My 12 Go-To Distractions When I'm Fighting the Urge to Self-Harm

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The reality of self-harm is it is not always done by a teen, wearing all black and sporting homemade tattoos. The reality of self-harm is that it takes on many shapes and sizes. It affects the young and the older, alike. Self-harm does not care if you are a busy student, a successful executive, unemployed, or a business owner. It doesn’t care if you are male or female. Many people struggle with self-injury, and the guilt and pain it can bring.

I was about 12 when the urges to self-injure hit me. I was struggling with depression, and trying desperately to hide it from everyone. My home was not a safe haven for me, and although my parents were kind and I was never abused physically by them, it was not that way when other members of my family came to stay. I was living a life of fear, anxiously hiding my depression and trying to avoid those who would hurt me.

Self-harm became my lifeline, a way to control my life when I felt I had no control. It was also a way to punish myself for not being able to stop what was happening. I had no idea that anyone else in the world felt this way. I don’t even know why or how I came up with the idea that to hurt myself would help me feel in control.

It took me 21 years to admit to anyone I was a chronic self-harmer, and had been for so long. It felt shameful and frightening to get help. It took another year to finally have the new coping strategies I was learning to actually help. Spending two weeks in a mental health hospital last year, it was a shock and surprise to me to find out self-harm was actually really common among those who struggle with mental illnesses. It opened my eyes to the fact I was no alone in this and didn’t need to feel ashamed of my secret.

After I left the hospital, I felt strong enough to open up and tell my husband about this hidden issue. I was able to talk to my psychiatrist and tell him too, and doing so gave me a lifeline to recovery. They helped me find coping tools, and my husband has often sat with me while I have cried and sobbed my way through a day while trying to ignore the increasing urge to harm myself.

Here are some of my go-to distractions when I’m fighting the urge to self-harm. Remember, different things work for different people. Find what helps you. Most of all, I found it helpful to use my stubborn streak for my own good by refusing to allow myself to self-harm — even though that in itself, hurt. This was the first step for me!

1. Be honest.

Tell your safe person how you are feeling and ask them to help you. If you can’t talk to them, write a note or text. Just getting the words out there can often help.

2. Remind yourself of how you will feel afterwards.

I often feel disappointed afterwards. It helps me to think of my support people and how they may feel.

3. Cry.

If you need to cry, allow yourself and don’t feel ashamed. It’s a natural way to let out emotion.

4. Mindfully transport yourself somewhere you feel safe, calm and happy.

I like to imagine being on the beach, feeling the warmth of the sand under my toes, the gentle breeze against my skin, the smell of the salty air. The more you practice, the easier it is to take yourself away from the situation you are in.

5. Remove yourself from temptation.

Go on a walk or drive, meet a friend for coffee. Just don’t take self-harm tools with you.

6. Let your pain out in words by writing in a journal.

If your thoughts are frantic, just scribble down whatever you are thinking. Consider blogging.

7. Keep an art journal and draw or paint your feelings.

Focusing on keeping my hands steady so I can sketch helps me self-soothe.

8. Practice mindfulness.

Put on a guided meditation and follow along, or practice deep breathing and grounding techniques. An example includes, listing five things you can see, five things you can hear and five things you can feel.

9. Do a yoga or pilates session and focus on stretching each muscle.

Slow and steady, there is no rush. Focus your thoughts on the movement.

10. Take a hot shower or bath.

Imagine it washing away the painful feelings.

11. Use peppermint oil.

I rub pure peppermint oil on my wrists. It stings a little, which helps when I’m feeling numb and would have used the pain from self-harm to “feel.” Plus the smell is very soothing and calming.

12. Sit with your feelings.

Remember, you don’t have to hurt yourself just because you’re thinking about self-injury.

Making a list of things to help you to distract yourself if you are experiencing self-harm urges is the best advice I could share with anyone. Have it handy and practice it when you are feeling stronger too, so that it is second nature in the hard times, on those hard days. Don’t wait until you are trying to get through a crisis to practice your strategies.

Remember this though, you are worth so much more than your scars and bruises. You are worthy of love, both from yourself and from others.

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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What Do I Do if I Don't Care if I Live or Die?

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Editor’s note: This post discusses self-harm and may be triggering to some. 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.

I think my favorite (or rather, most frequent) form of self–harm is indifference. I find myself in situations where I have to decide my fate of sorts, and yet in almost every one of them, I don’t care about the outcome or how it will affect me. It’s not because of some I-can-handle-any-challenge-that-comes-my-way mindset. I genuinely have no interest in where my decision will lead. Because I don’t care what happens to me.

