Self harm saved my life

*This post shouldn’t be triggering, but if you are currently struggling with self harm, please make sure you are safe before reading.

I am hesitant to post this. Please be keep in mind that I am speaking from my own experience of this subject – I in no way intend to speak for anyone else. I’m aware that it may be controversial. Feel free to comment with disagreements, but please remember to always be kind. 

Self harm is definitely not a healthy coping strategy, but it’s not illegal, doesn’t hurt anyone else, and it saved my life.

We all have ways of coping. Some are healthy, some aren’t. Some people exercise, some meditate, some people talk to friends and family. But other people (especially, but not limited to, those experiencing mental health issues), turn to drugs (both legal and illegal), alcohol, violence, restricting or purging food, and also to self harm.

Everybody’s experience of self harm is different. People cut, hit or burn themselves. Some people take smaller overdoses (something which can be really dangerous, and definitely not to be recommended!). I harmed myself in other ways, but cutting myself is what helped me the most. When I deliberately cut myself, it didn’t actually hurt. To be honest, it felt good. I often wished I didn’t know how good it felt, because that’s what made it so difficult to stop. It was a release. When I was overwhelmed, cutting focused my mind. Quietened everything down. Sometimes it was like taking a deep breath after holding it until your lungs feel like they’re going to burst. And sometimes it was like a small sigh of relief. To this day, it’s the only thing that I know is guaranteed to make me feel better instantly.

I don’t know when I started self harming. I can’t remember. As a child, overwhelming feelings very often led to me hurting myself in some small way. It made me feel better, more in control. When I was a teen, this escalated as I became more depressed, and by the time I was 18 I was cutting myself almost every night.

For me, when I was younger, I self harmed the way I did a lot of things – impulsively. However, as the years have passed, my relationship with hurting myself has changed. Self harm is something I can choose to do, or not. (And this is something that MH professionals seem to be unable to grasp. Levels and severity of self harm are not directly proportional to mental pain.)

So, I have ‘chosen’ not to self harm anymore. I’m aware that I’m very lucky that I am able to choose – the nature of their illness means that some people are simply unable to do this (this, by the way, does not mean that they’re not trying hard enough, or that they’re more ‘mental’ than me, or…anything really. How and why people self harm is a hugely personal thing.).

I’m often asked: do I regret self harming? I mean, I have lots of scars on my body as a reminder, and still have to be careful how I dress in order to cover them in certain situations. The answer, though, is no. I don’t regret it. You see, self harm saved my life. I cannot overstate this point – it saved my life. At a time when I was really suffering mentally, and was hugely impulsive, I know for certain that self harm prevented me from making a serious attempt on my life. And for that, I’m grateful to it.


A short word on trauma

What’s happened to you will inevitably inform and change the person you will become, but it shouldn’t define you. The past is something that none of us can escape from. It can’t be changed; there are no time machines.

Bad things happen, and we need to find a way to deal with them the best we can. Running from the past doesn’t work – it’s important to accept both the good and the bad. Good things should make you happy. And it’s ok to feel sad about the bad things. The problem comes if that sadness threatens to consume you, if something that happened years ago is still a fresh hurt because you never got the opportunity to confront it and deal with it.

Bad things happen. Really bad things. It’s a struggle not to blame yourself, especially as the victim of an assault or other traumatic experience that was outwith your control. You can’t help but think…what if? What if I hadn’t gone/worn that/kept quiet? But there are no time machines. The ‘what ifs’ will continue to torture you if you let them. And that’s not something you deserve.

Space to ‘just be’

“I feel as if I wanted to be quite alone by myself”
Bobbie, in ‘The Railway Children’

When I have periods of being unwell, I don’t want to do anything. I want to be away from everything, everyone. I want to be alone.

I recognise that an important part of getting better is engaging, doing things, being active. But I also think that the importance of doing nothing, or giving yourself time and space to ‘just be’, can’t be underestimated. This is hard to see sometimes though. Especially when it seems like everything is demanding your time.

During this last bout of depression, I lost myself. I stopped having opinions, I refused to even acknowledge my feelings. Instead of listening to myself, slowing down, taking a break, I tried to do what everyone else wanted, and pushed myself until I couldn’t keep going. Physically and mentally exhausted, I wanted everything to stop, and instead of saying no to people, relieving the pressure a bit and allowing me space to rest, I felt like my only option was to make everything stop by ending my life. This is a scary place to be, and one that’s difficult to navigate your way out of.

It’s difficult to say no. In our personal lives, we don’t want to let down the people we care about. At work, we want to be seen as capable, reliable, and hardworking – ‘team players’. So saying no, that we don’t want to do something, or that we can’t or don’t have the capacity, is difficult. But it is important. I’m realising more and more that feeling able to say no is essential when it comes to my own mental health. I’m not saying that we should refuse to do anything we don’t fancy – compromise is a really big part of relationships – but setting limits, and sticking to them, means that you’re not sacrificing your own health and wellbeing in order to keep others happy.

