Tag Archives: self harm

Crisis

Crisis. An interesting word when you hear it or speak it over and over again to yourself in a short period of time, am I in crisis? I am in a crisis. A mental health crisis, meaning, a moment in time where I am a potential danger to myself, if not others. A moment in which my ability to make sound decisions has come into question. A crisis of consciousness — as in I have TOO MUCH OF IT on account of the fact that I very much want to not exist anymore, not now, not in this moment. I don’t want to be here anymore.

The first year after we lost my stepfather, I would wake up in the apartment that I shared with my mom, his wife, where we lived together still surrounded by his things and when she was in crisis I would sit with her until it passed. In the year after her death, I would be in significant moments of crisis as my boyfriend slumbered peacefully in the bed beside me as I sunk to floor in the cold moonlight and desperately tried to make peace with the sudden terrible desire to die, hating him a little bit for being oblivious to the tempest raging in the room beside him. And now I am here: hours post-triggering event, still slowly circling the drain of my consciousness just waiting to fall off the edge into what? I don’t know. It never occurred to me to care aside from my literary sensibilities warning me away from the phrase “into oblivion” — if you must be crazy, try not be be crazy and also a cliche. Make no mistake, though, that is what I want: nothingness. Perhaps not forever, but just until the storm, this “crisis” passes.

Even if the crisis never passes because it is ME I am the critical component here and the harbinger of my own descent into madness. I am the failure. I am the reason for my own sadness.

I just want to hurt in a way that I can see and touch. A pain that I can feel on the inside and the outside. I want to grasp something tangible and say THIS. This hurts, it is injured and it gives me pain and because I can touch it with my hands not only am I positive that it is real and that it is there, but I am also confident that it will heal someday. It’s a strange sort of drive that makes a person want to harm themselves — mostly, I think, it is the innate desire to have one’s insides match their outsides.

In the middle of the storm, I recorded a few of my racing thoughts. The state of crisis lasted for a few days, which felt bizarre at the time. I think that I have often considered a “crisis” to be a singular moment of tragedy, a precipitating event for a Before and an After. However, after this crisis was triggered, I saw that it bloomed into a complete mental and physical state that took several days to subside. Days during which I didn’t know exactly where I was, except for the few brief moments of clarity and presentness that punctuated the dark.

I caused myself physical harm in that time. Self-harm has been a constant blip on my radar for years, but it’s been manageable. During my crisis, the desire to self-harm bowled me over, seducing me with promises of equilibrium. Where I once felt that I was spinning out of control, my focus narrowed and concentrated on a single point in time, a singular feeling of physical pain that obliterates all other sensation from my mind. In that moment, it was a welcome reprieve, but in the bright light of day I was disappointed and ashamed of myself — not only because I had resorted to self-harm, but because I had allowed myself to be triggered and suffer a crisis at all.

I like to envision myself as fairly invincible. I frequently imagine myself in horrible situations and think myself through the step-by-step reactions I would deploy to control and ultimately survive the situation. In my own mind, I am capable of withstanding absolutely anything. In life, however, I find myself wanting. It becomes clear to me that I am not, in fact, invincible.. I am actually vulnerable and weak, and in many ways, defunct.

I can’t get pregnant. My body seems to have forgotten how to make itself a host for a new life. Despite trying for over a year, we’ve come no closer to growing our family, and I know that it’s my fault. I can’t get pregnant and my heart is broken. This isn’t how it was supposed to be. I think back to all those times as a teenager, my girlfriends and I taking turns with the awful possibility that we had gotten in trouble. Too young to be mothers, so we prayed and prayed please God don’t let me be pregnant. Now all the manic energy that went into counting the days until we bled has been translated into a deep emotional clenching trying to hold it in and support a life that we are desperate to give birth to. There was a genetic legacy that I was rather depending on, that I have since been discouraged from cashing in. None of the women in my family have been infertile; at least, not that I’m aware of. One of the last things my mother ever told me what was a good mother I would be someday, speculating how easy for me it would be to get pregnant once I was ready, and I believed her, of course, because mother knows best.

So now a new crisis: a crisis of faith. Ever the believer, ever the hopeless optimistic, I’ve not yet given up the dream. But it has cost me no small measure of peace to hold on with such determination, as if I could, by sheer force of will, make myself conceive. It’s ridiculous. I am no Mary and there is no reason to expect Divine Intervention. After all, it’s not exactly uncommon. Secondary infertility, the inability to become pregnant despite previous successes, happens to a fair share of women. Though if I’m honest with my myself, the birth of our daughter nearly three years ago is truly nothing short of a miracle. We struggled to get pregnant, and I struggled to carry her past those first tremulous weeks where it seemed all too likely that she would just slip away, out of my body and out of existence. It would appear that Moira, fated to be born, was the exception, and that my wasted body, this useless mass of flesh, has no miracles left to give.