I like to think I’m not actually this way. Sitting here now, I’m thinking, “There’s no way I have a complete lack of self-preservation.” I mean scientifically speaking, I should have some sort of defense mechanism in my brain that kicks in in times of survival (you know, “survival of the fittest” and whatever Darwin was talking about). Like if I’m crossing the street and I see a car heading my way at a not-so-low speed, my body should react on its own and get out of the way as fast as possible. But in reality, I either don’t bother changing my pace or I just stop and wait for the car to hit me. Don’t mind me, I’m just a walking death wish here!

I used to cut myself for various reasons. It started the first year I was in college and continued sporadically until about a year ago. I haven’t cut since — not that I haven’t wanted to. Sometimes I’ll just be sitting down watching TV and get the sudden urge without even being triggered by anything around me. It passes more quickly now, but the urge still rises every now and then. I’ve found some ways to alleviate the stress, such as snapping a rubber band or hair tie, or holding ice against my skin. These seem to work for me.

I think when people hear the term “self–harm,” their imagination is very limited to physically cutting or possibly burning one’s skin. But it’s so much more than that. We’re harming our psychological selves. And though the physical acts leave scars on our skin, those marks are nothing compared to the ones we’ve formed internally. Our souls have been carved, emptied, ripped to pieces, and stitched back together again. Those scars may never fade, and that’s far worse than the ones visible on our skin.

Although self–harm isn’t something that should be glorified or made to be “heartbreakingly beautiful,” it also isn’t something to be ashamed of. I was ashamed when people started asking me about my cuts and scars. I never felt comfortable sharing the truth with anyone — not even my own family. So I would do as best I can to cover them either with clothing or skin-colored bandages. But now, I’m not embarrassed to leave my arms bare for the world to see. I even got a tattoo of an oak tree over the spot on my arm that has the most scars—  not because I want to cover them but as a reminder of the things I survived and that I can still grow and thrive despite the struggles I have faced (and continue to face) in my life. Anyone who has harmed themselves in this way should know they are not alone and are not bad people for what they’ve done. Everyone finds their own ways to survive, and no one can judge you for fighting for your life.

More recently, I’ve taken a “liking” to harming myself by abandoning myself. I’ve hung myself out to dry and walked away without a care in the world — without a care for my own well-being. Sometimes it’s little things like not showering because I don’t care about my own personal hygiene or not eating because I have no energy to walk to the kitchen, and self-care provides no motivation whatsoever. Because it’s non-existent. But other times, it’s driving down the road and speeding through an almost-red light, knowing there’s a good chance I could get T–boned by an oncoming car. Even though I’m not actively seeking out ways to harm myself, I’m not doing anything to prevent myself from being harmed, which, in my opinion, is just as bad.

For a long time, I was so angry with everyone (my family and friends) for “abandoning” me. For not caring about me and my own well-being. But I never even let them care for me in the first place. Why should I? I don’t feel like I’m worth caring for, so I shouldn’t waste their time (part of their life) begging for their support and constant reassurance. I don’t care about myself. I don’t care if I live or die. I am last on my priorities’ list. I’m a ghost of a person who maybe never even existed in the first place. People need life to be alive. Life needs care and love and nurture. None of which I’ve allowed myself to have or reach for.

Why am I like this? How do I stop being like this? I don’t know the answers to these questions now, but I have to start somewhere, right?

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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Why I Lie About Self-Harm (and What I Need From You)

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The cat did it.

We have a new puppy.

Playing hockey.

I fell over.

I was in a fight.

I don’t know.

Decorating.

Burned it on the oven.

Shark attack.

A few of the many excuses myself and other have used to explain away injuries — injuries caused by ourselves.

Some are perhaps plausible, others utterly ridiculous. The response from the person we tell? More often it’s enough for them to move on no matter how ridiculous — that or they make a sarcastic remark. A teacher once replied to me, “Must have been a sharp paintbrush”

Neither of these responses are truly helpful.

The first is, for us, helpful in the sense it allows us to continue our self-destruction without bother — but in the grand scheme of things just reinforces that people don’t really care and continues to drive the stigma and shame.

The second, although on reflection I feel that reaction came from the right place, means they knew what it really was and they were trying to let me know that, challenging my excuse. But it again just exacerbates the guilt and shame.

Sometimes I think we just need people to give us the opportunity to be honest. “Are you sure?” Personally I would have always continued with whatever excuse, but even so, just saying, “Well I’m here if you want to talk or write something down.”

I had one teacher who always allowed me to talk. I can’t say I ever really talked about what I had done, but it gave me a platform if I needed it, and it taught me some people do care.

It’s not easy asking for help. Especially for us. More often than not we use self-harm as our coping mechanism, which probably means we haven’t ever really been able to openly talk, so asking for help and talking is a massive difficulty. When someone asks if we are OK, 9.9 times out of 10 we will say yes, or fine… and “fine” has its own meaning in my circles! We do this for a few reasons.

1. It’s easier to say this.
2. We don’t want to “burden” anyone.
3. We have most likely had our trust broken, and thus we don’t believe anyone actually cares.

