By now, many of my loved ones know that I struggle with at least two forms of mental illness: depression and anxiety. I have slowly become more comfortable discussing these issues and how they affect me and others, but one crucial and serious part of my mental health journey remains in the dark for most people in my life. In fact, this is the first time I have ever publicly written about it, which says quite a lot considering I tend to write about anything that impacts me (it is how writers sift through experience, after all, or at least how this particular writer does). I suppose you can consider this my confession, as it is Self-Injury Awareness Day: I am a recovering self-injurer.
I say recovering because although the habit developed for me many years ago, I still struggle with it today. It is much like kicking any other addiction (i.e. smoking, drugs, alcohol) in that it is not something I can simply stop doing. I have gone years without self-harm only to relapse into it and thus begin the process of recovering all over again. I have had to learn other, healthier coping mechanisms. This has required patience and effort and discipline. It takes work and a lot of it. That being said, I must emphasize that this is my personal experience and mine alone. I can’t speak for you or for anyone else who may struggle with self-harm. Lastly, I am not a mental health professional and thus can only speak to my experience and what has helped me. Always seek the help of a professional should you feel the need for it.
Self-harm began as a coping mechanism for my depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. It was what I did to remind myself that I am still here, still alive, because I often disassociate and become numb to everything when my mental health takes a bad turn. When this occurs, I have a hard time focusing on reality, on tasks, on people, on anything. Self-harm gave me an avenue to not only feel but also allowed me to release those feelings in a tangible manner. To feel pain physically enabled my mind to realize the scope of the emotional and mental pain I was also enduring. Most, if not every time, self-harm was a last resort and was my only hold on life. However, this means I also have to work toward remembering that there are other, healthier coping mechanisms and strategies to accomplish the same goal without harming myself. There are better ways to sort through my emotions, to cope with my mental illnesses, and to heal and live healthier in both the short-term and long-term. I wanted to share a few of my coping and distraction techniques in case they may help others.
I would like to reach a point where I do not need to use an alternative at all, but for now, here are a few alternatives that keep me from self-harming when the urge arises:
1. Use a red felt tip pen to mark where you might usually cut.
2. Hit pillows or cushions (anything soft so as not to hurt yourself) or scream into a pillow/cushion. The goal is to vent and release any anger, frustration, or sadness. The build-up of these emotions is often what creates my urge, so releasing that tension in other ways helps tremendously.
3. Rub ice across your skin where you might usually self-harm or grip the icecube in your hand or the crook of an arm or leg.
4. Place elastic bands on wrists, arms, or legs and flick them instead of cutting or hitting (not too hard and not too tight, as the goal here is to not actually harm yourself).
Distractions are also a huge help in curbing the urge to self-harm and preventing a relapse…
2. Writing – anything and everything, whether it is related to your feelings or not.
3. Talking to a helpline, a trusted loved one, a counselor/therapist about how you’re feeling.
4. Meditation, deep breathing, or yoga.
7. Drawing, painting, or any other craft using your hands.
8. Exercising (even a walk around the block can help).
9. Hanging out with friends and family.
10. Crying (and if you are in need of a good cry, watching This Is Us will accomplish that goal).
11. Listening (or playing) music/instrument – essentially, making some noise.
12. Popping bubble wrap.
13. Playing computer or console games.
14. Looking up silly jokes and puns or memes or whatever gives you a quick laugh.
15. Cuddling and playing with your pets (my two pups are experts at helping me feel better).
16. Watching TV or movies.
Lastly, I cannot emphasize enough how important a strong support system can be in your recovery. My husband, for example, has been instrumental in helping me over the years, and because he is empathetic, patient, and supportive, he has created a safe space for me to heal.
If you have a loved one who is a self-injurer, offer open lines of communication. That is by far one of the most helpful and important things you can do to help your loved one. Ask them what you can do to help, because that can vary depending on the trigger, the situation, the person. Let them know you do not judge, that you care, that they matter to you. Doing research and searching for advice and even health care can be too overwhelming for your loved one at times, so if that is something they need, offer to assist in whichever way you can. Sometimes simply letting your loved one know that they are seen and heard and that they matter can do a world of good.