A while ago, I was talking to a friend about this. She said that, very often, when someone asks her to do something, instead of saying yes immediately, she asks for time to think about it. I think we all need that time, sometimes, but we are afraid to ask for it. Maybe it’s time to be brave though. What’s the worst that could happen? The world will not end, people will not hate you. And the best? You get time out, to ‘just be’. And that is a very good thing.

Recovery stories – turning points

If you have read as many recovery stories as I have, you begin to notice a pattern:
1. Someone struggles with mental illness, sometimes for many years.
2. They reach breaking point.
3. Something happens, and things begin to get better.

Sometimes the thing that happens is something amazing, or extreme. But very often, it’s just a small thing, the significance of which would be lost on almost anyone else. People talk of kind words, small gestures, noticing things/people who were there all along, moments of clarity.

For these people, things don’t suddenly and miraculously get better. But gradually, with work, the person manages to claw their way out of the hole. They may not always feel fantastic, but they hold on to the knowledge that that they will never fall as far down as they have before.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and I’ve realised that I’ve been waiting for that ‘something’ to happen to me. And that I project my own longing for that feeling onto my experiences. So, something bright and good happens, and I think ‘That’s it, nothing will ever be as bad as it has been, and I will get better.’. Instead of enjoying the moment for what it is, welcome respite from dark thoughts, I put pressure on it to be a turning point.

Unfortunately, for me, that feeling always fades. Sometimes I manage to keep hold of it for a few days, and I really start to think, maybe I can do this. But then when it fades, all I’m left with is disappointment, on top of the low that I find myself in the middle of.

And that makes me feel guilty – I must not be trying hard enough; other people can take these moments and hold them tight. They may feel bad in the future, but they don’t slip back to their worst. Slowly but surely, they recover. They don’t go back to how things were before they became ill, but they find a new way of being, often borne from that hope that stays with them. I’m really happy for these people (and obviously a bit jealous!). After struggling so much, it must feel so good to have that near constant hope.

But what about me and the many other people for whom hope is fleeting and unreliable? I’m realising that it is important to take heart from good times, but not to assume that they’re going to save you. Because, in all likelihood, they won’t. That’s not to say that there is no hope – far from it. But just because you aren’t blessed with that moment of clarity, doesn’t mean things won’t get better. If we stop waiting for a turning point maybe we can make some real, and lasting, progress. We can save ourselves.

The importance of people

“I feel like my life is so scattered right now. Like it’s all the small pieces of paper and someone’s turned on the fan. But, talking to you makes me feel like the fan’s been turned off for a little bit. Like things could actually make sense. You completely unscatter me, and I appreciate that so much.”

Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green and David Levithan

People are important. Reaching out is important. A text can save a life. Today I am grateful for my friends.

For years, I was convinced I needed to deal with everything on my own. That my problems were mine alone, and that letting people in was the worst possible thing I could do, for them, and for me. Depression convinces you that you are worthless. Worth less than everybody else. So what right do you have to inflict yourself on other people? Who are you to ask for anything from anyone?

I personally find it very difficult to ask for help, with anything. I think this is true for a lot of people. We live in a world where admitting weakness very often results in a loss of respect from those around us. People take advantage. Survival of the fittest has created a culture of fear. Fear of honesty. Fear of judgement. Fear of being seen a less than. In some cases, even physical illness is seen as a personal weakness. But there is a particular feeling of superiority when it comes mental health problems. Borne out of a lack of understanding, perhaps. Well, I’d like to think.

To a large extent, mental illness is invisible. People suffer in silence, develop coping mechanisms, some healthy, some not. So unless someone reaches crisis point, the people around them are very unlikely to know there is a problem. And if your only experience of mental health problems is seeing someone in crisis, it all becomes a bit Big and Scary. But what if we were all more honest about our daily struggles? What if admitting to anxiety was no more remarkable than telling people you had a headache? Are we ready for that? Do we even have the language necessary to have these discussions? It’s hard to say things, articulate things, that people have a limited understanding of.

But it is important. To talk. Whether it’s sending a text, messaging on social media sites, leaving a comment on a blog, meeting up for a coffee and a chat, or sending a good old fashioned letter. These are things that can help. It’s important to reach out, to let people in. It may seem scary. You may stare at that send button for ages before working up the courage to press it. But believe me, it’s amazing the weight that lifts afterwards. Just knowing that someone else knows can make a huge difference to how much strength you have to cope with difficult situations.

So, I guess what I’m saying is, if you know someone who’s having a hard time, contact them. Let them know they’re not alone. And if you’re suffering, I know it’s hard sometimes to see anything outside yourself. But people are there. And want to help. A text could be the first step.

a text can save a life

Being myself…and liking it

Do you like yourself?

