THIS POST CONTAINS DISCUSSION AND DESCRIPTIONS OF SELF-HARM.
I’ve been pretty open about my experiences of anxiety and depression – on this blog, on social media, and in real life – but one thing I haven’t opened up about is my experience of self-harm. Only a handful of people know that I hurt myself – close friends, current and ex partners, and medical professionals. Well, those are the only people that I’ve told; a not-so-close examination of my patchwork quilt of a left arm would tell you all you need to know, so I imagine a fair few people already have an idea. Nobody has ever brought it up though – except a certain osteopath who lost my custom after some ill-judged comments.
So why the secrecy up to now? Put bluntly, I’m ashamed. Anxiety and depression are illnesses. Illnesses are nobody’s fault. I can’t help being ill. But I can help cutting myself. It’s a choice I make. It’s my fault. A sign of weakness (so my brain tells me). But what I’ve come to realise is that it is a symptom of my anxiety – and not something to be ashamed of. I’m not proud of it, of course, but there is an awful lot of unnecessary stigma attached to it, and I’m only perpetuating that stigma by keeping quiet.
I wish I could talk about self harm in the past tense, but it is still something that is present in my life. Not to the extent that it has been, but it still makes a cameo appearance during particularly tough times.
I remember the first time I self-harmed; I had un-diagnosed depression (I knew I was depressed, but my partner at the time wouldn’t allow me to talk about it unless I had an actual diagnosis…) and my head was in a very dark place. I can’t remember the thought process leading up to it – if there even was one – but I remember using the scissors to cut myself and being very scared. Scared of where this would lead and what I would do next. I phoned a local mental health organisation in a blind panic, but hung up very soon into the call – feeling totally embarrassed. An embarrassment which was further compounded when the police turned up not long afterwards to carry out a welfare check on me.
But I had started on my self-harming ‘journey’, and it is only now – when I think back to the fact that I had a diary where I would reward myself with a sticker (alarming parallels to my current life as mother to a toddler) on days that I managed not to self harm – that I realise just how much of a feature it was in my life.
Self harming is not always a cry for attention (stigma #432), but I think it started off that way for me. But as well as that, it also gave me a reason to look after myself, and for my partner to be forced to do the same; a wound needing attentively cleaning and dressing gave me a small – but powerful -sense of being looked after.
After a while – and with the help of antidepressants, as well as some positive life changes, the self-harming reduced in frequency and intensity. However, since my PTSD diagnosis, it has ‘flared up’ again. Interestingly (if you find this kind of stuff interesting…), now that my mental battles are more anxiety driven, rather than depressed, the self-harming is triggered by different things and seems to play a different role in helping me ‘cope’.
My anxiety often causes an intensity of feeling so overwhelming that my head feels like it is about to explode. My brain feels full to the rafters of panic, worry, stress, or other such delights that all I want more than anything is to be able to pop a pin in it to release the pressure. Self-harming has become that pin; a slap in the face to ‘snap me out of it’. It focuses my thoughts and pain, and perversely, it calms me down. This usually happens when my anxiety has reached an 8 or 9 out of 10, and with the help of my CBT therapist, I am working on ways to catch it when it is a 4 or a 5 and through mindfulness and other techniques, calm myself down before I reach the point that I feel I need to hurt myself. It’s certainly a work in progress, but I am finally starting to see a way out of it.
I’m pretty sure that anxiety will always be a part of my life, but with the improvements I’m making, I’m hopeful that self-harm won’t be.
I’m not really sure how to end this post, or what my point actually is. I certainly don’t have any answers. I just hope that by being open about this subject, I can contribute in a teeny tiny way to ending the stigma. So this is it. My story. Or at least the first couple of chapters…