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Posts Tagged ‘thoughts of self harm’

Leah Day Torn Tree

Leah Day
Torn Tree

Some days, the best that a person can do is to just hold themselves as gently as possible and do their best to not be hateful to themselves. Going forward is impossible. Going backwards would be all too easy. The urge to give in to the desire to drown in self hatred feels almost impossible to resist.

Sometimes a person might start to slip- hopefully not too badly- because it can feel as though you are being unrelentingly drawn down through a funnel into a dark pit. It seems as though all of your instincts are shouting at you that you have to be hurt. “You have to pay in blood and pain.” It doesn’t matter that you have no idea why or who or what you have to pay for. You start to see images of blood- blood pooling, blood swirling in water. Even though you have never cut, you start to think about what it would be like.

Then, deep in your brain, you hear the word, “slut.” And it is like you are pulled into a nightmare world of imagined sexual degradation. It is as if your mind pulls out all of your worst fears and you know that is all that you are good for. It is like you are being told that you are trash that any man should be able to use and that you have to be available to be used.

Then the despair hits- “I can’t abandon my mother and if I stand by her, then I can’t be true to myself.” And it feels so overwhelming that it is intolerable to live with. You find yourself making plans as to how you could kill yourself and arguing with yourself about how in the end your spouse and child would be better off without you.

Your mind continues to go round and round in a self destructive haze, desperate to act out the desire to harm yourself. Eventually, in desperation, you do something slightly harmful, allowing you to break out of the cycle. But that brings its own sense of shame that you have harmed yourself. You take yourself off to the couch, wrap yourself up in a blanket, curl up with the cat, and concentrate on breathing until you are finally able to reach through and give yourself a bit of comfort.

That was last night for me. Today has been an exercise in trying to not slip back into such a damaging place. It is pretty obvious that I have some very young, very traumatized parts that are currently in a tremendous amount of pain. So I am doing my best to be as gentle and non-judgmental with myself as possible. It occurred to me last night, after I finally calmed myself, that in some ways I had been acting like a panicked animal, caught in a trap, that was trying to gnaw its leg off in order to escape. There was a characteristic of desperation about all of the impulses that were thrown at me last night.

I’ve also realized that while I am dealing with some difficult things and am probably prone to being triggered right now, I also have something going on biochemically that probably is exacerbating the effects. So, a trigger that might otherwise be a 6 or a 7 is turned into a 10 or more. Historically, when I return from a trip to a very sunny place during the winter to a very dark home, I go through a depressive crash. I think that is happening right now, but it is intertwined with being so triggered, that it is hard to untangle what is going on. It actually is a big help for me to realize that this completely over the top reaction might not all be me- it might partially be my brain reacting poorly to the lack of serotonin. This is one of the things that Mama Bear has been trying to help me learn to recognize- my reactions aren’t always entirely about the trauma. Sometimes they are biochemical- for instance, we are wondering if the antidepressant that I am on is making me anxiety prone. Sometimes they are more about current issues than past trauma. Learning to not attribute everything to being a trauma reaction can be useful.

Anyways, I am no longer experiencing the urge to heap self hatred and thoughts of self harm on myself and I sincerely hope that I am done for now. It isn’t entirely gone, though. I can still sense just around the corner of my mind the simultaneous understanding of what it feels like to know that telling myself to harm myself is both the wrong thing to do and yet to also believe that it is the safest/best/most pain free thing to do. I know, it makes no sense.

Inside, I am in disarray and shock to some extent. I have a session tomorrow and to some extent I want to work on what some of the triggering factors were, but at the same time, I also just want to work on putting myself back together again, so I feel secure.

I don’t understand why I go through these very destructive self hate storms periodically. I think that this is the third time that it has happened. I don’t think that they are going to stop, though, until I come to some resolution about my parents.

I know that I can’t be the only one out there struggling with thoughts/impulses of self harm. I also know that I have no idea of what the best course of action is for anyone else. However, I do invite anyone reading to take a steadying/grounding breath with me and for this moment do the best that you can for yourself. That’s what I am going to be doing- moment by moment.

