What I’ve Learned About Self-Harm

“I need a new bathing suit”, I told my mother before heading out the door. A list of criteria floated through my mind. It needed to have shorts, or maybe a skirt, which had to go down to my mid-thigh. Of course, it should be cute so as not to arouse suspicion or too many questions.

Buying a bathing suit with a skirt was just one of many ways I hid my self-harm from those around me. In my third year of college I became depressed, and the following summer I started self-harming. I did it in secret and hid the evidence. I knew that altering my clothing choices would spark concern, so I continued to wear shorts that barely covered the still-healing wounds. Looking at photos from this time is painful. I remember desperately trying to appear well; smiling while anxiously pulling my shorts down to cover my secret. It consumed me entirely until cutting was all I thought about. Fighting the urge to do it was like trying not to sneeze. I would think about it constantly for days or weeks until I could take no more, and give in just to make the thoughts stop.

At age 4, I was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, a neurological condition that affects the brain’s ability to make sense of a world filled with sensory stimuli. I screamed getting my hair washed, I refused to go outside until my mittens were tucked into my sleeves, and anytime I fell down, I held my breath until I passed out. As a child, the world was a scary place, and although I learned to cope with my differences, the pressure of college and my looming adult life plunged me into numbness and depression. I began to feel outside of myself when in busy areas, and when I closed my eyes, I felt a gentle rocking as if I were on a boat. Cutting was a way for me to ground myself when things felt out of control.

All of this has taken me months to discover, though, and it was terrifying to not understand my own actions. Reaching out to my loved ones helped immensely. After months of hiding my self-harm from my mother, I told her about it the night before I moved back to school. When I showed her, she looked at the rows of raised, red scars and softly said: “that’s what I thought was happening.” All of the effort I had put into protecting her from the truth, for nothing. She had known for weeks, and I probably caused her more worry by staying silent. The next day, I left to begin my final year of college, four states away. I began seeing a therapist who encouraged me to create art that expressed my emotions, and when I found myself in a hazy stupor, I would open my sketchbook instead of turning to self-harm. But removing self-harm from my list of coping mechanisms made me feel wildly out of control, and I spiraled into a state of suicidal ideation. By the time I reached one month without engaging in self-harm, my therapist was gently suggesting hospitalization. Thankfully, I switched medications, and although it wasn’t the right one for me, it helped enough to keep me safe.

What I’ve learned about self-harm and other damaging coping behaviors is that they give you the illusion of control. Over time, however, it grows into a slippery beast of its own. You may eventually wonder how this action that you perceived as giving you control has come to hold you so tightly, until it doesn’t feel like a choice at all. Months of therapy, various medications, and the unwavering support of my friends and family have slowly allowed me to come out of the darkness. Today, I have gone over 10 months without self-harm, and I’ve come to understand that saying “no” to that self-harm voice gives me true control that is much more effective than self-harm ever was.

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