It Will Always Be The First Thing I Think Of

**TRIGGER WARNING FOR DISCUSSION OF SELF-HARM**

I’ve been under some significant emotional stress lately, more so than usual. And I’ve had a couple of incidents when I received some very upsetting news. Of course I’ve cried. Sobbed, even. And reached out to my friends and family and cared for myself in all the healthy and productive ways I learned in my years of therapy. Take a hot bath. Read a good book. Snuggle with the kitty. Get enough sleep. All that kind of thing.

But before that – before the tears even start welling up, much less spilling over – my mind flashes on an image of my left forearm. Sometimes it’s being slashed with a razor blade. Sometimes it’s being burned with a cigarette or the hot metal of a lighter. In one particularly vivid recent image, my left wrist was being smashed with a hammer. This happens in less than seconds, before any other reaction. It’s entirely unconscious and I’m often surprised by how quickly and vividly the images take over my consciousness.

I used to self harm a lot. I thought I’d made it up myself, back when I realized that scratching at one spot on my skin with a thumbnail would peel back the skin to expose glistening wet red pain. I quickly progressed to razor blades and learned the exquisite joy of making a perfectly straight line in my skin, imposing some kind of geometry and order on my out of control body that would hopefully extend into my increasingly disordered mind. I learned how pressing a hot lighter to the inside of my ankle would send a poker of pain straight up my body in a wave so powerful it drove out every other sensation or thought. I learned about long sleeves in summer, the trick of putting a painful cut on the inside of my wrist so it would throb every time I took my mittens on or off. My arms looked so bad people thought I was using heroin. (Even writing this out makes me want it.)

And then I stopped. (Not so easily, of course, lots of safety contracts and lists of health coping activities and techniques and medication and relapsing and all of that. But I stopped.) And it’s been … I don’t even remember the last time I did it. Over 10 years, certainly. Long enough that you can hardly see any of the scars unless you know exactly where to look.

But it is still the first thing I think of. My first unconscious innate reaction to stress or emotional pain or just feeling overwhelmed and drowned by my own emotions. It is always there, just under the skin, waiting for me to be weak enough for it to take over again. That’s why I will never trust myself enough to have a razor blade or an x-acto knife in the house – I know that if they’re there, I’ll lose my way sometime.

[I just turned my head and saw two straight pins sitting on the desk (I was mending a hem) and *boom* I see them plunging into my wrist, just near the bone. It’s not that I imagine the process of picking them up – my mind flashes straight to an image of me pushing it into my skin, with the idea that “this is right, this is good.” I can almost feel myself relaxing while I visualize it and then I shake my head and it’s gone and I’m disappointed in myself for even thinking of it.]

I’m beginning to think it will never stop. I may never do it again – I hope I never do it again, I intend never to do it again – but it will always be there. It will always be the first thing I think of, before there’s even time to think.

By 6 January, 2010.    bodies, identity, introspective, mental health, violence   



33 Comments

  1. Yep.

    That’s all I’ve got. Just “yep.” It’s been just over three years for me and it is always the first place I go.

  2. I can completely relate. I haven’t self-harmed in about 7 years. Yet, it’s hard for me to avoid self-harm being the first coping mechanism that runs through my head after hearing bad news, getting into a verbal fight, etc. Could this be like a former drug addict who wants to heal themselves with drugs, instead of using healthier coping skills?

  3. I didn’t traditionally self-harm, but I’m eating disordered, and I have a very similar and visceral reaction to distress of many sorts leading to a snap thought of harmful behavior.

  4. yes for me too.

    *SEVERE TRIGGER WARNING*

    A few years ago, I very nearly killed myself. I obviously didn’t, but whenever things get especially difficult or whenever I feel like I’m trying to deal with too much, my thoughts flash back to that exact time.

    *END SEVERE TRIGGER WARNING*

    I wonder if people ever fully recover from self harm and other things like that…

  5. @Erica – i see a number of similarities between self injury and drug/alcohol addiction – the use as a coping skill for emotional stress, the neurochemical reaction of endorphins leading to both mental and physical addiction components, etc, – but i’m not familiar enough with drug/alcohol addiction to know whether it’s an appropriate analogy to make overall. i’d be very interested in learning more from someone with more experience or familiarity with substance addiction issues.