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My own quilt- Summer

My own quilt- Summer

I apologize for my absence; over the last few weeks, I have been experiencing more and more difficulty communicating.

I have started to deal with some deeply painful issues related to my parents and all sorts of defense mechanisms have been kicking in to try to keep me from talking. In session, the most effective one is that I simply cannot talk. First, it’s as if there is gauze between me and my thoughts and emotions and only occasionally can I see a hint of one and start to pull on it to have something to be able to say. But before I can start to speak, the thought has evaporated.

The self censoring filters are set so high that it’s hard to get anything out. “That isn’t worth telling her about. That’s trivial. Why would anyone want to hear about that? Talking about that would just be self centered and selfish. I have to be distorting things.” I was able to say something about this to Mama Bear and her response was that at this point, Anything that comes up in session is worth talking about.”

And then there are the wonderful responses when I do manage to express some of these intense feelings: having the urge to physically damage myself or even better thinking, “I don’t deserve to be alive. I shouldn’t be alive.” I know that it’s an attempt to get me to create some distance from the difficult emotions and while those urges are very unpleasant, I can recognize then for what they are, so they no longer panic me. However, I very much look forward to the day when I can feel such intense emotions in regards to my parents and not react by experiencing self destructive urges.

Sometimes I experience somatic symptoms: I get a sudden, piercing headache or I feel completely nauseated, as if I am about to throw up. In this context, I’m certain that they are at least a reflection of the turmoil that I feel inside over dealing with these parent issues.

There have even been a couple times when out of the blue I started to experience the beginnings of a flashback while dealing with these issues. I am certain that it was my brain trying to put something else between me and those terribly, terribly threatening thoughts and feelings. You know that your brain is desperate when it tries to bring up a flashback in a weird attempt to protect you!

So, why is my brain so desperate? Yes, the feelings are extremely intense, but I’ve dealt with intense emotions before. It’s because I am dealing with thoughts and emotions that I have kept buried for four decades in regards to my parents.

I don’t think that a 5 year old who is being abused consciously thinks to herself, “I can’t deal with this level of emotion and betrayal and keep my mind intact, so I’m going to dissociate those feelings and put them away there.” Or, “If I am angry about what is happening to me, then I’m going to rock the boat and I’m terrified that I will lose my mother and all of these things can’t exist in the same place, so I’m going to dissociate the anger and put it over here.” But I can say that by some mechanism that is essentially what happened for me. As a result, to this day, I have these strong taboos to not touch the deep emotions in regards to my parents. What I have been doing with Mama Bear lately feels life threatening to these protective parts of me that are supposed to keep everything under control that could have gotten me into trouble when I was a child. So, I have trouble talking.

The thing is that I’m in my 40’s, not a young, dependent child. The people I interact with now would rather deal with the whole me, rather than a limping, cut up me. It’s not just OK to be the full me, it’s desirable. I don’t have to fear abandonment if I address these issues. There is no one here who is going to hurt me. I’m not trapped with it being just me and my family any more; there’s a whole world out there, if I’m just willing to step out into it. I have this mental image of having been trapped in a small cave with my family and struggling to deal with this mess, but then realizing that I could take the whole thing out into the open air and have both more space to work on it and a sense of being in the world, not just trapped in dealing with my family.

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Diane Wright

Diane Wright

“Over all, things are going OK for me. I’m getting things done in the house that have needed to be done since we moved in; I’m taking my daughter out to do things; I’m engaging my husband more. But there is a part of me that is so caught up in thoughts that I am bad and should be punished and don’t deserve to be alive. There is a sense of being screaming angry at myself and wanting to tear myself to shreds. However, I do know that it isn’t the now me who feels/thinks these things. Why is this coming up so frequently now?”

This is the bulk of an e-mail that I sent to Mama Bear last week. I was bewildered to observe myself swinging back and forth between behaving more like the functional me and the me that feels terribly self destructive. How could I be so contented most of the time but then suddenly find myself telling myself that I shouldn’t be alive? It felt just crazy!

