My self-destruct button and I
Origin of self harming behaviour
I have always had an “all or nothing” type nature and a bit of a competitive streak. I’m not sure if this originates, from simply having siblings, or whether this is an inherent feature. (Is it because of nature or nurture?) I remember sitting in my bedroom writing homework, and re-writing it, over and over again, for hours. I was trying to improve the already neat handwriting, or re-writing because I had made a mistake (and I did not want the crossing-outs), or editing finished homework, until I was completely happy with it. Some of this was about not wanting to be anywhere near family members and wanting to stay out of the way, but some of it was an endless unrealistic chasing of perfection.
I remember feeling so bad about myself, that I just wanted somebody to say “Well done Tanya, that is great”. I craved positive feedback and when this did not come at home, I turned my focus of attention towards pleasing the teachers, and being my best self, academically, because no-one could destroy that, or take that away from me. I loved school. In fact I hated going home. School was my safe place, but I also saw it as a key to escape, so I ploughed everything I had, into it.
I had endured 7 years of sexual (emotional, and physical) abuse by the age of 15. I was a mess, when I moved in with my grandparents, at that age. I was struggling with the raw truth, of the traumatic abuse that no-body knew about, I was relieved to be safe, but the scars of being rejected and dumped, were wide open (and have never really healed). My grandparents were (and still are), emotionally unavailable and my emotional development and maturity was halted by living with them. We did not speak about how I was feeling, or any of the reasons why I was living with them and I learnt, how to be secretive about my whereabouts and mental stability. It was easy to hide my distress from them, because they were not tuned in to look for it.
Food became the first, accessible, undetected tool to fill the void I felt; the vast emptiness inside. I was always hungry as a child and this simply was no longer an issue at my grandparent’s house. Freshly made, home cooked food and plenty of it, saw me go from a gaunt looking underweight 15 year old, to a filled out, over eating 15 year old, in a few short months.
My core beliefs were faulty and damaged and I desperately wanted to escape from the thoughts, which constantly told me I was not good enough, I was not worthy, there was something inherently bad about me, and that nobody really cared. It found it easy to escape to the railway line, where I contemplated suicide (see my poem ‘Someone like me’) and to consume vast amounts of alcohol to numb (at 15 years old), without any questions being asked.
I quickly discovered that nothing physically hurt more, than the emotional turmoil in my own head. I tried to change how I was feeling, by replacing the emotional pain, with physical pain, but it did not work. I learnt that alcohol blocked the feelings and I began to think, that I needed to feel numb, for some relief and escape. Alcohol quickly became a coping mechanism. I believe alcohol sparked my addictive personality at the age of 15.
It was not long until hurting behaviour, changed and developed for me.
Developing self harm
All of my formative experiences were negative and I internalised blame, shame and guilt. I felt alone and empty. I felt rejected and abandoned and an incredible anger for that. I turned the negativity inwards and I hated everything about myself because I believed, everybody else did. I knew I was not coping very well, but I still chose to move to a town, miles away from home, for University. I wanted to be alone. I did not want anybody to know about the abuse, and I wanted to be able to hide my vulnerability, so I buried myself in anonymity.
Overeating continued at University. I had entire responsibility for myself and the choices I made. I thought so lowly of myself and because of this, I made bad choices. I chose food that was easy to prepare or filling, or that tapped into my pleasure. I attached positive feeling to food. The more weight I gained, the worse I felt about myself and the more depression took hold. When the thoughts turned again to suicide, I sought professional help and I saw a university counsellor for a while. But I was not ready to do the hard work on healing and the timing was not right. Instead I slipped deeper into depression and a pattern of self harming behaviour.
I started to take illegal drugs, tentatively at first, in a way that did have elements of self care, then recklessly and ruthlessly, without any care. I was advised to try one tablet at home, alone, because nobody knew how they were going to effect me. I was instantly hooked, on the feeling of escape ecstasy gave me and the feeling of dissociation from the real world, but it was not enough. I chased the same feeling again and again, and I needed more and more.
There were several nights which saw me taking 10/11 ecstasy tablets in a night, because I simply did not care if I woke up the next day or not. I would drink alcohol on top of the pills, which was incredibly risky. I don’t think I really wanted to die at that time; I just could not handle the pain. I triple dropped and quadruple dropped, the ecstasy tablets like they were Smarties. I felt no value, I could see no value and I could see no reason to keep going. I was fighting a fight nobody knew about and I was fighting it alone.
I remember becoming really ‘mumsy’ while under the influence of ecstasy. I would wander around the night club (SLINKY in Bournemouth) and check on random people I had not previously met. I would ask them if they needed water etc. and I told anybody who would listen, that I loved them. I was destroying myself, but looking after everybody else. (I did not want anybody else to be feeling how I was).