  6. **POSSIBLE TRIGGER WARNING**

    20 years for me, and at some point, I knew that I’d never do it again. I have knives and blades in the house–oddly, a friend gave me a beautiful knife a few years after my worst episode, and told me that she trusted me to not use it to hurt myself. I never did. When I was actively harming (childhood to about age 40), I always used blades, knives, and broken glass, and I have wrist to elbow scars on my left arm.

    However. I still get that flash of sharp in hand, cutting, when I’m really upset. It’s now more like a brief flash of… memory? tiny flashback? but it’s not a temptation, if that makes any sense. I know I won’t do that again, no matter what. That feeling that it’s the only thing that’ll make the pain stop has just vanished.

  7. I’ve attempted suicide twice now, and even though I consider myself to be recovering, when things get hard, my mind goes to “maybe it’d be better if I weren’t here”. I can usually resist that thought or get help to resist it, but it’s still hard. Thank you for sharing this personal post and letting me know I’m not alone!

  8. What The White Lady said. There is a part of me that will never stop wondering how fast the train is going when it arrives in the station.

  9. I tend to think of self-harm / suicide as being like nuclear weapons: you can’t un-invent them, and once they’ve been used, they are never off the table. I KNOW that suicide is a completely irrational response to… well any of life’s minor setbacks or negative feelings I happen to get during the day: it doesn’t stop me wanting it though…

  10. In response to the above – as a recovering alcoholic, what you write rings a lot of bells. Something similar-ish happens to me sometimes, when I’m having a bad day and presented with temptation – the wine and beer aisle at the supermarket, a bar – I can get completely frozen in my tracks by the urge to fall off the wagon again, even though I know it won’t do me any good.
    .-= Rea´s last blog ..how i learned to stop worrying and love my depression (sort of) =-.

  11. Another yep. It’s only been about 3 years for me. It always comes up, so sudden, so vivid. So…ingrained. Suicidal thoughts too, but they are not as immediate as the thoughts of silver and skin.

  12. I had an eating disorder and when I am understress, my first instict is to stop eating or do [redacted per comments policy] amounts of exercise. That was my reaction for so long, it is always there in my head. I can fight it now, but that instinct is powerful.

  13. Possible trigger warning:

    It’s been almost 10 years for me too. I still scratch myself with my fingernails when I get really upset… not hard enough to break the skin, but hard enough to give that little burst of pain. And yeah… the temptation for more is always there. And I wonder. Do other people jsut not get that overwhelmed by negative emotions? Or do they have healtheir coping mechanisms?

  14. @Becky – i wish i knew. i often wonder if this coping skill wouldn’t be effective if not for my mental illness, or if my mental illness meant i was destined to discover it, or… what would have to be different for me not to have those urges? and i have no idea how far back i’d have to unravel, how much about myself would have to be different.

  15. @Becky: I’m pretty sure that I was given no support for being overwhelmed when I was growing up; I had no support or sympathy for what I felt, and I started harming to help deal with those feelings on my own. I have a friend who had wonderful parents, who felt supported growing up, and she has always seemed amazingly healthy to me. She feels things, and I know when she’s going through stuff; she seems to find it easy to ask for help. Perhaps that’s where we have our issues? Feeling we have to do it all ourselves? Or that we had to? We learn these things early; now we have to find something to replace them with. For me, it’s now yoga, meditation, talking, and figuring out why I become a child when I get overwhelmed.

  16. Katt – I think you have a point. What you describe is almost exactly the way I felt when I was growing up (and still feel, truth be told). I feel all alone sometimes. Maybe that’s the problem. We’re not meant to be alone, and it is soul-destroying.

  17. So, abby jean, I wanted to say 1) *big damned hugs* 2) I had to glaze over some of the OP, b/c you are a damned good writer, and I can’t really go there, b/c I’ve been there, ya know?

    That is all. I wanted to throw some support your way from me.

