I Cut Myself: Exploring My Relationship with Self-Mutilation

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Nathan Daniels realized that he practiced rituals of self harm in order to move his emotional turmoil to a focus outside himself. Here’s why it happened and how he stopped. 

TRIGGER WARNING for descriptions of self harm.

In spite of the myth—that people who self-harm are looking for attention—the truth is, most people who engage in self-abuse go to great lengths to keep this behavior secret. This needs to change, and I want to examine my own history with self-mutilation and attempt to explain why I cut myself.

This misunderstood coping skill is a common symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Borderline Personality Disorder, and it’s associated with many other anxiety and personality disorders as well. There is also a connection between self-injury and suffering great loss, like the death of a close relative, and survivors of abuse, especially when the abuse occurs during childhood.

Personally, I live with several debilitating psychological disorders, including Borderline Personality Disorder and Chronic PTSD. I also suffered extensive and ongoing child abuse…molested by my older sister, verbally abused by my father, and later exposed to years of social isolation. In my late teen years, an unfortunate series of deaths wiped out half my family in the span of three months. This suffrage of loss and grief caused an implosion of immeasurable agony that consumed my own will to live. Clearly, I can associate with almost every possible cause associated with self-abusive tendencies.

This need has been part of my life for thirty years, but it wasn’t until I almost died, just over two years ago, that I took a good look at my lifelong relationship with razor blades, sewing needles, and boiling water. Obviously, I couldn’t figure these things out when I was seven or eight-years old but, in retrospect, that’s when it all started.

♦◊♦

Progressive self-mutilation — my history:

At that age, shortly after the sexual abuse ended, I started experiencing episodes of overwhelming negative emotion. My mood would turn on a dime, from content or happy, to feeling every ounce of despair I ever experienced welling up inside me and cracking the foundation of my sanity. I dealt with this alone for the most part, terrified of my father and sister, while my mom always seemed to have the weight of the world on her shoulders. I never felt comfortable burdening her with my problems, so I did my best to comfort myself whenever my emotions spun wildly out of control.

At seven years old, I would clench my jaw and eyes shut tight, hug my knees close to my chest and rock myself. My entire body tense, my tiny fingernails would dig into the backs of my arms, as I’d squeeze harder, and rock faster…devastated by feelings that were far too intense for my young mind. Sometimes my fingernails would break the skin, I’d bleed a little, and somehow this made me feel better. I never identified the process for what it was or made any connection to the cause and effect of this subconscious self-harm, but still, it progressed over time to, pinching and slapping myself or occasionally head butting a wall.

Later, when I lived in social isolation, my need to suffer physical punishment merged with my blossoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I developed strict routines of physical training to fill my lonely hours while other kids went to school. During the day, I did normal things like jogging, weight training, and practicing martial arts. At night, however, my rituals were beyond strange. I added bludgeoning my head, face, stomach, and groin to my repertoire and, driven by OCD, I counted repetitions as if I were doing push-ups and jumping jacks.

By the time I was seventeen, after both my parents were dead and buried, I was burning myself with cigarettes and living on the street. Somehow, I found the will to survive my bleak situation, and I even got married, but the self-abusive behavior still progressed.

At twenty-four years old, I had an affinity for inserting my wife’s sewing needles straight into my muscle tissue all over my body. I liked it because the wounds it left were virtually unnoticeable, so I never had any explaining to do.

In my mid-thirties, just over two years ago, my self-mutilation was out of control and my life was in serious danger. Cutting myself barely sufficed anymore, and I was covering my body in long slices…searching for relief.

The burn of a cigarette used to ease the chaos in my head, but at this point, I was boiling pots of water to pour on myself. Dropping weights on my stomach graduated to dropping them on my barefoot toes…breaking the bones against my basement floor.

