*Content Warning: Talk of self-harm, no details*
My name is Kristen and this is my first blog post for Healthy Minds Canada. I am beyond excited to be able to announce in my first post that December 2016 is the month I celebrate 2 years of being self-harm free! Wow! Being self-harm free is the best Christmas present I can give myself.
I never thought I would make it this far.
I had been self-harming since 2002, when I was 12 years old. The severity increased when I entered high school. I believed that I would always be a “cutter”, would always battle self-harm urges, hide my body and feel shame over my scars. I viewed my self-harming behaviour as a shackle on my ability to recover. It seemed that no matter what progress was made in reducing my self-harm, I was still viewed as ill by health/mental health professionals. No matter what I lost (friends, boyfriends, self-respect), cutting had turned into a behavioural addiction and it was one I could not kick.
In 2013, I came across a free pdf workbook written by individuals who have been self-harming long-term, “The Hurt Yourself Less Workbook”. In this book, I found a passage that set me on the path to eliminating self-harm from my life: “For many people self-harm is an essential coping mechanism, and we have no right to demand that people stop it, unless we have something better to offer them.” That was it! It all made sense. Cutting worked for me. When people begged me to stop, with no alternative insight, I had no choice but to continue with the behaviour or risk an unknown that I could not fathom. The solution for me was finding an alternative. I needed to bulk up my tool belt so self-harm was not the only tool I could reach for.
How I went about finding my tools is unique to me. I will never say that something I tried would be effective for everyone, although much of what I tried and use may be worth a try. Here are four tools I used that proved successful (in the long-term and short-term:
I developed a reward system for myself that encouraged me to not self-harm for 8 months! Each month I promised myself something if I did not self-harm. Rewards ranged from cozy, inexpensive self-care days (eating my favourite snack while watching a fun movie) all the way up to a costly pair of Dr. Martin boots (when I had the money of course). Having these special days or items as my goal really motivated me to not self-harm and find other ways to cope so I could get my reward at the end of the month.
Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT)
If there is one therapy that continues to work for me it is DBT. Learning practical skills in distress tolerance, emotion regulation, interpersonal effectiveness and mindfulness had my tool belt exploding with different of ways of coping, interacting and understanding. To this day, these skills are what have greatly contributed to eliminating my self-harm behaviour.
Immersing myself in hobbies
Reading, singing and blogging are my top 3 hobbies. I would do these hobbies with great enthusiasm when I felt the urge to self-harm. I busied myself in the worlds of each book I read. One of my favourites is The Child Thief by Brom. I printed off sheet music and played the vocal parts to songs such as “Take Me or Leave Me” from the musical Rent. My blog’s focus on mental health allowed me to explore myself and activism in a meaningful way. It gave me access to a whole online community of support. Knowing that I was helping others greatly added value to my life.
Harm reduction is predominantly associated with substance use (e.g. needle exchange programs and safe injection sites). I utilized harm reduction techniques to show myself compassion if I did self-harm. Cleaning wounds, wearing protective bandages and using scar reducing treatments physically healed my body and emotionally healed my mind. Harm reduction allowed me to stop the cycle of shame to the point of not needing to self-harm. I felt I deserved better.
Not self-harming was hard work and it was something I wanted and deserved. It took practice and after I completed my first year I realized I no longer needed the behaviour. This coping mechanism has gone from the top of the list to not being on the list at all.
If you want to stop self-harming I hope this post has given you a few ideas to try. Remember, you may slip up as you teach your mind new ways to cope with pain. A tool you use may stop working; toss it out and try something else. Have as many tools in your toolbox as you would like. Get creative (start glass blowing) or keep it simple (distract yourself with your favourite movie). This is a great opportunity to learn about yourself and have fun as you discover new ways to have a life you enjoy living.
About Kristen Bellows
Kristen lives in Southern Ontario with her partner and their new baby boy! She identifies as Mad and believes that her emotional differences are a part of who she is. Kristen is a registered social work, working as a dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) skills group facilitator. She is also training to become a birth and postpartum doula. Since giving birth, Kristen has become interested in exploring how mental health issues intersect with motherhood. Kristen identifies as Mad and believes that her emotional differences are a part of who she is. She loves cats, reading, singing, pickles and learning. You can read more of Kristen's blog posts on her personal blog www.prideinmadness.wordpress.com