Today, I had an anniversary. It wasn’t a wedding anniversary or friendaversary. It wasn’t one of the “six months to the day that I almost killed myself” or “one year to the day my therapist called Hatzalah to get me to the hospital” anniversaries either.
Today, I was marking three years with no life-threatening, self-harming behaviors.
The Seemingly Impossible
It was a miracle that my previous therapist had never believed would happen. During the first short period that I refrained from afflicting harm upon myself, my therapist had repeatedly cautioned me not to be down on myself if it happened again. She had prepared me to relapse, just in case.
“If you would have told me that you’d be stopping self-harm a year ago, I would have told you that you were crazy,” she admitted later on. “In fact, I would have said that I was crazy!”
I didn’t give any indication that her frank admission hurt me deeply, even as we laughed together. In fact, I only let myself feel that hurt much later. In retrospect, she could tell me that, but it was frightening to hear that she had thought that I was beyond hope in this area, even as she kept working with me on everything else. I didn’t blame her, though. I had definitely thought that I was beyond hope, and there was a good reason for her to feel that way too.
Celebrating… Or Not
All day I wanted to tell someone, yet I found that I couldn’t. My family? No way. Friends? Somehow I didn’t feel that I could. My therapist? In a twist of hashgacha (luck) that had me mentally biting my lips in disappointment and frustration, my session had been canceled that day, canceling out the one person I wanted to share the milestone with. I was isolated and felt utterly alone.
All day long, I felt more alone than ever, even as I tried to focus on what reaching this day meant for me. I wanted to thank Hashem, do something meaningful, or even do something special for myself to mark the occasion and encourage myself further forwards. It was hard to remain optimistic on a day like this, though. The summer sky was prematurely dark as rain poured down and the weather was cold and nasty–it matched my mood perfectly. I hadn’t been doing well recently and dismal thoughts began to slowly–and then all at once–overwhelm me. I ended up doing nothing all day, and passed a depressing and decidedly uncheerful morning and afternoon.
How did I celebrate this anniversary? By getting extremely triggered that night and wanting more than anything to self-harm. Badly.
I was absolutely desperate. I felt like Hashem was laughing at me, having the final laugh in this macabre game. I was about to blow a three-year record with an explosion that would wash it all down the drain. And I didn’t think I had the strength to do it again–to pull myself back up once more. I knew that it would be over if anything happened. It was just too much. I sank into despair as my emotions shot higher and higher.
My main thought was, Today, of all days I cannot self-harm. It will be too much for me to handle if I break today. There had been so many near misses over the past few years, so many ‘almost’s’ but it couldn’t finally happen today. Please. I can’t do this.
I was hanging on to the towel rack in the bathroom, fists clenched, eyes shut with my forehead against the wall, breathing hard, crying, not daring to let go because of what I was going to do. I used any skill I could think of to bring down the intensity and when it didn’t work, debated whether to call a friend from my therapy group who kept late hours for emergency support though it was already midnight.
It wasn’t only about hurting myself anymore. Somewhere during the past few minutes, the urge to self-harm had gone beyond that. I was done. If this was what it came to in the end, I was done.
With the bathroom sink running full force to block others from hearing, hands shaking, I finally made the call. I cried hysterically as I blurted out without introduction that I didn’t want to live. What today was and how I was about to blow it. I was incoherent, shocked that I was letting myself go like this, having never made such a call before. I never spoke about ending it so freely. I felt like a failure for having this happen on my ‘anniversary.’ All my happiness in it had disappeared.
We spoke for half an hour. I sobbed and talked through it, hardly knowing what I was saying. My friend didn’t say much, just listened with an occasional word. Eventually my fragmented gasps became coherent sentences and finally I was focused enough to deliberately shift the conversation to her and listen to what she had been undergoing recently, having also been experiencing an extremely tough time.
At the end of the day, I did not self-harm.
That was how I celebrated my anniversary.
In Reflection, …
It has taken me a while to feel grateful for it, to stop beating myself up for that night, and to really thank Hashem for helping me through yet another crisis. I ask Him now for the strength to help me further, to continue to help me in my fight for life. My experiences that night on the brink of relapse taught me how important it can be to reach out to friends for support and not be alone–and how a few words, unconditional acceptance, and a listening ear can literally save a life. It increased my want to be there for my friends and others in their time of need.