Every wretched cramp that twists my insides, every drop of wasted blood, every excited announcement of another woman’s fecundity is a thorn in my side. Salt in the wound. I am so angry, I want to scream at someone. I want to make another person feel as hurt, as dispossessed as I feel. I want to give this grief a name and a purpose and to make this pain wearable, apparent. I want everyone to know I’m a fucking open wound, just walking around, waiting to hurt.

And then, the guilt. As I’m reeling through these feelings of loss and failure, a part of me comes to attention to remind me, with cruel alacrity, that I am not, in fact, as disenfranchised as I may feel. I have a beautiful daughter. I have a wonderful career that I love, and a family that loves me, and there are starving people in China, for crissakes, so what’s your fucking problem? You are not a victim. I am not a victim of anything or anyone except myself. I ought to be focusing in on the good things in my life with humility and gratitude. After all, there are scores of women out there, some of whom are close friends, who have been unable to conceive at all. At least I have one child. One perfect, lovely, intelligent, beautiful child. I shouldn’t be so selfish, so greedy, as to wish for more.

But it just isn’t fair. Perhaps it’s the Libra in me, this constant preoccupation with fairness that so brutally trips me up when life becomes chaotic and unreasonable, as it is wont to do. Life isn’t fair, of course, and I know that. But I’m stubbornly resistant to the notion, unwilling to capitulate to fate. I reckon that if I do everything right — if I eat right, I exercise, I keep healthy, I take my vitamins; whatever — if I do all the right things, then I ought to get the outcome that I want. That’s how we’re often taught to look at problems, excepting for those insurmountable challenges that are so far out of our hands that we are instead told that it’s God, or the Universe, or Fate, that will decide. Just be patient. Relax. Whatever is meant to be will be.

What rubbish.

I am, or at least, I have considered myself to be, a spiritual person, but instances like this test my faith. It incenses me to hear that “God has a plan” or “You never know what the Universe has in store for you.” Bullshit. I have plans. My plans aren’t good enough for God? The Universe is withholding my happiness from me because It knows better? Ridiculous!

These are the uncharitable, heathenous thoughts that intrude upon me every waking moment. I am painfully aware of how unreasonable my sadness and frustration have made me. As this writing has proven, I vacillate between petulance and shame frequently. I am struggling to float, let alone rise above the tide. Yes, I ought to deploy some focused gratitude, and center myself around what is really important. Yes, I am at the mercy of my biochemistry in some respects, but I am responsible for how I respond to the changes in the tide. I am aware of these truths and more, but the sadness and disappointment are indefatigable and merciless. I am as trapped within my spotty mind as I am within my troubled body. What is broken cannot always be mended.

 

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Working From Doubt

I have arrived! Now is a time in my life that I fought hard for, for many years. I should be beaming with pride for my achievement and relaxing with the fruit of my efforts.

So why am I plagued by incessant debilitating self-loathing?

Well, I guess you can’t have everything.


 

When I graduated high school, I knew what I wanted to be: I wanted to become a freelance ASL interpreter. I wanted an education. I wanted a home. I wanted a family. In the ensuing ten years, I have chipped away at that list, attending college, earning three degrees, marrying my college sweetheart, establishing a home for us, and becoming a mother. Three years ago, I earned my interpreting credential and starting working freelance on the side, while maintaining my nine-to-five job for its financial security. This year, after a great deal of consideration and planning, I decided I’m ready to take that final leap: I resigned from my nine-to-five and announced that I would be freelancing starting in 2016.

I’m excited, and terrified, and elated. I feel like Diane Lane’s character in Under the Tuscan Sun: after years of struggle, I finally got everything that I asked for. But in my head and in my heart, I’m still so deeply unhappy with myself. Ever since I made my decision, I’ve been completely depressed — why am I tortured this way?

In part, I am actually deeply disappointed with myself. I’ve managed to achieve a great deal, but I’ve feel that I have failed myself in other ways, primarily in terms of managing my self-destructive behaviors. Things that I once considered to be bad habits or the result of a poor lifestyle have now insinuated themselves into my psychological state: I’m not just an emotional eater, I’ve developed a full-blown eating disorder. I don’t just bite my fingernails when I’m anxious, I’m addicted to self-harm through dermatillomania. I don’t just have low self-esteem, I emotionally eviscerate myself with pathological regularity. I am literally incapable of experiencing my own joy. I’ve evolved in many positive ways, but the comorbidity of my progress to my illness can’t be overlooked. What if I sacrificed too much of myself in order to achieve my dreams?

