2 Ways to Look at Self Injury

There’s a lot of value in demystifying mental health issues that leave us feeling isolated from our peers like we’re somehow too strange to be understood.  We might not even grasp everything that’s happening to us and start to believe the looks we receive from those more interested in judging than helping.  I really struggled with that until I finally encountered a therapist who specialized in treating self-injury.  She was able to explain to me why my body responds to pain in a way that makes it an addictive problem.  All of a sudden, things about me that used to seem weird were normalized and I was able to be more accepting of myself as an imperfect human being striving toward health.

I know people cut for a variety of reasons and hope to achieve different things from it.  I can’t speak to every situation, but I can talk about mine so that others can draw from it what they find helpful and leave the rest.  I dug up some of my old notes from sessions I attended a year or so ago.  This information revolutionized my ability to tackle my problems.  I hope this will be a beneficial read for you.  She talked about 2 different theories that could be used to make sense of my cutting—addiction and OCD tendencies.  If either of them resonate with your self-injury experience, it might be worth bringing up with your counselor.

Self-injury as Addiction

I personally get a “high” every time I cut that leaves me feeling very euphoric for a while.  This happens as a result of the opioid receptors in my brain getting overstimulated along with the body’s natural release of endorphins when an injury is sustained.  But after the rush subsides, I feel like all my emotions crash and my body feels terrible and sluggish.  When I’d been cutting over an extended period of time, I even woke up with nausea and dry heaves for days afterward.  Apparently for some people, there is such a thing as withdrawal from self-injury.  I was hesitant to call it this at first because withdrawal only seems like an appropriate phrase to me within the context of drugs/alcohol where a foreign substance is introduced into the body.  However, I became more comfortable with it as she discussed how my relationship with cutting met the 2 major hallmarks of addiction.

A behavior becomes seriously addictive when you have to increase what you’re doing to get the same high that is later accompanied by withdrawal symptoms when you don’t do it.  I also found that I had to cut progressively more and more to capture that same rush.  Additionally, the fact that I experienced cravings for the sensation I got from hurting myself even when my day was wonderful and I had no other reason to hurt myself was also somewhat characteristic of an addict’s brain getting reprogrammed into trying to “score” every chance they get.

How this changed my approach:

When I started thinking of myself as an addict, I invested a lot more effort in researching ways to think differently that I could practice to recondition my brain to make cutting less of an  instinctual urge.  I also stopped putting myself in foolish situations where I was likely to grab something I could use later to hurt myself instead of trying to tell myself that cutting wasn’t really that bad of a problem for me.  I guess you could say I started treating the problem more like a serious enemy than just another bad habit.  I asked a close few I trusted to hold me accountable and gave them permission to ask me at any time whether or not I was cutting and made an agreement that I had to answer instead of get upset that they were wondering.  I basically tried to replicate every helpful rule I could imagine helping an alcoholic stay safe from alcohol consumption between me and cutting.  I tend to treat cutting like it will always be a problem for me just so I will never think I’ve outgrown it, let my guard down and mess up.  Made that mistake once already.

Self-injury that has OCD Tendencies (apparently this isn’t the same as having OCD)

Cutting has always been something I’ve done in a very premeditated, thought out manner.   I’m very particular about what I use to hurt myself and I have a very predictable way I go about doing it.  I usually feel the urge to cut when I’m not in control of a situation that’s really important to me.  I take comfort in my orderly ritual of cutting because it’s something I have complete control over.  I can damage by body when and how I choose.  That’s not something anyone can make me do differently.  I feel calmer when I get to do it the way I want to.  It also quiets the badgering urge to go do it even when I don’t want to.  Apparently, those of us who need to see blood to feel that we’ve cut “correctly” share that checking aspect in common with the obsessive-compulsive drives that would make someone need to check a door multiple times to make sure they locked it.

How this changed my approach:

My therapist suggested that breaking down the behavioral part of the OCD tendencies was the way to unravel my cutting problem.  I began spending more time with other people when I was upset instead of slinking away to some place where I could have the privacy or time needed to cut myself the way I’d grown attached to.  If I didn’t allow the conditions that I preferred to cut in to be accessible, then I wouldn’t go through with cutting because I wouldn’t be able to do it in the way that would provide me the very damaging sort of relief I wanted.

