“You have set yourselves a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere, and you will find a joy in overcoming obstacles. Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost. What I am looking for is not out there, it is in me.”
― Helen Keller
Introduction from Kristin Rivas:
From the time I received an email from Olivia Goodwin’s mother in the spring of 2015, explaining her 26 year old daughter’s traumatic history, asking whether I was willing or confident in my abilities to help with her daughter’s struggles, I felt my heart already extending to this girl I had yet to meet. Her story gripped me. I knew that if there was anything in my power I could do to help, I certainly would do my all. I remember seeing her for the first time, sitting in the waiting room at my office next to her mom, head down, shoulders caved, hands fidgeting with her sweater. I remember how quiet she was and how she avoided eye contact as I greeted her and lead her back to my room. How she remained that way through out most of our first session. The next time I saw her, her body language was a little more open and she spoke with me a bit more. By our third session, she was cracking jokes and allowing me to walk her through significant therapeutic approaches to clearing some of the most traumatic abuse I have ever encountered in my hypnotherapy practice working with over a thousand clients.
I could tell she probably wasn’t aware of the depth of her own resilient, brilliant inner spirit or so many awesome hard to find qualities that she had going for her. It has warmed my heart to see her blossom over the months as she continues her journey of healing. It is with great pleasure and admiration I read of her story in her own words. I am inspired by her courage, strength, vulnerability and authenticity to lend a voice and helping hand to many who share in her experiences. Please enjoy the following guest post by Olivia Goodwin.
Hello! My name is Olivia, and I self-injured. From the age of 6 to the age of 25, I self-injured. I am now writing this post because I don’t want to hide that, because I want to bring the topic of Nonsuicidal Self-Injury (NSSI) out into the open, because I want people to have a better understanding of what someone who self-injures is experiencing, and because I want to help make a hole in that wall of isolation, stigma, and shame that so often keeps people from coming forward to get help. I want people to feel like it’s safe to come forward, to share their stories, and to get help rather than feeling like they have to suffer alone and in the dark or face ignominy.
“In general, US studies tend to find that lifetime prevalence of common self-injury ranges from 12% to 37.2% in secondary school populations and 12% to 20% in young adult populations…Nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) is the deliberate, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue resulting in immediate damage, without suicidal intent and for purposes not culturally sanctioned.” (1) I can’t tell you all the things that have happened to these people, or all the things that are going on in minds of all the people who self-injure. I can only share my personal experience. Although the outward circumstances of my life will be alien to some, and very familiar to others, I believe that our inward experiences share many similarities across the board. Self-injury is very frequently connected to childhood abuse, but it can also (or in addition) be connected to substance abuse, eating disorders, PTSD, borderline personality disorder, anxiety disorders, and depression. (2)
Growing up, I was abused by a family member. This abuse was verbal, physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual. Up until the age of 9, this person had constant contact with me. Even after that, I wasn’t able to fully cut off contact until the age of 17. At the age of 15, I was compelled to have a spinal surgery that I didn’t want (“didn’t want” is an extremely mild form of stating that) to have. I had the surgery and was subsequently paralyzed from the waist down. Complete paralysis was temporary, but I never fully recovered. Beyond that, I was involved at 19 in an extremely damaging and psychologically abusive relationship which eventually led to a nervous breakdown and triggered the memories of the sexual abuse I had experienced growing up (which I had, until that point, blocked out). That, briefly, is my tale of woe.