BP D-Day

So it’s World Bipolar Day, and I guess that’s fabulous. I see lots of my friends and colleagues sharing photos of themselves with words strewn across: “I am a mother, a business women, and an avid reader. I am not my diagnosis.” It’s incredible to see so many empowered individuals owning their experience with mental illness and couching it in terms of “this is something I live with, but it is not who I am.

I really admire that. I’m just not sure I’m there yet.

Certainly, I agree that I am not my illness, but I struggle to cast it off merely as a condition of living, like the flu or a bad back. Bipolar disorder is part of my identity, and I don’t make apologies for that. I am who I am, in part, because of the personality quirks and general weirdness that BPD has imbued me with — and when I consider it objectively, I really like myself. It would then be a terrible hypocrisy to hate on my diagnosis.

That being said, it’s not always positive. It’s not always endearing to be a hermit. It’s not always funny to lose my temper at the drop of a hat. Sure, those things often make for fun stories after the fact, but day-to-day, I wear my illness like a shroud: it colors my vision of the world and marks up my skin. Literally.

IMG_3916It is an amazing triumph to say that I have been able to grow my fingernails out past the quick, even if my cuticles continue to be ragged. I am proud of the fact that despite (or perhaps because of?) my illness, I am able to devote myself to truly fulfilling work. Still, I am constantly aware that burn-out is a tangible possibility, and I often worry that I’ve taken on too much.

IMG_3919If I were to create an image similar to one of my friends, to express my success in spite of my illness, I guess that would be it. I mean, I have enough titles and talents to take up FOUR business cards! Goodness! But I feel that to do so would be disingenuous. I’m not who or what I am in spite of anything. I just am.

Perhaps I would feel better about #bipolarpride than “I am not my illness.” Bipolar is just a small part of who I am, and gosh darn it, people like me! (Myself included… most days.)

A perfect storm

Actor Robin Williams took his own life today. By all accounts an extremely funny, extremely intelligent person, he lost a battle with depression. I’m probably more upset by this than I have any right to be — Mr. Williams being an actor and a public figure whom I enjoyed does not mean that he belongs to me in any sense. It doesn’t seem right to eulogize someone I have never, and now will never, meet, despite his featuring prominently in the entertainment landscape of my childhood. Maybe it’s just that his humor resonated with me, because I see similarities to my own sense of humor… and maybe because his actions today resonate with me, also.

Seems to me that it goes something like this: A good sense of humor is an indication of intelligence. Intelligence is a predisposing factor to depression and mental illness. People who are depressed are also more likely to be humorous, probably as a result of their higher intelligence and perhaps as a result of coping mechanisms developed to mitigate their depression.

Smart people are also marginalized in our society. Those who suffer with depression and other mental illnesses are likewise stigmatized. We use humor to deflect and cover up our wounds, and then we suffer quietly. Alone. As we spend more time alone, we are observed to be introverted. People who are introverted, on the whole, seem to be less desirable companions and are therefore sought out less by their peers. In the end, you get a bunch of smart, suffering, funny people with no close friends.

And then we kill ourselves because human beings aren’t meant to be islands (Bon Jovi had that right) but what choice does a person have when their territory is being colonized by naysayers and doubters and people who, in general, just want to make you feel bad for being who you are and enjoying what you like.

Seriously. Fuck those people.

This is what being a Stigma Fighter is about. Standing up to the unenlightened masses who would prefer to see a greatly homogenized culture instead of embracing and celebrating our differences, mental illness included. I wonder if Mr. Williams, had he known about our mission, would have joined us. Something tells me he might have done just that.

Legacy

I am trapped in a room with the woman who is both my tormentor and my hero. I so admire her, but am also intimidated by her. I want so badly to please her that I have fallen all over myself in successive, bumbling attempts to prove my worthiness, my aptitude. I feel now, from her sideways glances, her tacit nonchalance, that my attempts have failed — failed to such a degree that I have in fact proven myself of increasingly little merit in a cruel reversal of intent. I am trapped in a room with a woman who is aggressively, coldly assessing me, and she is finding me wanting. I cannot leave this room. I am trapped.
The room is my mind. The woman is me.

