The Symphony of Self Harm

It was a day after drinking in college and my mind felt unsafe. My brain was busy with recklessness, feeling ashamed and feeling a sense of hopeless that too few neurons firing and dopamine and serotonin depleted can bring.

There was something wrong I had done, that felt certain in the moment. Maybe I said the wrong thing to my parents or to a friend, something I thought I said wrong or did, or maybe it’s just I had failed myself. This became like a racketing noise between my ears, like an avant-garde jazz song without melody or end and with no intent to entertain, just too many instruments hitting dull noises. I felt I needed, deserved punishment of some kind for this minor mistake or mistakes. But too I wanted an escape from this feeling.

A tug of war was happening between wanting to feel better and feeling I deserved to feel much worse. The compromise became a razor blade to my leg. I cut just deep enough to draw blood–I felt the punishment wasn’t full without seeing red ooze–but not so deep I would need medical attention or stitches (a moderation I would later find out is normal among self injurers). The pain ensured the punishment was secured, the endorphin release temporarily interrupted the brain chaos, and in the minute after I felt I accomplished something important, valuable, or at least needed.

Under the relief from the cut, a well of sadness was forming, a significant amount already there that drove me to drink to excess in the first place, but a greater flood of black waters bubbling up, covering my heart in a cold tar that spoke to it saying: you’re not enough, you don’t deserve love, you deserve to suffer. The clanging of noisy instruments had quieted, in its place a mournful melody drifting in like a heavy cloud overhead, ensuring cold rain would put a damper on the day.

Just writing about this makes me feel sad, makes me want to travel back in time and hug this version of myself, be the friend for him that I wasn’t for myself back then.

This addiction to self injury would come and go over the years. It definitely decreased once I got sober in 2009 but would come back later in a few years when I started performing poorly at my job. After being reprimanded by my boss at The Denver Post, I took a lit cigar to my arm and those feelings of aggravated accomplishment and came back, that I had been properly punished even though getting in trouble at work was enough punishment. After the endorphin release had passed I felt that emptiness that I had always felt after self-injuring and it was just too lost and numb to really truly notice it. That emptiness gave way to that same old darkness to take hold of my heart and perhaps propelled me on the path towards losing my job later that year.

I had always justified my self injury addiction by thinking it sort of gave my brain a way of self harming without attempting suicide, and in that way it worked, because I didn’t make a suicide attempt in those drinking and cutting years. But it was still a form of assault with a deadly weapon and if I wasn’t as careful it could have led to more serious injury.

It’s been a few years now since I’ve self injured, but I had leaned back into it while homeless, when I was in a near constant battle with my inner judge, me boiling alive in a stew of shame. That year was like a loud metal festival, discordant slams of the guitar punctuating the stagnant, smoky air in my head. I was choking on my own pride, resistant to the infinite love of the universe trying to pull me out of my ignorance and fear. I would attempt suicide multiple times that year, and a few times in the years following.

I learned how ward against these impulses in my DBT classes, how to replace the temptation of seeking satisfaction and sympathy for marking my body. And the sympathy was always ultimately unsatisfying, because it put myself below the person, and worse manipulated them into acting a certain way. I would realize in the past few years I self harmed in part to elicit compassion from my parents who could be inconsistent and regularly used guilt trips to manipulate me. And threatening to kill myself, or telling people I’m suicidal became a different form of this, to get people on my side, to give me the love I refused to give myself.

Since then I’ve strummed fewer and fewer notes of those sad songs, having a full toolkit that includes DBT techniques, Reiki, writing, making music and forming healthy connections, and severing unhealthy ones. Getting cancer in 2020 really forced me to abandon the self harm habit, and be more serious about my health than I had been. It helped me develop habits of self love, of not hiding from myself, of remembering I don’t need to suffer any more than I already have, and that others don’t want to see me burnt or bloody. And I now have enough scars from cancer treatment, including radiation.

Still sometimes when I’m low I’m seduced by the siren song of self harm. But I know I’m not a problem to be fixed, a prisoner to be punished or pet to be locked away. I am the conductor, free to write new songs of celebration, of the victory of winning myself.

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