It was a cold and windy Tuesday in late September.
I could hear whistling through a window that didn’t shut right in my bedroom and tree branches slapping the side of the house. I paused and glanced at the lawn below angry that the hard work we had put into raking leaves just days before was for naught. The squirrel that lived in the A-frame ceiling was busy that afternoon and his footsteps made me feel alone as they pattered through the house. The rain was most likely coming, as it so often did on windy September days in Oregon.
I had made it through half of a day of teaching and then left a couple of periods early for a visit briefly with a neurologist – and by briefly I mean probably only five minutes, for which I’d undoubtedly be charged $100 per minute. For the last month and a half I had battled a severe migraine and muscle spasms, even a seizure and several blackouts, for reasons unknown. And the pain led to despair.
As time went by, it became evident that something else was stirring in me – something that was brewing in my heart and mind and starting to manifest itself in my thoughts and actions. I admit I kind of always suspected something in me would be ‘off,’ particularly given my family history. Increasingly, though, I’d felt mood swings more noticeably, with the depression at night feeling passively suicidal and the highs so intense that my body couldn’t keep up with the energy in my veins.
“What are you writing?” A voice said from behind me. It was an old, not quite forgotten voice that hadn’t changed in ten years…
“What are you doing here?” I asked, afraid to turn around.
I backed my chair and looked around the room. Nobody, unless I shut my eyes. In the darkness of my eyes screwed tightly, my living room faded but his voice could be seen plain as day, having not aged even a minute.
“I’m not schizophrenic,” I snapped.
“It’s crossed your mind,” the voice said coolly, I could almost feel its breath rustle my curls around my left ear. Arms wrapped around my waist. ‘… breathe….”
I had held my breath trying to make sense of my world. To help solidify in my mind that I was alone, I walked into the bathroom and stared in the mirror as I heard the voice behind me. I saw only my own reflection, but I heard him confidently and clearly. Out of habit, I started to scratch the back of my neck, digging in my finger nails to direct all my attention to the pain into each little cut, sort of like a pinch to make sure you aren’t dreaming.
“It hurts, I know,” he said, and it almost comforted me. “Take one of the anxiety ones, the blue ones. I know you’re afraid to but that’s what they’re for.”
So I did.
And then the other pills came to mind… all of them…
Then there was a knock on the door, followed by the creak of footsteps, and a very real voice asking where I was and if I was alright.
I peeked out of the bathroom, my hands still clutching several pill bottles.
“What are you doing?!” my friend said, taking them from me.
I assured her it was nothing, but that I couldn’t explain exactly what the nothing was.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Taking you to your appointment, are you ready?”
And off we went.
That night all I could think of was why I’d heard the voice and whether I would have gone along with any other, terrible things it might have suggested. I later learned it was probably a side effect of one of the medications I had been on messing with what now know are my chemical imbalances.
But for the first time in my life, I truly and honestly believed I was losing my sanity. I never told anyone about it, especially the doctors, as I was mortified and scared of what would happen to me if I was found to be ‘crazy.’
Sleep didn’t come easy, so to help me focus, and to help ease my aching body, I went back to an old trick to help me cope and redirect that pain. As I lay in bed and the tears started to fall, I bit down as hard as I could on my hand to stifle my sobs and slow my breathing. The harder I pressed my teeth, the more the pain was concentrated into my hand and for a split second my head no longer ached.
As I rubbed out the bite marks, though, I realized that acting out the turmoil inside my head just made me appear even more unstable…
My practice of fighting pain with pain started more or less as a little girl who watched too much television. I had seen characters, usually cartoons, bite down on fingers or a fist to bear a hurt of some sort, so I tried it myself when it came to treating my little toe that had been sliced nearly off. The habit only grew as I fought off regular injuries from my brother (… for the record, I doled out just as many to him…), and later spread to easing emotional and psychological pain as I became a verbal punching bag for a group of mean girls starting around fifth grade. When the claws came out, I’d find a way to excuse myself from lunch or recess, sometimes even class, and sneak to the teacher’s bathroom and go through an almost ritual like process of slowing my heart rate and breathing down. I’d bite down on my arm or fist, blink away the tears, and catch my breath, and would find my anxiety or anger subside, then walk back to class more composed and dry eyed.
One day in my early teens during my weekly martial arts lesson, I stupidly failed a block during a routine sparring exercise; the knife my teacher was using (yes, a real knife) slashed me across the inside of my right forearm. At first I panicked thinking he had cut my arm off, but as he poured disinfectant on it and showed me that it was just a thin, clean laceration no worse than a bad cat scratch (although we all know that cat claws are basically poison razors), I found myself bizarrely calm…
It’s hard to explain, but I liked it.