    *love*

    and a duckie 😉

  18. @The White Lady: You’re right, but I also know that it’s possible to learn self-care that’s healthy. It’s not necessarily easy, but if you can look at your self with love, and your dysfunctional self with compassion, you want to hurt that self much less. It does help if even one person tells you it’s OK to feel horrible, it’s OK to be hurt, and it’s OK to be overwhelmed. This is human. You don’t have to fix it all by yourself. And family, as I’ve learned, is who I want it to be. So, this is me, telling you it’s OK to feel that way, but you don’t need the old coping mechanism now. You have time to figure out what else might work instead.

  19. Yep.

    That’s all I’ve got. Just “yep.” It’s been just over three years for me and it is always the first place I go.

    Yep.

    **TRIGGER WARNING**

    Been about 6 for me. Unless you count the one or two times over the years that I slipped up. I still sometimes ball up my hands because my nails are always so long, so they dig right into the flesh of my palm. Even now when I’m doing badly my mind will think about the knives in the kitchen. To help me reclaim the concept of pain without it being damaging to my mind or body, I sometimes ask my partner if I can be spanked. Her loving me so and masochistic tendencies of mine make it relaxing without destroying my skin and scarring. It works. I just wish I would ask for this more often instead of wandering down the road of those thoughts. But it’s a process, and I’m taking it one step at a time.

  20. Thank you for sharing this. I know that it is deeply personal and painful to write about but know that people appreciate knowing they aren’t alone.

  21. Thanks for writing this. Fortunately my self-harm isn’t very severe, which is good.

    **POSSIBLE TRIGGER WARNING**

    However, when I’m my worst during episodes of depression or panic, I tend to picture horrible things happening to me, similar to what you’ve experienced, I guess. Often it’s not intentional injury or self-inflicted… I’ll just be feeling mentally not right and be walking down the stairs and picture myself falling down and being horribly injured, as well as other painful things. And oddly enough, it doesn’t scare me; for whatever reason, I feel calmer in a way when these mental images happen.

    I’m glad I’m not alone, though. Thank you.

  22. @Katt – thank you.

  23. Moria — thanks for sharing.

  24. **TRIGGER?**

    I have hurt myself in the past as a “coping mechanism” I think party out of anger (when coping with depression) that I turn on myself, and partly for a sense of control. It was the only way to release everything that was pent up. I haven’t done it in 3 years though, so I guess I’m dealing with everything more healthily now. Does (did) anyone else find themselves using it for these reasons (anger/control)? Either way it is still my first instinct when I am that low, it has become such a habit.

  25. Thank you for sharing this.

    POSSIBLE TRIGGER

    I struggle with suicidal ideation – wouldn’t it just be easier if I didn’t have to do this because I’d be dead?

    I watched a movie – that I love to pieces – that had 3 suicides – one described, one body found, and one attempt. The attempt made me cry, because the movie was about college and the pressure cooker feeling. It was good to see it in a way.

    [redacted per comment policy]

    POSSIBLE TRIGGER

  26. It’s been almost ten years since I last actually did anything to damage myself. Many of the scars have faded. In 1997 I did something I’m still trying to learn how to forgive myself for. The scars from it are obvious — to me though other people don’t see them until I point them out — and I’d have to wear gloves to hide them.

    I quit smoking years back and sometimes I still want a cigarette. It’s a real specific one too: I could tell you the brand and the way the cloves in the tobacco leave oil stains on the paper and how it crackles when it burns. I think about damaging myself a whole lot more often than I think about cigarettes but with the same loving detail. Which I’ll spare y’all.

    It may always be there. But when you needed to do it it was what you needed to do to stay alive. It’s a coping skill. Just like it was for me. Then you — and I — didn’t know anything else or there wasn’t time for anything else. Now we’ve got other options (though it can be hard to remember them) and we use them.

    I’m not disappointed in you at all.

  27. Maybe sometimes we can’t go back. Maybe these events/episodes turn us into a new person, a different person, one who will never be the way zie* was before.

    *This is my first time using gender neutral pronouns. Is that right?

  28. I am a couple days late when replying to this one, but I have had the same experience. I stopped a few years back, but the fact that it is still the first thing I think of doing, well. I was pretty ashamed of it to begin with; and I have come close a couple times this past year to self-harming again. It is very frustrating to think that this will always be with me, more than scars I can make excuses for, even as I learn better coping skills, this…flash of desire…will not really go away, I don’t think.