What Spirituality offers Mental Illness

I truly feel for those who face mental illness without God.  I mean, I have a family that loves me and friends who want to help me and that still wasn’t enough without Him.  We need an ever-present someone who can comfort us when we’re lying awake in the middle of the night anxious about what tomorrow will bring.  We need a solid, unwavering reason to keep pushing ourselves to go on day after day when we’re so depressed that it doesn’t seem worth it anymore.  And in my case—like some of you—I needed a deeply meaningful way to believe I was a precious human being with a purpose so I could stop cutting myself on a regular basis.

Many mistake Christianity for just another religion; and I suppose our church services and the moral framework we strive to live by might make it look like other religions in some ways.  However, the unique relational component between God and a person makes it distinct.  This is not a one-way relationship in either direction where people commune with a nebulous force that does not communicate back or a “vending machine” deity that keeps giving us things without asking anything of us.  The relationship is a connection prized by both the believer and God in which they lovingly reach out to each other not because they have to but because they want to.  Yes, I do ask Him for things many times but more often than that, I pray because I enjoy being extra conscious of His presence.  It is a source of encouragement to me in my struggles.  I believe the most powerful thing God gives us every day beyond guidance and reprieve from suffering is Himself, which fills the cracks in our souls that lead to a search for meaning and purpose in damaging, unfulfilling places.

God meets us at the heart of our weaknesses with the desire to take us to a healthier state and an infinite amount of patience to escort us there.  A lot of people believe that God likes to sit in a cloud and judge us from afar or that He’s completely uninvolved in our lives.  I think those are ideas we have about God when we haven’t experienced the richer interpersonal aspect of a relationship with Him.  To that end, I would like to outline some of what I consider to be the most practically helpful ways God can help us in regard to mental illness.

1.) God gives us a reason to live. Each of us were intentionally designed to carry out a purpose.  Our being here is neither a mistake nor an accident that suicide can correct.  The strengths we possess—creativity, encouragement, selflessness, etc.—are abilities He gave us wishing that we would use them to make the world a bit of a better place.  True goodness and God have the same likeness, so in spreading goodness throughout the world, we make it easier for others to recognize His work in it and come to know and love Him the same way we have.

2.) The promise of Heaven gives us hope that things will get better in the next life if not in this one. Through this perspective, we recognize that suffering is ultimately temporary for believers.  Even if our lives are riddled with it now, we can always look forward to things eventually getting better for us.  When we’re so consumed by depression that our perspective on life becomes so bleak, He offers us a way to see light beyond our dark circumstances.  And when we think about it, our suffering is actually quite small against the backdrop of eternal joy that will be ours.  This lets us take heart when dealing with our own circumstances in the present.

3.) God is in control so we don’t have to be. All that anxiety we feel about situations that slip from our grasp and don’t work the way we want them to can be laid to rest in the knowledge that the direction our lives take answers to Him.  He has control over it and sometimes allows things to play out differently than we would choose because He wants to teach us something that will make us a better person in the long run who is strong enough to overcome more difficult obstacles in the future.  If He wasn’t presiding over it all, painful events that happen in our lives truly would be senseless and no good could come from them.  It’s because of His mercy that He forges good things from the bad so that we actually benefit from them instead of being left devastated by them and never having anything to show for it.  Whatever happens, it’s accounted for in God’s plan for our good.

4.) God loves us so much that He sees us as treasures worth dying for. Jesus didn’t sacrifice Himself for us because He had to…He wanted to. He would rather go through all that pain on our behalf than spend eternity without us.  Wow.  That’s a lot of love.  Something about that just splits low self-esteem in half and makes you glow with the awareness that someone relishes you to a depth and intensity of the soul that not even you can see in yourself.  If you hate yourself inside and out, then you’re not seeing what the all-knowing God sees is there.  Whose opinion is more accurate?

Why God? Why?!

I doubt any of us have been spared from experiencing heartache in one form or another.  Whether it’s our own condition or someone else’s tragedy, it can rock us to the depth of our souls and make us wonder how something so terrible could happen.  We find ourselves endlessly screaming in our heads, if not out loud, why this had to happen.  We take out our frustration on God by doubting His love for us or even His existence.  Why would He do this to me?  If He is real, He must not care about _____ or this wouldn’t have happened to them.