It was like all of the pain I was suffering from was now targeted in one place; endorphins rushed through me as a reaction to the new source of pain, the sight of my own blood gave my brain an answer to where and why I hurt. So, later that day, I tried it again with an exact-o knife from my rocketry class. And then again.
Although I was squeamish with the blood, I realized that I absolutely craved the control and power that I felt, particularly in a chapter of my life in which I had neither power nor control over just about anything.
And that’s how I became a cutter.
It was more of a reactive habit than an addiction. If life felt chaotic, self harm was usually one of my tools to help me feel like I had some power in my life. It was never meant to draw attention (I hid it very, very well), and it was never out of suicidal feelings.
No, it was just a coping mechanism and, above all, it was a secret – one that I was firmly committed to keeping.
Fourteen years old is a pretty common for a starting age for a habit like this, especially for girls, and I knew of a couple others in my grade who did it, which helped me rationalize the behavior. I always played it safe – I kept peroxide and witch hazel on hand for disinfectant and to hopefully minimize the scars. While most girls tend to target their upper legs, I returned to the first slice on my right arm and attempted to give it another, but higher up so that it would be hidden with the rare t-shirt I might wear. Since the angle was too awkward for me, I switched sides, and from there on out, my poor left shoulder was the victim of my need for control.
I more or less grew out of the habit after a couple of years, replacing it with a different sorts of coping mechanisms, and by the time I moved into the dorms in college my scars were thin enough that they were often unnoticed. I returned to biting my fists or scratching my arms, and, honestly, had forgotten a lot about the whole actual cutting thing – why it started, why it escalated, etc.
At age 24, just a couple of weeks after the auditory hallucinations, I was admitted to the ER for 72 hour suicide watch, followed by 11 days in the psychiatric ward. I flat out lied about any self-harm, more out of the belief that it had happened so far in my past that it didn’t matter, to the doctors. I had never told anyone about my secret before, and by that point I didn’t think anyone would ever notice. By and large, it was a chapter in my past that I was ashamed of and considered it phase that had devolved into an unconscious habit of scratching and twisting whenever I was anxious, and nothing more.
Except for the scars. Thin as they were, I had to face them every day.
Sometimes it made me sad that I could value myself so little that I took no issue with harming myself. Some days I could feel a little sting, like the scars were touching sensitive nerves. Some days I saw them as a badge of honor, a mark that I had survived the worst and came out a confident, successful human being in spite of having the stigma and label of mental illness.
I wish I could tell you that was the end of the story of my poor left arm… but it isn’t. A few years ago, right after moving back to the USA, I began to have bad dreams at night that turned into bad daydreams, a constant barrage of memories that felt like they were coming out of nowhere. I started remembering things, horrible things that I must have shoved deep into the recesses of my brain. It earned the name Trauma, and would spend almost a year battling a monster called PTSD that seemed to just grow by the day, which we tried to control through intensive counseling and treatment.
In my pain, I fell back into the deep craving for control and power, wanting to isolate my insecurities and fears and anxiety and even sometimes physical pain into just one tangible place that I could make sense of… and so I picked up the habit again. For a while I had just toyed with superficial scratches over my old wounds but eventually I found solace in deeper cuts, made all the more painful as they tore up old scars.
I worked with my counselor and psychiatrist to find alternatives. I confessed my struggle to friends in hope of finding support and accountability. I turned to exercise and other activities to ‘feel the burn’ in hopes of channeling some of that need for pain in a healthy way. But aside from telling a few friends, this secret I guarded even more than I had ever before… I mean, to have a habit like this at 14 years old is a completely different thing than as grown woman! I was one of the most highly functioning and self-aware people I knew, and I was indulging in a practice that society accepts as typical of an ‘emo’ teenage girl. I was supposed to have my life together!
Although it was more or less a single instance here or there for just a few months, I hated myself for doing it. I stopped eventually after a lot of prayer, determination and settling of my anxious brain, and I was proactive in ensuring I never fall back into that habit… but I felt an even deeper pain that no amount of salve could heal.
Shame is what I felt the most when I looked at myself in the mirror. I hear mental illness always called ‘invisible,’ but looking at me… anxiety, depression, even mania had all imprinted physically on my body. Clearly my mind and spirit were not quiet. How could there be peace in a heart that could do such ugly things to themselves?
I was afraid of how people would see me if they knew the truth… but even more so about how God must have felt. Surely self-harm is a sin. In some ways it’s a habit or addiction that had me chasing a feeling not unlike how using drugs or alcohol could send me flying – and so it only was logical that choosing a razor over the hope and peace and joy offered to me by God was not becoming of a real follower of Jesus.
Ultimately I had to realize that healing was only going to come when I accepted that Christ’s stripes paid for mine.
