It took Kristen a long time to come to terms with the fact that she was using self-harm to cope with negative emotions. An even bigger barrier was revealing this struggle to her friends and family. Here, she describes her journey toward healing.
I never thought I was someone who would engage in self-harming behaviors.
In some of my earliest days of battling severe depression, I never once considered cutting myself in order to cope with the negative emotions I was experiencing. Cutting was the only form of self-harm I had ever heard of until I was asked by a psychiatrist if I self-harmed and she rattled off a list of self-harming behaviors: cutting, burning, scratching, banging of the head. My heart sank at that last one she mentioned.
On multiple occasions when I felt consumed by my emotions and thoughts racing through my mind, I would repeatedly bang my head against a door. It was the only thing that “felt good” in those overwhelming moments when intense emotion and energy rushed through my body. It was a release. And it was 100-percent self-harm.
Being able to identify this behavior as self-harm was essential and necessary in my overall recovery. To realize how I was negatively coping helped me become more self-aware and learn other healthier coping mechanisms. Healing is a trying process, however, and it was a challenge to unlearn the self-harming behavior that my brain had been wired to resort to for years. Before it got better, it got worse.
When I had identified that I was in fact self-harming, I was already in the midst of therapy for depression and anxiety. This provided me the environment to share about my experiences of self-harm for the first time with a therapist and why it was a behavior that I was engaging in. Therapy helped me identify triggers — potential situations that might lead me to self-harm — and learn alternative coping mechanisms. Although I was learning all of these important tools, I wasn’t putting them into action just yet. My self-harm behavior actually became worse, and for the first time, I started engaging in other forms of self-harm — specifically, cutting.
I was experiencing a surge of emotions as I was dealing with my diagnoses of depression and anxiety after years of denial, and self-harm was an old-best friend that I could rely on for comfort. Coming to terms with new diagnoses and retraining my brain how to respond in difficult moments wasn’t as easy as turning off a switch.
A major turning point in overcoming my temptation to self-harm was opening up about these struggles with my family and close friends. Being vulnerable with those closest to me and allowing them into my struggles made them more aware of ways they could be of support to me.
My parents purged our home of any sharp or dangerous items I could use to harm myself, and even slept in my room with me every night to ensure my safety. I had to keep my door open at all times at home, and I was discouraged from spending long periods of time alone in my room. My friends often checked my bags or purses to ensure that I didn’t have anything dangerous on me, and they never left me alone when we were out.
While I grew to become extremely annoyed at being on surveillance watch 24/7, I now recognize how necessary it was in my recovery. If I never opened up to those around me about my struggle with self-harm, it would have been much easier to continue engaging in that behavior in secret.
And that’s the trickiest aspect of overcoming self-harm: it’s easy to hide. It’s easy to allow shame to creep in, to begin to fear the judgment of others. It’s so much more “comfortable” to let self-harm be your own little secret, especially when it takes on more obscure forms. Conquering this fear and risk of judgment was one of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome.
People might not realize it in the moment, but it takes immense courage and bravery to be vulnerable with loved ones about self-harm — about any kind of mental health struggle. Stigma, stereotypes, and ignorance on the subject of self-harm are still very much present in our culture and this often prevents people from opening up about it. So if you are someone with self-harm tendencies, this is your cue to reach out for help — the people in your life love you and, above everything, want you to be well and happy and joyful.