One Year Self-Harm Free
By Mary Beth Spang
“As of August 2020, I am proud to be one year self-harm free. I look forward to counting the years to come”
The last time I self-harmed was in August, 2019.
I was struggling with a breakup. Someone I had dated in graduate school realized that each of us wanted different things for our respective futures (blinded by love, I could neither see nor accept this), and, understandably, he decided to end the relationship as a result.
Because of my trauma history, breakups are particularly distressing. As a child, my father was rarely present. As an adolescent, his presence was characterized by arguments, shouting, and fear. When I was 16, he left our family permanently.
When a partner decides that they no longer want to be in a relationship with me, my brain and body regress to their childhood and adolescent trauma responses. Like it did during my father’s absence, presence, and the night he left our family, my brain says:
“You don’t deserve love.”
“You’ll never be good enough.”
“You’re ugly, disgusting, and unloveable.”
My body says: Panic. My heart rate speeds up, breathing becomes labored, tears fiercely flow, and I shake.
Sometimes, I flashback to the night my father left or another memory when I felt scared in his presence– and get stuck in that memory instead of the present moment. I can’t stop replaying it in my mind, and I irrationally feel certain that I’m reliving that experience rather than my real-life, present-day circumstances.
When I’m in this state, I beg for the pain to stop.
Before I had built up a strong-enough arsenal of coping skills, I didn’t know how to cope with this level of emotional and psychological distress. As a result, one day I turned to an activity that popped into my head and ultimately soothed me in the moment: self-harm.
This self-harm activity– for me, cutting– then became my go-to self soothing technique when I panicked or had flashbacks. I cut my arms, lightly, with scissors or knives, never enough to bleed but just enough to feel relief. This is what I now understand to be a “maladaptive coping mechanism”— one that achieves a particular outcome (in this case, relieving my panicking brain and body)— but that’s ultimately unhealthy and unhelpful.
What I’ve learned over the past few years is that cutting doesn’t actually alleviate the pain long-term. It only relieves the pain temporarily. Cutting furthermore becomes habituated and even addictive, to the extent that those of us who have tried it have “urges” that become more frequent and intense over time if the behavior continues. The behavior often escalates, also, requiring deeper cuts or more severe wounds in order to achieve the desired relief effect.
This maladaptive coping mechanism to manage my panic and flashbacks stayed with me for about four years. Once I started to understand it for what it was– an ultimately unhelpful way to cope with my distress– I was able to identify other, healthier coping skills that offered me similar relief.
For example, I learned that exercise offered a similar sensation of relief when panic ensued. Consequently, I re-habituated myself to doing pushups, situps, or jumping jacks when I noticed impending symptoms of a panic attack or flashback. Similarly, I learned that holding my dog, doing deep breathing exercises, washing my face, and closing my eyes and listening to a guided meditation also helped. Activities like these are what I would now, as a therapist myself, categorize as “healthy coping mechanisms”— ones that achieve a desired outcome and have a positive effect on a person.
It required years of therapy, a few hospitalizations, and hard work to retrain my brain and body to, when I panic, enlist healthy coping skills instead of cutting. I still have occasional urges to cut, but I can confidently say that these urges are less frequent and less intense than they used to be.
I self-harmed as a way to cope with the breakup I was experiencing last August. I self-harmed because I didn’t have other ways of coping, and I self-harmed because I didn’t fully grasp its maladaptive nature. I have been through break ups since the one last August, as well as other experiences that have triggered panic attacks and flashbacks. However, I haven’t self-harmed since.
As of August 2020, I am proud to be one year self-harm free. I look forward to counting the years to come.
If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm urges or behaviors, the following is a sample list of healthy distress tolerance skills to replace them:
-going for a walk with a safe person
-coloring– specifically, pressing down on the paper really hard with your chosen coloring utensil
-holding a plank
-playing with a stress ball (I recommend putting essential oils on the stress ball to engage your sense of smell, as well)
Mary Beth Spang is a therapist in Pittsburgh, PA. She works with youth ages 18-25 living with mental illness, helping them to transition into a more independent lifestyle equipped with coping skills for managing their mental health. Diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder herself, she also writes about her personal experience living with and managing mental illness. Her writing has appeared in The Mighty, Disability Disclosed, and Germ Magazine.
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