I’ve had my share of heartache about pain that comes to my loved ones, me and people on the other side of the world that I’ll never have the privilege of knowing personally.  I didn’t re-question His existence because I’ve never looked back down that road after letting Him reign in my heart as King.  The nature of my more tormented prayers consisted of a mix of heartbroken pleas for the pain to go away and angry yelling because it wouldn’t.

First of all, I want to say something that isn’t always made clear in churches today.  God can handle your anger.  Some would-be believers treat Him like He’s a nice Sunday school idea that is too fragile to hold up to the stresses of real life or the darkness of tragedy…like He must not be questioned for fear that He will break or be proven inadequate.  If the god you serve can’t stand up to reality, then he’s not what he claims to be and you are doing yourself a favor by setting yourself free from him.  The real God is so much more powerful than we can imagine, yet He is approachable because He desires a relationship with us.  That means we can lay out the darkest pieces of our lives and talk to Him about all of them.  He can handle our tough questions and hurt emotions.

While I don’t recommend angrily hurling them at Him like projectiles, if you’re in so much pain that’s the only way you can bring yourself to approach Him, it’s better than refusing to engage Him at all.  I was so angry and in so much pain that I had to start like that before I could regain my reverence for Him and consult Him about my problems with a what-can-we-do-to-make-this- issue-better attitude.  It is best to approach God in a respectful manner but don’t feel like you have to be so polite that you can’t talk with Him about what breaks your heart.  He already knows what it is anyway; it’s safe to be honest with Him about how you feel.

A common source of frustration with God is why He would do something so terrible to us.  I was so quick to cast blame on Him until one day it occurred to me that I was actually more upset with Him than I was with Satan.  That was a wakeup call.  Somehow, I’d forgotten to consider the one who’d dedicated himself to feasting on the downfall of mankind.  It made little sense to credit God with the sadistic tendencies or heartlessness characteristic of Satan.  How does it make more sense that God is inflicting suffering on us as opposed to Satan?  The latter has certainly expressed a strong desire to harm us while the former speaks of His plans for our good.  I think it’s vitally important to remember Satan is a part of the equation too.  He wins when we mistakenly blame God for his actions.

However even after realizing this, we’re still partly mad at God because He let something terrible happen when He could have stopped it.  After all, wouldn’t someone be guilty in the eyes of the law for failing to intervene when they could’ve?  The problem with this is that in order to prevent all suffering, God would have to take away our free will because the choices we make can hurt other people.  Adam and Eve exercised their free will and thus opened the door to earth being corrupted.  Even natural disasters are the result of living in a broken world.  On my better days, I think about how much more I will be able to appreciate the lack of suffering in Heaven when I get there because of the abundance of suffering here.  It doesn’t make me okay with everything going on here, but it reminds me that He will put an end to it someday and give us the peace we crave.

But still…All of this doesn’t satisfy our cries for why He “did” or “let” something terrible happen.  This is perhaps the most stinging part of our rage toward God.  It took me a long time to realize that the “why” has more to do with placating our emotions than satisfying an intellectual need to know.  For some, the pain of their loss has been so enormous that even if they knew why, the explanation would never suffice; it wouldn’t take away their pain or make it worth enduring.  I think when we’re shouting “WHY?!” at God, what we’re really saying is, “I DON’T CARE WHY!!!! JUST MAKE IT STOP!”  And I wonder if that is precisely why He remains silent.

I believe that God in His mercy sometimes—not always—lets us know “why” later when we are more accepting of what His reasons might be.  This could be after we’ve seen the fruits of our labor to overcome tremendous difficulty or after we’ve seen beautiful things rise like phoenixes from the ashes of torment.  While typing this post, I was humbled nearly to tears at the thought of how many times my heart has broken for other people who were suffering and how badly I prayed for them to receive help.  In my life, a lot of the suffering I’ve gone through has given me the credibility and experience I needed to be more effective in coming alongside others who struggle with similar issues.  I think I know why God lets me suffer—it’s an answer to my prayers for someone else not to go through something horrible alone.  I can’t be angry with God because He chose to use me as part of the answer to my own prayer.

A Poem.