I could tell that when I was in the more functional/better able to connect with my family mode, I was largely acting from the fuller me, and when I was inundated with self destructive thoughts and urges, those were the experiences of younger parts. Even though the negative emotions were so strong that they were all I could feel at that time, I could differentiate and tell that it was just a subset of me that was immersed in the self hatred, while a larger portion of me was trying to figure out how to deal with the situation. But I still was bewildered by what was going on.

In the past, I have only had thoughts of ending my life when I have gone through periods of deep despair and long stretches where I felt overwhelmed and in terrible pain. It really hasn’t come up very often, so the fact that it has been coming up every two to three weeks over the last couple of months is noteworthy and alarming to me. What in the world am I doing wrong to create this response in myself?!?

Mama Bear has suggested that I’m not doing anything wrong at all. I have been going through a phase over the last several weeks where I have become more activated, both internally and externally. I am taking action on my behalf and contemplating taking long avoided action with my parents. When I was young, I could not afford to do that and my system may have learned to take drastic measures to freeze any impulses to rebel against my parents. Because that’s exactly what these self destructive thoughts tend to do. All of the energy that was going into anything else is diverted to deal these thoughts of self harm and that I don’t deserve to live and the attached emotional distress.

Mama Bear says that during this period I am going to have to be extra alert for when young parts of me become distressed as I start to claim and use for the power that I can have. I need to be prepared that they may show that distress in ways that are very uncomfortable for me and remember that the resulting actions and/or feelings are not really a sign that I have lost all of the ground that I have painfully gained. The more prepared I am to be supportive of these frightened and upset parts, the better I will be able to keep things from getting out of hand.

Great. I can probably look forward to this happening again. But maybe next time I can take a bit of a step back and look at it with a bit more understanding and compassion. “OK, I’ve been doing X and it seems that X has freaked out parts of me. I know that X is safe enough to do, but these parts don’t understand that yet. I need to help hold them with the knowledge that I don’t need to panic, I really am OK, and I am not in danger right now.”

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Artist: Mark Horst

Artist: Mark Horst

I’m going to take a deep breath and write about something because from the bit that I’ve talked about it with Mama Bear, I know that it isn’t uncommon, but I’m also not seeing others write about it. Besides, damn it, this is an effect of the abuse, it isn’t something for me to be ashamed about, and I have seen that bringing a “shameful” topic out into the open helps to lessen the shame.

It took me a very, very long time to admit to Mama Bear that sometimes I have urges to harm myself. Like 20 years! I have a self image built around being a person who wouldn’t harm anyone, so admitting to those urges was a very big deal, despite the fact that I know that many, if not most abuse survivors struggle with the urge at some point. In fact, before I finally talked about what I was experiencing in an e-mail, she gave me multiple openings in our sessions to talk about the very topic. I am very fortunate, because I have rarely acted on the urges and never in way that left a permanent mark. I have read about how self harm can serve several different functions, and for me the main function seems to be as a distraction from seemingly intolerable amounts of emotional pain.

Generalized self harm seems to be fairly commonly acknowledged in the abuse community, even if it is a topic that most of us are pretty uncomfortable with.

As difficult as it was for me to admit to this type of self harm, admitting to Mama Bear that I have a part who strongly believes that I should be hurt sexually was even harder. Actually, even simply allowing myself to recognize that I was experiencing this was mortifying and frightening to me. Even though I experience this part very separately, she is a part of me, so in actuality, I have those beliefs at times. These are all acts that most likely would be physically painful or at the least I would find shameful and they are things that in my right mind I would never chose to do. So why is a part of me convinced that these harmful acts have to happen? It isn’t as a distraction from emotional pain, I don’t think.

