Surviving Is Better Than Not Surviving

Trigger warning for self harm. Please don’t read this if it’s something that will upset you or trigger you. I only want this to be helpful, never harmful. I also want to add that, while I’m not promoting or endorsing it, I’m never going to say, “Just don’t do it.” It’s just not that simple. My hope is that more openness on this subject will make it easier for people to access support and therefore not feel the need to do it.

It’s been on my to do list to write more about self harm ever since I posted the first piece. It’s one of those things that I will never get tired of talking about, never get tired of raising awareness for. There are so many misconceptions around it. I mean, I get it: there’s something inherently un-understandable about wanting to hurt yourself, unless you’ve gone through it. And even then, it’s massively complicated. Feelings are weird and pain is weird; it’s not surprising that people struggle to make sense of it. But I’d like to think that things will get better, hopefully sooner rather than later.

I was inspired to write this post after watching a YouTube video, ‘Living With Self Harm Scars’ by Claudia Boleyn. I’ve been watching her videos for more than a year now and I particularly love her videos about mental health. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and self harm still aren’t commonly talked about so to find someone describing their experience, both positive and negative, and giving advice is invaluable. And to find someone so thoughtful and eloquent is even better. I really relate to a lot of what she says.

She’d posted a video in which she wore a short sleeve shirt that exposed some scars from self harming and had received several messages about how validating it was to see someone with visible self harm scars, without shame or drama. So, as a response, she’d decided to make a video discussing the importance of living with these types of scars, which I found both interesting and useful, even as someone with ten years of experience with self harm. She put into words so many emotions that I’ve felt but for a long time couldn’t vocalize. Had I had something like this when I was younger, life would’ve been very different.

The video isn’t necessary for the rest of the post to make sense but I really recommend watching it:

(EDIT: The video has now been made private but as I said, it’s not necessary for the rest of the post. I’ll update if this changes.)

Some of the things she says are so true it’s painful.

One of the biggest things about self harm is the release you get from doing it. My emotions get so strong sometimes that I feel like there isn’t space for anything else in my body, in my brain. There isn’t the space for my lungs to expand; I can’t breathe. It almost feels like the emotion is crushing me and the only way to survive is to open up my skin so that it can escape. It’s like a pressure valve. Once I’ve done it, I feel like everything stabilises and I can think more clearly. If there’s a problem, I can deal with it and if there isn’t and it’s just an overload of emotion, I can take care of myself a little better than I could if I hadn’t. As heavy as it sounds, Claudia describes it as ‘a way of not killing herself,’ which is a feeling I can empathise with. I’m sure many others can too. I’m not saying it’s a good thing and I’m not encouraging it. It is NOT a healthy coping mechanism. But that logic isn’t very persuasive when you’re dealing with such overwhelming emotions. Claudia also talks about this: “It’s not good for you in any sense… but it’s something. It felt like doing that at least proved that there was something there… And it just felt like this huge build up of feelings and I had to do something to get rid of it and doing that… was something.” I can completely relate to that and I think that’s a feeling that is often exacerbated by how difficult it is to get a diagnosis because having something is better than having nothing.

In my experience at least, trying to cut myself off cold from the only thing that helps me get through doesn’t help; it just makes the need worse and then there’s potential for me to do more damage. So I do my best to be safe while working on my issues in therapy so that one day, I can stop because I’m okay and not because I’m suppressing the urge. Because if that’s the case, I’ll always come back to it. To quote Claudia: “If you’re a self harmer then I think it’s always in the back of your mind as, like, a coping mechanism… The problem is: it’s always there so you always have to avoid it and avoid triggering it.” To give up self harming is a really big ask, and an even bigger one if you’re trying to do it without support. And if it’s too much for you, or for you to do all at once, that’s okay. I don’t feel ready to stop but one step at a time. The fact that my therapist supports this is a huge deal to me and it’s one of the things that told me that she was the right person. This has greatly lessened the pressure on me and has helped both me and my family to work through it a bit. I used to feel so guilty that I was hurting or upsetting them so I hid it and that was doing it’s own kind of damage. But now that we have a plan, now that we’re moving in a forwards-like direction even if it isn’t always easy, everyone seems to be coping with it better. I can’t imagine what it’s like for them to see me in that place but you can’t put that on top of the emotion that makes you want to do it; it will eat you alive. I think the only way forward is to try and talk about it with someone and do what you can to avoid it if possible.

