Consider this a heads up: I will be talking about self harm in this post.
I often find that talking/writing about things I’m struggling with makes them easier to manage. There are several reasons for this that I can think of: it helps me get my thoughts all in a row; sometimes trying to make things that are confusing to me, coherent to other people, makes more sense of them to me too; responses from other people who give a crap are always appreciated regardless of whether I’m looking for feedback, advice, or just “wow, that sucks, sorry to hear it”; and finally, I am prone to keeping things to myself, so making an effort to communicate sends my brain the firm message that actually, the world does not end if I talk. Writing my last post and the reactions to it genuinely helped during the worst phase of the depression. It was like realising I’d been carrying around all this incredibly painful muscular tension, and deliberately relaxing. Not in the way of Hollywood-style catharsis, not that I got up the next morning and the birds were singing – I mean, I just hadn’t realised how isolated and alone I felt, how hard I was finding it to cope by myself, and indeed how fucking obvious it was that this didn’t have to be the case. But brains are strange creatures, and for a supposedly intelligent person I do seem to need reminding on a very regular basis that I don’t have to carry everything myself.
I think part of how this forgetting happens is related to feeling like I say more than I do. Sometimes I feel like I do an awful lot of ranting on social media sites (particularly Twitter). But often, I look back through my recent tweets or updates and realise I haven’t been nearly as outspoken or open as I thought. Because my fear of the consequences of leaving myself to stew in my thoughts for too long is very strongly counterbalanced by my fear of clients finding me on social media, I often come away from attempts to talk about something difficult feeling like I’ve said too much and too little all in one go.
This is definitely the case with self harm. I know I’ve communicated my annoyance about the lack of focus on/service provision for people over the age of 25 (or even 21) who self harm. I have retweeted and favourited and even gone as far as posting something on Facebook about Self Injury Awareness Day (tldr: I hate ‘awareness’ events. Too many myths and stereotypes get reinforced, and they always end up being about a population rather than for them. Ooh, look at all the skinny/scarred people in the media this week, how interesting, I feel so much more aware of this issue now. NOPE forever). But I can count on one hand the number of people who knew prior to that FB post that the last time I cut myself was just a few weeks ago in January this year, and even fewer know that I would probably be writing ‘yesterday’ (or even ‘this morning’) if I hadn’t managed to get my arse out of the house to meet a friend at the last minute, and then seriously ripped the contents of my brain to shreds with my wife’s help in the evening.
It’s sad how surprised I was when I started cutting again at the start of that last relapse early on in December last year, like somehow being a proper grown up with a proper job and a wife should make me invulnerable to such things. It’s not something I ever would have said, or even consciously thought without correcting myself. It’s more like internalised stigma, a result of slowly, over eighteen years, absorbing from various institutions and authority figures the rhetoric that people who self harm are attention seeking, a waste of NHS resources, copycats, stupid teenage girls, over-privileged children who need to grow up, spoilt idiots who should be sent to see true hardship (“think of the starving children in…”), people who don’t try hard enough to cope or to control themselves, people who are hopeless and pathetic. The internalised voice of all those consultant psychiatrists and newspaper articles and ignorant teachers tells me, to bastardise Dickens, that if they want to kill themselves then let them do it, and reduce the surplus population. This is what I have been taught to believe about people who self harm, and although it doesn’t at all tally with my experience or what I know of friends’ experiences, it is surprisingly hard to unlearn.
This semi-conscious shame stops me being specific when I vaguebook something about having a hard day, when what I mean is that I’m having a staring match with razor blades. It stops me asking friends for help, or even considering that this is something they could help with, or that I deserve help. Often I’m so busy being in denial that I don’t even notice there’s a problem until the urge to harm myself is so loud I can’t think clearly enough to avoid the situation I was trying to ignore. And by that point it’s almost too late, because by that point it appears in my head as a decision that’s already been made, and it is obviously the right thing to do, and that decision is tortuously difficult and psychologically painful to unmake (case in point: the slow dawning on me yesterday evening, having wanted to – intended to, even – act on the urge all day, that actually maybe it wasn’t strictly necessary, and the absolute brainfuck that caused. More NOPEs needed in service of explaining just how little I wish to go through that undeciding process again in the near future). Even on this blog – the number of posts in which I specifically talk about an aspect of eating disorder recovery (hundreds), versus the number of posts in which I try to deal with lapses into self harming (this post makes four or five, I think?). The last time I cut myself before this January was January 2014, after Charlotte died, and I told one person. I know for a fact that I was incredibly triggered for weeks on end at different points during 2011, 12 and 13, even though I didn’t act on it (much – there may have been biting and hitting at various points, but no cutting) or, again, talk about it. And before January 2014 the last two times I relapsed were during the winters of 2010 and 2009, and although I was updating this blog very frequently in those days, I wrote one or two posts about each incident. Maybe five posts, and I’ve spent hours, days, weeks, months fighting the urge to hurt myself over the last six years.
It’s somehow easier (and this is entirely personal, I’m making no generalisations and I know everyone experiences these things differently) with the eating disorder. I think it’s partly that I’ve had more practice distancing myself from eating disordered thoughts, and recognising that they lead nowhere good. I also think any return to eating disordered behaviours affects more areas of my life more quickly than self harming does. Within days of starting to restrict, I might feel some relief, but I will also feel cold, start obsessing about food, find it harder to concentrate at work, realise I’m becoming much more short tempered, my relationship with A will suffer in subtle but noticeable (to me) ways, I will be constantly exhausted and yet hyperactive, I will start to realise that I’m actually just as anxious as before I relapsed, but it’s just all been funnelled into food and numbers, so I might not be worrying about someone shooting me or dying of ebola, but I am obsessed with how quickly I could reach Xlbs, or with calculating and re-calculating calories eaten today. My motivation for staying in recovery is easier for me to rediscover and hold on to when I experience all of this and remember just how much worse it all gets the longer it goes on. Motivation to avoid self harming is so much more tenuous for me, and is easily lost when the inside of my skull feels and sounds like a crowded shopping centre on Saturday morning. That same noise, that claustrophobia. And it is not helped – not at all – by the fact that of all the different things I have experienced, this is the hardest one for me to talk about. The hardest, and because of how helpful I find the process of working things out loud or in writing, possibly the one thing I would benefit most from talking about.
Now I’ve started writing this I almost don’t want to stop, but I also don’t really know what else I want to say. How do you talk about something that is so hard to pin down? It’s like one of those magic eye images – you look through them, slowly move them away from your face, you avoid looking directly at whatever starts to emerge, and if you can do all of that, you might be successful. I was always completely and utterly shite at those things. Couldn’t do it if the coordinates to the only antidote of a poison my nemesis had slipped me were hidden in one, although that’s an interesting idea for a future James Bond film.
So lets all be glad that I have a competent therapist at the moment instead.