Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Dirty Little Secret: Part 1

There is a lot of stigma around mental health conditions and, in particular, self-harming. Linda attempts to openly and constructively discuss self-harming in a two-part post. In this post, she explores why she self-harms and the perceptions of mental health professionals and peers.


- Linda

As a teenager, I was overly vigilant and ridiculously reactive. I was perpetually scared of most things really - loud noises, confrontations, people, home and school. Despite the constant anxiety, my panic attacks were often sneaky and unexpected. Without realising, my breathing would become shallow. My heart would beat frantically, and my mind would go blank. I dealt with my anxiety the best way I knew how. I was determined to please everyone so that I could avoid arguments. I strategically avoided people. I woke up at 6 am and left my house before my family woke up. I arrived at school super early, hiding away before others turned up to school. During lunch times, I would hide in my form tutors’ office. I’d sit in the dark on the floor, crying or having panic attacks.

It is a sort of chicken and egg situation. I do not know what came first; the perfectionism or the anxiety? When I was anxious, I pushed myself harder and when I fell from grace – as I did so often – I became more anxious. Regardless, both the anxiety and perfectionism were frustrating. I hated myself for being so pathetic. I was angry that stupid things like loud noises would set me off. Why couldn’t I be normal? I was furious at myself for not being good enough. Occasionally, the rage that filled me became so intense that I hurt myself. This was exacerbated when I started university. I had to be loud, bubbly and friendly. I HAD to be thin and appear competent. Naturally, my body struggled to keep up with my frantic mind. My body became faint and malnourished. I was pouring hours and hours into studying but failed to get ‘firsts’. I was trying to be ‘happy’, but the depression was bleating through every day. My all-encompassing anxiety spiralled until my only respite was entertaining my suicidal thoughts. It was all okay – I had a way out from my torments. However, the finality of suicide scared me infinitely more than the darkness of my own mind. Self-harming felt like a good enough compromise. Punishing myself soothed the anxiety a bit. Hurting myself satisfied my frustration and need for destruction. 

“Why are you here?” the mental health nurse asks bluntly. I avoid her gaze, instead fixating on one of the ugly paintings on the wall. Embarrassment rises through my body and I shake slightly. Shakily, I explain “I have issues with self-harming.” I catch the nurse glancing at my unscathed arms. She raises her eyebrows and I stiffen. “Have you got any scars to show me.” “Um… well… no I don’t… hurt myself in that way.” I am certain that for a moment that she seems distinctly unimpressed. However, her face returns to its rocky demeanour and she scribbles something down in her notebook. Half an hour later she tells me that I have no issues that “jump” out. Apparently, I am not unwell enough to deserve any treatment. For the rest of the day, I stay calm. I wasn’t expecting much – I convince myself. I knew that I would be disappointed. Oh well; I had to just get on with things. I collect data for research and laugh with my flatmates in my living room. The second I reach my room; I howl in sheer frustration. I cry ugly and fat tears until I sink to sleep. 

Some people, like my nurse, may think that I am over-reacting or exaggerating. For example, I had a clinical psychologist who told me that I could “just stop.” On the flip side, some people perceive me as extremely vulnerable. Some of my well-meaning peers try to protect me from the dark devastating world. They offer me “solutions” and insist that I call them and discuss my emotions if I feel the urge to hurt myself. I am treated like a fragile porcelain doll. People walk around on eggshells, reluctantly trying not to trigger or upset me. Fortunately, this is not everyone. 

During my first year of University, I saw a mental health coordinator to discuss reasonable adjustments. When she asked me if I self-harmed, I paused. My mental health coordinator broke down self-harming into more detail. I explained that my behaviours didn’t cause much damage or pain. My mental health coordinator was mostly neutral, otherwise encouraging. Similarly, some of my peers reacted the same. For me, this response makes me feel the most comfortable. I appreciate that despite their sadness, there is an acceptance that they cannot make me get better. Therefore, there is no pressure to feign recovery or feel guilty. Additionally, by not shining the limelight on my self-harming, I feel more human. I am smart – if I say so myself. I am creative and hardworking. I am a sister, daughter and friend. I am more than self-harm.

Check out this information about looking after your mental wellbeing at university.

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