Here comes the great test. Most people accept your first answer. Only those who care will ask sincerely (we can tell the difference). “No really, are you ok?”
Now I’m not saying this is right, but that’s how it is sometimes.

Sometimes (a lot of the time) it takes someone opening that door for you and reminding you the door is open. We need you to do that so we know it’s OK. When you’re going through whatever it is and you’re self-harming I cannot even begin to explain how much less of a person you feel, how much of a burden you feel like, how much of a waste of everyone’s time you believe you are, how worthless you feel. When you feel like that, approaching someone for help, telling someone how you really feel is the hardest thing to do because you don’t believe you matter.

Social media and technology gets a lot of slack these days, but it can massively help. Yes, young people spend a lot of time on their phones, but we can use this to our advantage. We may have a number we can text — texting is so much easier than having to talk. We may just write it down. It makes it easier for us to start the conversation without starting it face to face.

Let’s embrace technology.

When I was a kid there was just Samaritans. Did I need them? Yes. Did I ever ring them? No. If I could have text a worker or a designated person at school would I? Yes. Or email. Either.

It took me over 10 years to say the words “I self-harm” out loud.

We need to make it easier to have these conversations.

And we need you to listen and ask questions and be told it will be OK.

I’m getting better, but I still find it hard to talk, but if someone else asks the questions I can answer them.

Please don’t ever tell us to “just stop.” If it was that easy, don’t you think we would? You could also ruin any chance of us talking to you again as that just makes us feel like you haven’t listened and you don’t understand, again reinforcing that people don’t understand, or care, and pushing us further into ourselves.

You can’t ask someone to stop their only way of coping without giving them another — and even then… it takes time to change how you cope.

We sometimes lie because saying I’ve self-harmed is an impossible sentence, even if we want you to know because we need help.

We feel so much shame that asking for help or simply talking is the hardest thing in the world. We don’t know if it’s OK to talk about it. We need you to open that door in as many ways as possible: talking, emailing,texting, instant messaging etc.

Be sincere, be honest, give us time.

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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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To the Nurse Who Saved Me When I Was Self-Harming

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To the nurse who saved me,

I first met you when I was 18 years old. Scared and lonely, I was trapped in a vicious cycle of self-harm and self-hate. I was the youngest person on an adult psychiatric unit. I felt like a child lost in a swarm of older patients, nurses and doctors. It was my first stay here, and I was petrified.

Your kind face and loud personality drew me to you. I ended up staying there for four months, and each time you spoke with me you chipped away at my hard shell. I was hiding behind my self-harm, cutting myself instead of talking about my feelings. Still, you never gave up. You took me to A&E and held my hand as I got stitches. You made jokes and made me smile on our long wait for transport back to the ward at 3 a.m. You removed countless stitches from my arms so gently and with so much care.

Eventually, after two years of coming and going from the ward, I talked. I talked about what I saw, the trauma that filled my nightmares and made me terrified to leave the house. Trauma and grief all mixed and muddled around so much that I struggled to tell the difference.

You held me as I cried, and you sat patiently as I cried until I had no tears left. You made sure I got into bed safely and got some rest. It calmed me to know you were around somewhere as I slept. You built me back up. You never once gave up on me. You made sure I knew you believed I could beat this, that life wouldn’t always leave me searching for a way out. I wouldn’t always want to die.

You told me things about you. You let me see into your life and what brought you to this point. You gave me so much hope, so much inspiration. You made me want to fight.

You left this ward. You moved onto bigger and better things, as I knew you always would. We met again a few years ago, and we both cried as I told you what I had achieved since you left. You were proud of me, and I was too.

I’m writing this to tell you what you told me I would feel some day: I’m OK. I survived. I’m almost 25 now, and I haven’t cut myself in four months. I’m fighting with a strength I didn’t know I had — one you knew was inside of me all this time. I have my own home, a small one-bedroom flat where me and my little kitten are happy. I’ve been in a relationship with the sweetest girl for two and a half years. She knows everything there is to know about me, and she’s still here, right by my side. I volunteer with a charity who work with teenagers with mental illness. I am who I am today because of you. I owe it all to you. I will be forever grateful. Because of you, I am OK.

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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How My Tattoos Help 'Heal' My Scars

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Today is a loophole of sorts. It’s like I’m breaking, but I’m really not. It feels the same. But instead of ugly scars, I’m creating something beautiful I’ll proudly wear. Well, he is. We are.

I’m in this chair, my right arm stretched to the side of me and I am happy. Content. Anxious (always). And I find myself kind of pouring my heart out to the man beside me. More or less a stranger, tattooed exterior, black gloves and a tattoo gun in hand. It’s a different kind of therapy. And he keeps it light, doesn’t take everything too seriously and it’s nice. It’s nice in the comfort of this chair, needle and ink etching my arm, to just have a quiet laugh in our corner as he comments on my recent life story, my mental health journey. He jokes and challenges me, but it’s all in good fun. Makes me kind of question everything, which would be frustrating with just about anyone else but him.

