Evicting the demons: Self-harm, self-awareness, and self-advocation

To write love on her arms by princezzhana-d32y5s9 via Deviant Art

I just got off the phone with my doctor who told me to stop taking my hormonal birth control immediately after I confessed to her the explosive rage and frequent self-harm compulsion I’ve been having over the last week.  I’d been off the pill for eight months due to my surgery but had to go back on it to control my endometriosis, a mass of cells the size of an almond squatting on my ovary and causing shooting pain.  The high levels of estrogen I’d been on in the previous year made it practically disappear, but after being hormone-free for so long, it’d grown back, so back I went.

I wasn’t prepared for the hurricane of side effects.

Conditions I’d assumed were “normal” for me after taking the pill for over twelve years suddenly reared their heads as massive problems.  I gained 15 pounds.  Couldn’t get enough sleep.  Felt alternately deadened and hyper-sensitive.  Broke out like a teenager.  Totally lost interest in sex.  In the people I love.  In my heart’s work.  But those seemed dealable.  I suspected my lowered, darkened mood and weird physical issues of the last month were linked to the influx of hormones, but I didn’t realize how profoundly it impacted me until this week.

The thing that made me pick up the phone, what told me something was fucked the fuck up was/is the intense, almost seductive desire to plunge a pencil into the soft flesh of my inner wrist and drag it up to the elbow.  To shear the excess fat from my middle with kitchen scissors.  To punish my body for my spirit’s weakness without regard to the pain – perhaps because of the pain.  The need to hurt myself ripped through me like a hurricane for a day, for two, for three.

That scared me into asking for help.

This morning, I gave voice to my 99%-certain conviction that the birth control was doing these evil things to me.  And fortunately, my doctors (all of them), agree.

With the immediate cessation of the pill, things will get easier/better soon.  The demons will back down and let me retake control of my ship.  It’s just a matter of time, patience, awareness, and self-care in the meanwhile.

There’s no need to be too concerned for my safety, my loves.  I promise.  One of the things I’ve discovered in the crucible of depression is that I’m too big a coward to actually follow through on any of those fantasies.  My sense of self-preservation is mercifully still greater than my self-loathing.

Before I go, I just want to say this:  I’m only one story, ongoing and, in many ways, fortunate.  I know many of you out there fight this self-harm battle.  I know that talking about it is difficult because there aren’t words to describe the fury and shame.  I know that it’s not always as easy to dispose of as throwing out some pills.  I know advocating for yourself can be harder than picking up the razor.

But you can do it.  And you don’t have to do it alone.  Talk to someone who understands.  Reach out when you think it’s impossible.

You have your own fights to win.  You are the hero of your own story, and you are stronger than the compulsion that haunts you.

Looking into the face of addiction

Self Preservation by I Must Be Dead

I smoked a pack of Marlboro Reds every day my first semester of college. I switched to Lucky Strike unfiltereds the second semester because I’m secretly a middle-aged man from the 1940s. I make no excuses for this behaviour. The reasoning is simple: I wanted to be as cool as my indiemodhipster suitemate. I loved the curl of smoke around my face, the earthy scent of a fresh cigarette, the sharp hit of a new pack against my palm.

One day, idling at a stoplight while grocery shopping, I abruptly chucked my lighter and a nearly-full pack of Luckies out the window and then drove away. Couldn’t tell you why.

But that was it – aside from the very occasional cigar, I haven’t wanted nicotine for over a decade. No withdrawal, no mental anguish, no social scarring. I just up and quit. Lucky me, not having an addictive personality. (Except when it comes to sugar, the cocaine of food.)

Imagine my alarm, then, when I ran out of Percocet post-surgery and couldn’t keep my shit together.

I’d never touched anything stronger than Tylenol before, and years of studying cognitive psychology made me wary of the drugs I’d need to manage my pain while my bones knit. Before I went down, I hounded my doctor about the possibility of narcotic withdrawal but was waved off as a perfectly healthy, stable young lady with no need to be concerned about such things.

It took me three days after the meds were gone – three – to figure out that my June chills, untameable stomach, and downright bitchiness weren’t normal. And at that point, I had a choice. I could easily call my doctor in (genuine) tears for another round of sweet, pacifying narcotics to keep me docile, citing the severity of my surgery and exaggerating my discomfort to buy a little while longer without the constant nagging of my inner voices. Or I could admit I no longer needed the drugs for the purpose they were intended, chew on ice chips, drink disgusting stomach tea, and wait for my body to take back control of itself.

