How and Why I Stopped Self-Harming

By A.J. Mahari

I began to cut as a means of trying to cope with what was felt as rather overwhelming agitation. This aggravated agitation for which there was no connected feeling and virtually no conscious understanding for years was really driven by the pain I was in and didn't even know, at that time, that I had.

The cutting began around the age of 17, when I left home and was in College. I was living in a dorm and was extemely stressed and unable to cope with all of the people I lived in such close quarters with.

I cut, usually with razor blades and there were times where I would break glass and basically gouge myself with it. Many times the latter efforts required stitches.

When I would cut I would be so stressed, so agitated, and feel so overwhelmed and helpless. For years, though, the only actual "feeling" I could identify was ANGER. I knew I was angry and that I was very agitated.

I didn't know that I was as detached from my feelings and indeed myself as it turns out I now know I was. I was detached from all of the pain that fueled my agitation.

I was not able to cry. I really didn't have any developed coping skills. I would not talk to people about my problems. If I was forced to talk to anyone I would lie about stuff. Half the time I wasn't sure what was real and what wasn't. I had no idea how to be personally responsible for myself, my feelings, or my pain. I did not know how to meet any of my own needs. I used people and I hurt people and I hurt myself.

When I would cut, I would feel relieved. When my blood was flowing it was like my pain was being released. I didn't know this then, but I was aware of its calming charm. Cutting myself and making myself bleed was the way my body 'cried'. I often cut in situations that it would then be possible for me to get attention from others around me. This I have come to know was my need to be nurtured. It was also about my need to control others and my environment when I was so out of control myself. I did not even know that what I was choosing to do in cutting was a) a choice and b) a result of my feeling vulnerable and out of control.

At the time I used to cut I remember being clueless as to what I was doing. It all felt and or seemed surreal.

I not only cut, but I also self-abused in other ways. I would pound my fist into brick walls, through walls in the house, doors, windows etc. I also would hit myself with bats or free weights etc in the arm or wrist or knee.

I stopped cutting and all other forms of self-abuse long before I understood what I was actually cutting for or why I was abusing myself.

Stopping was a gradual process. I think it is important to note that in my experience I stopped the self-harming behaviour before I understood it. It may not be possible to understand it until one stops it because stopping it and contracting with yourself and or your therapist is what will allow you to then find new ways to cope.

It is through this process that you will come to better understand the origins and reasons for the self-harming behaviour. Also, if you are still harming yourself, you are doing your best to take care of your needs, but, you are not meeting the those needs in a healthy way. Repeating habitual behaviour does not allow you to gain any new perspective on your actions.

I remember clearly the night that I first choose not to self-abuse or cut. I had gone to a self-help group meeting, a group called, "Freedom From Fear", a group that dealt with agoraphobia. Anyway, typically borderline I did not take well to authority figures. Almost upon sight I was not getting along with the lady that ran the group. To make a long story short within a half an hour I managed to feel ignored, abandoned, rejected and betrayed by her. I was out of control and very angry and upset. I tore out of the meeting knowing if I didn't ...well, you know -- impending drama and chaos, to say the least.

I was riding my bike home. It was dark and cold and I kept having this thought go through my head - just ride into a car - just ride into a car. I had started to cry and couldn't really see where I was going. So, I decided to stop and as I sat in a parking lot on a main street, crying, out in public. Luckily it was getting dark. I remember being shocked by this and feeling it was unreal too. I didn't ever cry much and never in public before this night. I was always too guarded and too in need of control at all costs. I felt as if the whole world was watching me as I sat wrestling with myself in that parking lot.

I thought about what I should do to feel better. I was feeling very impulsive and having many impulses to act out big time. But, I kept crying. It was as if someone had turned on a faucet that had a burst pipe - a steady flow of wet - tears everywhere.

Finally, after quite a while had passed, I was sitting there talking to myself and what I ended up saying that was the precursor to much change was, "Why do you want to hurt yourself, YOU HURT ENOUGH ALREADY" And with those words I got up and composed myself. I felt unsure of who I was anymore. I felt different. I was more relaxed, confused, but, relaxed. I got on my bike and made sure I made it home safely.

This, in retrospect, was me beginning to get in touch with all of my pain and grief, looking inward instead of reflecting all that was going on inside outward to the world around me and realizing it as it unfolded.

I believe that we all live so much closer to the awareness of what we need and what we need to do for oursleves then we often realize. The answers were inside of me. The answers that you need are likely inside of you right now too. Remember, if we want to achieve different results, we have to make new, different, healthier choices.

I did not ever cut after that day again. The night I just described was a fall night in 1988, and I was 31 years old. It was a very big beginning. It was the beginning of many new beginnings to come.

There was some self-abuse in the throes of rage to come but each time I was becoming more and more aware that I was only further hurting myself and then one day came the realization that I had taken on the role of my abusers, or a part of me had, and that provided me with much impetous to work hard in therapy to learn other ways to soothe myself when things got and/or felt overwhelming.

