How do I know if I’m ready to stop?
Deciding to stop self-injury is a very personal decision. You may have to consider it for a long time before you decide that you’re ready to commit to a life without scars and bruises. Don’t be discouraged if you conclude the time isn’t right for you to stop yet; you can still exert more control over your self-injury by choosing when and how much you harm yourself, by setting limits for your self-harm, and by taking responsibility for it. If you choose to do this, you should take care to remain safe when harming yourself: don’t share cutting implements and know basic first aid for treating your injuries.
Alderman (1997) suggests this useful checklist of things to ask yourself before you begin walking away from self-harm. It isn’t necessary that you be able to answer all of the questions “yes,” but the more of these things you can set up for yourself, the easier it will be to stop hurting yourself.
While it is not necessary that you meet all of these criteria before stopping SIV, the more of these statements that are true for you before you decide to stop this behaviour, the better.
· I have a solid emotional support system of friends, family, and/or professionals that I can use if I feel like hurting myself.
· There are at least two people in my life that I can call if I want to hurt myself.
· I feel at least somewhat comfortable talking about SIV with three different people.
· I have a list of at least ten things I can do instead of hurting myself.
· I have a place to go if I need to leave my house so as not to hurt myself.
· I feel confident that I could get rid of all the things that I might be likely to use to hurt myself.
· I have told at least two other people that I am going to stop hurting myself.
· I am willing to feel uncomfortable, scared, and frustrated.
· I feel confident that I can endure thinking about hurting myself without having to actually do so.
How do I stop? And anyway, aren’t some of these techniques just as “bad” as SI?
There are several different flat-out-crisis-in-the-moment strategies typically suggested. My favorite is doing anything that isn’t SI and produces intense sensation: squeezing ice, taking a cold bath or hot or cold shower, biting into something strongly flavored (hot peppers, ginger root, unpeeled lemon/lime/grapefruit), rubbing Ben-Gay® or Icy-Hot® or Vap-O-Rub® under your nose, sex, etc. Matching reactions and feelings is extremely useful.
These strategies work because the intense emotions that provoke SI are transient; they come and go like waves, and if you can stay upright through one, you get some breathing room before the next (and you strengthen your muscles). The more waves you tolerate without falling over, the stronger you become.
But, the question arises, aren’t these things equivalent to punishing yourself by cutting or burning or hitting or whatever? The key difference is that they don’t produce lasting results. If you squeeze a handful of ice until it melts or stick a couple of fingers into some ice cream for a few minutes, it’ll hurt like (to quote someone I respect) “a cast-iron bitch” but it won’t leave scars. It won’t leave anything you’ll have to explain away later. You most likely won’t feel guilty after — a little foolish, maybe, and kinda proud that you weathered a crisis without SI, but not guilty.
This kind of distraction isn’t intended to cure the roots of your self-injury; you can’t run a marathon when you’re too tired to cross the room. These techniques serve, rather, to help you get through an intense moment of badness without making things worse for yourself in the long run. They’re training wheels, and they teach you that you can get through a crisis without hurting yourself. You will refine them, even devise more productive coping mechanisms, later, as the urge to self-injure lessens and loses the hold it has on your life. Use these interim methods to demonstrate to yourself that you can cope with distress without permanently injuring your body. Every time you do you score another point and you make SI that much less likely next time you’re in crisis.
Your first task when you’ve decided to stop is to break the cycle, to force yourself to try new coping mechanisms. And you do have to force yourself to do this; it doesn’t just come. You can’t theorize about new coping techniques until one day they’re all in place and your life is changed. You have to work, to struggle, to make yourself do different things. When you pick up that knife or that lighter or get ready to hit that wall, you have to make a conscious decision to do something else. At first, the something else will be a gut-level primitive, maybe even punishing thing, and that’s okay — the important thing is that you made the decision, you chose to do something else. Even if you don’t make that decision the next time, nothing can take away that moment of mastery, of having decided that you were not going to do it that time. If you choose to hurt yourself in the next crisis time, you will know that it is a choice, which implies the existence of alternative choices. It takes the helplessness out of the equation.