I don’t remember the first time that I self-injured, so I can’t say specifically how I came to adopt that method of coping. But, when I was younger, my method of choice was a hammer or other similarly heavy object. Hearing this, you may wonder, “Why? What does it accomplish? You’re already being abused…how does further pain help?” I will try to explain. I lived in terror almost 24/7. I had no means of escape, no completely safe place to be, no person that I felt could truly save me or protect me. I had my brother and sisters who I was constantly in fear for, and whom I tried as best I could to protect. The situation was destroying me, and I knew it was, yet I was powerless to save either myself or others. In addition, I was in an incredible amount of pain. When I say “pain,” I’m referring more to the emotional and psychological pain that the abuse caused, rather than to any physical pain. There was so much conflict within myself, like, “This abuser is a person I love who is supposed to take care of me, but they’re hurting me. Why? Why are they hurting me? Why don’t they love me? Am I a bad person who doesn’t deserve to be cared for? I feel like all these bad things happening are wrong, but I’m supposed to listen to adults…maybe I’m wrong and I deserve these bad things. Maybe I am an idiot, disobedient, annoying, in the way, and unlovable. But, why? I don’t feel like that’s who I am. Why is this happening? Who’s right?” All of those thoughts swirling around constantly, accompanied by the emotions (like fear, anger, shame, and sadness), would build and build. They had nowhere to go, and eventually everything would build to the point where the torture it was inflicting on my little mind was so acute, so unbearable, that if I didn’t do something, it felt as though my mind would shatter into a million pieces, and my body would just explode because it couldn’t hold all of this anymore. And then there would be nothing left of me. I would disappear, and I didn’t want to.
It was at that point that self-injury would come into play. Pain was the only form of release for all of those things. If I caused myself enough physical pain, it was like I had created little outlets for all of that stuff to flow away for the moment. The pain was also a tether to reality – the pain kept me from completely dissociating and losing myself. It was one small thing that I had control of. There were other factors at play too. Self-injury was a way of punishing myself, or perhaps just my body, for being something that seemed to bring nothing but pain and shame. Then, after self-injuring, I felt calmer again. I felt better. This was obviously not a permanent state, and so it turned into a cycle.
At that time, during my younger years, self-injury was my way of coping, of surviving. It wasn’t a conscious plea for help, although subconsciously I’m sure it was. At 18, that began to change. My preferred method of self-injury was no longer a hammer, but a razor blade. I had switched to cutting, and, particularly from 19 on-wards, this was a conscious cry for help. I hoped someone would notice, that someone would see that I wasn’t OK, and would help me. I didn’t feel able to ask for that help directly for a number of reasons, including shame, fear, guilt, and a sense of hopelessness coming from having tried to reach out many times but having no one really understand. So self-injury was my way to cope with a reality that threatened to shatter my mind, a reality that was so painful and inescapable that it felt like it would kill me, and self-injury had also become my cry for help, for someone to see me. I feel I should point out here that I didn’t self-injure because I wanted to die. I self-injured because I wanted so desperately to live. I was fighting so hard to live, to survive, and in a reality that seemed like it was killing me, self-injury seemed like it was the only way to stay alive.
“There comes a time when the blankness of the future is just so extreme, it’s like such a black wall of nothingness. Not of bad things like a cave full of monsters and so, you’re afraid of entering it. It’s just nothingness, the void, emptiness and it is just horrible. It’s like contemplating a future-less future and so you just want to step out of it. The monstrosity of being alive overwhelms you.”
― Stephen Fry
I want to emphasize that there are many things that can cause the feelings and state of mind that I was in. Self-injury usually goes hand in hand with another condition (such as the ones I mentioned in the second paragraph), although that is not always the case. I myself also suffer from depression and PTSD, and the times when I was most depressed, or most intensely triggered, were the times when it was almost impossible to overcome the urge to self-injure. It is also extremely important for all of us to be aware and to acknowledge that a person doesn’t have to suffer traumatic events and circumstances in order to also suffer from depression or develop self-injurious behavior. Just because someone appears to have a perfectly happy life doesn’t mean that they are somehow immune, and that they need to “prove” that they’re somehow “qualified” to be depressed, or have an eating disorder, or an anxiety disorder based on whether or not the world at large decides their circumstances to be tragic enough. That’s not how life works, and that’s not how the brain works. So if you berate yourself for being depressed (for example) because you don’t seem to have it as bad as other people, you don’t need to do that. And if you’re someone who has thought before that someone didn’t have a right to be depressed (to stick with the same example) because their life was good, then stop it. No one needs a “right.” Everyone is equally deserving of compassion, and equally entitled to help. Everyone’s cry for help is valid.