One time, my mother (over)shared with me about some of her indiscretions and mistakes. She had made some poor decisions and betrayed our family (though she didn’t frame it that way at the time), leaving quite a wake. She told me the truth and I was hurt. Defensively, she asked me if her actions had “hurt me special”. Had she done something to really harm me in particular, when it was her husband she had cuckolded? When it was him she had lied to? Call me crazy, but even then, I thought that was a mighty big question to ask of a 10-year-old.

When the actual betrayal happened, I was far too young to realize what had actually occurred. It was just another knock-down, drag-out fight. It was just another few nights of listening to my mother and father scream at each other. Just another visit to our house from the police.

Growing up in an environment where bi-yearly visits to our home from the cops were considered normal took its own toll, but the legacy of diminished self-worth is much harder to let go of. Now that I, as a grown woman, can see why my mother did the things she did, I can definitively say yes, Mom — every time you illustrated for me that a woman’s worth was intrinsically tied to a man’s desire for her, you hurt me especially, because I lived by your example.

Now, there are a lot of reasons that marriages fail, and I’m no relationship guru. However, I see these underlying machinations at work: a damaged soul, one that never considers itself whole, never considers itself enough on its own, seeks to fill the void with an attachment to another soul. And another. And another. Because that which you are unable to furnish within yourself cannot be found within the heart of another being, but that doesn’t stop you from trying.

Granted, I’ve never committed adultery — I’ve been blessed with a much better marriage than my mother had — but I see how easy it must have been, how soothing, to have slipped from one man’s arms into those of another because the second gave you the time of day. Made you feel pretty. Wanted. I can see how, while drowning in the depths of self-loathing, any positive attention must seem like a life raft. I understand it, without condoning it.

The bigger question now is how to stop the cycle. It’s too late for me, in a sense — the demons are already in my head. Every time I watched my mother grasp her thighs and sigh in disappointment, every time she called herself fat, every time she went on another binge diet — I learned from her example and expanded my mental arsenal. I have waged war on myself for years, tending (self-inflicted) wounds and wearing the battle scars like badges: if I cannot make myself good enough, then I will be my own judge and jailer. I consumed my own flesh in recompense for my multiple failures. My descent aided by the voices of criticism around me: “You need to dress better.” “You really shouldn’t eat that.” “I expected more from you.”

The apathy, the low expectations, the understanding shared by all — including myself — that I was different. Other. These are perfect conditions to create a monster of self-hatred. So how do I stop it from killing me the same way that it killed her? How do I protect my daughter from this legacy?

A work-in-progress

One of the biggest take-aways I ever received from my first interpreting mentor is that we are all, each and every one of us, a work in progress. We never stop learning, growing, developing, and becoming more of the people we are meant to be. For interpreters, this is a fairly common precept: in order to remain relevant in your field and to maintain your credential, you must earn continuing education credits in order to show a persistent commitment to professional development. In our personal lives, though, people tend to think that at a certain age who you are ought to be fossilized at a certain stage in development: your tastes, predilections, personality, mannerisms, et cetera shouldn’t change too much past an imaginary point in time. It’s true, to an extent, that some things tend to remain stable over time. My taste in music, for example, hasn’t been drastically altered in the last 15 years, though I’ve come to appreciate alternatives to my favorites. But what about our looks? At a certain age, if you deviate too much from what people have come to expect of you, you are branded a midlife crisis or said to be “going through a phase”. Change just freaks people out once we get beyond our formative years. But, honestly, shouldn’t all of our years be formative?

Case in point: my whole life, I’ve been more of a jeans-and-t-shirt kind of girl because it’s easy, if not fashionable. I’ve always liked make-up and looking pretty, but never enough to put a whole lot of effort into it. My idea of professional dress is “a nice top, and nice bottoms”. I don’t accessorize a whole hell of a lot because I can’t be bothered.

And then this happened.
And then this happened.

In the last year, I’ve started getting into vintage fashions, hair, and make-up. I always enjoyed the look of the 1950’s pin-ups like Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth, but it didn’t occur to me to try it until I was well into my 20s. This morning when I was getting ready for work, I looked down at my pencil skirt and monochromatic saddle shoes and thought, “Boy, I’m in full costume today.” But it isn’t a costume. Not really. Just because I’m altering my outsides doesn’t mean that I’m not doing it to match my insides — what my insides have been all along.