I learned what "healthy" self-care is really all about. It is only when we implement healthy self-care that we then give ourselves an opportunity to know ourselves, to find acceptance for and of ourselves and to walk toward loving ourselves. Each one of these steps will take you further and further from the impulses, desires, or need to self-harm. You will find new self-respect and esteem, as I did.

The consolidation regarding this change came in 1994 actually when I was involved in a group for sexual abuse survivors. I wrote an oath to myself that I would vow to never under any circumstances hurt myself again. This was the beginning of the process which continues for me inside today, of self-trust.

At first it was very hard. There were times when I had to literally sit on my hands. However, being a person of my word I hung in and stuck to my desire to change. I would just do nothing until the urges passed. In keeping my word to myself/inner child (parts of self in actuality) I was able to produce some much needed and desired change.

I can honestly say now that when things hurt and/or I feel overwhelmed or stressed I do not even get urges or impulses to cut or to harm myself. Since I now cry and grieve and feel my feelings for the most part as they come up or happen I also find that I am not as overwhelmed or at least not as often as I was when I was "holding it all in". I know from experience that if you make a committment to yourself to not hurt yourself and work hard at it and keep your promise then you too will succeed.

It is also so important that as you take these steps toward self-care you understand that to slip, or to repeat old self-harming behaviour when you are very stressed may happen for a while as you work to learn to better care for yourself. It is very important if this happens to be kind to yourself, to understand, and to allow yourself to make mistakes and to not demand perfection from yourself. Each step of the way, you, as a Borderline, you are doing the best that you can. You really are. You need to give yourself time to learn new coping skills and to replace your defense mechanisms with self-care, self-assertion, boundaries and choices as you learn more and more about personal reponsibility.

Making these kinds of very big changes is painful. These changes are neccessary, however, in order to recover from Borderline Personality Disorder. This recovery process of learning to stop the self-harming behaviour is a choice that you really do have the opportunity and strength to make.

I must also say that I still have issues around self-care and self-love but to know that no matter what happens in my life that I can trust myself to not hurt myself brings a certain amount of peace to me and to my reality. It provides me a sense of "even keel" and consistency and it enables me to be far less intense in these areas in my life than ever before. This self-trust eliminates the cycle of self-harm in and of itself because there are not the extreme ups and downs often lead to self-harm.

If you are cutting you CAN CHOOSE to stop. Some people, like myself, can do it alone. Others may need professional support. Whichever is the case for anyone who is still cutting I hope that if you get anything out of what I have said it is that change and ending self-abuse is SO possible!!

I also would like to note here that there are other ways in which Borderlines self-harm. Eating disorders, and other "acting out" behaviours are often born out of the same dissociation from one's emotions and the reality of all of one's unmet needs. Until you acquire, through therapy, the skills to meet your own needs, in the here and now, you will not have any other way to cope but to practice the self-harming behaviours that you have come to be comfortable with. (to some degree)

In my experience in healing from self-harm it was my tremendous lack of self-acceptance and self-worth that drove me to choose to cope through self-abusive, self-harming impulsive cycles over and over again. I projected out on to the world my own self-hate. The very self-hate that was projected out on to me by my parents. The very self-hate that I took deeply into my wounded soul and allowed to sit in the huge empty space inside of me where love should have been. I also devalued the world around me, and everyone I came into contact with. Again, this was those same feelings of self-hated projected out because as a Borderline I had no boundaries, I was not individuated and I did not know, at all, where I began and ended in relation to others and to the world around me.

Coming to understand myself, developing my own identity and coming to accept myself for who and what I am has helped me not only stop all self-harming behaviours but it has also helped me to be able to relate and better connect in a healthy way to others without devaluing them, without putting them on a pedestal and without seeing them in a black or white, good or bad way.

When you can accept yourself, you will be kinder to yourself, you will learn to love yourself and you will then be able to accept others for who they are. You do not have to self-harm to survive.

When I was Borderline, I very much feared my own emotions, (affect) and this fear and dissociation from myself lead me to self-harm. Finding myself, and getting in touch with myself and my pain and learning to cope in new and healthy (non-borderline) ways is how I was able to stop all self-harm, including compulsive over-eating.

Borderline self-harm can be healed, can be changed, can be ended, but, it DOES take work and it IS painful. The only thing more painful, in my estimation, and in my experience, would be to remain Borderline.

Borderlines do what they do to survive. Borderlines do what they do to protect themselves from the intensity of the reality of all of the pain that they are in. Borderlines do not act as they do just to "get you". Borderline pain is very real. Borderlines need to be understood. If you are a Borderline you need to learn to understand yourself and to free yourself from the confines of this most painful personality disorder.

© A.J. Mahari, 1997 with additions and changes December 10, 2003

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