I don’t. I don’t remember over having done so. Even as a small child I can remember telling my mum that if I were someone else, I wouldn’t be friends with me. I was seven years old, and already convinced that I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t understand when my mum got upset, but I hated seeing her cry, so I never mentioned it again. But I never stopped thinking it. Even when I wasn’t in the grips of depression, I still hugely disliked the person I was. Of course, I realise that depression magnified these feelings, and that past experiences definitely contributed to low feelings of self worth, but I always thought that this baseline ‘dislike of self’ was normal.

During a chat with a friend one day I said “nobody likes themselves” (or something similar – I don’t understand how people can quote conversations word for word months/years after the fact!). His reply that this wasn’t true, that most people were at least ok with themselves even if they weren’t completely in love, startled me. Subsequent conversations about the idea of self worth have been a revelation. I had never really thought about how extreme my thoughts about myself were. It was when I started unpacking them, thinking about the whys, and trying to think things through rationally, that I realised that this was a big problem for me.

Once, at an appointment, out of the blue, my counsellor shared something with me. Based on our past conversations, she’d written a list of positive things about me. As she read them, I felt tears begin to fall, and I couldn’t make them stop. When she asked me why I was crying, I couldn’t answer. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then, and I’m still not entirely sure why I got so upset, but I know it had quite a bit to do with my own attitude to myself. This is something I’ve been working on a lot lately. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Changing thought processes takes time, and a lot of hard work. It’s a huge struggle to maintain the level of effort needed to make lasting changes. And I fall short a lot of the time. But I am working on it.

I know that the way I feel is pretty extreme, and that not everyone feels like I do. However, through conversation, I have discovered that a lot of people seem afraid to like themselves (or at least to admit to liking themselves). We’re told by society that it is wrong to think ‘too much’ of ourselves. Being accused of loving oneself is seen an insult. Girls (and boys…and women and men) stand in front of the mirror, listing all the things that are ‘wrong’ with their bodies. Job interviews are a struggle to find a balance between showing our strengths and selling ourselves, and being self depreciating enough to avoid the appearance of boasting.

Of course, I do realise that there is a line between liking who you are and thinking that you’re the best and most important person in the world. Narcissism is a hugely unattractive personality trait. But it would be great if more people felt that it was ok to openly think and say positive things about themselves.

So. Have a think. Do you like yourself? Are you at least ok with yourself? Do you automatically put yourself down? Or do you see the good in yourself (as well as the bad – nobody’s perfect!). Also, do you allow the people around you the space to feel good about themselves? If you’re a parent, or spend time around children, it is especially important to model this kind of behaviour. It’s much easier to develop a good self image as a child, and retain it, than to change thought patterns as an adult. And how a person views themself can have either a negative or positive effect on how they live their life. Believe me, I know.

Dear people who love someone who is suffering from depression

So, someone you love is depressed. That sucks. I don’t think how much it sucks can be overestimated. This is hard. Really hard. And there is no ‘quick fix’.

I have experienced this situation from both sides – I have loved someone who is depressed, and I have been depressed – and I wish I had all the answers. But I don’t. I do, however, have some advice to offer.

Depression is an illness. It’s not just feeling sad. Read. Research. Be informed. The internet is your friend.

You may not always understand. That’s ok. Listen. Respond to what you’re being told. Let the person know that you love them, that you’re there for them. And follow through. Offer hugs when they’re needed, and space when it’s needed. Never force yourself into the situation. But try to be there when you can.

The person you love may do things you don’t agree with in order to cope. They may struggle with alcohol, drugs, self harm, eating normally, or any number of other issues. Try not to judge them. Encourage them to be as safe as they can be, and to work on developing healthier coping strategies. But accept that change will take time. Is anything really that bad when the alternative could be losing them entirely?

Be honest with yourself about how much you can cope with. Don’t think you have to have all the answers. There is no shame in admitting that you can’t cope with something alone. Encourage the person you love to seek help, and accept that you can’t be their only form of support. Don’t take it personally if they talk to other people sometimes. Take the opportunity to take time out, do things for yourself, have fun, and trust other people to pick up the slack.

Take care of yourself first. On an aeroplane, in the event of an emergency, they tell you to fix your own oxygen mask before helping others. You can’t help anyone if you can’t breathe. Loving a depressed person can be upsetting and frustrating. Find people to support you. If you need to talk about how you’re feeling, try to use your own support system. The person you love has a degree of understanding about how you feel, and will already feel guilty for the negative effect that their illness is having on you. They will want to help, but may not be in a position to. And adding to their guilt won’t help anyone.

And finally, if you feel can’t can’t cope at all, seriously consider removing yourself from the situation. Sometimes things are too big, and it takes a very brave person to admit that. It doesn’t make you a bad person, and don’t let anyone tell you it does.

Love from me x