Michaels: Celebrating a year without self-harm and understanding why this is a triumph

"If you’re going through this I can assure you, you’re not alone and you can overcome self harm no matter how long it takes." - Multimedia Editor / Drew Peltzman

Trigger warning: This article discuss self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Last week I celebrated being one year clean from self-harm. Since the conversation about mental health has become more prominent over the years, it’s important that I share my journey of recovery because these issues are very much real amongst college-aged students, faculty, families, and members of the community.

A study in 2020 found that 25% of college students engage in self-harm, but my guess would be that it is probably even more than that, because those who are struggling tend to not always speak about it. I can confirm from personal experience. No matter what the percentage is, if you’re going through this, I can assure you, you’re not alone, and you can overcome self-harm no matter how long it takes. Find the strength within yourself, build support systems, and never give up. 

Over the years, I have received incredibly mixed responses from the few people that know I struggled with self-harm. From being told I did it for attention, to being told I was “stupid and I should just stop,” to being called psycho and that I belong in a mental institution, to comfort, support, hugs, or a gentle brush over my scars that were met with a sigh and a solemn, understanding look. I have had friends tell me to call them if I ever felt like hurting myself in hopes that it would deter me, sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t. I’ve come close to a year clean before as well, but for mixed reasons I didn’t. 

For those who have never experienced wanting to do this or haven’t taken the action to do so, this may not seem like a big deal to you. Maybe, it even feels silly for one to even be proud, but for those who do get it, this is a huge accomplishment. For those who don’t get it, maybe someone you love does and I hope this will shed light in understanding why they might suffer. And if you are struggling, I can only hope that this gives you hope that you can heal and leave pains and struggles like this in the past one day.  

Self-harm comes in all shapes, sizes, and forms. From physically hurting your body to indulging in unhealthy and frequent uses of drugs or alcohol, self-harm looks different for everyone. In some cases, even sex can act as a way of harming oneself. Reasons for self-harming vary. Self-harm doesn’t always lead to ending one’s life, but with that said, it is important to know that self-harm behaviors can mix with suicidal thoughts.

While I would physically harm myself, it was never with intent to end my life. As much as I have struggled with mental health, I have always made sure to remind myself that I have one life. No matter how I felt or how hard it was, there is no taking a choice like that back, and even when the future seemed bleak or my heart felt broken and I felt empty, I kept important motivators in the back of my mind, like how my family and friends would feel, or small, silly things like being there to keep my plants alive. 

I did, however, use self-harm for a multitude of reasons. From wanting to feel physical pain rather than emotional pain, to using self-harm as a form of punishment when I felt I was doing poorly during my journey of healing, to breaking myself out of panic attacks; a poor way to quickly snap myself back to reality. Whatever my reasoning, and contrary to popular belief, it was always for myself and never for attention. Sometimes this is even known as non-suicidal self-injury disorder. 

Eventually, it even became like a form of addiction to me. I would fight away the thought of hurting myself for as long as I could until I simply couldn’t make it any longer. And while not all studies will agree,  “those who self-injure have a difficult time regulating their emotions. By cutting, burning, or otherwise self-harming, they stimulate the endogenous opioid system in their brains, creating sensations like drug or alcohol reactions.”  Therefore, creating an addiction-like reaction in the mind. 

The factors that pushed me to make it to one year were a complicated mix, but I will tell you this: hurting myself, scaring myself and others, or even causing permanent damage to a tendon did not halt me from self-harm in any way. What did help was removing myself from unhealthy relationships, being honest about how I was feeling with either a therapist or someone else I felt safe and comfortable talking to, and recognizing that hiding problems with this would never solve them. 

The biggest push was seeing someone I cared for suffer the same way I was. Getting a call at 4 a.m. and rushing to take care of them, seeing their pain emotionally and physically, I understood. And unlike how I was met when I went through the same thing, I shared kindness and comfort, as traumatizing as it was to see. What hurt me was how others around us reacted, saying it was meant for attention or expressing their anger. 

I finally understood why I was called psycho, immature, or that I belonged in a mental institution. Seeing and knowing someone who actively hurts themself is confusing and frustrating, you can’t really stop them. It is sad, painful, and can be draining to try to understand. This made me not want anyone else close to me to feel how I felt in that moment, I was so scared and I felt helpless. No matter what side of this you’re on, that’s how it feels. 

From that day on, even if I wanted to self-harm, I fought it as hard as I could. If I felt I couldn’t, I pushed myself to be around people who made me feel better, and they didn’t even know their presence was saving me. I refused to be alone, and if I couldn’t do that, I read a book, put my favorite show on, or went to my favorite coffee shop or park for a walk. I distracted myself until the thoughts were gone, and if they came back I tried a new distraction. 

So, to those suffering I say: find your safety and peace. Build a love for yourself and surround yourself with what you need to make it through the day. Be as honest as you can and reach out for help, you don’t have to be alone. Celebrate every day that you go without, and if you falter it’s okay. Just try again tomorrow.  

And to those who don’t understand, be calm and patient. No matter how you feel about the situation, give love, kindness, and comfort. It’s not their fault that their mind suffers, and odds are they don’t actually enjoy feeling like they want to hurt themselves. And overall, be supportive but not pushy towards them and yourself. Be someone’s safe place. 

To celebrate my one year, I went to lunch with a person who has been very beneficial throughout my healing journey. I excitedly told my closest friends who shared their happiness for me, opening their arms to me in big and proud embraces. I reminisced on my past and all I have grudgingly persevered through. I thought back to those who helped and those who halted a long-running journey on a path to heal myself. And I was and will continue to be proud of myself for each and every day I make it, no matter how hard it is. 

I won’t promise to never do it again, I don’t know what the future holds. But I’d like to think that if I made it this far, I will never go back. My promise to myself is to stay strong, and honest, do the best I can, and love myself, my mind, and my body. That’s the best promise anyone struggling can make, not for anyone else, but for yourself. 

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