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