I don’t think we ever complete the process of becoming who we are, even when we are suffering ill-effects in that process. I recently began seeing a new therapist, and while going through my medical history and listing my various small-kine crazy behaviors on my fingers, I mentioned that it was only in 2012 that I was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, likely as a result of untreated long-term depression and anxiety following my parents’ deaths. My new doctor said with a smile, “Ah, well, you just hadn’t fully bloomed yet.” I found that very profound. I like the idea that my endless struggle with mental illness is actually part of the process of becoming more of, not less than, myself. So many people think that their internal struggles — depression, anxiety, mania, self-harm, OCD, what have you — detract from their true self. I beg to differ: embracing and managing my illness is helping me achieve a new level of self-actualization that I hadn’t considered before. My pursuit of happiness, I realize, is a journey fraught with pitfalls and set-backs. The long and sometimes treacherous walk down that road has imbued my being with both good and bad, and has made me, Me.

I had to get pretty sick in the head, and come to terms with my ailment, before I could start really liking myself. How’s that for a kick in the pants?

Today is an appropriate occasion to turn to this discussion: April 16th is for the Semicolon Project, a social media movement for those that suffer from depression — who self harm, are suicidal, unhappy, have anxiety, or are living with grief — to embrace their story as on-going. Semicolons represent a sentence the author chose not to end. We are the authors and the sentences are our lives. My story doesn’t end here. I am a work in progress.

Bear witness!

Since I’m calling this the Real Sarah C. Experiment, why don’t we get real? Ok, here it goes:

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Yeah, I know. That’s fuckin’ gross. I’m sorry.

That’s my left thumb. And I did that to myself. And it’s not just one poor digit, either. All the fingers on both my hands look like that.

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Because I am one sick puppy.

My nail biting habit began innocently enough as a kid. I was high-strung and anxious and, well, my mom bit her nails, so I probably learned it from her. (From you! I learned it from watching you!) But since my anxiety was likely linked to the stress in my household, as things on the home front got worse, I internalized them more and acted out accordingly. I found that after biting my nails down to the quick, I could really get in there and tear out those rough skin tags with some stainless steel tweezers and nail clippers. And hey, if you’re going to do that to your fingernails, your toes could probably use some grooming, too. And since we’re quickly developing an obsessive compulsion to smooth out everything on our body, let’s start nibbling those pesky tastebuds off of our tongue because, ew, gross bumps.

By the time I was twelve and my parents were going through an ugly divorce, I could spend an hour each night in the mirror, biting my tongue and watching the blood and saliva drip from my mouth. If I found a rough edge on one of my fingers or toes, I’d spend another hour clipping, tearing, and biting until I was satisfied that there was no more work to be done. It was like shoving bamboo shoots up my own nails, a form of torture I’m pretty sure is only used by really bad people.

For all intents and purposes, I had gone from a nail biting habit to an eating-myself-alive habit, and to my eternal shame, it continues to this day.

I don’t even know that it’s still stress related, really, because nothing really seems to catapult me into these actions. I’m compelled to tear at myself for reasons that I can’t track down or source out, and I really don’t want to hurt myself, but I just can’t help it. It’s usually when I’m not occupied with a task that I find myself going for my implements of torture, because idle hands and all that. So I try to distract myself, keep my hands busy, but the need overwhelms my sense. I’ve tried a number of different preventative measures over the years — my grandmother’s favorite was Apple Bitter, that stuff that they use on dogs, on my fingertips. She also tried to bribe me with money, but that didn’t work either. When I was a teenager, I started using press-on nails, which served a dual function of keeping me from biting and making my hands look less nasty. I was a smoker for a while, which refocused my oral fixation on something other than my own tongue, but in the end, was a much more harmful alternative. These days, I do what I can, but I’m unsuccessful a lot of the time. Mostly, I just let myself go, and then wonder why I’m punishing myself this way.

Bringing other people into my little rituals helps, if only to shine a light my nonsense. There’s nothing like a look of disgust and incredulity from someone you respect to snap you out of a self-harming behavior. William is especially really good at redirection — he doesn’t preach or make me feel ashamed. He just reaches over and takes my hand and asks me to stop hurting myself. I can’t really say no to that kind of sincerity. Truthfully, it comes down to having a witness to my behavior that gets me to stop, think, and reassess. My hanai mom, Susan, and I were just talking about this the other day: an obsessive compulsive knows that their rituals are nonsensical and potentially harmful, and will likely keep them hidden from other people in order to protect their sanctity. An important step toward healing, then, is to make the ritual known to others who can, not police your behavior, but make you aware of it. I guess I’m testing that theory now by making the whole damn world (well, anyone who is listening) a witness to my illness. Let’s see how that pans out, shall we?