Time to Talk Day 2015- Self-Harm

Trigger Warning: This blog post discusses self-harming. There are no ‘graphic’ descriptions of any acts of self-harm, but I do talk about the feelings and emotions I associate with self-harm.

So far, I feel that I’ve been pretty open and honest about my mental health. And really, I haven’t found it all that hard. Despite the stigma that surrounds mental illness in general, I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by people that make me feel at ease with admitting that yes, I do have a mental illness. I think that’s because I know that they will appreciate that my mental health does not define me, and does not change who I am or who I’ve always been. However, there is one part of my mental health that I’ve hidden away, so to speak. I’ve written about it in the past tense in these blogs, but I haven’t addressed it as an ongoing issue- Which it is, and honestly, always has been. I’ve been struggling with the decision to write about it, because it is that much of a taboo, or it seems that way to me.

However, I desperately want it to become less stigmatised, so that people can start talking about it more openly and start getting help the way I’ve been able to. What I’m referring to here is self-harm. I did put a trigger warning at the beginning of this blog, but just to re-iterate, I will be discussing it in some depth over the course of the blog, but this won’t be in the form of graphic descriptions of acts of self-harm. Instead, I want to briefly explain what my history of self-harm has been, where I’m at with it at the moment, and then also describe how my relationship with self-harm has changed over the years. I hope this won’t be triggering to anyone who currently self-harms or has done in the past, but if it does cause any problems for you then I’m incredibly sorry, and please don’t keep reading if it’s not helping. My intentions for this post are to help people think beyond their initial, gut reaction to self-harm, and to encourage those who are struggling with it alone to reach out to someone.

I first self-harmed when I was around 13 years old. To be completely frank, I only did it because I became aware that someone at school (not even a friend) had begun ‘cutting’, and I was curious. I did a bit of digging, and found that it was something people did when they were upset. And at that time, my depression was just starting to manifest. I wanted to know if it would help me feel better like it did for other people. Evidently, it did. I don’t have much recollection of my thought processes at that time, but I do know that I continued to self-harm, though relatively infrequently, for the next few years. Then I started sixth form, which was the time when I think I was in the most mental distress over my school years. It got gradually worse until I took an overdose once in an attempt to manage my increasingly intense and distressing feelings, and thus spent a night in hospital. After that, I don’t think I self-harmed for a while- In a way, I feel like the act of taking an overdose wiped the slate clean for me. My mental state settled considerably.

The next time I remember doing it was in my first year of uni, when symptoms of depression and anxiety started to manifest again, for the first time in what I consider to be my ‘adult’ life. I have been using self-harm on and off ever since in an effort to control my emotions, or maybe just as a way to deal with them full stop. I do still currently use self-harm as a coping mechanism, though this is by no means a frequent occurrence, and is definitely becoming less common as of very recently. I find it quite hard to imagine a life without self-harm, because it’s been such a reliable way for me to cope for a long time. At times, I’ve actually felt resentful towards therapists who have encouraged me to stop self-harming, because really, if it keeps me in a state where I’m able to function and carry on from one day to the next, why should I? I almost feel like self-harm is something which belongs to me, in the sense that I am the only one who can control it and decide whether or not it happens. In a world where we really have very little control over a lot of factors, I don’t think it’s surprising that so many people use self-harm as a coping mechanism.

Being that I work in a mental health setting, self-harm is also something that I’m very aware of in a professional capacity. This has been an eye-opening experience for me, as I’ve been able to see self-harm from a totally different perspective. One thing that I’ve picked up on, and battled with the idea of, is the concept of responsibility and choice when it comes to self-harm. Unfortunately, even within the mental health profession, there is stigma surrounding self-harm, and judgements are often made against those who do it. As I mentioned before, self-harm is something which I feel that I make the choice to do to myself. For many professionals (and non-professionals), this makes people who self-harm liable for the consequences of their actions. People who are admitted to A&E with self-harm injuries are treated with disdain and are rebuked for their actions. This is, quite frankly, a disgusting attitude, and so incredibly unhelpful. I do think that self-harm is a choice, but if that person thinks that self-harm is the best or only option for them to be able to carry on existing, or coping, or functioning, then what does that tell you about how they are feeling at that point in time? What does it say about the things they might have experienced to drive them to this point, or about what feelings they must be experiencing at that moment? So how could anyone possibly pass judgement and treat that person poorly for self-harming?

