This Halloween marks 4 years clean for me. It’s a weird type of anniversary. Most people don’t celebrate milestones like this after they get past their 1-year mark. Even more, I very rarely have heard of people celebrating the type of milestone I bring to the table. I am an addict. The kind that isn’t easily explained. I am addicted to self-harm.
In 2018 I went into the hospital at the beginning of this week, the last week of October. I checked myself in under the forceful suggestion of my therapist and the knowledge that I wouldn’t be unsuccessful many more tries. I spent a week there in the suicide ward and celebrated Halloween with people who like me saw demons all year long. That is the first time in my life since starting to cut that I was clean for any length of time. Now 4 years later it’s hard to believe how far I’ve come and it seems fitting to look back at that Halloween and see if I’ve learned anything.
You Can’t See The Progress If You Are Still In The Struggle
There is a reason diets make you take progress pictures and remodels take before and afters. When the process is long and grueling you get stuck in it. You forget where you started from and you lose track of where you are going.
I was so bad off at one point I couldn’t manage the time between college classes without slipping off to run a blade down my arm. I counted my progress in hours not days. When I finally got to where I was keeping track of days I had a sticky note on my mirror with the number. I remember getting stuck at 9. Felt like that sticky note was mocking me and I had to keep ripping it down and starting again. But I wasn’t counting hours anymore.
Now I am counting the years. But you can’t see that progress when you are still struggling through it. It takes looking back to be able to see it. Allow yourself to be proud of every step. Not just the big ones. They all add up.
Scars Change Based on How You See Them
I have distinct scars on my left arm. Nothing drastic but noticeable. I was so ashamed for so long because I thought those scars meant I failed. They were proof that I was weak, that I gave in, that I wasn’t strong enough. I hid them.
The story you tell yourself matters. As I put time between myself and the blade, I started being proud of the scars. They were scars now, not cuts. That was a way for me to measure the progress that was tangible to me. Like noticing how your clothes fit better when you’ve been exercising. They became a symbol of how far I had come, and of what I had fought through to get to where I was.
Now I can go bare-armed with pride. I like that I have marks that show my struggle. It makes things awkward sometimes when meeting new people. But it also allows me to relate to people like me because they can immediately tell I have a past like theirs. Being able to connect on that level with others who understand is worth it.
Learn to see your scars, whatever ones you have, in a new light. View them as stepping stones to where you are. Not reminders of where you were.
I wish I could tell you that for those entire 4 years I was 100%. But at least for me, fighting addiction didn’t work like that. I was clean coming out of the hospital and started counting but it was always a matter of trying to stretch the time. I never managed one long stretch right off the bat.
When I got to about 8 months, I had my only bad relapse. I don’t even remember what triggered it. I was trying to finally graduate college at the time and I was beyond done, had been for about 4 years. And I slipped up. I had the blade and I used it. Then I did it again. A single relapse became weeks of daily cutting.
Part of the reason I kept going was my guilt of having to quit all over again. I had been doing so well and now I was back where I started. Then I went a bit too deep. I was strategic about my cuts and kept them in a specific area on my arm that I knew I could cover without too much suspicion. I knew how deep to press to make them bleed profusely but only take days to heal. This one I messed up. I could tell immediately I needed stitches. I didn’t get them and I treated it like every other wound. The scare is much wider and it took much much much longer to heal.
That scared me enough to convince me to try quitting again. And again I made it a while before I’d slip and have a bad day. So I would try again. On the way, I learned that it is as much about how I felt about the relapse as the relapse itself. Each relapse made it harder to quit, I was an addict after all. Getting that fix made me want more. But I got stronger each time I tried to quit. Then it became a matter of believing that each mess-up wasn’t a complete waste of trying.
Relapses will happen, in anything you are trying to give up. Sugary food, doom scrolling, pessimism, smoking, it will happen. Make it as short as you can and try again. Don’t let the relapse derail you. Understand that slipping backward doesn’t discount all your progress and you don’t have to feel guilt.
You Don’t Have To Act On A Feeling Because It Is There
With self-harm as I assume is the case with most addictions, the urge did not go away. Not for a long time and I still have it depending on the circumstances. I had to learn that having feelings was a part of life, that they got lesser with time, and that I was strong enough to choose not to act on them.
I also had to learn to live with my urges and take them into consideration. There was no good coming from putting myself in situations where I knew the need to self-harm would come up. It is like taking someone in a sobriety program to a bar. You might take someone who has a 5 or 10-year chip but someone who is a 6 monther should not be there. And chances are the 10-month sober fella will know exactly how long he can stay before he has to leave. I became the same way.
The urges that come with addiction are freaking brutal. But they are manageable. In the beginning, this usually means avoiding everything that triggers them. But as you start to realize that you have the power to overcome them you get to where you can test your boundaries more. You will also get wise enough not to test them too far because you have already been through recovery and after a while the idea of fighting that demon at full strength again doesn’t seem worth it.
Feel the feeling. Know its there and part of your life now. Know it gets less and that you are stronger. It is always a suggestion and never an order. You have proven you can beat it before. Do it again.
Folks Are Afraid Of What They Don’t Understand
Alcoholism is more talked about, but still not understood by those who haven’t experienced it. Drug addiction is more known but more vilified. But self-harm addiction is almost invisible. The word addict has such a negative connotation to it anyway. It took a long time for me to admit it. Then I started using it liberally because there is no other way to describe what I am. I say “am” because I will carry that label for the rest of my life. I can put the word “recovering” in front of it now but the past is still there and the urges will still hit at weird and unexpected times.
Folks do not understand addiction. They understand self-harm addiction even less. They are afraid of what they can’t and don’t try to understand. It grosses them out and gives them the urge to ward you away with cloves of garlic.
That is ok. How you see yourself is all that matters.
Expect people not to understand. Expect fear and judgment and even skepticism. I have heard several times that I cannot be a self-harm addict, by those who have never been addicted to anything stronger than the sugar in their Starbucks.
Know who you are and be confident in what you are facing. Find others who are fighting it too. There are a reason group therapy groups exist.
Four years out from the lowest point of my life and I am proud of where I have ended up. My scars are scars and I am not afraid of them or what they mean. I can call myself a recovering addict without shame because I am confident in the work I have done to get myself to this point. I can only hope this reaches the right people. I want to remind you that it takes hard work and so so much time but you are not alone.
Thanks for reading, Y’all