The amount of ecstasy I was taking, resulted in not being able to sleep for days at a time, and the like minded people I deliberately surrounded myself with, who were also taking drugs (and therefore not judging me or bothered about my safety), suggested smoking cannabis to come down from the pills. I could not smoke. I taught myself to smoke cigarettes, alone in my student bedroom. I lit my first cigarette and I felt the room spin violently, before I vomited and ended up in a stupor, close to passing out. Within a month I was also smoking cannabis. I slid down the slope from one harming behaviour to something worse. My addictive nature was developing.
The need to numb, changed, to the need to feel something. (It was one extreme to the other). I wanted to feel the pain, to remind myself I was still alive, when I felt so empty. Physical pain was easier to understand. Cutting myself was 100% about pain displacement (because nothing hurt more than what is in my own head). I have the scars to remind me of this dark time, forever. I had clarity of mind enough, to chose places to cut, that were not obvious to anybody else. This was not about attention, it was about releasing pain. My left thigh took most of this behaviour, (but I have scars on my wrists too). I would wait for the scar to scab over and then take the knife to the same place, over and over. Every single step I took, re-opened the wound, but it was pain I understood and therefore, was more bearable.
I got no long lasting relief, from the numbing or the hurting behaviours, so I was stuck in this kind of limbo. There was a need to control the pain, to cause it or to block it, but there was a massive element of cowardice too. I could not make the commitment to actually end my life, but I was happy for fate to take it’s course. I played Russian roulette with my life and my safety. I am not proud to admit that I had 4 one-night-stands in a 2 week period. I simply did not know what I was doing, and I did not care enough to stop myself. I took two overdoses.
I went on to marry a man who was an alcoholic. I wanted to try and help him, but this was only a deflection from looking at and after myself. He was not strong enough to question me, or to stop me from hurting myself; in-fact he joined me in self harming behaviours. We smoked cannabis and snorted cocaine together. We enabled each other.
I fell pregnant and all forms of self harm paused, but it was not for me or my well-being; it was for my unborn baby. After becoming a mother, the forms of self harm I could chose from, changed. I was left with less risky, legal, socially acceptable forms of self harm. Alcohol (after breastfeeding ended), laxatives, binging and starving and picking the skin around my fingers, were behaviours of choice.
I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and I had instant access to a whole host of prescription drugs, as a result. The side effects were immense but the drugs had very little effect on the pain that riddled my body, but I continued to take them anyway. I put out the fires (of the side effects), with other drugs, which counteracted them. I could not take the prescription drugs while pregnant for the 2nd time and so I gravitated back towards overeating.
I ended the marriage, but this returned me to the jaws of depression and a breakdown. The suicidal thoughts returned and it was a really terrifying time, when I realised my child and that unborn, were not enough to keep me safe. This was the start of further professional help.
I knew I needed to work on how I felt about myself, so I joined Weight Watchers and the gym to prove to the world that there was some element of self care. I saw it as self punishing, denying myself something. My gym addiction took hold and enabled me to keep up the façade that I was OK.
Self harm after commencement of therapy
When I started therapy, to finally unpick all of my memories and experiences, and to move towards healing, there was an unspoken, soothing acknowledgement of the fact, things were going to get a whole lot worse, before they got better. But I felt safe. Having someone to listen and validate, that my pain was real, made everything more realistic. I felt comfortable enough to cry and although I did not do this often, it did happen. These sessions became a comfort blanket of warm acceptance, where I was heard and never judged. It became a place where I realised, nothing I said, shocked.
Having 3 children at home, I valued this space so much. It was a chance to stop and take a really focused look at myself and explore memories and feelings, where I was nobody to no-one. I was nobody’s friend, no-one’s mummy: I could just be me. I did not have to hold it together; I did not have to pretend to be OK. I did not have to worry about the impact of my ugly reality, on anyone else (especially my children). The depth of the flashbacks, my understanding and my honesty changed, while I was encompassed and cocooned in this safe space. Having someone there to ensure my safety, meant I allowed myself to go to a deeper level, to unpick and process the abuse properly, for the first time. I was in a stable relationship and had a good support network around me. Now was the right time.
I worked hard between sessions, writing, thinking and processing and I was responsible for my safety outside of the therapy room. I noticed that I had started to drink more, and more often as my need to escape grew.
With the acknowledgement of my inner child in week 13, came the understanding that she represents the self sabotaging personification of all of my insecurities. I observed that I tended to hurt myself more, when I felt particularly vulnerable or unsafe.