The only bits of sense that I have been able to make of this compulsion to do sexually harmful acts is that this part of me sees it as a way to gain some bit of control over the acts themselves and as a way of proving that even if the acts were to happen again, I still won’t go back to the hell that my grandfather created for me. But there have to be healthier ways to prove those things to myself. Harming myself cannot be good for me in any situation. Sexually harming myself really wouldn’t be good for me. For now, it has eased, but I don’t know if it will come back again. It has already come back twice, although not with quite the frightening intensity of the first time.

As I implied at the beginning, when I told Mama Bear about my struggles with the belief that I had to make sure that I was sexually harmed and in a great deal of pain, her response was to reassure me that she has heard other clients talk about the same thing. As horrible, perverted, and alone as I felt with those beliefs, I really wasn’t alone. There was no need to feel such shame; when I reached out for help, I encountered understanding and compassion, no blame. This really is just another example of how my brain does things that are very odd and difficult to understand in the attempt to heal. I don’t fully understand it, but accepting it, managing it, and moving on will do me a lot more good than feeling ashamed about it and fighting it.

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I’ve discovered that having it feel more safe to feel real and to know that all of me is alive has its downside. It can also make the pain and the grief that much more intense. This really is my pain and my grief. Over the last several days, it has been intense enough that it makes it difficult for me to think, much less communicate with anyone.

That intensity was utterly overwhelming to me, so I shut down my connection to the painful emotions, without even realizing what I was doing. Shutting myself off from the pain came at a terrible cost, though. I found myself in a period of intense self loathing. I heard myself inside saying things like, “I should die” and “Please kill me,” and I had images of intense self harm. I knew that this state of mind would be damaging for me to stay in- repeatedly imaging harming yourself just isn’t a good way to reinforce feelings of safety in the here and now- but it seemed that I just couldn’t get myself fully out of that state. I couldn’t figure out why I was doing this to myself- the only thing that I could think of was the fact that Mama Bear had gone off on vacation, and I seem to always have a crisis of some sort while she is gone for more than a long weekend. That idea didn’t quite seem right, but was the best hypothesis that I could come up with.

Interacting with my husband and daughter helped me to orient better to my life with them, so I could temporarily push aside the self loathing, but it was tiring to do so, and eventually the feelings would come back full force. I knew that I needed to find some self compassion, but I seemed to be incapable of locating it. All I that I could connect with was a desire to destroy myself, even though the rational corner of my mind could see that this urge was not normal for me and I just needed to hold on and eventually I would be able to untangle myself from it.

Late last night, after everyone else went to bed, I curled up on the couch just trying to breathe. I kept on feeling drawn into round after round of especially intense self hatred and eventually I realized that the urge to split myself open was connected to a need to let something emerge from me. There was something more going on here than just a desire to punish myself.

I went outside into the last of the drizzle and started to pace, so at least I didn’t literally feel trapped in place. I wondered whether I should send a message the next day to contact Mama Bear for support, but I am determined that I am going to make it through this vacation without bothering her, so I didn’t want to do that. Besides, it didn’t really feel like my difficulties were about her. And then I remembered something she said to me the last time I talked to her: she had suggested to me that the reason that I felt so much better after I allowed myself to recognize and fully feel some intense anger at my mother was because I had accepted and been able to sit with myself in the feelings, rather than trying to keep them at a distance. Over the previous 2 or 3 days, I had done anything but accept my feelings.

So, I sat down on a step outside, and tried to accept the feelings of hatred for myself. I quickly realized that I was wobbling back and forth between the desire to destroy myself and intense pain that felt like it would destroy me. And then I remembered the pain that I had started to feel a few days earlier and I realized that the self hatred was a cover to keep me away from the feelings of pain; I would remain trapped in the self loathing until I allowed myself to feel how much I hurt. I thought about my conversations with Mama Bear that even though the emotions can be so intense that they feel like they will obliterate me, they are just emotions and I am strong enough to survive them, if I just have confidence in my strength.

