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What Happened When I Gave Up Self-Harm for Lent

I want to tell you about the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.

Well, that’s not entirely true. But it definitely makes the Top Five.

It was the bitter cold of February 2016, and I found myself in an unfamiliar city struggling to make friends. I could write a whole article about living abroad with mental illness (and I probably will) but this one is about the 46 most challenging days of that semester. For 46 days, I gave up all methods of self-harm.

For 46 days, I took care of myself.

There’s much to discuss at the intersection of mental illness and religion, and Lent is one of those particularly messy topics. It’s the time in the Christian liturgical calendar when you’re meant to give something up for 46 days (or 40, if you don’t count Sundays, but we won’t get into the details here) starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday.

This is difficult when your mental illness doesn’t leave you with many things to give up.

Some go the health route. Giving up chocolate perhaps, or soda. Fasting from something that maybe isn’t great for your body. Did you catch that word though? Fasting. I can’t give up chocolate, because chocolate is food, and on days when I’m struggling to eat I might just need some chocolate to convince myself that food isn’t too scary.

Others fast from of technology. No social media, no Netflix, no just-for-fun apps. Every Ash Wednesday I see a flood of “Goodbye Facebook!” posts on my news feed. I couldn’t go a whole 46 days without easy access to my support network of friends and family. Sometimes, seeing their posts on Facebook helps me feel connected. Having them like and comment on my photos reminds me of their presence even when they’re miles away.
And sometimes, a weekend Netflix binge is the only thing that will distract my anxious brain from imagining worst case scenarios in every area of my life.

I could go on. It’s a struggle every year. But last year, I embarked on the scariest Lent I could think of. From the moment the ash touched my forehead, I would treat myself with the gentleness and grace I don’t always think I deserve. So, how did it go?

Looking back on it, I remember the deep and rich emotions of those 46 days. Feeling the Easter sun on my skin after this bold accomplishment is still one of my happiest memories. But I also remember the nights when I sat on the cold tiled floor crying, one tear for every day left in the journey. I had moments where I would look at my calendar and count the weeks, worried I would get tired and give in, but also in awe of how far I’d made it.

For 46 days, I ate enough food. For 46 days, I did not let hunger be a physical refuge amidst a storm of emotional pain. I did not skip out on meals when I was feeling too anxious to eat. Some days, it was the easiest thing in the world. Some days, it made me happy. Really, truly, deeply happy. Other days, I was frustrated. Angry at myself for taking on such a huge task. Pushing through those days was like the last five minutes of a workout, when you want to give up but somehow you find the strength to keep going.

For 46 days, I used my inhaler as needed. I did not push the limits of my lungs. I did not shrink my windpipe into a coffee straw and I told myself each day that I deserve oxygen. I deserve food. And I deserve sleep.

For 46 days, I tried my best to get enough sleep.

For 46 days, I fought the negative thoughts in my head.

For 46 days, my body was not a canvas, or a battlefield, or an altar.

It was a body.

There is more I could add to the list, but you get the point. It was ambitious and hard. There were many times when I was tempted to give up. But through the process, a slow and beautiful healing grew within me. Without unhealthy coping mechanisms, I was forced to sit in my emotions, to fully exist in whatever genre of pain my brain had stirred up. I had to push through and let the pain completely work its way through my system without cutting it short. And it hurt.

This is how I learned that healing can hurt. When self-harm was my first choice to cope with difficult emotions, I would always end up ignoring the other options. When I took that first choice away for Lent, what I saw was love. Not just the people who love me, but the people and places I love, too. I had to get creative, finding new ways to make the pain bearable. To make it subside. To smile. To create happy days, but more importantly, to not beat myself up when I failed to make happy days. After all, the challenge wasn’t to give up negative emotions for Lent. Just the negative actions that followed.

And what did it do for me? The victory did not continue as fully and strongly in the months after Easter, but it was a victory nonetheless. Those 46 days showed me I was capable of far more than I ever imagined. I built up an endurance, and I put together a toolbox of healthy coping mechanisms. Those 46 days did not fix all my problems or make the pain disappear, but they did prove I can handle a challenge. That I can be resourceful in the face of pain. And that, though I still have my days that sink unbelievably low, I have an energy within me that can summon recovery and healing, no matter how exhausting that energy can be.

I am proud of those 46 days.

Here are some self-harm recovery projects that have worked for me and for people I care about. It is important to note that these are not meant to be replacements for intensive recovery options such as therapy, but rather, little things to make the journey more survivable.

The Butterfly Project

The Paper Chain Project

Calm Bottle (aka Glitter Jar, aka Mind Jar)

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Thinkstock photo via bellerebelle_n