It was quickly getting worse, and I was seeing visions of myself cutting my finger off. I was obsessing over the image, and I knew a compulsion to carry the act out would soon be inevitable. Scarier still was the fact that I was also starving myself to death, punishing my body with the denial of sustenance, and I barely slept. I lost seventy pounds of muscle tissue in six months. I was having multiple panic attacks daily and suffering complete blackouts in times of stress. I cut myself bad during one of these blackouts, and I knew permanent disfigurement and death were real threats. I committed myself to a mental institution for the second time in my life, making a final attempt to save myself.

“I was completely blacking out, and finding dizzying evidence of the psychotic acts later, in blood stained clothes and untreated wounds. I was afraid of myself, and thought I might slit my throat or wrists while I was psychologically unconscious… bleed to death in the middle of the night, with no one the wiser. It was a legitimate concern. I developed Autophobia… fear of oneself.”               —Excerpt from Surviving the Fourth Cycle

I started writing, and striving for real recovery, as I continue to do now. I’ve learned a lot about my disorders and self-abusive behavior over the years, and this knowledge is a key ingredient in my growing ability to control myself.

♦◊♦

Why I cut myself:

Sometimes, my traumatic past and the psychological disorders I live with can cause my thoughts and emotions to spin wildly out of control. The chaos in my mind becomes crippling and it’s impossible to focus.

When I cut myself or inflict other damage on my body, it causes a shift in my frightening state of mind. The injuries provide a focal point that pushes my emotional turmoil into the peripheral, even if it’s just for a short while. The sight of my own blood and the sensation of its release instantly harness my chaotic thoughts.

Dissociation is one of the more uncomfortable symptoms I deal with on a regular basis, so anti-dissociation is another motivator for me to wound myself. There are times when I reach a level of emotional numbness so intense the world around me becomes surreal and dreamlike. It feels like my soul is Parasailing… still tethered to my body, but floating behind it somewhere in the distance.

Self-mutilation during these times makes me feel like a real person again. My blurry, distant perception of the world immediately begins to regain clarity and the fog that enveloped my mind quickly starts to lift. There is a physical sensation too, much like the Parasailor being reeled back into the boat.

Afterward, in most cases, I feel better and can function almost normally again. There’s an addictive quality too, as the brain releases endorphins upon injury to combat the physical pain. Many times, when I come crashing back to earth, I experience a genuine sensation of euphoria.

Even though self-abuse helps me survive desperate moments, it will never suffice as a long-term solution. Much like self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, the addictive nature of self-mutilation combined with the increased pain tolerance and need for more, inevitably experienced through continued exposure, creates a whole new problem to deal with.

I have survived years, without inflicting intentional pain on myself now, but when stressful events arise, the dark temptation always rears its ugly head. It would be unreasonable for someone with my unique case history to say it’s over. This is, quite possibly, something I will struggle with at times for the rest of my life.

I’m nearly thirty-eight years old now. My body is riddled with scars of various age and cause. I have no intention to harm myself again, but remain realistic that it could happen. This self-awareness is a crucial part of my recovery, and I know if I have a relapse, I’ll acknowledge the danger immediately, seek help if I need it, continue educating myself, and finding healthier ways to cope.

That’s my plan…and I’m sticking to it.

photo: mattzn / flickr

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About Nathan C. Daniels

Nathan Daniels, author of Surviving the Fourth Cycle, lives with psychological disorders including Agoraphobia, OCD, Social Anxiety Disorder, Chronic PTSD, and Borderline Personality Disorder. Abused in his youth, orphaned and homeless as a teenager, he became self-abusive and suicidal as an adult. Against all odds he survived, and now uses writing to raise awareness for, and fight stigma associated with; abuse, suicide, and mental illness. For more information, visit http://survivingthefourthcycle.com/

You can connect with Nathan on Facebook - Twitter - Google+ - Linkedin

or, email [email protected]

Comments

  1. Hi Nathan
    May I ask you some questions?
    You write:✺” Dissociation is one of the more uncomfortable symptoms I deal with on a regular basis, so anti-dissociation is another motivator for me to wound myself. There are times when I reach a level of emotional numbness so intense the world around me becomes surreal and dreamlike. It feels like my soul is Parasailing… still tethered to my body, but floating behind it somewhere in the distance.
    Self-mutilation during these times makes me feel like a real person again. My blurry, distant perception of the world immediately begins to regain clarity and the fog that enveloped my mind quickly starts to lift. There is a physical sensation too, much like the Parasailor being reeled back into the boat.”✺

    Have do you know for sure if you dissociate or are psychotic?
    Is it the fact that you are aware of your dissociation that makes you conclude this is not psychoses?