Recently, I’ve started training to work as a helpline volunteer for the charity Self Injury Support (SIS). SIS is a Bristol-based but nationwide charity which looks to support women who self-injure. Being that self-harm and self-injury is something that I have experience of, I wanted to be able to engage with the charity and try to give other people what I feel is most needed to help reduce the need for self-harming- A space to talk about their feelings without fear of judgement, and to unload a little. I’m 3 and a half weeks into a 7 week training course, and in that time, I feel like my relationship with my own self-harming behaviours has changed massively, for the better. For one, just being in an environment where people are speaking freely about self-harm (and mental health) is a breath of fresh air. We have been trained so far on the many possible functions of self-harm and reasons behind self-harming, among other things, and it has provided an opportunity for me to think about my own reasons for using self-harm. In doing so, I feel like I am much more attuned to my own feelings and emotions about it, like how I don’t always hurt myself for the same reason. Sometimes I do it to release a build-up of emotions that I can’t express externally, and reflecting back on some diaries I’ve kept in the past about self-harming, I can see that a lot of the time I need to self-harm before I can cry or talk to someone about how I’m feeling. However, at other times I’ve felt a need to punish myself, which relates to how anxious I often feel, and how I often see myself as being inadequate. In both of these examples, self-harm has allowed me to continue functioning in the face of emotions which I feel are otherwise unmanageable.

I obviously don’t speak for everyone who self-harms. There are so, so many reasons why someone might use self-harm, and so many functions that it might serve, even if the act itself might not seem particularly severe. What is important is that someone who self-harms feels such intense distress at that moment in time that they feel like self-harm is something they need to do. It makes no difference whether you objectively think this is a reasonable reaction or not, and it has everything to do with their subjective experiences. Like I said, self-harm continues to be a taboo subject, despite an improvement in public attitudes towards mental illness (although we definitely still have a long way to go with that!). And I can absolutely understand why- No one wants to imagine another human being choosing to inflict pain on themselves, and potentially put their own life in danger, due to their feelings and experiences. It is extremely uncomfortable to put yourself in those shoes, and to imagine that level of psychological pain. But this really does need to change. My experience of this stigma has been really quite harmful, as it means that after self-harming I often experience feelings of shame, guilt, and worthlessness- Most of which are reasons for me self-harming in the first place! It sustains the cycle of self-harm further, and also makes me feel like I can’t talk openly about it. I hide my scars/self-harm marks when I’m in public, and when questioned about them feel like I have to lie about how I got them. But I know that when I’m in a ‘safe’ space, and can talk openly about self-harm, I feel instantly better. Just knowing that people will be accepting of what I say is a relief. I just wish that this kind of attitude was more common, and that more people had somewhere to go to when they needed space to talk.

I realise this post has been a really long one, so thank you for sticking with it! I’ve never dared to talk openly about this before, because I’ve honestly been scared of what reaction I’ll get. I also know it will be painful for those who care about me to hear that I self-harm. I understand that, and I wish I could change it, but what I want to make clear to everyone is that my self-harm is no one’s fault. No one has ‘failed’ to help me, or be there for me, or has done anything wrong. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not the worst thing I could be doing to manage my emotions. Granted, I would definitely like to be able to cope without self-harm, and am working towards it, but it’ll be a slow journey. I just need you to accept me and my reasons for self-harming. I need and deserve to be validated and supported, whether I’ve self-harmed recently, or whether I’ve gone months without it. And this goes for everyone who self-harms- No exceptions. If you know someone who self-harms, or if someone opens up to you about it, please just let them talk. You don’t need to ‘fix’ it. Just let them know that you’ve heard them and that you are still there for them. If you currently use self-harm, I hope that hearing about my own experiences helps you feel less alone. And I hope that you can find a safe space to talk about it.

