What most people seem to not get about hitting rock bottom is that up is not the only place left to go. You can always dig a little deeper - and dig I did.
After seven inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations in six months, I had no other option than to admit to myself that crisis care bandage jobs were not working. My emotional wounds were still gaping wide open and no amount of bandages could keep my trauma from continuously bleeding through.
I mean that quite literally. My wounds weren’t just emotional, I made them physical too. I began self-harming by cutting myself at the age of twelve and haven’t been able to stop since. At this point in time, my self-harming had become unmanageable. Even I couldn’t deny that it was now in control.
When it started, I spent quite some time talking about and thinking about cutting before I actually started doing it. My best friend at the time and I talked about it incessantly for months before either of us made that first cut.
We romanticized cutting as a beautifully tragic and brave act of expressing our deepest, darkest pain. Pain so remarkably great that mere word could not suffice to breathe life into this completely intangible, yet real and utterly consuming feeling.
While we were only twelve years old, the worst pain we knew was still the worst pain we had ever experienced. It was still valid. One night I finally decided to give my pain a voice, to permit it to physically manifest itself on my body rendering its existence undeniable.
I remember holding a pocket knife in my right hand and staring at myself in my bathroom mirror for what felt like a very long time. My eyes were wide and bright with an interwoven mixture of excitement, anticipation, and fear. My heart beat hard and fast, like the flapping of a hovering bird’s wings.
I filled my lungs with air, realizing I was so caught in the moment I had forgotten to breathe. With astoundingly steady hands I positioned the blade against the skin on the underside of my wrist.
As I exhaled slowly and exhaustively, I applied pressure to the blade and in quick succession made a series of horizontal cuts. I watched, completely enthralled, as blood beaded up and rolled down my arm and into the sink. The sensation that flowed through my body resembled that of my first drag off a cigarette.
Just like that, I was hooked.
In the beginning, I justified my self-harming with a number of explanations. I associated pain with discipline; therefore, I believed if I did something wrong I deserved to be physically punished for it. I was extremely sensitive and highly emotional, and had no guidance on how to manage either. I would self-harm to manage, to numb, the emotions that were trying to seep out despite my determination to keep them stuffed in and packed down. I eventually became so emotionally numb I couldn’t feel anything at all. Then I would self-harm to remind myself I was real and could still feel.
But after all of these years of using self-harm as a coping mechanism, it had become more than what it initially was. It was no longer a self-imposed action used to soothe my pain or fill a void. It was no longer a discretionary choice. I had to accept that I was addicted to self-harming. I had to accept that I needed help. I had to accept that I needed long-term intensive trauma treatment, which is how I found myself at a residential treatment center (RTC) in Texas.
It took me a month and a half of fourteen-hour trauma therapy filled days to finally allow myself to dig deep and begin revealing the darkest stains upon my soul.
In the middle of a particularly grueling week I found myself sitting cross-legged on a leather couch in a small, perfectly square, and sparsely decorated office with not one, but two therapists sitting across from me. I had admitted to self-harming again, this time by scratching until I broke through my skin. I kept my head down and fiddled with my fingers. I was so riddled with guilt and shame it was as if I had reverted back to a small child. I tried and failed to ignore their obnoxiously and intently focused eyes on me.
All three of us knew there was something more to my story that I was keeping in that was fueling and keeping my addiction to self-harm active. None of us would be leaving that cramped, stifling office until I let it all out. I barely lifted my head and glanced quickly into the two pairs of eyes trained on my face.
Words I never thought I would ever share with another living soul came tumbling out of my mouth. Once it began there was no stopping it. I placed my most intimate, secret pain on the table, laid bare and vulnerable for all to see.
My speech stopped just as abruptly as it had begun and silence hung thick in the air. I felt completely ambivalent about what I had just shared. On one hand, I felt relief as if I had distributed this secret burden I had been lugging around on my own for almost ten years. On the other hand, I wanted to take every single word back and continue to carry my pain in solitude all the way to the grave.