So I imagined wrapping myself in a blanket and I allowed myself to feel a pain that felt like it was ripped from the center of my being. I sobbed while I rocked myself and each time I felt myself starting to flee, I stopped and reminded myself that even though I hurt a lot, I am in a place and time where I am safe. When I began to distract myself by trying to figure out what the “source” of the pain was, I realized that what actually mattered right then and there was that I honor and allow myself to experience the pain. Eventually, I felt cried out and for the first time in days there was no self hatred, only compassion.

I know that it’s a good sign that I am able to feel more fully, but I can’t help but wish that my increased feelings of safety had simply left me feeling better for awhile longer, rather than already pushing me on to the next painful step in healing. I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but I’m tired. However, I am where I am. And thankfully right now I am able to feel compassion for myself, rather than hatred.

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The other day, I recognized that there is a pattern of when I go into my self hatred cycles: it seems to be in reaction to my starting to get angry.

I have problems with experiencing anger and I know that; it scares me to death. For whatever reason, those problems are extra strong right now. Maybe because the anger that is hiding inside of me is so powerful and stretches in so many directions? Whatever the case, I will start to become aware that I am angry and then, poof, the anger seems to evaporate. “Where did it just go to?”

One of the distinctions that Mama Bear is trying to help me make is the difference between the child anger and the current anger. I suspect that the current anger should feel safer for me to experience and express, but even that I keep on losing. And the child anger tends to make me want to curl up in a ball and I fear that “bad things” will happen to me. At the moment, I have trouble even locating the anger, never mind feeling it, understanding what it is about, and being able to figure out whether it is from then or from now. However, it keeps on poking out from time to time and allows me to see a corner of it before it goes into hiding again. And just because it is hard to find it and feel it, it doesn’t mean that it is a small anger that is easily lost inside, but rather it means the opposite: it threatens to be all consuming, so I can’t allow myself to feel it at all.

What to do with all of that energy that is floating around? I think that out of a need for this overpowering anger to go somewhere, I started to direct it at myself, although without any awareness of what I was doing. Historically, I haven’t had any interest in self harm, and yet when in one of these states over the past couple of weeks, I would have images of tearing the skin off my body or stabbing myself with a knife or I would go on an internal rampage and imagine demolishing absolutely everything inside, leaving a barren wasteland. And the pain and hopelessness that came along with all of this self hatred and desire to destroy myself left me connected to states that just wanted to end everything.

I never did anything and I don’t think that I was ever in any danger of doing anything physically harmful to myself, but I most certainly suffered emotionally going through those episodes. This cannot continue; it’s just too hard on me.

However, I have learned some things by the experiences. I can see that while I can’t yet allow myself to directly feel the anger that I have at those who hurt me, I now have a glimpse of just how violent that anger is. By looking at what it caused me to imagine doing to myself, I can see what parts of me deep inside probably want to do to the people who hurt me. They want to hurt back very, very badly. Those parts want to make them suffer. That intense desire to destroy and do bodily harm to another human being is so contrary to how I define myself as a person. I can understand it in theory and see that it makes sense that my anger would be so physically aggressive, given how badly I was hurt, but I’m not yet at the point where I feel at all comfortable with that. It isn’t like I actually think that I am in danger of going out and physically harming someone, but knowing that deep inside I have the desire to take a knife to my grandfather is something that is disturbing to me.

But imagining harming myself is not a viable alternative. I’m just grateful to understand better what was going on, because it really wasn’t what it appeared to be on the surface… I wasn’t having those episodes because I wanted to hurt myself, but rather because I needed a safe place to express my rage, and somehow taking it out on myself felt safer than anything else. But I am trying to learn to treat myself gently and with compassion, and taking my anger out on myself is doing just the opposite of that. In fact, I wouldn’t stand for anyone else treating me the way that I was treating myself! I need to find some way to start to express the anger that doesn’t scare the pants off of me and I’m just not sure what that is going to be.

I know that I’m not the only one out there who is afraid of anger, and I would really love to hear about how other people have found ways to get around that fear? Both in terms of what did you do to express the anger and what did you do to help you feel safe enough to even start to express it?

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