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Unlearning Self-Harm: How Getting Caught Changed My Life

July 2, 2021

*Trigger Warning: This article includes descriptions of self-harm that may be difficult to read for those struggling*

Opening my Styrofoam to-go tray like a treasure chest, I basked at the glory of the culinary masterpiece I had picked out from a buffet for dinner. We were minutes from beginning yet another long shift so I was going to need the energy from the chicken parmesan, mashed potatoes, bread rolls, and broccoli and cheddar soup if I was going to last the long night. But as I lifted my loaded fork up to my mouth, I discovered that I could not open my mouth any larger than a lowercase o-shape. My jaw was seemingly locked from the right side. Slowly I massaged my jawline to relax it before finally pushing through the pain to open my mouth enough to get nourishment in. A slight set-back on my dinner experience, but a physical reminder of years of self-abuse. 

I don’t know when it started but for the longest time my response to any mistake I made, deliberate disobedience, or just plain frustration with myself was to punch myself – typically in the face but occasionally across the chest or in the ribs. In the very strangest of ways that I am not fully sure I can articulate properly, it felt like it was the appropriate response for my actions. As if the shame I was feeling on the inside due to my imperfections and failings needed to manifest into actual, physical pain because shame somehow was not enough. 

The Crisis Text Line defines that action, along with many other actions, as self-harm. Television had trained me to only think of self-harm as being cutting with a blade, but in reality the examples expand much farther than that. Stigmas surround those who actively or have self-harmed at one point or another, with titles like “psycho” and “crazy” being tossed liberally. But the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) would say “Self-harm is not a mental illness, but a behavior that indicates a need for better coping skills. Several illnesses are associated with it, including borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety or posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Depression was the category I fit into. Bred from years of self-esteem issues at the hands of adolescent bullying and anxiety, I was cheerful as could be at most times and around most people but would find myself wanting to cry when alone but never able to form up the tears which just made me want to cry even more because I felt like I could not properly emotionally articulate how I felt. 

The only recollection I have of someone finding out about my self-harm was when three of my friends saw me strike myself after I discovered that I had gone hours talking to people with something embarrassing but preventable on my face. I had told people throughout my life that I wrestled with depression frequently but I had never confessed my hitting habit to anyone in fear of being called psycho, emotionally immature, or even a danger to those around me and my future children, as if my lapse in coping skills instantly translates into abusing others. Surely there are correlations between the two in some cases, but making the blanket statement that all persons who have self-harmed are liable to harm others is a lofty generalization that demonizes those with coping difficulties and contributes to the stigma surrounding mental health. 

As time went on and I began to have jaw issues, I began to further realize the need to stop these outbursts. Although therapy likely would have been very helpful in the process and I adamantly encourage others to seek out professional help if they are harming themselves, what turned within me to help me unlearn my negative coping habit was an increased view of my own value and an alteration in my mindset to just how much grace and forgiveness was readily available to me. 

The reality was that I was still going to be embarrassed at times. I was going to fail. I was going to be imperfect. But while God will carry out His righteous wrath ultimately against my sins and justice is very much a real thing in this human life, I came to realize that I was forgiven because Christ paid my debt and therefore there was no more condemnation for me (Romans 8:1). Why was I condemning and harming myself when Christ was unjustly condemned in a court of law, harmed, and crucified for me? For His glory and to fulfill the law, Christ paid my debt. Christ died for me knowing all of my failures, imperfections, and embarrassments but yet He bore the punishment I actually did deserve that I might not be punished for them. I was shown grace. I was forgiven. No longer condemned. I had known these truths for a long time but sometimes the truth takes a while to sink in and permeate different areas of your story. 

The grace and forgiveness I was shown by Jesus in His life as well as His death beckons me to show grace and forgiveness to others. Christ’s command in Mark 12:31 calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and while loving our neighbors is hard enough on its own, loving our own selves can be a complex labyrinth as well. For some it can be easy to see the fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) value of others and yet not see our own knitted-together by God status. There are those who are prone to show all of the grace and forgiveness in the world to the person across the street but never to the person starring them back in the mirror. It is an ongoing battle to continuously remind myself that I am fully known and fully loved, I am valued, I am forgiven and that even my future mistakes are covered. 

Lies in my head beckon me to believe that somehow the punishment Christ endured for me somehow was not enough punishment and therefore I must maim myself to finish up what Jesus only partially covered. He covered it all. While I truly may have sinned and failed, there never was a reason to carry out judgement and punishment upon myself. Oddly enough, by His wounds I am healed from all that I believed I needed to wound myself for. 

Unlearning self-harm was not a “scrawny Peter Parker wakes up the day after getting bit by a spider only to find himself muscular beyond belief” transformation. It’s been a long and winding road with a few flat tire changes along the way. My jaw still aches every so often and the possible Ultimate Fighting Championship career I had as backup life plan H is probably not going to happen due to the risk of further permanent damage, but my jaw’s almost scarred and toughened status now reminds me of where I have been but encourages me in how far God has brought me. 

 Change is rarely instant. Change usually takes a crockpot approach rather than a microwave one. It may take years of therapy (which I highly suggest you try if you are experiencing emotional and psychological distress), but I do believe that healing, whether gradual or instant, is very much possible for any person no matter the unique situation they find themselves in. I’m not even close to the light at the end of the tunnel, but I can say from one person in the tunnel to another person in the tunnel that we can get through this, we can unlearn the harmful habits we have clung to, we can reconfigure as need be, and change can come. 

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