It made me realize how alert I need to be for trigger; this made me realize how important it is to anticipate and accept myself with these triggers, and to not beat myself up for my reactions, which in turn intensifies self-hatred and the need to self-harm. The harsh self-talk and self-judgments I never stopped telling myself hurt me today more than the physical self-harm ever did. That’s my next goal of self-improvement.
It made me realize how hard I’m still trying, the struggles I still go through, and how far I’ve come–and that despite it all, I somehow have it in me to fight. There is a strength in me that I can barely acknowledge, yet am told by others is there.
The Unspoken Struggle of Restraining from Self-Harm
I still struggle intensely with self-harm. I fight my urges, my thoughts, and use any skill that I can think of to lower the intensity, to pass through the overwhelming pain safely. I fight suicidal ideation, not letting myself take it to the next step. Sometimes this means just sitting still, not moving, because things will go out of control otherwise. It’s admitting to myself that I’m in tremendous pain–and that that’s okay. It’s okay to be me, and it’s okay to feel. It’s understandable why I don’t want to live; yet simultaneously, I must overcome–and not deny–these feelings and work hard to cope effectively with them.
There have been periods when I saw an encouraging and gradual decrease in my urges, and an increase in coping skills and stability. But even if I don’t allow myself to act on my thoughts, the harmful impulses are still my go-to response when I can’t handle the pain. I often miss self-harming behaviors, as bad as that sounds. Self-harm is a quick fix: powerful, addictive, numbing, and grounding all at once. It burns and ices me. It’s a means of control and yet being out of control. Inflicting self-harm does do something for a person in pain, even if unhealthy or ineffective in the long term; there is a reason it is done. That said, I know now that it only worsens the situation. It does something, but it doesn’t help in the way that I really need.
I Should Be Dead
When I was actively self-harming–daily, life-threatening behaviors that could have done tremendous physical damage–there was no time between the thought and the action. I had the thought, and it was already happening. Looking back, I understand that I can fight a thought, but when the self-destructive action is nearly instantaneous, it’s usually too late to stop. It’s a different battle then–to stop the self-destructive action mid-flow.
Today, I fight the battle not to start. I think of what my therapist has told me and I track the buildup of emotions and situations, doing my best to deal with them along the way before I reach the boiling point of self-harm, because there’s always a cause. While it’s progress, it’s not easy being a breath away from life-threatening behaviors. The thought that I should be dead many times over, possibly brain-damaged, or alive with severe physical damage is disconcerting, particularly when I don’t want to live. All I can tell myself is that Hashem must really want me here, because based on what I’ve done, I shouldn’t be.
Why Am I Living If I Want To Be Dead?
Over the last few painful months since that night, I’ve asked myself the following question many times: “What is making me want to live if I want so badly to end this life of pain? Why am I here? What’s making me go on?”
I remember my therapist’s reaction after a crisis when she told me, “You have a whole life ahead of you,” and I blurted out, uncharacteristically raising my voice, “But I don’t want to live a whole life.” It was the closest I’d come to breaking down in session, something I couldn’t do yet. The outburst had been long in coming, but she was the first and only one to hear it out loud.
“Do you not want to live, or do you not want to live this life?” she asked me quietly after a pause. I didn’t answer, but I knew.
I think what makes me hang on is the complete acceptance and support that my therapist and others have in me, because it allows me to hear and absorb a little of their question of What if? What if I can live a different life? What if I really can be okay one day, if I really can live the life I want to live? What if I will find that there is more to life than severe emotional pain: that there can be love, acceptance, and even improved emotional health? What if I accept that it is possible to learn to trust again in Hashem, in people and life, and in myself? What if I can still get married and build a family? What if I can become emotionally healthy enough to help others like me? Can I take the risk of not finding out?
I ask myself this when I say ‘no’ to the pills, to life-threatening self-harm, to negative actions that will leave a lasting impact on my spiritual life, as low as that is now. Can I give it all up? Can I risk it? Do I really want to? And even when I’m beyond asking questions, I just feel it in me. It’s very close, but… No.
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