Alcohol is a catalyst for the strength of this child’s visibility. The loss of control we both feel, stirs the need to be looked after, in us both. She turns in to a ‘kid that will not be told’ and all the anger she feels, surfaces. I become uncharacteristic and unrecognisable, to people who care about me in the here and now. My adult self feels safe with the people around me, but this child never really feels safe. We come from differing places of safety and alcohol makes her stronger, than me. I can’t control or contain her, or what she feels.
I had no choice but to remove the catalyst of alcohol recently, after a night out with my partner and a group of our friends, ended awfully. I now call that night ‘self destruct night’. I had been drinking before we went out. I announced every time that I went to the bar. The little kid in me, was crying out for someone to look after her, and when that did not happen, I pushed the button. In reality there was nothing anyone could have done at this point. If someone would have said to me, “don’t you think you have had enough to drink,” I’d have pressed the button anyway.
I do not remember anything after pushing the self destruct button, and it is not the first time I have no recollection of events following a large amount of alcohol. I only know what I have been told since, but I did not like the sound of the person I became and it seems, nor did anybody else. After that night, I realised that I am unable to self regulate when I feel that low, and when I am swimming in the irrationality. I also realised that while trying to hurt myself, it has a domino effect and it also impacts on the people around me. This was not the intention at all and this was a tough pill to swallow. I had not seen this before. Anger escapes with this loss of control and I hurt people; people I care about, and who care about me. (Abstaining from alcohol has to now be the choice, until I no longer have a self destruct button).
‘Self destruct night’, had a massive impact on me, but the need to hurt myself remains. I have done a lot of thinking about what it is, that makes me, need to hurt myself. I chose something, I do it to excess knowing it is hurting me and I choose to continue with that behaviour. Then something in my head switches and I deny myself that bahviour (which again is about hurting myself). I swapped alcohol for Redbull and it is not because I like Redbull. I know it hurts me. I know how bad Redbull is for me. I know about the calories and the chemicals and the sugar. This behaviour has also been denied and is what led to me writing this piece.
I know I am doing things that hurt me, but I can’t seem to stop. So what can I do to ensure my safety and maintain a grip on reality, when I spot the signs of a downward spiral?
The need to hurt can be greater, than my need to be kind to myself. It is something I can work on, but the sheer fact that I am aware of this, can help to keep me safe. I fight against both the need to hurt myself and the need to resist. I am aware that the thoughts surrounding both of these options, are also addictive. I’m not sure how, but I think I need to work on reaching the inner child and comforting her, especially as some of my self harming behaviour, has stemmed from the way that she is feeling.
I think I need to accept that some days are just bad days. If I fail to stop the harming behaviours, I can forgive myself and with positive self talk, I can say to myself that I can try, to do better next time. The very knowledge that I have a self destruct button, can help me to avoid pushing it. I can try and avoid situations and events, that have led me to push this button before and I can try to learn from past mistakes.
I have to remember that behaviours, are just an external representation of the pain I feel inside. I need to try and learn to accept and be comfortable in, my own skin, by working on my self esteem. I know that guilt, blame and shame, return to me when I do anything to hurt myself, and at the time I think I deserve to feel that way. I almost can’t cope when those feelings are not present. I need to remember that these emotions are not mine; they are familiar feelings, but they don’t belong to me. The abuse I suffered was not my fault. It is when I forget this fact and internalise the negativity I feel, that I push the self destruct button.
Articulation and being able to explain what is going on, is one of my most valuable tools. Honesty is my best weapon, against my self harming tendencies. I am aware that, the embarrassment I feel when I verbalise these behaviours, contributes to keeping me safe. The fact I have to explain to someone, that I failed again, is enough to stop me from hurting myself. I have previously chosen to tell people, what I have done after the event, which punishes myself again, through the embarrassment I feel. The negative feelings are intensified more, when I tell people what I have done and how badly. I use the heightened negativity, as a stick to beat myself with again. I can tell someone and reach out before the action.
I know that I swim in a sea of irrationality, when I feel the need to hurt myself. I can try to find the rational thought and separate the emotion from it. I can try and challenge the thoughts and test their validity, and I can seek counsel from my support network, to help with this. I have learnt that my first thought, is more often than not, a negative one. I don’t search for the positive in every situation; in-fact I fail to see any positive at all, when my mood is low. I need to remember that I allow negative thoughts in to my head; I control the reaction to my triggers. By allowing those thoughts in to my head, I actually continue and perpetuate the cycle of abuse.
I feel an incredible amount of frustration, at never having the answers to questions I have. I need to remember that even if the opportunity presented itself, to ask the questions, to the people who need to answer them, the answers are likely to be unsatisfactory. I need to let it go.