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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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Another Note on Journaling

Another “note” on “journaling” sounds a little redundant, and I tried to make a pun out of it, but I couldn’t make it work. Let me know if you come up with something better. As I mentioned in a previous post, I discovered journaling as a coping and survival method in my early 20s with the help of one my therapist at the time. She recommended a book called The Artist’s Way, which is a book I ended up loving. It has exercises for your brain and spirit to discover the artist within you. The exercise from this book that spoke to me was “Morning Pages.” This is where you write three pages in a journal every morning. It doesn’t matter what you write, how big or small you write, or even whether or not the words can be found in a dictionary. The idea is to develop consistency and to empty your brain of whatever is cluttering it so you can start  your day with a clear head.

It was difficult for me to start writing in a journal, but once I got the hang of it I started doing it every day. There is so much cluttering my head at any given moment – racing thoughts, depression fueled thoughts, negative self talk, positive self talk, jokes that are hilarious until I write them down and read them to myself – that getting some of them out on paper, a place outside of me, frees up a lot of mental and emotional bandwidth and helps me continue to survive, function, and thrive.

My most recent psych hospital stay reminded me of how much I need journaling. I had given up journaling for about a year, and apparently a lot of thoughts and feelings and misspelled words got backed up in there and gummed up the works. My lack of journaling did not lead to my suicidal thoughts, that was my lack of functioning brain chemistry. But once I started writing again while in the hospital, a flood gate was open.

In the psych hospital there’s a lot of down time. There’s a structure of therapy and treatment and activities, but between those you don’t go home, you just, sort of, exist together. About 80% of my down time was spent journaling, sometimes by myself in my room, but usually around other people. Here is a non-sequitur journal entry from my hospital journal (written in marker because that’s all we were allowed to have to write with):

I want to say he eventually got the hang of Uno, but I don’t specifically remember that happening.

Here’s an entry about how people noticed how much I journal through the day:

The woman walked up to me while I was sitting outside, asked me if I had seen a rabbit, then pulled a carrot out of her bra and threw it in a shrub. She said, “I bet we’ll see it soon!” and winked at me. The level of commitment involved in smuggling carrots from the cafeteria impressed me.

A few people in the hospital asked me how I journal so much because they wanted to start. The first step for me it to stop judging yourself. That’s easy to do, right? Just flip the switch from On to Off, and you’re done, right? No? Oh. It takes practice. Start with words on paper. Don’t judge yourself for your handwriting, your ability to spell, your sentences, your thoughts, whether or not it makes sense…it is all good. If your pen (or hospital sanctioned marker) is making marks on a piece of paper, congratulations! You’re journaling! Now do it again tomorrow. And the next day.

I started this way, a little at a time, often writing through it when I judged myself for something. Before long I was able to just let the thoughts translate to paper. I don’t read anything I’ve written either. Not for a very long time. And when I do I realize I knew more about my own situation than I gave myself credit for.

It’s difficult for me to talk about my most recent psych hospital visit because I’m still so close to it, but I intend to face it and write through it. Reading my hospital journal in pieces is helping me process the experience, and continuing to journal daily after my discharge day is making me a stronger person every day.

Journaling is powerful. I’ve heard more times than not someone saying they would love to journal but they don’t know what to say. And I tell them that’s a form of judging themselves. We all know what to say it’s just a matter of learning how to get it from our heads to paper. It looks different for everyone so the most important thing we can do is just practice. Do it for you. I do it for me, not anyone else…

…until I scan them onto my computer and post the contents online for the whole world to see*.

 

*Note: you are not required to do this when you journal.

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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