    It makes me feel pretty ashamed of myself, to think that I will always be like this.

    @Becky: I think it is both in that they are sort of the same thing, partially. Oftentimes the overwhelmed feeling is instantaneous, but also some of the time, for me at least, it builds up BECAUSE of my poor coping methods, over a period of time of not handling it well, I become overwhelmed by what I am experiencing.

  29. *trigger warning*

    I tried to kill myself when I was 15 because the person I was didn’t match up to the person I felt my parents and my teachers wanted me to be. Brilliant wasn’t enough, I had to be academically driven and willing to do bullshit assignments, too.

    I haven’t tried again since then. The ideation, yeah, it’s there.

    For me, the more dangerous one is the ideation that’s not deliberately suicidal. The what-if. ‘What if I yanked the steering wheel of the car to the left and made it spin?’ ‘What if I just kept walking, right off the edge of the cliff?’ I think the reason I do that falls closer to why most people self-harm – I need to do something, need to make something happen, something change. Emotional ennui is more dangerous for me than rage or overwhelming darkness because I know the latter passes, while the ennui…sometimes it stays for a long time. I think it’s a form of depression, but no one has ever been able to do anything about it, except that a few of my more purely physical old habits (dancing, archery, rock-climbing) could hold it at bay temporarily.

    The ennui is the most dangerous thing in my life. It makes it harder to feel anything, so numb, and in that state I get so distant from everything that none of it matters anymore. Which is why the ‘what if’ becomes…possible. Because nothing matters, nothing connects.

    ~Kali
    http://www.brilliantmindbrokenbody.wordpress.com

  30. Kali – WORD.

  31. Do some people find discussion of self-injury triggering? I don’t. Well, anyway, if you do, then *trigger warning*.

    I still self-injure, mostly biting or punching at my wrist trying to make a bruise without causing too much pain. (The worst I did, completely on impulse, was hit myself with a glass bottle hard enough to see stars, but that’s unusual for me.) I’d like to be able to stop, but currently when I’m in that emotional state, the other options are worse.
    Regarding seeing something that could be used to self-injure and immediately visualizing doing that, I can relate. Except with me, it doesn’t feel at all right, just causes a visceral horror – I’m afraid of what I might do. Very often, it’s not just self-injury, it’s suicide or something that straddles the border between suicide and self-injury, like tieing a ribbon around my neck and pulling it as tight as it can go. Oh, and seeing my pet rats in that state sometimes makes me picture bashing their heads against the wall, and I feel the same horror at that as most pet owners would – if not more.
    I wish someone could tell me how to stop having meltdowns, and all the associated stuff, self-injury included. But no one else has my mind, and something that worked for someone else’s mind won’t work for mine unless I find a way to adjust it to me. It’s so frustrating.

  32. *possible triggering, given that I’m discussing self-harm*

    Oh god, this is the post that I’m printing out for my friend, the one who got to deal with me in meltdown this past week. She looked at me and said, “But you hadn’t self-injured in *years*.”

    And I was sitting there bawling because I didn’t know why I did it–it just seemed Like A Good Idea even though I knew better.

    But it is my first response–and somehow I’d never really grokked that.

    @Ettina That’s the route that I always went, partially because I started self-injury before I was old enough to come up with other ideas. (5 year olds should not be in a place where they feel the need to injure themselves.)

  33. Erica, I think it is the same. I’m a drug addict, nicotine is my drug of choice. I know that others who have quit smoking will start right back up under stress. They can quit for years and years but as soon as there is something that really has them feeling like they are losing control of their lives then they are out buying a pack of cigarettes again. I’ve never been able to quit longer than a couple of weeks, but I still manage to do something self injuring when I am under stress, I chain smoke. I can go through 3-4 packs a day when I am really stressed out. The following day I can barely breathe. I think most alcoholics/substance abusers know they are self injuring too, it’s just that for some of us it’s still legal (alcohol and tobacco, anyway) and therefore “acceptable” to society, so it’s easier to rationalize.