It’s easy to identify the reasons why I hurt myself – even when I was a teenager with the self-reflective skills of a lower form of sea slug, I could probably have told you that I have low self-esteem, and I self-harm to punish myself and to make myself feel better. But in some ways, that’s the wrong question, because the answer isn’t to find a new way to punish myself. The better question is what needs the self-harm is meeting, and how else I can meet those needs. (Thanks Sirena.)
Needs are not a thing I am good at identifying. The sea slug could probably finish his dissertation on Maslow’s hierarchy before I managed to work out that people need food to survive. But I thought I would try, and hope my little WordPress community can fill in the rest.
Need #1: To escape emotions that feel intolerable; essentially, self-soothing.
My distress tolerance is low, and so is my patience. When I’m triggered, I feel like I can’t endure it. My thoughts are fuzzy, I can’t breathe, my body feels heavy and there’s too much happening inside me to contain it, I’m going to explode, I’m going to keep winding tighter and tighter until I explode. I’m losing my mind, I can’t chat to the checkout operator about the wind warning for the eastern suburbs, how can I talk to people and walk around and be polite and normal when there is a volcano in my chest? I’m frozen and stuck and I can’t move and that’s so incongruous with the hailstorm in my brain that I’m frustrated and angry, I need to kick and scream and thrash like a wild thing but it’s not enough to get it out, and I need to get it out.
There are voices in my head, an older male saying I’m going to kill you in a deep, threatening tone, a hysterical teenager screaming I HATE YOU, YOU STUPID BITCH, I HATE YOU, or a coldly furious voice telling me I’m a such a stupid fucking cunt. Sometimes there’s a kinder voice bribing me, telling me I’m going to feel so much better, and I can have an icecream after it’s over.
If I sit with it for a while maybe the intensity will decrease, maybe it will go away, but I know how to make it go away right now and I don’t want to feel it any more.
(It’s interesting to me that different voices use different language – the younger teenage doesn’t say ‘fucking’, because I didn’t at that age, and the older teenager doesn’t say ‘cunt’, because I didn’t until I was in my 20s.)
When I’m having compulsive thoughts of setting myself on fire, I can’t think, it takes over my whole brain and I just keep picturing it over and over again, walking through the steps; wetting the towel, unscrewing the container, pouring the accelerant, lighting the match and seeing the flames. I feel like I’m going crazy, not because of the nature of the thoughts but because they’re stuck in my head and just cycling and cycling and I’m so frustrated I’m going to burst.
*Trigger warning for burning. Seriously.* My ability to tolerate emotion is even worse when it’s stemming from a particular memory, and burning is the most effective way I’ve ever found for decreasing the emotion associated with painful memories. Last year, I had an encounter with an ex-boyfriend that was maybe kind of a little bit sexual assault, but most definitely unwanted and awful, and I couldn’t stop reliving it afterwards. Especially in bed at night, but over and over throughout the day, I’d have a sudden flash of him on top of me, and my whole body would flinch – my eyes would close, I’d tense and my thighs would clench together. It made me feel sick and trapped and I hated it.
So I brought the memory consciously to mind, and I brought a lighter flame close to my arm, near but not touching. To start off with, the pain is extreme, and it matches the intensity of the emotions. And then my skin starts to turn white, and harden, and the intensity lessens, the pain travelling deeper into my body, still strong but duller somehow. Once my skin turns from white to black, the burn site is completely numb, and the emotions that were intolerable a few minutes ago are calmer, my body less panicked. And then I bring the memory to mind again, and I start again in a new spot. And I keep going, until I can bring the memory to mind and feel nothing but numb emptiness.
(In a side note, I feel so much rage over Marsha Lineham’s famous quote about people with BPD being like people with third degree burns who feel agony at the slightest touch – I get the metaphor, but by definition a third degree burn has no sensation. A stupid thing to feel angry about, but I do.)
Need #1.1: To regain self-esteem by splitting off the ‘bad’ parts of me?
I’m not sure what the need is here, exactly, but I do feel better about myself after I’ve been ‘punished’. If I accidentally send the CEO the wrong spreadsheet, or I feel guilty because I haven’t been in touch with my younger cousin or my uncle in a while, I feel calmer and more okay about myself after I’ve hurt myself. It’s a very childish view of solving a problem – hurting myself doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t help my uncle feel less lonely, or guide my cousin through teenage conflicts. But still, I feel better. Because I endured pain and so I’m strong, and being strong is part of being good. And because I did something, so I feel less impotent, even though the thing I did wasn’t helpful. Maybe it’s exactly the same as #1, but it feels a little different.
And sometimes, I want to punish the younger versions of me, to make them stronger. I guess I’ve projected qualities that I hate about myself onto them (like having needs), and I think I can change things by visualising hurting my younger selves while I hurt myself. Which any sea slug with half a brain knows I can’t.
The worst is this pathetic little attention-seeking bitch; it’s her fifth birthday, and she’s not even pretending to smile. I want to hit her in the face, and keep hitting her until she hardens up and stops looking vulnerable.