I don’t have quite the same experience as Claudia does. That’s fine. Every response to self harm is a valid response. However you feel about it is okay; it’s your struggle. She talks about feeling annoyed and upset about having self harmed and wishes she hadn’t done it whereas I’m not (yet?) in that place. She talks about how it releases all that feeling but then you wake up the next day and feel like you’ve let yourself down. But, while that is quite a negative response, the way she talks to herself is very positive: “I’m just taking it as a stepping stone and saying, ‘Okay, you took a step backwards but you can take five hundred more steps forward. It’s fine.’” She talks about having a certain pride about them because they’re proof that she got through a really tough time. She can look at them and feel compassion and forgiveness for the version of herself in those moments: “It’s a part of me and it’s a part of my past and that’s okay. And I wouldn’t erase it and in a way, I wouldn’t want to because I’ve learned so much going forward.”

For me, self harm is usually a survival strategy. It’s getting through a moment that I feel like I can’t possibly get through. Maybe it’s the worst possible way to get through it but it’s better than not. So when I look at the mark the next day, or the next month, or the next year, I remember that moment: I remember getting through. I remember feeling like I can’t survive another second and then I remember the calm afterwards. I remember that I did what I had to do to survive. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of that – or proud of the scars – but I’m certainly not ashamed of it. Maybe one day I’ll find something that gives me that feeling without doing any damage to myself. How wild and glorious would that be?! But that’s the end goal, not the next step.

My other use for self harm is to mark a traumatic event. I think one of the hardest things about struggling with your mental health is the fact that people often can’t see what you’re going through and I needed it to be seen. I felt so traumatised by the strength of the emotions and by the meltdowns and I just couldn’t process that without a physical, identifiable injury to associate it with. Again, I’m not saying that this is a good method of coping but it was all I had at the time. Now, I have other things to try. I haven’t yet found anything that works but what’s important is that I’m trying, even if I don’t want to sometimes. This is a whole other issue that I do want to talk about at some point: to someone who hasn’t ever self harmed, the idea of not wanting to stop doing something that is so bad for you is weird, but is a feeling that is often associated with self harm. That feeling can be very isolating because many people don’t understand it, and many more react badly to begin with. And feeling misunderstood can really exacerbate the feelings that lead a person to self harming. I think that discussing self harm and learning about it can only help with that. There will be people who say that bringing awareness to it will encourage people to self harm and while that may be true to a certain extent, the amount of people it could help would massively outnumber that.

People do ask about the scars. I’ve personally never had an unkind response to them; it’s usually just awkward. Even if someone doesn’t actually bring them up, I see them notice and it can get really uncomfortable because no one knows how to handle it. Claudia mentions being embarrassed about people seeing them and talks about how she has tried in the past to cover them up. Sometimes that’s just easier. It’s so complicated and it’s hard when people don’t get it or jump to conclusions. There’s the typical, “You’re asking for attention,” which has always frustrated me no end. I’m not sure when asking for attention became such a negative thing. Of course, there will always be people who abuse the compassion of others, but I would hope that our first reaction would still always be to try and help. If someone is asking for attention in some way, they probably need it, even if the reason why isn’t immediately apparent. I never tried particularly hard to hide what I was doing because I think that, subconsciously, I wanted someone to draw attention to it and see what I was going through. But at the same time I didn’t feel able to talk about it.

Sometimes people see the scars and assume that you’re ‘showing them off’ when you don’t cover them up, which is weird to me. I’m not sure why you’d want to ‘show off’ or ‘flaunt’ the evidence of a moment where you’d gotten so low that you had to physically take it out on your body. When you think about the lengths people go to to hide their scars – wearing long sleeves in a heat wave, making endless excuses as to why you can’t go swimming, hiding them with make up or bracelets or tattoos, spending every second thinking about your scars and how you’re going to make sure that no one sees them – it’s clearly not a straightforward issue. And as Claudia says, it’s not showing off; it’s a form of body positivity, of learning to be comfortable in your skin, regardless of what that skin looks like. That is a hard thing; it’s something that should be supported, not torn down.

There’s obviously a lot more to talk about when it comes to self harm but this is already a lot longer than I’d originally intended it to be! This is something that makes me really emotional and fired up so I could probably write a book on it. It’s so important to talk about and talk about openly and honestly. I wish I’d found someone writing about it or recording YouTube videos about it when I’d started struggling with all the things I talk about on this blog. Had I, and the people around me, had more knowledge and awareness about all of this stuff, my ‘mental health journey’ would’ve been very different.