Thank you for reading!

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Anxiety

Well, I’ve been having some down days recently, so I think it’s time I try and get some of those feelings onto paper! Or, onto a computer screen…

One of my biggest challenges to overcome recently has been my anxiety. It kind of crept up on me, because I started off with symptoms of depression, and so I kept focussing on that and attributing any issues I was having at the time to depression. To be honest, it never occurred to me that there might be something else going on. The first time I heard anything about it was when I went to my GP to have a medical record printed off for me, and while I was reading through it I noticed a new diagnosis listed on there- Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), with depression.

Suddenly, everything made a lot more sense, and although I know there are many who argue against diagnoses, I found it really helpful to have two separate names for my two separate symptoms. It helped me change my way of interpreting my behaviours and thoughts, and it also allowed me to explore and express my anxiety in more detail and depth. Saying that, there is frequently an overlap between the two, and I notice that they often go hand in hand! In my case, I think a fair few of my ‘anxieties’ developed as a way for me to combat the lethargy and despair that I now associate with depression. It was, and to an extent still is, a way for me to cope with depression, and although it was effective in the short term, it has only led to more difficulties in the long term!

I want to try and explain to you how my anxiety affects me on a daily basis, and I think the easiest way for me to do this is probably to break it down into sub-headings of some sort… I’m sorry if this doesn’t make a lot of sense by the way. I promise it often doesn’t make sense to me either!

I find it really hard to relax

I associate relaxing with not working hard enough, and so on my days off, after I’ve slept in, or when I’m taking a lunch break, I feel incredibly guilty. I’m still not 100% sure why I feel the need to work really hard all the time, and needless to say this compulsion has been the subject of many a therapy session! It’s been a joint effort between myself and my therapist to deduce that I seem to have absorbed the expectations placed on people by society and the media to be a ‘good person’. Somehow, I feel like I need to work myself to the point of exhaustion to prove that I’m a good person, which is frustrating, as I certainly don’t define other people as good or bad based on this criteria.

So, I generally always feel on edge, unless I’m in a space where there is a very clear expectation of what I should be doing rather than working- Such as when I went on holiday (although this was still difficult at times), or when I go to my Krav class.

I feel anxiety physically as well as psychologically

It’s that ‘butterflies in your stomach’ feeling, but all the time, x 10. Sometimes x 20.

For a while I had some really nasty physical symptoms, before I realised what was going on and started trying to express my feelings outwardly instead of bottling it all up. I had awful stomach cramps, and mild nausea on and off like, all the time. I developed this weird twitch in my right eye, which would pop up in times of particular stress, and I experienced a horrible twinge across the front of my head (/brain?) too. Then my diet wasn’t great, very on/off eating, so I felt tired all the time and couldn’t concentrate. My sleeping patterns were very disturbed too- Despite being exhausted I find it very difficult to fall asleep at times!

I think sometimes, because anxiety is classed as a ‘psychological’ illness, people forget about the fact that your brain and your body are very much linked. Your mental state can have a profound effect on your physical health, which is yet ANOTHER reason why mental and physical healthcare should be treated equally, by the way. 😉

I feel like I need to apologise all the time

So, I worry a lot, about a lot of different things, and this manifests itself in many ways. For the most part, I keep my worrying private (as unhealthy as it is), but saying ‘sorry’ all the time is something that other people can definitely notice.

There are a few reasons for this, the main one being that I have low self-esteem (to some extent), and so I get pretty convinced that I always do things wrong, and that people probably don’t like me very much. Frustratingly, it’s one of the most resilient ‘maladaptive thoughts’ that I have, so even though I know in my heart of hearts that my friends and family love me, I just can’t shake the fear that I’ll do something wrong and they’ll all leave, or that they don’t really like me at all. It’s like there’s a little voice questioning everything all the time. “They were acting a bit off the last time you said hi. Are you sure they still like you?” Or, my favourite: “You forgot to do something for them that one time, so they probably hate you now.”