In our response to self-injury, it is important that we do not dismiss it. It is important that we do not dismiss the person as weak, or as an attention seeker, and that we do not shame them. I will share with you three of the responses I got from people when they discovered that I was cutting.
- During a conversation I had with one person when she found out, there was one phrase that was uttered which eclipsed the rest of the conversation. “Don’t let your sister see this – I don’t want you to have a bad influence on her.” There were many other things said during this conversation…many sympathetic things, but I don’t remember any of them. That is the only thing I remember, and I felt really ashamed. I felt like I couldn’t even suffer without being a bad person and hurting other people. Consequently, I felt much more afraid to confide in this person.
- An ex, when he found out, lobbed a hearty bouquet of verbal abuse at me (which I won’t repeat), and threatened to sue me for any damage I caused to his house. (I still don’t know what kind of damage I could have done?) This reaction created both shame and terror, and, weirdly, made the problem worse.
- This third person, a friend, found a razor blade in my room one day. When he found it, he threw it out of the window and said, “Stop! It’s dangerous and a stupid way to handle things. You might accidentally go too far and end up killing yourself, and none of it is worth ending your life over.” He also shared that when he was much younger, he used to cut, and he’d accidentally gone too far and ended up having to go to the hospital, and that if he had died, what a stupid way to go. Then, he hugged me me and told me that I deserved better.
This third reaction was by far the best and most helpful reaction (although, I’d avoid the use of the word “stupid”). It didn’t magically stop me from cutting, but the fact that someone had gotten angry, in a positive way, because I was cutting simply because it upset them that I was hurting myself and that I didn’t deserve to be hurt, was a novelty. After that, I began to not want to keep self-injuring. I began to question it, and to think that maybe I DID deserve better, that maybe hurting myself wasn’t the only way to stay alive, and that I didn’t deserve to suffer or need to punish myself.
Self-injury is a difficult topic, and many (maybe even most) of us don’t know the best way to react, the best way to help, when we find out that someone in our lives is self-injuring. I don’t think anyone can provide the perfect outline for dealing with that revelation, but this Detection, Intervention, and Treatment article provides some helpful information. The most important points that come to my mind are: Don’t dismiss. Don’t shame. Don’t berate. Don’t condone.
Self-injury may feel like the only option, and it’s not. It is a dangerous option that only provides very temporary and damaging relief from the problem, but it has some very permanent consequences. I was lucky in that the scars on my right wrist and arm are the only permanent consequences. But self-injury can lead to things other than permanent scarring, such as, broken bones (often that heal incorrectly), permanent tissue damage, excessive blood loss, infection, and sometimes death even though self-injury is generally not a suicidal action. (3) Many of these things happen or are made worse because medical treatment wasn’t sought.
There are many ways to treat self-injurious behavior and its underlying causes. Some of those things focus on instituting alternative behaviors that are less dangerous. Some focus on helping the person develop more positive ways of coping with their emotions and thoughts. Cutting and Self-Harm includes further information as well as new/different coping techniques. All of those are good things to check out more fully, and we should also remember that everyone is different, so some of these things might work for one person but not another. For myself, I found that many of the things, like meditation, breathing exercises, mindfulness, substitute behaviors, etc. helped me when I was in a mild-moderate state. However, at my most intense states, these things did nothing. Once I had decided that I didn’t want to continue cutting, there were, essentially, two ways that I got through those times. The first was to tell myself, “Not yet.” I wouldn’t absolutely deny myself the option of self-injury, I would just tell myself, “Not yet…maybe in a few more minutes, but not yet.” If I completely denied myself the option, I felt trapped and things were too much to handle, but just putting it off minute by minute often allowed me to ride it out without actually self-injuring. Many times it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. When it didn’t, I would apologize to my body, “I’m sorry it came to that. I know you don’t deserve that pain or punishment.” And when the desire to stop self-injuring for myself wasn’t strong enough to stop me, I would focus on someone who was really important to me and think about how I would feel the next day if they discovered new cuts on my wrists or if I had to tell them that I’d cut myself. I knew that that situation would cause me great regret and that I’d wish I hadn’t done it. So sometimes it was easier to maintain my resolve for someone else (even if they never knew it), rather than only myself. The other coping method that I would often employ simultaneously was simply to sit in my room at night, with headphones on, listen to music, and cry. Of all the things that I’ve revealed about myself, that one was the hardest for me to put out there. Maybe because I’ve felt like I had some sort of image to uphold, and crying didn’t fit into it? But that’s what I did. I cried. Sometimes it was every night for weeks on end. Sometimes it was for hours, and sometimes it was less because I just fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion.