Backwards Binoculars

Over the years, I’ve had periods of feeling really far away. It often overlaps with my bouts of depression but sometimes it creeps in out of nowhere and I feel completely lost, untethered from everything around me. It fades in and out like a fog, sometimes with no warning and often there’s nothing I can do to dissipate it or avoid it. It can be really scary, especially when it first started to happen, but at the same time, it’s like I can’t really feel that fear or any of my emotions. I’ve described it in different ways but they all describe the same feeling: feeling completely disconnected from myself. But I thought I’d include a few of those descriptions because they give more of a sense of how it feels:

  • It’s like looking backwards through binoculars so everything seems really far away when it’s actually close. Sometimes I can almost see the black tunnels that would be the inside of the binoculars. This is the way I usually describe it; I think it fits the best.
  • I feel like I’m five miles back inside my head. I can’t reach anything or anyone and it feels like no one can hear me, the real me.
  • It’s like watching everything happen and feeling like it would continue as normal if I wasn’t there, almost like people wouldn’t notice if I disappeared. They’ll keep talking, leaving spaces for me and responding to what I would’ve said if I was there.
  • Similarly, it can feel like I’m invisible, like people will look right through me.
  • It feels like I’m stuck behind glass, like there’s glass between me and everybody else. I am physically separated from everyone. This is another one of my ‘favourite’ ways to describe it.
  • A variation of that is feeling like I’m wrapped in cling film: separated from everyone but also trapped. It makes me feel like I can’t breathe.
  • I feel disconnected from my life, my body, like I’m in control but it’s not mine. I’m moving my limbs but they feel oddly numb, thick and heavy and clumsy.
  • One of my earliest memories of this feeling is feeling like I was out of sync with everyone else. That’s a very lonely and uncomfortable feeling.
  • Sometimes it feels like I’m underwater. It’s like I’m surrounded by something other than air and there’s more resistance when I try to move.
  • The most recent description is that I feel like I’m sleepwalking and can’t wake up. This one overlaps with how I feel when I’m really depressed so it’s not the most reliable analogy, if that makes sense. It fits both.

To be completely honest, I’m not sure what causes it, given the overlap of the different mental health problems I struggle with. This is something I have a lot of anxiety about, not being able to pinpoint where individual problems come from. Everything’s connected to everything else. Everything influences everything. But from my own reading, it seems to be common in depression and in Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s often a coping mechanism for stress or overwhelming emotions. The Mind website has a great page about this. My experiences line up best with the description of ‘Depersonalisation’.

I still haven’t found anything that does much to help it but there are a few things that give me a few seconds of relief, of connection. Usually, it’s about tapping into my senses. That seems to bring me back to the world a little bit. So things like opening windows, sitting in the sun, touching leaves or flowers, stroking a pet, having a cold shower or holding something cold… they don’t fix it but they do have a positive effect. Even if it’s tiny, they do create small positive spikes in my mood. They’re like stars in a suffocatingly dark sky. With this, it’s more about getting through it than trying to fix it. It’s about creating one moment after another to carry you through to the other side.

I want to add that I’ve also used self harm to ‘wake myself up’ from this. I’m not advocating it; it’s dangerous and damaging and really difficult to get free of. But if nothing else, I’m honest and it has helped. When I’m in a really bad place, I don’t want to hear that I shouldn’t do it because it feels like the only thing that helps but when it’s not quite so bad, I try really hard to find other ways to cope. I try the things I’ve listed or I try to distract myself. I don’t want to get too far from the point of the post so I’ll come back to this in another post but I felt like I had to include it here.

Friends and family have asked me what they can do to help and if I’m honest, I don’t really know. It can be hard to think about that when I’m just trying to get through it. But I do want to help them help me. At some point, I will write more about this, but I do find it really helpful when the people around me let me set the pace and decide what I can and can’t manage. Sometimes a push is helpful but in this situation, it isn’t. A sense of control grounds me a little bit. Plus, there are some things that are just really hard to manage when you feel like you can’t connect to your emotions. For example, I find it really hard to write songs and be creative when I feel so disconnected from everything. So being able to (and feeling safe to) adapt my activities does help. And talking. Talking it through, figuring out solutions, letting off steam. That really helps.