So my solution for this is to apologise incessantly, at the slightest mishap, or sometimes just when I’m not sure if I’ve done something wrong, just in case. It makes me feel less anxious to apologise, and it’s very uncomfortable for me when I try and stop, inducing massive amounts of guilt and self-deprecation.

I’m not scared of meeting new people, but I worry about social interactions a lot

This is very much linked to my about point regarding saying ‘sorry’ for everything. Meeting new people is something I’ve always really enjoyed. The ‘me’ without anxiety loves making new friends and meeting new people, but to my utmost frustration, I now suffer a lot for it. I worry about what new people think of me in the same way in which I worry about people I already know deciding they don’t like me for some unknown slight. I also don’t feel like I’m a particularly likeable or interesting person, but that’s a whole different issue! (Or is it?)

Sometimes I get scared out of the blue for no reason at all

This is the part of my anxiety that I understand the least. Thanks to lots of therapy and a psychology degree, I can see quite clearly what thought patterns are causing me trouble, despite the fact that I still find it difficult to combat them. But sometimes, I will be happily going about my day, when suddenly this wave of panic comes over me. It’s not a panic attack- I know what they feel like- but I will suddenly become aware that my body is displaying all the physical symptoms of anxiety. I get butterflies in my stomach, my heart rate goes up, I start shaking. And I also feel really on edge. I’m still trying to work out which comes first, the physical feelings or the psychological feelings, but in any case It can be really exhausting to deal with!

There’s no obvious cause, which sometimes triggers even more anxiety- “Why am I feeling worried? What’s wrong with me?”- And so I generally just have to go about my day feeling super-tense and uncomfortable.

‘Nervous energy’ has taken on a whole new meaning to me

Following on nicely from my previous point, whenever I feel anxious, whether it’s for no good reason at all, or obviously triggered by a stressful situation, I take on a huge amount of ‘nervous energy’. From what I can tell, this is a fairly normal reaction to stress. I remember when I used to do a lot of acting, I would get very fidgety right before I went on stage, as would most of the rest of the cast! However, with me, nervous energy is becoming something which hinders my day to day functioning. It stops me concentrating on work, as my mind flits about from one thing to another, constantly worrying about everything at once. I can almost feel it physically in my hands and arms, in my legs and feet, and in my shoulders and upper back. I can’t sit down for too long as that feeling will build up in my legs until it’s so uncomfortable that I need to get up and pace. Sometimes the energy will transform into frustration, and I start feeling very aggressive and angry. If I’m having a particularly bad day, I end up in tears on the floor punching the nearest thing to me.

So, it’s not so much just ‘nerves’. It’s a horrible uncomfortable itching feeling that will at best just stop me from working productively, and at worst will debilitate me for a time and sometimes lead to me inadvertently hurting myself when I lash out. It depends on how resilient I’m feeling on the day, and what the days leading up to it have been like. I suppose the nervous energy must build up as I experience the things listed above which cause me anxiety, and then culminate in me expelling it all in whatever way I can. It doesn’t always happen like that, as there are coping mechanisms which I can use to defuse the situation. But, despite my training in such coping skills, it can be very hard to implement them yourself when you need them.

 

I hope that this post helps with your understanding of anxiety, or offers you an alternative account of what anxiety feels like if you suffer from it yourself. Most probably, if you have anxiety and are reading this, then you’ll recognise a lot of the feelings I describe. I’d also like to point out at this time that you can have anxiety and not experience it like I do, or like anyone else does for that matter! Similar to when you catch a cold, you can experience some symptoms but not others, and still be classified as having ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression’. If you have any concerns about your mental health, please visit one of the websites listed below for help and advice. You know yourself best- If something doesn’t feel right, please go speak to your GP or another healthcare professional, or even just someone you trust!

 

Thank you for reading. 🙂

 

Mind: http://www.mind.org.uk/

Time to Change: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/

Rethink Mental Illness: http://www.rethink.org/

Mental Health Foundation: http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/

Samaritans: http://www.samaritans.org/