Warning: This is a brutally honest description of some of my most destructive thoughts and behaviors. If you are in any type of emotional state right now that would leave you vulnerable to being triggered by this type of material, I’d recommend not reading this post.
This post is something of an assignment, a question of J’s that I’ve been trying to develop an response to. How are self-harm and suicidal thoughts/gestures similar to me (if at all) and how are they different? I don’t even remember anymore why she asked, but I’m finally discovering my answer.
I find that it’s easiest for me to organize my thoughts by getting them down on paper. And now really seems like the best time to consider my response, considering in the past week I’ve had recurrence of both problems.
The way I experience it, my self-harm and my suicidal thoughts/behaviors are similar because they both reflect a high level of distress. For me to actively engage in either, my negative emotions will typically be at highest intensity and it will feel to me like those emotions are endless. In both cases, pain is often exacerbated by negative filtering, in the sense that I cannot seem to hold on to the experience of feeling well. I am resistant to entertain any positive thoughts, especially those about myself. I struggle greatly to recognize the progress I’ve made.
Hence, all that pain.
Self-harm is typically a reaction to something in the past that has created emotions of shame/guilt, worthlessness, or self-directed anger. I feel ashamed of something I have done wrong, angry at myself for a mistake I have made, so I think “I deserve to be punished.” Alternatively, I may think “I need to escape my pain” or “I need my pain to be visible” and if I’m feeling incredibly worthless I won’t value myself and my body enough not to resist those urges.
For me, self-harm has never been a direct means to end my life. I have not actively hurt myself with the intention that it would kill me in that moment. If I were going to follow through on an end of life plan, cutting would not be my ideal choice of action. However, as difficult as this is to admit knowing that J will read this, there have been a few times where I have cut shallowly at my wrist to see if I could handle the pain if I were to cut deeper the future. Almost like a test.
Suicidal thinking and gestures are typically by-products of self-harm, which means they equally follow shame and self-directed anger for past mistakes. I experience suicidal thoughts more in reference to the future than the past. There are accompanying thoughts of “I can’t live with myself for my past mistakes” (shame), “I am fundamentally flawed and will never get better,” (worthlessness) or “I am and will always be a stupid, terrible person who deserves to die” (anger).
However, where they differ is that I also experience suicidal ideation and planning in response to feelings of emptiness, anxiety, and sadness. The associated thoughts there are those such as “I cannot handle to continue feeling this alone” (emptiness), “I have so much fear at the idea of continuing to handle difficult situations like a job or relationship that I could fail at” (anxiety), or “I am feeling so low it is not worth living” (sadness).
It was interesting to parse that out. While some emotions seemed to me at the outset of this post like they have contributed to me hurting myself, I realized that they only do so when followed up by the previously listed anger, shame, and worthlessness as secondary emotions.
What I mean is this: While suicidal thinking is automatic to me when I am feeling sad or empty, I am not likely to actually hurt myself (or want to) because of those isolated feelings, but rather because I feel such intense anger at myself for my own actions that created the emptiness or because of my intense shame over how I’m handling my sadness.
There are a wider range of emotions that trigger the desire to die. This is unfortunate, because it feels like almost every negative emotion has very automatic suicidal thoughts attached to it, whereas my desire to hurt myself by cutting is more situation specific.
As such, I’ve found that while self-harm is usually combined with suicidal thoughts, suicidal thoughts may occur without even the impulse to hurt myself. My thoughts about suicide are much more frequent, recurring nearly daily even in some small form.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed the a difference in thoughts vs. actions. Both types of thoughts are out of my control, but the suicidal ones are harder to fight back against than thoughts about self-harm. Are my suicidal thoughts more common because they have always been harder to fight? Or are they harder to fight because they have always been so common and thus I’m worn out from dealing with them? Which came first, chicken or the egg?
Anyone’s guess, really.
If you’re talking only about action, I have noticed the actual impulse to self-harm is harder to ignore than suicidal planning. That urge is more fervent and lasts for longer. I will feel an impulse to do both, but can and do put the latter off for much longer. For example, during a very difficult week I thought both about burning myself and writing out suicide notes that I had typed. I did hurt myself, but I didn’t do the notes. While my impulse to hurt myself grew with space, the impulse to plan suicide fizzled out. My motivation just disappeared.
Why? I’m not completely sure, but the first I thought I had is I regard self-harm as less problematic in a sense. In my head, the scars are trivial. They will heal, so what’s the big deal if I slip up? Obviously this is isn’t true, but I’ve been engaged in this behavior for so long I’m almost desensitized to it.
With suicidal gestures, it feels more grievous. I’m intricately aware of how final suicide would be, so any steps I take toward it, even if I feel the urge to do so, are scary. It’s a weird form of ambivalence pulling me in two different directions.
Maybe the part of me that believes there’s hope for the future and staying alive is larger or stronger than the part that believes I’m not deserving of punishment. I can’t say for sure, because I just can’t make complete sense of how I feel.
Both of these things are dangerous to me. They are similar in that way. Whether I’m hurting myself now or planning to hurt myself later, they only escalate my feelings and cause more distress. They reinforce themselves and have become super super hard habits to break. I know that. I want to move past them, but when the minions take hold I often feel overpowered and give in the impulses. I let them control me. I’m not proud of it, but it’s where we are at right now.
I don’t know how writing all this out with help J in our work together. Like I said, I can no longer remember what part of our conversation sparked the question. But it was an interesting thing to consider, I’ll give her that. I understand my motives and behaviors a little better.
Am I doomed to these urges? Maybe. Maybe not. What I believe right now about how things will end for me might not be what I believe in one or three or six months. I’m working hard for it to be different.
One thing is for sure. These are difficult desires to deal with and I keep that struggle so close, concealed from others for fear of judgment or failure to understand. I just want to be free of them. I just want to know what it’s like to truly value myself and my life enough to protect them.