This poem made me stop and think for a while on just how quickly we can jump to the belief that God really doesn’t care for us when the fundamental nature of our existence depends upon his love for us being creative and continuous to sustain our lives.

happiness&bliss

They say You built me out of clay,
They say You love me,
But, what is Love?

They say You’re angry with the world,
They say You want to see us burn,
Is this Love?

They say I can never truly know all of You,
They say You’re unapproachable,
This doesn’t sound like Love.

They praise with their tongue,
Speak words of “wisdom” in my ear,
Do they Love you?

But, the next they disobey you with their bodies,
And, set fire to Your words,
How can this be Love?

God, I can be just like them.
I can fall custom to this world.
God, I am just like them.
A hypocrite girl.

But, even though I am a sinner,
Even though I fail you enough.
They say You died on a cross for me,
And, this is Love.

John 3:16.

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Recover Your Voice

It is the nature of dark secrets to steal precious things from us…our sense of security, self-esteem and our voice.  That last one can remain lost even after the other two are regained.  The back-breaking burden of shame and guilt taught us to be silent in the first place.  Fear of others’ judgment went over our mouths like duct tape.  We turned on the shower so no one would hear us cry, hid our faces in pillows to stifle the screams.  Some of us turned to cutting and other vices that seemed to us loving friends who would help us escape the pain.  But later, we found that nothing really took it away without taking a piece of ourselves with it.

What is it that you’ve locked so deeply inside yourself beyond the agony?  What is it you wish you could shout from the top of a mountain?   You may be bound by fear, but you can still let a sliver of your voice out when you’re alone through ink on a page.  You can type your story anonymously online.  It doesn’t have to be chronicled by the marks on your flesh.  We used to think of our secret as being wrapped up in us but eventually we came realize that we were in fact wrapped up in our secrets.

Imagine with me for a moment…if the tape were peeled from your lips…What would you say? What words have you been dying inside to utter even though you were too afraid to say anything?  They might come out first as a whisper as we timidly test the air around us to see if it will bite back.  We murmur a tad louder as we refuse to meet the gaze of the eyes around us for fear of what we might see in them.  But then eventually, curiosity compels us to.  Some of us glanced up and encountered that which we dreaded.   Yet, others discovered glimmers of love tinged with gentle concern.  It was a breath of crystal clean air blowing through a dark cavern unvisited by anyone but ourselves.

Recovering your voice is a rewarding and terrifying quest.  It’s wracked with emotional what-ifs and the testing of courage.  At the same time, there is an important piece of yourself you regain when you find the power to finally say what’s gone unsaid for years.  You realize that not all your friendships are based on you appearing to have everything together.  You learn that there are people in life who wish to love you for the real you—scars and all.  This awful feeling that terrible things are trapped inside you and won’t ever leave lessens over time.  The belief that you are either evil or sub-human fades the more you embrace the reality that you are not alone in your struggles.  If you decide to tell your story to others, there’s even an increased sense of ownership you have of your identity.  No longer are you defined by your secrets; instead, your life is made richer by your ability to empower others going through the same thing.

For those of you feeling trapped in silence and shame, I’d strongly encourage you to choose someone you believe cares for you unconditionally and share your story with them when you’re ready.  It’s okay if you’re not there yet.  We each do things in our own time.  But I hope you will one day be able to try it.  I would very much wish for you to have the profound peace that settles over you after you’ve told someone who truly cares for you about your darkest pains and they tell you how much they still love you and how much they want to walk with you through it.  You may have to search for a while before you find someone like that.  Please, please don’t let one unsavory experience with someone who wasn’t understanding stop you from chasing after the peace that could be yours.

Recover your voice from the darkness and speak because you can!

Self-Harm And Destructive Thought Patterns

A very insightful read on anxious thoughts and self harm!

The Unmarked Road

I have a terrible habit of feeling overwhelmed.

I would go as far as saying I struggle with these feelings on a daily basis, although very mildly in comparison to the effect it used to have on me. When I look at experts within my field, those I look up to, I can’t help that inner panic rise like bile, as I wonder ‘How on Earth can I achieve even a fraction of what they have? It’s too hard! I’m not good enough!’ I deal with these intrusive thoughts through many different ways including meditation and my writing. I can also hand on heart say that if it wasn’t for the encouragement from those around me, if it wasn’t for the sheer blind belief and faith that people have in me, I may well not be here telling my story.

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