. Not only that, but it will never go away and will probably get worse. Kids shouldn’t ever have to learn to face their own mortality, and yet… Then add to that bipolar with severe depression in my early adult years, also something that doesn’t go away, and a messy divorce, and a parent illness, and losing my job and then my career…dealing with all that on a daily basis, when the hell am I supposed to have the energy to give a shit about being polite? About feeling shame for the ways I have learned to cope with my life and be productive and successful despite its best efforts to keep me down?

The older I get, the less I care about being shy, and being afraid to speak up for myself, and the less I care about changing my personality to match whatever group I’m in. In addition to the human experience of aging and developing a sense of self, my multiple and repeated brushes with death have accelerated this shamelessness I have. Yes, I have a much stronger sense of myself at 37 than I did at, say 20, but even at 20 I had faced death multiple times with diabetes complication hospitalizations and one suicide attempt that no one but my best friend knew about (more on all of this later).

When I realized that everything I know could end in the matter of a second, it gave me a new perspective. I’m alive. I’m alive because I work my ass off to stay alive, and things could be very very different. So changing who I am to fit in? Not saying something I want to say because it’s different from what other people are saying? Needing validation from people around me to feel better about myself? Ok, I still need that one, but the others are things I just don’t have energy for. They are not important in the big picture of life, and I’ve been forced to understand the big picture, over and over again).

This most recent time I was in the psychiatric hospital I saw this shamelessness with new eyes. In an environment like a hospital you have a lot of down time. Even with all the structured activities, group therapy, psychiatrist meetings, yoga and stress relief classes, art classes, exercise classes, you have a lot of time to interact with your fellow inpatients. You get to know each other very well, you get to make friends.

It’s a unique relationship because you’re all hospitalized for serious reasons and you find you learn people’s deepest secrets. You can help them through their darkest moments while they help you through yours. You find people you have things in common with and you make friends. There’s also a tendency of people in groups like this to form cliques and create their own drama. I’ve never been a fan of interpersonal drama, and I’m even less a fan of self-created drama. But I understand its function, especially in groups. It can be intimidating to join a group of people you don’t know and just be left to you own devices to find your way. Cliques can provide comfort.

Continue reading To Shamelessly Adult

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Journals From Past Allison

Journaling has been an important survival tool for me ever since the year 2000 when my therapist at the time turned me onto it. I have saved all my journals since that year, and sometimes I like to go through them all and find the same date in different years and read them. I do this more out of curiosity than anything else, but it can also help me track my progress, or lack thereof, through the years. The evolution of mental illness is fascinating, as is my level of denial in the early years. But simply because I kept writing, I kept following hope.

All of my journals either have titles or quotes at the beginning of them, like they were books. And they kind of were because I would fill every page of every journal I ever wrote in. I’m not sure where those bragging rights would be relevant, but that’s kind of impressive, right?

Here are some of the quotes in the beginning of my journals over the years:

For a second, two seconds, they had exchanged an equivocal glance, and that was the end of the story. But even that was a memorable event in the locked loneliness in which one had to live.
-George Orwell, 1984

Forget about what you are escaping from…Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to.
-Bernard Kornblum,The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay

Pretty Pink Suicide Notes
– journal title, Allison B. Hollingsworth

I feel a little down today
I ain’t got much to say
You’re gonna miss me when I’m not there
And you know I don’t care

Life is hit or miss, and this
I Hope, I Think, I Know
And if I ever hear the names you call
If I stumble, catch me when I fall
‘Cause baby after all,
You’ll never forget my name
You’ll never forget my name.
-Oasis

There are two ways to look at life…The first view is that nothing is stays the same and that nothing is inherently connected, and that the only driving force in anyone’s life is entropy. The second is that everything pretty much stays the same (more or less) and that everything is completely connected, even if we don’t realize it.
-Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

For Posterity
– journal title, Allison B. Hollingsworth

I’ve compiled a list of excerpts below that Past Allison wrote in a gesture of recognizing her journey. I hate the word journey, but I love Past Allison. At least I’m learning to.

Continue reading Journals From Past Allison