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How My 'Self-Care' Turned Into Self-Harm

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with an eating disorder, self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741, or texting “NEDA” to 741741 for eating disorder support. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, you can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

Every human being deserves self-care. We are machines: a collection of clockwork mechanisms tick-tocking our way through every day. Our cogs need to be oiled to ensure they keep on turning; we need to take care of ourselves. But as I’ll go on to explain, the way in which we take care of ourselves requires genuine thought. Only recently have I realized the line that separates self-care from self-harm is often a lot more blurred than I once thought.

My idea of what self-care is has been thwarted. Things that start off as completely innocent can all so easily slip into something darker, more destructive and fueled not by the desire to take care of myself, but rather by a controlling undertone of self-hatred.

1. “Mmm, cake.”

Pleasure foods. There’s often nothing more wholesome than sitting on a sofa, sticking on a movie, and indulging in some decadent treats to feed that sweet tooth. Maybe it’s a bar of chocolate, a slice of cake or a tub of Ben and Jerry’s Cookie Dough ice cream (It’s the best type and I won’t have anyone say otherwise).

The problem I often encounter with this is that one little cheeky treat can take a fast tumble down into the sickly sludge of binge eating.

Binge eating is probably one of the most common forms of self-harm I personally find myself encountering. I don’t think it’s talked about or acknowledged enough. I may start with an innocent bar of chocolate, but then I’ll keep eating, and eating, and eating. When this happens, I could easily end up consuming my daily recommended calories in the space of only an hour. And I’ll keep going. All the way up to the point where I feel so ill I can barely move.

And so, my small indulgence in an attempt to lift my spirits on what might be a rough day becomes weighed down by a sinister desire to make myself sick.

2. “Let’s just take a day.”

I’ve slept in and had to sprint to a morning lecture. I didn’t have time for breakfast. I sit half asleep, sweating from the impromptu morning exercise, listening to a lecturer talk about something I don’t understand. All the while, my mind rushes at 1000 mph, worrying “I’m never going to get this,” “Everyone’s looking at you and judging that you came in late,” “I’m so fucking useless.”

All of this and it’s not even 10 a.m.

Suffice to say, this is an example of a very bad start to a day. On days like these, when my anxiety is at a higher position than the sun has reached yet — I may decide to just go home, write-off the day and try again tomorrow. Sometimes taking a day to just breathe, reset and gain some perspective when the whole world seems to be against you is the most refreshing and helpful thing you can do.

However, I sometimes find myself taking these days not because I believe it will benefit me, but because I’ve caved in to the pressures of my own head. While my initial intentions may be taking a day to gain some peace of mind and clarity, the criticism coming from my own mind oozes out, claiming with it any sense of peace I could reach.

When this happens, I can spend most of the day in bed fighting the screaming in my head. The concept of recharging my battery has gone out the window now as I have to battle against the waves of negative thoughts. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a half-decent night’s sleep after a day like that, but here is where the real trouble comes in.

I will wake after a day of mental exhaustion and a thought will creep into my mind: “What’s the point in trying today? It will just be the same, take another day.” Avoidance will tie me up inside for days; all the while, the stress of knowing how much work I’ll need to catch up on gets worse. And so, the breathing day has become a trap to worsen my own sense of well-being.

Taking a day to myself can sometimes be exactly what I need to get back out there the next day. I just need to make sure I do in fact get out the next day and don’t become trapped inside a hell of my own making.

3. “Sure, I could go for a couple drinks.”

There’s nothing like a cold beer, a glass of wine or maybe a slightly too expensive over-the-top cocktail to take the edge off after a long week. A casual drink or two can be a great way to unwind a little, help you relax and take care of yourself if you’re feeling a bit anxious. But if I have learned anything while living with mental illness it’s that alcohol consumption needs to be moderated.

Low mood + depressant = a good time! Right?

OK, so maybe my maths is a little off. The initial mood boost that can come from having a drink or two is great. But in my experience, sometimes the buzz can be quickly and easily eclipsed by the amplification of negative thoughts already in my head. The whispering doubts become screaming criticism and “I’m not good enough” becomes “just ‘off’ yourself.

It’s at this moment I would do anything to just not have to feel the way I do. I would do anything to numb the pain. And what sits there in front of me but a numbing substance itself: More alcohol.

So, the spiral cycle begins. More alcohol, more pain, lack of good judgment, more alcohol and so on. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to clutch onto a glimmer of clarity for long enough to notice what’s happening and what I’m doing to myself in order to stop it. In the worst scenarios, I can end up back home in my room doing a dance with the tools of physical self-harm. I have dealt with these more conventional forms of self-harm before and I am proud that, when sober, I have learned to usually be able to rationalize these urges. But when under the influence and judgment has gone out the window, that’s when I can be a real danger to myself.

I can wake the next morning with a veil of regret and shame. Not just from my thoughts and actions of the preceding night, but also because the subject of alcohol is one that hits close to home for me. I grew up with an alcoholic mother. I saw and experienced things no child should be made to and I have no doubt these experiences largely contribute to my mental health issues today. So, when the shame comes after a night of getting too drunk, it usually comes accompanied by the fear I’m only a stone’s throw away from becoming the “monster” my mother used to be.

Alcohol can help to get you on the way to a great night, but it is also incredibly dangerous. I still slip up and fall into the self-destructive spiral but, for the most part, if I know I’ve maybe not had the best mental health day, I won’t set foot near a drink.

All these experiences have guided me to rethink what self-care really is. Yes, it is sometimes allowing yourself to indulge in things and treating yourself, but it is far from being only about that. Sometimes, self-care is about forcing yourself to do things not necessarily because you want to, but because you know that — in balance — it’s good for you. So, maybe I’ll push myself to go for that run in the evening, even when I can barely get out of bed, because I know I’ll feel better for it. All the while, I’ll be passing no judgment against myself if I can’t manage it. Or maybe I’ll set time aside to practice more meditation and mindfulness techniques (even if I do find it one of the dullest things on the planet) because I know it’s going to help.

My previous idea about self-care has been controlled by the underlying desire to harm myself in one form or another. And that’s OK. After all, how could I expect to care for someone I hold so much contempt for? The important thing is, I’ve acknowledged these unhelpful behaviors, and I’m ready to try something different.

Photo by John Sting on Unsplash

Originally published: August 21, 2018
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