I chose the latter. Not because I’m somehow mentally tough. Not because I’m more evolved than anyone else. Not even because I’m brave. But because I didn’t want to let the motherfucking drugs turn me into someone I’m not.

What I loved about narcotics is also what I hated about them: The part of my mind that keeps me guarded and anxiety-riddled was gone, and so I had no inhibitions. Like being constantly pleasantly drunk. But unlike being drunk, I didn’t wake up with a hangover reminding me that I’m a flawed human. With narcotics, I slid down a gentle slope into more brainfuzzies. I was charming. I was funny. I was less uptight.

But it was a lie. And I don’t want to live a lie.

When I quit smoking, it was so easy as to be completely thoughtless. I simply did it. But I only had one, difficult-to-deny chance at avoiding addiction to painkillers. All that kept me from falling into that hole was sheer, stubborn selfishness. I wanted to be me, even if that meant being locked in my inhibitions forever; at least then I can say I’m myself.

This is the short, stylised version of my experience with addiction. I know many of you have been touched in much worse, much deeper ways, whether it’s your struggle or that of someone you love. I’d like to make a safe space in the comments for you to tell that story if you want. No one will give you advice or say you fucked up. We’re here to witness, not judge.

A grownup first: a brush with parental mortality

Heart attacks do exist by Gorilla Ink via Deviant Art

Most folks panic when their parents have their first sudden reminder of near-fatal mortality- not the everyday kind of white hair and creases and slower footsteps but the immediate, gone-in-an-instant kind. Not the kind that kills but the kind that wounds for whatever days they have left. It reminds them that death is waiting ever so patiently to steal away their loved ones. It shotguns them with guilt and grief. It makes them selfishly question the entire gamut of their own lives.

My dad had a heart attack last week.

A 100% blocked artery the doctors tackily call “The Widowmaker”. He’s fine now – on nitro and off cigarettes – but when you get a call at 1:30am from your mother who’s thousands of miles and two time zones away, it’s never anything good.

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know. I didn’t really tell anybody. Which is sort of weird, right? You’d think I’d be more forthcoming, more scribbly-vocal, about my dad’s brush with death. It’s not a secret. And it’s kind of a big deal.

If I’m honest, I haven’t said anything (until now, obviously) because it didn’t bother me. Once the immediate panic was over and I knew he wasn’t dead – once I knew I hadn’t missed my chance to hold his hand when he passed away and say all the things I’m still too uptight to say – I lost exactly zero sleep. Between his stubbornness, my grandmother’s nursing training, and the doctors hovering over him at all hours, he was fine. Is fine. Practical steps towards avoiding a repeat incident are already underway, and he knows we’ll fucking kill him if he lets it happen again.

What does bother me is the fact that it didn’t bother me.

I don’t seem to process tragedy like a normal human. I just sort of acknowledge, experience, then move on. My dad could’ve died that night, and I should be singing praises and making more of an effort to say those secret things while I have the chance. But I’m not. While I know not everyone deals the same way (and there’s no such thing as normal), the ease of my transition from terrified little girl losing her daddy to adult woman admonishing her grey-haired father for eating salt is astonishing and unnerving. And the look on people’s faces when I tell them what happened makes me feel broken. They’re more traumatized than I am. Concern, sympathy, maybe even a little pity. They’re imagining how destroyed they’d be if their parent had a near-death experience 17 hours away. Meanwhile, I’m wondering what movies he’s watching on AMC in the hospital. It’s a disconnect that makes me question my emotional functionality.

But I know that one day it will be The Day.

Something will happen to one parent, then the other, and suddenly I’ll be an orphan, just like we all are eventually. I’m not ready for that yet. That moves my meter. Not what did happen already but the idea of what’s coming. The inevitability of death is both reassuring and soul crushing; it’s never not coming, but I can’t change it.

Writing this is sort of my way of opening the floor to you guys. Leave your me-directed condolences and sympathy in the comments if you like, but what I’d love most is to hear stories of your own brushes with parental mortality.

What was/is it like for you? What would you tell someone who’s never experienced it before? How did your life change?