Mental health blogger Fiona Kennedy talks about her experience with physical and emotional self-harm
Years ago, before self-harm became part of my life, my understanding of the term would have been as a purely physical act. I equated self-harm with physical self-injury, of the sort that would leave visible damage.
I’m starting to think that that understanding is far too narrow, because there are so many ways we can hurt ourselves, physically and emotionally, and I became quite good at both over the years. Physical damage certainly gets more attention if it’s discovered.
It’s really scary to think that someone could deliberately hurt themselves, and I’ve no doubt that for anyone finding out that a friend or loved one has been self-harming, it’s all but impossible to understand. But what about the ways we hurt ourselves on an emotional level? Or the impact that physical harm can have emotionally, particularly if, like me, you’re very adept at hiding it?
When I was at my worst, the way I treated myself both physically and emotionally would probably have had me locked up if I had done the same to someone else. The way I spoke to myself, the way I berated myself for every single (perceived) thing I had done wrong... It was like the worst form of bullying. In fact, it was worse than anything I’ve experienced at the hands of actual real life bullies because there was no escaping myself.
I know I’m far from alone in this. We are our own worst critics. How did this happen? How did we get to a point where to have faith in ourselves is seen almost as an indulgence, to look after ourselves is considered selfish?
If we don’t look after ourselves, we’re no use to anyone, which is something I really had to learn the hard way. I want the best possible future for my kids, and I’m not talking about the material comforts of life. I want them to be emotionally resilient, to understand the impact their emotions can have on their bodies and minds, to be able to look after themselves, treat themselves with compassion (in the fullest sense of the word) and most importantly, to understand just how necessary that is.
But how can I expect them to have any of those things if I don’t model it for them? If I want what’s best for my kids, I have to want what’s best for me too. Therein lies a really big challenge.
For years, most of my life in fact and particularly since having kids, I believed that everyone else came first all of the time. It didn’t matter how tired, sick, upset or angry I was, that had to be put to one side because someone else (my husband, my kids, a friend) ‘needed’ me.
There was quite a bit of martyrdom to it actually. I allowed myself virtually no space or time that was my own – if I tried to do something just for me, the guilt I felt at being so selfish would make it all but impossible, and certainly negated any potential positive impact.
Of course this didn’t work out as a long term strategy. How could it? The harder I tried, the more exhausted and less able to cope I got, and so the door to physical self-harm opened in addition to the spectacular verbal berating I was giving myself on an almost constant basis.
I was so caught up in everything that it seemed entirely rational. It gave me a sense of release and relief, and so I could keep going. But it was never enough, I had to go back and do it again and again. I also had to hide it, even from my husband (I didn’t want him to stop me, or feel responsible for having to mind me), so on top of everything I was adding in a hefty dose of guilt, which increased my emotional distress. You can probably see how quickly it can get out of hand.
It is such a vicious cycle, and one that is extremely hard to break. But, it is breakable - with help. I haven’t hurt myself for months now, and the verbal abuse I was throwing at myself has decreased dramatically. That said, it hasn’t stopped entirely, and I do still occasionally find myself thinking of physically hurting myself. What I’m starting to notice though is the pattern that precedes it – I do too much. I get too tired. I don’t make time for the things that I need to do to stay well. Self-compassion goes out the window.
It’s so easy to let old habits creep back in. As I write this, I’m aware that I’m not in great form. I’m in the process of reducing medication, and I’ve neglected quite a bit of what I need the last few days, so now I have got to be careful. I’m at risk of turning on myself, and if I allow that to happen, there’s a very real possibility that I will destroy months of work and effort.
It’s this awareness that I need to develop and hold on to, particularly on the more challenging days, and it’s also what I want to pass on to my kids. Life isn’t always going to be easy or plain sailing, but it becomes infinitely more complicated when we abuse ourselves.
I would love to see a broader conversation happening around self-harm, around the very real impact constant internal criticism can have, but also the of the benefits of understanding that, and allowing compassion into our lives. There is so much that is within our control, so much that we can do for ourselves, but we have to be taught and we cannot do it alone.
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.ie to find details of your nearest branch. You can also find online information at www.yourmentalhealth.ie