    Will the dissociation go away if you are patient and just wait till it is all over or is it everlasting or long lasting unless you act by cutting or seeking help? I mean will it last for weeks and months?

    And question number two: is it true that persons diagnosed with BPD feel physical pain less than others, and have higher threshold for pain and at the same time also have a love threshold for physical pain in some situations ?.
    In other words are your perception of pain differs from other persons?

    • Hi Iben,
      It’s nice to hear from you again… thanks for your questions, and you’re right.
      I do maintain awareness on some level, when I dissociate. I’m connected to reality in this state, my perception of it changes though, as I become… far away. These episodes can usually be measured in minutes, and occasionally hours.
      I have had psychotic episodes, but few and far between, and it’s been quite some time now. There is a big difference.
      I experience audio and visual hallucinations that disconnect me from reality, and my thought process scatters in directions of paranoia and delusion. Worst case scenario… I black out and have no recollection of my activities…
      It’s difficult to explain how disturbing it is to change location and lose time after one of these events. Sometimes, hours or days later, I might get nonsensical slideshow-type images that serve me as a form of alien recollection… similar to suddenly remembering a weird dream you had a few nights ago.

      I know through years of martial arts training that you can certainly learn to alter your perception of pain, and condition the flesh to absorb extreme amounts of it. I think anyone who inflicts pain upon themselves frequently and for extended periods, like those who self-harm, will achieve the same result… whether they realize it or not. This is one of the biggest threats… the perpetual need to increase pain levels to achieve the desired results.
      I hope I’ve answered your questions. Thanks again Iben… and take care :]

      • Hi Nathan

        I will pray for you. You need healing and I know it is possible also for you.
        Thank you for raising awareness but most of all than you for fighting the stigma of all persons diagnose with BPD!

        Persons of all sorts of diagnosed come forth, the depressed, those with bipolar disorder and those with psychoses. Only those diagnosed with BPD remain silent and never come on the Oprah show. Professor of psychology Marsha Linehan kept her BPD diagnoses hidden all through her career but finally told the truth. Marilyn Monroe and Lady Diana are few of celebrities we know of that had that diagnoses.

        You my friend fight for the most stigmatized group there is in psychiatry, and a disorder more painful than anyone can imagine. And you do it well.
        I send you all my love :)

  2. Keep up the positive thoughts!
    I am sorry about the horrible abuse. I am amazed at the
    amount of children who have suffered through various types of abuse.
    It is alos amazing how each individual learns to cope with it and the negative
    behaviors that result.
    You are correct in taking the biggest step in identifying it. Too many suppress it
    psychologically and never heal.
    Stay on a good path. Seek help from a higher power.
    Continue to give yourself credit for even small successes.

    • Lu Ann,
      Your words mean a lot to me… thank you for taking the time to write. I really appreciate the encouragement, and I wish you all the best :]

  3. Declan Munro says:

    You look like a beautiful person and sound like a wonderful human being. Your trauma is no fault of yours and suffering in silence is part of the history left by such truama. it is just that history and the past. You are entitled to do and have what all survivors should have, the entitlement to make the future better for yourself, by doing that you will know that the abusers have not won. By loving yourself and valuing yourself younare saying goodbye the past and hello to something better. Goodluck on your journey.

    • Hey Delcan,
      Thank you for reading my words here, and reaching out to me with such genuine kindness. I found your comment very inspiring, and I certainly appreciate your support. Take care of yourself :]

  4. Nathan,
    Let me begin by saying first that I am amazed by you and what you have gone through in your life. Secondly thank you for writing about the horrible things you have experienced in your life. No one should ever have to go through with everything that you did. I am deeply amazed by you. You are truly a survivor.