I think though, that in order to move on from having to fight the urge to self-injure, something also needs to be done to treat the underlying causes. There are many different therapies for treating the underlying causes like depression, PTSD, anxiety, BPD, etc. Some of these, briefly, are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), EMDR, Hypnotherapy, and talk therapy. Some people use a combination of therapies, and some use only one. Some people also use medication in conjunction with therapy. All of these things are valid treatments. Since we are all individuals, however, some approaches will work really well for one person, but not so well for another. I mentioned the therapies that I did because (with the exception of DBT) I have tried all of them myself. I have seen at least eight different therapists since the age of 9, and have also tried a number of different medications. With the exception of a few of the therapists, all of the therapies helped – up to a certain point. I would always reach a point with each therapist where, no matter what either of us did, I couldn’t go any further. All of the things I was attempting to process were too intense, and my mind would shut down. Even if I didn’t consciously want to, I would still shut down and lose the ability to talk or think. So it became a continuous cycle of hope and despair, where I would think maybe this one would be different, and then it wasn’t. That continued up until July, 2015.
In July, someone recommended Hypnotherapy and NLP to me, specifically suggesting Kristin. I was pretty convinced at that point that nothing would work, but I mustered the energy to open my laptop, go to her website, and watch her video. (The amount of effort that actually took is slightly embarrassing.) Afterwards, I still didn’t know if she would be able to help me, but I felt that she would at least be able to truly understand what I was going through which was a huge factor, and it was something I felt none of my other therapists understood. I went to see her. After having two appointments, I realized that those four hours with her had done more than the previous 10 years of therapy combined ever had. I have continued to see her since, as you may have noticed, I have a laundry list of things to address. But Kristin was able to help me bypass that barrier so that I didn’t shut down, and could therefore actually process things and recover. After those first two sessions, I noticed that my life was no longer hopeless, no longer a dark cage full of pain. My life was an actual life, and I felt that it was worth living and enjoying, and that things could get even better.
I want that for all of you! I want all of you to feel alive, to be happy that you’re alive, and to be free from that darkness that has kept us caged. I myself highly recommend Hypnotherapy and NLP, and particularly Kristin, to anyone out there reading this who needs help or knows someone who does because she’s helped me so much. Most importantly though, I want for you to be able to get out of the shadows and live! So it’s important to find the approach that truly resonates with you, and maybe that will be CBT or EMDR. Regardless of which approach may end up being the best for you, I hope that, if you need help, you can take this opportunity to reach out for it. I don’t want any of you to suffer. I don’t want any of you to be in so much pain that it feels like the only way to keep going is to inflict more pain upon yourself! We all deserve better than that. You don’t have to prove it. You deserve better than that simply by virtue of being alive. So please, don’t let the fear or the shame keep you hiding. You’ve fought so hard to keep on living! That takes an incredible amount of strength, and I’m so proud of you. And right now, I’m offering you my hand to help pull you out of the dark so that your life won’t have to continue to be a battle. There are many, many hands reaching out to grasp yours, so even if you don’t take my hand, take someone’s! You deserve to be seen. You deserve to be free of suffering. You deserve to live, and to enjoy it!
“Don’t ever give up.
Don’t ever give in.
Don’t ever stop trying.
Don’t ever sell out.
And if you find yourself succumbing to one of the above for a brief moment,
pick yourself up, brush yourself off, whisper a prayer, and start where you left off.
But never, ever, ever give up.”
― Richelle E. Goodrich, Eena, The Tempter’s Snare