As a child, I’d often get overwhelmed by emotions and I’d cry. I couldn’t adequately explain to anyone why I was crying, so I was told to toughen up. For the record, my parents were both brought up in pretty emotionally repressive families themselves and they didn’t really know any other way to be. I get that and I don’t hold it against them. They did the best they knew how.
Because I believed that I wasn’t supposed to cry without a ‘good reason’, I instead developed a habit of hitting, scratching or pinching myself, or sometimes biting the insides of my cheeks. when I started feeling like I was about to cry. It was a way of distracting myself and hopefully heading off the imminent crying jag. It didn’t always work, but it worked often enough that it became habit. Self-harm isn’t something I would have understood had someone explained it to me at six or seven years of age, of course. Hell, it’s something I still don’t always understand 30 years later. But that’s what I was doing. I was purposefully hurting myself in an attempt to cope with emotions.
The first time I started to realize I probably wasn’t OK in the head was around age 15. That was when I started having trouble in school (due in large part to ADHD that I didn’t know I had), and I was sad a lot. I had always been a very smart kid that could keep up despite my focus problems, but as the workload intensified in high school, that all came crashing down and my identity as a smart kid was something I began to seriously question.
By senior year, I was in real danger of failing a required English class and thus not graduating. I had gotten pretty good at playing a character – a funny, flippant music nerd who simply didn’t care about academics. But inside, I was a stew of insecurity and self-loathing. I felt like a failure and a disappointment to my family. My brain started convincing me that I wasn’t actually smart at all, that all my teachers had lied in order to spare me from realizing what a no-good loser I was. I believed that the few friends I had were hanging out with me because they felt sorry for me. Things eventually came to a head when I was no longer able to intercept the mail the school was sending home about my being in danger of flunking out. The look on my mom’s face when I had to tell her I might not graduate still makes me feel bad almost 20 years later. It was like watching something I loved being crumpled up and stomped on. This was the toughest woman I knew and I had managed to break her with my inability to be normal, to just do what needed to be done like everyone else did. That certainly didn’t improve the tenor of my already negative inner dialog any. I did end up graduating, though I was FAR from prepared for post-secondary education. Going to college that fall had mistake written all over it…but off I went, undiagnosed mental issues and all, because that was where smart kids were expected to go after high school.
College was pretty bad. I’ll spare you the gritty details but the gist is that I was there for two largely unpleasant semesters before I was told I didn’t need to bother coming back. Anxiety was my constant companion through the first semester and by halfway through the second semester I was experiencing my first full-blown depressive episode – not that I knew what it was at the time. I didn’t tell anyone what was going on and I didn’t get any help. Instead I floundered, flunked out, and went home to find a job. I didn’t know how to deal with the resultant feelings of guilt and failure, so I just…didn’t. I stuffed them down and distracted myself with experiencing the fun parts of a college experience via my best friend, whose school I visited almost every weekend.
When best friend moved away after graduating college, things started to fall apart again in a big way. The brain weasels were soon running rampant, telling me that I was the only one of my group of high school friends left in town because I was a failure, a fuck-up and a disgrace. I self-medicated with booze – a LOT of booze. The chorus of self-loathing that I’d been living with for the past ten years was now getting louder by the day. It told me that I didn’t deserve my job or the things that I had, that I wasn’t worthy of the love of my family or my long-distance boyfriend. It told me that nothing I did would ever be good enough, that I had no friends because I was terrible to be around. It told me not to bother trying to do any of the things I used to love – making music, writing stories, painting and drawing – because I was never going to be any good at any of them. It wanted me to believe that there was no point in even living anymore, and for a little while there, it had me pretty well convinced.
Shortly after my 25th birthday I experienced a bout of costochondritis, which is an inflammation of the cartilage between the ribs where they connect to the sternum. Imagine someone sliding a knife between your ribs right up near your breast bone and then slowly trying to turn the blade vertical, prying your ribs apart a millimeter at a time. Super funtimes! It also caused a lot of referred pain into my left shoulder, neck and breast. Being a life-long fatty and having a history of heart disease in my family, it really wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that particular combination of pains being symptoms of a heart attack. The doctor in the emergency room and my primary care doctor both told me that my heart was fine, but I couldn’t stop thinking that there was something very wrong, that I was on the verge of dropping dead. I felt constantly sick to my stomach, I would have spells of not being able to breathe, of feeling cold and clammy…all secondary symptoms of a heart attack, coincidentally. It got to the point where I would end each day at work by writing a series of notes with directions for what to do in my absence because I was absolutely convinced that I wasn’t going to be there the next day. What I know now, of course, was that I was living in a constant state of panic attack…but that was never even mentioned as a possibility at the time.
Finally being diagnosed with ADHD and being properly medicated for that has made a huge difference in my anxiety levels, but I still struggle with depression regularly. I’ve finally started learning ways to help myself, though. Talking with people who’ve had similar experiences reminds me that I’m not alone no matter what the brain weasels want me to believe. Meditation helps me to just be where I am in this moment and not worry so much about the future or feel so bad about the past. Yoga helps me move my focus out of my head and into my body, giving my brainmeat a little much-needed rest. All of these things compound over time and help me to realize that the way my brain works is not all there is to me…but it’s part of who I am, and that’s something I’m learning to be OK with.
If you’re struggling, know that you’re NOT alone, and that people truly do want to help you feel better. The world needs you in it, so please stay! If you need immediate help, start here (you don’t even have to call, you can chat with them online! Isn’t that handy?!)
Love you! I don’t really know what else to add.. I dealt with some self harm also in high school. It’s something that never truly goes away.
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Yeah, I think most of us just find more subtle ways of doing it as we get older. I definitely self-harm with food sometimes, and booze if I let myself.
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Love the term brain weasels. So descriptive. Hugs
I wish I had the emotional depth in high school to know what you were going through. I’ve struggled with all varieties of depression since college. We do get better at managing our symptoms as we get older but it’s always there looming, threatening to take over our lives. Great post thank you. Such an important topic. I love you my eternal kindred friend.
Oh, babe. You may not have known what I was going through, but you helped me more than I could ever explain. I don’t know where I’d have ended up without you. Life wouldn’t have been nearly as fun or full of adventure, that’s for sure. 🙂 Love you always!