Self Harm - A survivors story

I can’t really remember the first time I self harmed. I just remember why I was driven to it. The statistics suggest that 13% of young people between the ages of 11 and 16 have tried to self harm but the reality may be much greater. According to figures published in December 2014 there was a 70% increase in 10 to 14 year olds attending A&E for treatment to self harm injuries than the preceeding 2 years and girls are more likely to self harm than boys (www.selfharm.co.uk) Although the statistics are pretty horrendous the reality is that they only relate to the cases that were brought to attention. Self harm is more prevalent than we may think. Contrary to common belief, self harm isn’t just about cutting. In the book “Insight into Self Harm” (Helena Wilkinson and Abbie Robson, CWR 2014) self harm is defined as a “physical response to emotional pain”(p13).

That’s really the key, the fact that it’s a response to emotional pain. I would hit myself, especially on the head, bite myself (there would be teeth marks on my forearms), punch walls (leaving bruises on my hands and wrists), pull out my hair and cut myself with safety pins and broken glass. For some people picking at scabs or cutting their hair can be a form of self harm if it’s a response to emotional pain. Research has shown that according to the acquired capability for harm model, self harm or non suicidal self injury (NSSI) can go hand in hand with eating disorders. If you indulge in one type of self injury then you’re more likely to use other methods. I suffered with bulimia which involved cycles of bingeing, purging and restriction and I can honestly say that it was all a way of coping and punishing myself at the same time. It was a result of emotional overload, trying to communicate my deep pain as well as giving myself some relief from the internal distress. But it must be so painful, so why do people do it over and over even when it’s caused serious injury?

Firstly, it’s a maladaptive behaviour that’s learned and proven to provide the desired relief. Although it is painful and shameful, it’s predictable and safe so we stick with it. Secondly, the physiological response is such that it’s a bit like having an addiction. The feeling of relief is so great that you want to retain it some how. Trust me, when the pain on the inside is so bad you would do anything to get rid of it. I was carrying the pain of abuse that spanned 10 years from my formative years through my teens that had never had a voice. Yes, I had talked about it in counselling to a certain degree but sometimes you can talk about pain like it’s a coat you own that hangs in your wardrobe for years and has hardly been worn. You acknowledge it’s existence and it’s relationship to you but you don’t really connect with it.

At first I didn’t want to admit that what I was doing was wrong. I needed to cope and hurting myself was working. I convinced myself that I was never going to be rid of the abuse. Like a bad smell that was going to plague me for the rest of my earthly life. There was quite a long period of time when I stopped. I had received some ministry while on the Teen Challenge programme in Wales back in 1997 and I seemed to be free from then through to Bible school in London in 1999. The only thing that I can link that freedom to was the strength I felt to be able to walk in the truth of God’s Word probably because my life was so much better. I had taken positive steps to make changes, getting out of my old environment, soaking myself in God’s Word and worship, committing to hearing the truth and making myself vulnerable by talking about the pain and exposing it and being independent in a new environment, with little to remind me of my past pain. I felt like I could breathe again.

Towards the end of 1999 the need to self harm began to rear it’s ugly head again. I got engaged at the beginning of 2000 and married later that year. The pressure was enough for me to resort to hurting myself again on a regular basis but it was after the birth of my eldest son that the urge to hurt myself intensified. I felt alone with little support during those early months. My husband and I were active members of our then church and although there were friends who were understanding and supportive the general feeling was that I should be living in victory with no real reason to be struggling. I had a good marriage, a great husband and a beautiful new baby boy, what did I have to be sad about? In that environment I definitely couldn’t tell anyone that I was being treated for depression let alone self harming. I felt I had no voice. My husband and I would have many conversations about the self harm. He knew that I hurt myself because he could hear me in the bedroom and then when I started cutting myself I had to tell him. He was trying to be so supportive and I couldn’t bear to keep that from him. I knew I didn’t want my children to grow up the way I did so I needed to do something to change it. However much I tried and wanted to stop, I just couldn’t do it. I had no other way of dealing with the negative emotions and the pain that was inside. I had just about convinced myself that it was my “thorn in the flesh” or the “limp” I had to live with. I mean everyone has their cross to bear so this must be mine.

Eventually I had the courage to speak to a Christian friend I had got to know following the birth of my second son. She was a counsellor so I knew that she would be able to cope with what I was going to say. She listened and encouraged me to seek professional help through counselling. I was apprehensive about speaking to a counsellor as I had had counselling before and it hadn’t stopped me from self harm. I knew that I didn’t want to hurt myself anymore but had resigned myself to being a failure for not being able to stop. I decided to give it a go anyway and I am so glad I did. My counsellor was amazing. There were many similarities between us and she shared with me that she too had self harmed. When I started I had been self harming everyday.

After a couple of weeks, the episodes lessened. The great thing was that she never once told me not to do it, because she knew it was an unrealistic request. We talked about what would trigger an episode, how I dealt with strong negative emotions and what the alternatives were. My counsellor was the first person to completely acknowledge how much I didn’t want to self harm and how ashamed I was of it. I know that this was a huge part of my recovery. I had to revisit the abuse I had endured and started to understand that the self harm was my reaction to it. I had never learned to express anger in a healthy way. I was always taught to suppress it. It was as if the child that was silenced by the abuse was screaming out to be heard and believed. It was a painful journey but one that had to be made in order to give that child a voice.

My counsellor and I worked together to find ways of coping and minimising the likelihood of the self harming recurring. As much as it was a spiritual and emotional journey it was also a practical one and I learned so much about myself and God in that time. I would love to be able to say that I have never self harmed since then but I can’t. I hate it that I can’t but I have made peace with the fact that it is a process. I learned to cope with pain one way and now I am learning a better way. I have learned to keep myself safe. When I feel the pressure building up I take myself to a safe place and I allow myself to cry. I have found ways of giving the pain a voice that isn’t harmful like drawing, colouring and writing. my personal journey puts me on a level playing field with my clients.

Many of the people I work with as a health and lifestyle coach have faced and are battling with the same or similar issues that I do and although I used to give myself a hard time for not having sorted myself out, I now rest in the knowledge that I can walk with people empathetically and talk from experience and not text book. I have learned that people will buy authenticity and that is what my journey has taught me. I love Jesus and I am trying to live out my relationship with Him as genuinely as I can. I need a saviour because I am an imperfect sinner. I have been saved and justified but I need His grace to live out my life day to day. We are too good as a church in portraying the christian life as being fully victorious and joy filled which it can be but not so great at the painful and ugly side. In my time I have met many christians who have battled silently with depression and other mental health problems because they have felt unable to share with their brothers and sisters. I was one of them. I remember a sunday when I shared with my church that I had been battling with depression after the birth of my older son and almost a dozen people approached me afterwards and expressed their relief because suddenly they didn’t feel alone. I hope sharing my battle with self harm will give others courage.

abigail balachandran, 30/11/2015