There’s a story in both the Gospels of Mark and Luke (who was a doctor, by the way) about a man who was tormented by spirits in his head. The man was so wild and out of control, he was more or less resigned to live in among the tombs outside of town. In that culture, there was no place considered more detestable and dirty, and anyone who had any contact with such a place required tedious ceremonial cleansing before they were allowed to rejoin civilization; to live there meant to be cut off and probably beyond hope. Mark expresses that the man was overcome with sorrow, that he would cry out through the night and cut himself with stones – and no one could help him… and, as you read the story, you get the sense that no one even believed he could be helped.
Except for Jesus. Jesus walks straight into the tombs and allows the man to come near, flat out rejecting the cultural rules of avoiding such people and places. The poor man falls at Jesus’s feet and is so overcome by this turmoil in his spirit that can’t even get a word out on his own, rather, the spirits in him do all the talking knowing that Jesus is going to heal the man anyway… and of course Jesus does.
He doesn’t say, “Pull yourself together,” or, “You should pray more,” or, “Your faith is weak, maybe if you just trusted God more…” Jesus doesn’t condemn the self inflicted wounds, or ask the man to compose himself, put on some clothes and comb his hair and otherwise make himself worthy of approaching the Son of God. Jesus didn’t even ask the man to leave the tombs first so that he could be healed, but instead walked straight into the pit of decay and darkness and death to be with the man where he was and in his state!
A short while later the man is seen fully clothed, his wounds dressed, and (my favorite line of the story) “sound and in his right mind.” It completely freaked out the locals, so much so they asked Jesus to leave because his actions were disrupting their order… so he does, but not before the formerly tormented man climbs into Jesus’s boat and begs to go with him.
Now I’m not saying that bipolar or PTSD is demonic. I’ve had people try to pray the evil spirits out of me before, and I was rather insulted that they felt my heart and soul that I had given to Christ could be compromised so easily by something like that.
But I am saying that I know what it means to despair to a point of death, to cry out in the night in fear that I was losing my sanity. I know the sting of hurting myself just because I want to feel something, anything. I know the humiliation of being confined to a place of shame and secret (for no one openly admits time in a psych ward), my heart wanting so much to be healed but unable to get past my unquiet mind.
And I know the power of watching Jesus cross walk straight into that place of shame, disgrace and pain so that he could put me on a path of healing and restoration… to bring me to a place of being sound and in my right mind. I know what it means to have my wounds gently wrapped and covered in grace. I know the desire to walk away from that place and start a new life, the hope that it will be a good life that will be spent walking with Jesus in his ministry wherever he goes and changing lives!
I’ve also seen it unsettle or scare other people when I mention that I spent time in a psych ward, but that’s a post for another day.
It doesn’t stop there.
I imagine a smile on Jesus’s face, maybe even his eyes welling up with compassion as he takes the hands of this man who has been suffering alone, hurting himself, starving for peace and quiet in his mind, now made whole and sound, and gives the man a more important task.
“No… You return to your home, to your city, and declare how much God has done for you, how he has brought you to one sound mind and healed you…”
And without even hesitating, “the man went away and began to tell everyone he encountered how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.” (Mark 5:20).
Can you imagine how the people he encountered felt? They had seen him in his prior state. They’d seen his wounds, his behavior before, and now there before their eyes he stands healed and composed… And the man’s faith and love is so great that all he wants is to follow Jesus from there on out, no questions asked. Gosh, what a testimony!
Over the years I’ve done my fair share of taking Jesus to other places – Southeast Asia, Europe, West Africa, Central Asia, you get the idea. I’ve followed Him literally to the ends of the earth. For the last couple of years I’ve been back in the USA, not always by choice if I’m honest, and have sometimes felt like I’ve failed. My mental health has caught up with me, something I swore would never hold me back. For a long time I resented not being able to return abroad.
I’ve realized though that in these last couple of years that God had something completely different in mind. He’s allowed me to go through the process of working through trauma that resurfaced, helping me grow as a person, stretching me in new ways, helping me conquer old habits and thought patterns, making sense of both my physical and emotional scars and healed wounds.
In short, He’s worked through me to transform my own story into one that I could finally tell.
The charge to the healed man, now in his right mind, is also to me: “You go back to your home and tell them what God has done for you.”
That’s part of why I keep this blog, why I write, why I am open with such personal things like hospitalization, suicide, bipolar, addiction, and now my struggle with self-harm.
I want to share what God has done for me, hopefully to encourage others who know, too, what it’s like to hide among the tombs.
And so I tell my story.
By the way…
Recently I decided that I wanted to transform my scars in a way that resembled much how my heart has healed. I chose a thistle. Thistles often grow in places nothing else will, they can emerge from land that has been scorched or ripped apart. This, and the thorns that protect them, is part of what makes them so beautiful. I put the Trinity at its heart, raised its leaves to the heavens, and crowned it in purple glory…
For the first time in a long time, I’m no longer afraid to show my shoulders… where there was shame, there is now a glorious story to tell.