    Sylvia Stein

    • Sylvia,

      You’re so very welcome, but more importantly… thank you!!
      Your sincere kindness, incredible compliments, and genuine support are beyond appreciated and highly motivating.
      I wish you all the best :]

  5. Hi,
    I have a friend in my critique group who used to be a cutter. Like you, she has found ways to overcome.
    Thanks for having the courage to share something so personal, so the rest of us can understand better what you’ve gone through.

  6. Thank you for sharing this Nathan, my husband was also a victim of sexual, physical and verbal abuse as a child: physical and verbal at the hands of his parents, all of the above at the hands of his cousin, an honor student above suspicion, whom he was forced to spend time alone with for “tutoring”. He would act out in school, the only place where he felt safe enough to release some of the rage, pain and confusion that were spiraling in his mind. When the principal asked to speak to his parents, well of course they punished him for the social disgrace then – instead of going to a licensed health care professional where the signs of abuse would have been noticed they took the advice of a family friend and started giving him 2 adult strength antihistamines before sending him to school. Get the message out there so that others may escape the vicious cycle.

    • Victoria,
      I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you sharing a little of your own story here!!
      I assure you your support fuels my motivation, and I wish you all the best… Thank you :]

  7. What courage it takes to write what you have about the inner battle you suffer daily. The aftermath of abuse takes many routes beyond PTSD, which in itself is a terror to live with, but addictions such as you describe harm not only the emotions but threaten life. I applaud you for sharing what you have gone through in the hope it will help others. While co-authoring the upcoming book La Bella Mafia, I learned much about the lifelong effects of abuse from Bella Capo whose story it is and saw how painful it is to put the memories on paper. But you and the legions of abused children and adults who put themselves through the agony of sharing their stories in the hope of helping others are to be applauded. Like me, I’m sure everyone who has read this story is pulling for you.

    • Morgan,
      Thank you. I definitely appreciate your open mind and sincere understanding, as you’ve been exposed to these stories. Thank you for opening your heart to us, reaching out with kindness, offering support, and helping to share these stories.
      The good news is… writing about these things is certainly painful at first, but the pain goes away and the writing becomes therapeutic, empowering, and provides a tool to connect with others… like we do here. I’m happy we’ve made this connection, and I wish you all the best :]

  8. Nathan, I enjoyed reading your heartfelt story. You are not alone in struggles. I too have over came many of life issues that were brought upon me through no fault of my own. That lead me to write an article also about over coming self destructive tendencies. I have found true and lasting victory over them. The ones I started and the ones imposed on me by others, I’m truly healed from them all. My message to others, is that you can be totally healed for life by going through a simple process.
    Be encouraged, because half the battle is making the issues known. Then the process of working on them can begin.

  9. It is a deep and real story. I will add only this – seek out others (and they won’t be few) who may have been through the same or similar challenges. Measure your success by how many of them you are able to help. These latter may not be many, but I believe helping even one of such people to find their way back into sanity, stability, and closure is a worthy lifetime pursuit.

  10. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. I know it’s hard sometimes to talk about these things. I also have ptsd, from rape. I have a question. I recently blacked out or had a dissociative episode and I am curious how long they last. I have no idea how long it lasted for me. Could you explain these to me since you have experienced this before? Like do you act normal or can anyone tell? Thanks again for sharing your story. It’s hearing other stories that motivate me to keep trying.

  11. Thank you for sharing your story.
    At the age of 25 I am still destroying my own body, cutting my skin deeper than ever. And I desperately want to stop, I can’t really take it anymore.
    I often think I’m too old to be saved, and I seldom hope I could be saved although I’m too old.
    Thanks.

    A., Italy.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Nathan Daniels realized that he practiced rituals of self harm in order to move his emotional turmoil to a focus outside himself. Here's why it happened and how he stopped.  […]

  2. […] I Cut Myself: Exploring My Relationship with Self-Mutilation — The Good Men Project. […]

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