For Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re encouraging conversations around mental health, a topic that tends to be taboo and off limits within our community.
*TRIGGER WARNING* The content within this piece contains references to suicide and detailed descriptions of self harm.
I have anxiety. That may not surprise anyone who knows me today, since these days I am pretty open about my mental health struggles, but it would have shocked anyone who knew my younger self. It wasn’t until I was 29 years old and struggling with alcohol use disorder that I discovered what was truly underneath my addiction: Anxiety.
Going to rehab for alcoholism and coming out with a mental health diagnosis was a revelation that cleared up a lot of things for me about growing up. In particular, I realized that I had struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide as a teen and had never known where to turn before. I eventually got over it and got stronger (or so I thought), but the scars remained.
Literally, the scars that I inflicted on myself during my teens are still there.
When I was about 15 or 16 years old, I went through a period of self-harm.
At the time, I was struggling with what I now know was a lot of anxiety and stress. I was trying to be the perfect daughter and get straight A’s, but I just couldn’t. During my sophomore year of high school, I attempted to commit suicide. When that didn’t work, I started cutting myself.
I honestly don’t remember how long this behavior went on for, but I think it was almost a year. I would always cut myself in the same spot, right on my forearm, but I didn’t go too deeply so that it wouldn’t scar too badly. At the time, I was very fond of wearing 3/4 inch sleeve shirts and sweaters because I was often cold in school, so nobody noticed. The only person that knew this was happening was my best friend at the time, who would also cut herself.
I remember sitting in my room, holding this little pair of scissors I had. They had an orange handle and it hurt so much when I slid the blade slowly over my forearm, over and over again until it bled. I would do this patiently for a few minutes or half an hour, then wipe myself off and go to sleep. It was often before bed, at the end of the night, when I could trust that everyone else was asleep and I wouldn’t be caught.
And, of course, nobody caught me or ever knew about it.
To this day, just as I have not had the courage yet to talk to my parents about my suicide attempt at age 15, I haven’t been able to talk to them about the months I spent cutting myself at age 16. Although I know that they love and support me, certainly as they did through my alcohol issues, it’s terrifying to admit to them that the person whom they still see as their “perfect daughter” used to do something to hurt herself.
After all, it’s the desire to be a perfect daughter that started my self-harm in the first place.
These are some of the things that I eventually had to talk about during the intensive therapy sessions that I received in rehab.
Although they were loosely structured, I loved to talk to my therapist daily, discussing the things I had been exploring and finding out about myself after I was given the anxiety diagnosis. I recognized that I drank alcohol in order to calm my anxiety and, slowly, I also recognized that I had self-harmed in my past in order to alleviate my depression.
Today, I am in a much better place but that doesn’t mean that everything is easy for me.
Because I still suffer from anxiety daily, I have to manage those feelings. I do this by seeing a therapist, occasionally going to SMART Recovery (especially if I am having a bad week), and spending time with my loved ones. I also manage my anxiety with meditation, coloring books, eating and sleeping well, exercise, and talks outside with my puppy.
However, I still occasionally have bad days — and, lately, I started to experience thoughts of self-harm again.
I haven’t thought much about cutting myself since I was a teen, this is likely due to the fact that I was mostly using alcohol in my 20s to calm my anxiety and depression. Still, I’ve found that recently those old thoughts and instincts have begun to creep back into my head again. I thought that self-harm would never come up for me again. I thought that I was “cured” or had moved on in some way, but they’ve proved me wrong and still scare me when they manage to creep their way into my thoughts.
Recently, I was shocked when I first sat crying in my bathroom over some silly fight I just had with my partner (I’m an easy crier, so this isn’t exactly unusual) and the thought to cut myself crossed my mind again. I maintain that it’s not something that I actually want to do, but it was frightening how easily those old thoughts came back to me.
“It would hurt a lot less,” my mind said to me.
Eventually, I understood that, in the past, I used cutting in order to make myself hurt less — meaning that my feelings would be less hurt if I had visible pain on my body.
In the moment that I had those thoughts, that’s what I was wanting again: For my feelings to hurt less.I know now, at age 32, that this is not the road that I want to go down.
The past two years I’ve spent in therapy have taught me that self-harm (such as medicating my anxiety with alcohol or cutting myself to alleviate my depression and hurt feelings) is not an option. It doesn’t actually help the problem in the long run, only relieves it for a moment or two.
It’s frightening to realize that those feelings — that desire for a relief from my feelings — is still somewhere inside of me. I know deep down that I will never cut myself again, but the truth is also that the things that drove me to self-harm in the first place still remain.
For now, I am increasing my strategies for self-care in order to get over this extremely stressful period in my life in hopes that those old feelings of wanting to cut myself will go away. To combat any thoughts I have that might lead me to start hurting myself again, I’ve started to talk to my therapist more often (a self-care strategy that I think is very important) and making more time to relax and do the things that I enjoy. Still, as someone who suffers from anxiety, I know that there are always future stressful things just around the corner.
I won’t let myself self-harm again, but what I *can* do for myself is make sure that I am leaning more on those around me who love me and are willing to help — like my wonderful husband, my amazing therapist, and my loving family and friends. It’s still a struggle, I admit, but it’s only through acknowledging it and getting help that I can keep going forward.
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