I decided to be partial to and gravitate towards my positive reaction. Therefore, I expected to leave the office that day feeling lighter, as if a burden had been lifted or at least lightened as two more people shared the load.
That was not the case.
I felt hollow, exposed, anxious, and afraid. With those feelings came that familiar itch to distract myself with physical pain. I had a small razor hidden among my things and I bargained with myself until I granted myself permission to make five reasonably shallow cuts on my arm.
Eighty-five cuts later there was no doubt in my mind that I was completely screwed.
Less than forty-eight hours later, I found myself back in that small office with the same two therapists sitting across from me. Their tune had changed from “we’re here to help” and “this is the place you’ll experience true healing and find peace” to “you’re a liability and we can’t keep you safe here” so fast it gave me whiplash.
The powers that be wanted to send me to a facility with a higher level of care. They wanted to send me back to the inpatient psychiatric hospital.
My attempts to explain to them that the hospital would do no better than they were at keeping me safe from myself fell on deaf ears. It felt as if the once small office was going to swallow me whole as my stature shrank in proportion to my confidence.
The decision had already been made before I even entered the office. I would be transferred in three hours.
If there was a rock bottom for me, this was it. It would be my eighth hospitalization of the year. That is what led to me digging just a little deeper.
Mere hours after being admitted to the hospital I was staring myself down with a frighteningly blank expression in my bathroom mirror with blood running down my arms from the additional fifty cuts I had just made.
Droplets of blood pooled on the vanity and some formed little red streams, which meandered down the bowl of the sink, some forming tributaries, before flowing down the gaping mouth of the drain. Individual droplets encompassed my feet within an at least foot radius.
It felt so good, but it looked bad—very bad.
I can’t really tell you why I did it. To prove the RTC wrong? To punish myself? To numb the emotional pain threatening to burst forth? The possibilities were endless.
A mental health technician found me frozen in place covered in and surrounded by my own blood. The next few minutes were a blur of activity. A therapist guided me to my bed, a nurse cleaned and bandaged my arms, my razor was confiscated, and I was repeatedly asked what had happened.
I told them the truth: I honestly didn’t know. That’s the thing about addictive behaviors. You compulsively engage in them and have impaired control over doing so.
In hind sight it’s likely I was trying to self-sabotage all of the progress I had made during my over sixty-day stay at the RTC. My shame-based beliefs that there’s something inherently wrong with me, that I can’t be helped, and that I will never get better became self-fulfilling prophecies.
I was given a therapeutic assignment, which was supposed to help me to understand and analyze my self-destructive behavior. Initially, I gave pseudo-answers to the questions, writing down contrived responses I knew my therapist wanted to hear.
Then, I had a bit of a spiritual awakening, which initiated an internal shift.
I recognized I had been engaging in my treatment in the same manner I had just executed my assignment. I realized if I was to ever get better I would have to want to, I would have to work for it, and I would have to do it for myself. I decided I was willing and able to do my part.
For the first time, I was able to say I was an active participant in my recovery and I was invested in my safety and my life.
I committed myself to my recovery as I never had before. I dedicated every spare moment I had to engage in self-treatment for days on end. I began to actively use the skills I had been learning to regulate and tolerate distressful emotions and situations in healthy ways.
Before long, I was ready to return to the RTC with a new mindset, personal investment in my treatment, and a revitalized spirit. I approached the clinical director of the hospital to begin planning my transfer back.
"Right, so they won't be accepting you back."
The news was hurled at me so flippantly and nonchalantly I felt I had no choice but to pretend it had no effect on me. I shrugged my shoulders, managed to respond with a chipper "Oh, okay," and walked away. Her words continued to ring in my ears and tears began to well up in my eyes as I practically fled to seek refuge in my thankfully unoccupied room.
All too familiar shame scripts began to play on a loop in my head:
"You'll never get better.”
"You can't be helped.”
"You're not worth it.”
"No one cares about you."
My greatest fears of being abandoned, not being wanted, being unworthy, and being unable to be "fixed" were all coming into play and my shame was threatening to crush me.
This time I didn’t even have to dig.