This makes sense.

Working on my right, we talk about a future coverup on my left arm. New ink over old that will actually mean something. And it’s right there, out in the open — exposed. I know he’s had to have noticed, but he says nothing about it, about them. Because it wasn’t that long ago I relapsed and broke. The scars are still a dark reddish purple, just an inch or so away from where the coverup will be. A noticeable, tragic shade against my skin.

“Sounds like you’ve had a rough go of things,” he does say at one point. Not a question, just a fact.

These two and a half hours are the most relaxed and content I’ve been in a long while. And he says it was nice getting to know me a little. I say likewise. I tell him we’ll bond again over more ink and cherry blossoms.

In a way, it feels like I broke today, fresh ink needled into my right arm. But I didn’t. Instead of fresh scars I get to proudly wear something beautiful. It’s a tattoo I’ve wanted since I was just 11 years old, not long before my descent into self-harm began.

I have a feeling “tattoo therapy” will play a big part in my recovery.

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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What I'll Say When My Future Children Ask About My Self-Harm Scars

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

I worry about if/when I have kids. I worry about what I’ll tell them when they see my self-harm scars and are old enough to know a bit more of the truth. I worry about when they will ask about them. I worry I won’t choose the right age to tell them. I worry whatever I say, it won’t be enough. I know no matter what, I can’t guarantee they’ll never harm themselves. I hope when the time is right, I’ll have the right words and I’ll start the conversation. It won’t be just a one-time talk, it will be a conversation with the door to it always open.

I’ll say…

“Sometimes the world is a very dark place, and unfortunately, your mom had to endure a lot of darkness a long time ago. I had to find a way to survive in a cruel world. I tried to numb out, hide, run and ignore every single emotion that roared inside of me like a raging waterfall. I pushed it down because I was convinced I couldn’t handle it. Convinced I had no one to tell. Remember, you can always tell me anything. Remember, you can never run from your feelings in the long run. 

I’ll say…

“A long time ago, I was in a war against my body. I was at war against this thing I felt betrayed by each and every day. You know mommy has bad hips, right? Well a long time ago they didn’t know why my hips caused me so much pain and back then, before I had my first surgery, the war started. My body hurt so much, and no one believed me. I couldn’t tell anyone how much pain I was in because I was afraid of the judgments. Remember, I will always believe you.

I’ll say…

“Shame is an emotion when we feel embarrassed or distressed by the thought or truth we have done something others will see as wrong. If we don’t talk about the things that make us feel this way, we’ll stay silent and trapped until the feeling grows and grows, becoming unbearable. Feeling like this for a long time can lead someone to feeling unworthy of care. My war with my body got me stuck in a cycle of shame: actions that caused shame, shame that caused more actions that caused more shame. I got trapped. Remember, you can always talk to me when you feel shame. Remember, you will always be worthy of care, no matter what.” 

I’ll say…

“My battles with demons happened when I felt I didn’t have the words to convey the immense amount of pain I was in. I didn’t have the words to explain it so I tried to show it by any means possible. I played out my pain on my body in the hopes I wouldn’t have to speak. I played out my pain so there would be visible evidence. I thought I needed something to point to to say, ‘see here, look I’m in pain, believe me.’ Remember, you don’t have to have words, I’ll believe you when you say you’re in pain. You don’t need to try and prove it.”  

I’ll say… 

“Sometimes, you feel as though you’re alone in the world. Sometimes you don’t know there are plenty of people who’ll listen or help when you feel like you’re drowning in plain sight. You just have to speak a single word, and they’ll be at your side: help. Remember, I will always be here to listen.” 

I’ll say…

“If you ever, ever, ever feel something so terrible you feel as though you need to harm yourself, please instead run straight to me. Text, call, tell, run, get to me as fast as you can. I will hold you in my arms no matter how old you are. I will hold you as you cry and tell me what’s wrong, or don’t. Whatever you need, I’ll be there till the urge goes away. I’ll do whatever I can to help you find another way to process what you’re going through. Remember, I am always here for you.” 

I’ll say…

“Scars are not a sign of weakness. Scars are symbols of battles, and I fought my fair share. You, my child, are the sign I won all my battles and made it to the other side. Remember, even if you emerge from something with a scar, physical or emotional, it’s proof that you’re strong enough to survive.” 

I’ll say…

“I really wish I hadn’t done it. I wish I could explain how dark of a place I was in and how alone I felt. I wish I had known or realized then just how many people loved me and would’ve been at my side to help. I hope you never know pain like that. I hope you never feel that alone. Remember, I love you.

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. 

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Ryan McVay.

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