And this ten-year-old at the playground; I want to knock her to the ground, kneel on her back, grab her ponytail and smash her face into the asphalt. I don’t even know why I hate her so much. That photo was taken around the time I first started self-harming, so I should be proud of her, right? Or am I angry at her for starting this cycle that I’m still whirling around in 15 years later?
(I feel the need to make it clear that I have zero violent urges towards any children that aren’t me.)
Need #2: To control my body, and to distance myself from it.
I hate my body, and I want to destroy it. I don’t mean that I wish I had a more toned butt, or eyes like Angelina Jolie’s – I hate that I’m trapped inside a disgusting hunk of flesh that eats and defecates, and rarely, when it’s coerced, has sex. My body repulses me and terrifies me, and hurting it is a way to control it. The first time I cut myself, I still had bunk beds, and I draped a sheet from the top bunk to create a private little fort. When I drew the blade across my skin for the first time, I felt this awed sense of peace; I can make myself bleed. That power is mysteriously reassuring. In therapy, any time I’m asked to focus on my breathing, feel my feet on the floor, observe the sensation of the material of the couch, I feel immediate panic at being reminded of my body and asked to pay attention to it, and I automatically want to hurt it. Paradoxically, hurting it makes it go away.
Need #3: To be functional and independent.
Some days, most days, there is something that I have to do that feels too hard. Make a phone call; send an email; go to the post office; vacuum the growing mounds of kitty litter off the floor. Sometimes I’m anxious and my mind is racing and I can’t think, and hurting myself is like wiping a cloth across the mirror after a shower; the fog disappears. Sometimes I just feel like there’s a block, like I know I’m capable of doing the things I need to do but I can’t do them, I feel heavy and inert and my mind is thinking but I can’t make my body move, and I’m angry – you stupid fucking bitch, what the hell is wrong with you? – or despairing – I can’t do this any more. Hurting myself helps me move into a different state, one where I can function – maybe because of the endorphins, maybe because it helps me feel calm, maybe because once it’s done I’ve ‘accomplished’ something and I feel more capable.
If I don’t work then I can’t pay rent. But beyond the practicalities, I feel the need to be productive. If I’m not working, not studying, then I’m a useless waste of space and I might as well be dead. (I absolutely don’t think this about other people – my uncle with schizophrenia hasn’t worked in 30 years, and he is a beautiful, necessary part of the world.)
Need #4: To receive empathy.
Before I hurt myself, I am bad. I am a stupid fucking bitch, or a disgusting piece of shit. Afterwards, if I have cut deep enough, burnt enough times, I am a good girl. I have suffered, and now I deserve to curl up in a warm bed and watch TV, or drink chocolate milk and read a book. Sometimes the process of self-harming brings out my nurturing side; when I’m struggling with the pain of burning, I will coax myself gently. Good girl, you’re doing such a good job, that’s it, just take a deep breath. I know that I am allowed to nurture myself without hurting myself first, and sometimes I try, but it doesn’t feel soothing until I’ve earned it.
A few months ago, I identified for the first time that when I’m anxious or distressed but not angry about something I’ve fucked up, the urge to self-harm is actually a desire to be held. It was pretty upsetting, to realise that I couldn’t tell the difference between a need for pain and a need for comfort.
Sometimes I’m also looking for empathy from others, for affirmation that others care about me, but rarely; most of my self-harm is hidden. Mostly, I need it as validation for being in therapy. If a therapist asks me whether I’ve self-harmed in the last week, and I haven’t, I feel shame. Why am I here, then? If I’m not self-harming, I’m just a malingerer.
Need #5: To feel safe and secure.
I have no fear of being attacked, or being in an accident, or being mauled by my ever-increasing posse of kittens. And yet whenever I see a movie where someone is tortured, or shot, or read a blog post about self-injury I haven’t tried, I’m terrified about whether or not I could endure that pain, and I want to test myself, to make sure that I can. Why do I need to preemptively protect myself against things I’m not afraid of, that I know won’t happen? I have no idea. The chances of anyone making me cut open my own eyeball to dig out a key from inside my head are pretty slim, but if they did, I couldn’t do it. And what if C’s life was depending on it, or my nephews’? It makes me feel powerless and helpless.
Watching Saw was such a bad decision.
Need #6: To learn and experience.
I’m always curious about how things feel. A couple of years ago, I went on an overseas trip with a group of friends to celebrate our graduation from law school. I was with people I loved, doing things that I loved, and it was one of the best times of my life; we went surfing, rafting, hiking, trapezing, and paintballing. And I desperately wanted someone to shoot me at point-blank range with a paintball, because I had to know what it felt like. How bad did it hurt? When other people talked about how intense it was, were they right, or were they just ignorant of what severe pain feels like? I played without any of the optional protective gear, and during the last game, I ran out into the open. I enjoyed the dull ache of the balls exploding against my skin, and I loved the lurid bruises that formed afterwards. This is basically the less extreme version of #5 – if I’m confident that I could tolerate it, then I’m desperate to experience it.
So, I just need to meet these needs in a way that doesn’t involve hurting myself, and I won’t need to self-harm any more? That doesn’t sound too hard.
But it is hard. So what am I missing?