I want to talk about self-harm today,
because I’ve been self-harm clean for six month now,
almost to the day, but I still recall the last time I cut.
My brain was mush, my stomach swirled and churned, and I could barely breathe with the weight on my chest. My body shook, shivered, and sweat. A mixture of sadness and anger and nausea overcame me and, as rage developed, I took to the knife. It wasn’t an actual knife – my weapon of choice was a pin, a sharp, but innocuous pin, meant to hold material together, but used for destruction instead of creation. It scratched and scratched at my skin until beads of crimson sprang through and it continued as scarlet dripped from my arm. Tears slipped down my face and choked in my throat and I couldn’t even see or feel what I was doing.
That scar sits on my arm, an unwanted, but necessary, reminder, just like the others that adorn my skin. I’m not trying to romanticise cutting, but those who do it need to know that they’re not alone, that there are people out there who understand the swathe of emotions and compulsions that attack them – and that they are conquerable.
Yes, I mean that, self-harm is conquerable and you can win. I’ve written before about ways to comprehend, fight and overcome self-harm. If you need to understand or find help please read: Understanding Self-Harm: the Truths and Myths and How to Help.
Self-harm, though, is like any other addiction, or learned behaviour, meaning that to defeat it you will need to continuously fight it. Again, I outlined many ways to help in my previous post, but I want to touch on what helps me most.
Talisman, totem and stim – A talisman is generally a jewel, or a stone, a charm or an item that means something to you. A totem is regarded as the same, a charm or a ritual object (think DiCaprio’s totem in Inception). A stim is a little different; it’s a behaviour – flapping hands, head-banging, repeating noises, words, movements, or smoothing, rubbing or spinning an item. The BBC have a great article on this: Stimming – What autistic people do to feel calmer. (Neurotypicals, or NT’s like me, also use them)
I’ve seen many self-harmers use the talisman/stim approach and it can work. Touching a pendant, stroking a ring, clutching a pebble – all stim behaviours with a totem of choice.
I attended a Stress Management course on the NHS, several years ago, when counselling and the such were not available to me, and still aren’t. It gave me many ways to deal with stress and anxiety, but it also tried to encourage those with totems and stims to give them up. They talked about keeping a pebble in your pocket and holding onto it when you felt anxious, something physical and ‘there’. It can help you find strength and courage, I can testify to that, but they tried to inspire those of us that did to train ourselves out of it. Maybe in the long run, it would be better not to have to rely on anything but the strength of your mind, but in the meantime if something works, stick to it!
I have a couple of totems and stims. I keep acorn cups or hazelnut shells in my pockets – everywhere – you won’t find a coat or a bag without one in it. These I use for anxiety and prevention of panic and self-harm. My family find it affectionately weird, but love me for it. I’m a squirrel, claiming acorn caps and random nut shells and if I stop on a walk, it’s because I found a new one.
I have other stims, almost unnoticeably nodding my head (since age 12), picking at my lips, and pulling off scabs and habitually making un-self-harm injuries bleed again, and I used to bite my nails – many will relate to that one! These all precede or accompany anxiety and if I recognise them early, I can use my totem to calm me and prevent self-injury or panic.
The best way I ward off those urges to harm is to polish an acorn cup or hazelnut shell between my fingers. I do it subtly, quietly and imperceptibly hopefully not to bring attention to myself. People have sometimes seen the acorn cup sitting atop my finger but are often too polite to say anything!
In Beneath the Old Oak, my second book, Meg deals with her anxiety using an acorn cup:
‘Meg shifted and reached into her jacket pocket. She retrieved an acorn cup, dipping her thumb into it. Unconsciously, she rubbed it, her thumb smoothing the inside of the cup. A habit she’d had for so long the little wooden talisman was as smooth as silk inside, and even its knobbly exterior was somewhat polished. She ran the cup across her lips, to and fro, and allowed her thoughts to wander.’
Meg’s use is one of habit, an unconscious routine to deal with the anxiety she feels. Sometimes routine, habit and coping strategies bring success, peace and calm. When I am overwhelmed in either the urges I described at the top of this post or with anxiety that feels like it’s crushing me, or panic that’s threatening to push me over the edge, sometimes my acorn cup or my broken-in-half hazelnut shell can calm me enough to prevent more serious behaviour. Some people with these stims feel foolish – don’t. If it saves you it’s worth it.
I’m an empath – I’ll post about that another day – but suffice to say I feel everything. I feel pain sensitively and exquisitely, and sometimes that’s enough to tip me over the edge. This world is full of personal pain, and sometimes I wish I could dull my sense of discernment. Many of us will need to fine tune our senses and learn to cope with the pain the world throws at us. Coping methods are vital to our survival. In my previous article I point out coping strategies including: rubber bands, taking time out, breathing through, ride it out, distraction, know your triggers, remove yourself, be with people, and finding creative ways to release your emotion and stress. Talismans, totems, and stims can be part of this process and help you to overcome the urges when they hit.
But most importantly, know that you’re not alone, that there are people out there who understand and people who have taken time to learn and have compassion. These people will support and help you. Find what you can to help you deal with self-injury, but maybe the most valuable thing will be talking to someone who understands, or who’s been there, someone who can help you understand and love yourself.
If you can, be that person.
How do you prevent self-destructive urges, or how do you cope with being overwhelmed?
Everyone’s experience is valuable and you may help someone
who needs to hear what you’ve been through.
Self-harm is part of my book ‘Beneath the Old Oak’ and an unedited NaNoWriMo snippet can be read here. To read more of Meg and her mother’s struggles ‘Beneath the Old Oak’ is available on Amazon and Etsy.
“Turn those dreams of escape into hope…”
Meg thinks her mother is broken. Is she broken too? Meg’s life spirals out of control and she’s terrified she’ll inherit her mother’s sins. Seeking refuge and escape she finds solace beneath a huge, old oak, but a devastating storm will change her life forever.