Warning: Self Harm
Sitting there in my therapist’s office, I think she must notice. She must have seen others that every so often squeeze their eyes tight and clench their fists, or rub their forearms. She doesn’t mention it, though.
In my head, I’m repeatedly slashing at my forearms, my wrists. I swear I can feel the cuts on my skin welling up with bright red blood. I rub my skin, hard, to convince myself that it isn’t real.
This happens a lot, these intrusive thoughts. Sometimes it’s what I experienced in the therapist’s office. Sometimes it’s something more external – suddenly I’ll feel as if someone has shot me through the eye with an arrow (which is strangely specific, I know). Sometimes it’s being smashed over the head with something, or knifed in the gut.
Sometimes they will just show up out of a clear blue sky, a cosmic whammy that burns straight into my brain, telling me “pull the steering wheel.” More often, though, it’s triggered by something – some stressors.
These thoughts are different from being suicidal in an important way: I don’t want them. I don’t want to act on them. They’re frightening and confusing. It’s almost as if someone has hacked my brain and uploaded a computer virus, leaving me desperately closing pop-ups in order to get back to what I was doing.
When I first started experiencing this mental barrage, I had no name for it. I thought well, I just have a very dark imagination (which is true). As time went on, however, these thoughts more and more intense. I would have graphic vision of being stabbed or shot, often so realistic that I would start, unsure for a second or two if it had actually been real. As I got into therapy and became more willing to accept my diagnoses and try to learn about them, I came across the phrase “intrusive thoughts.” There it was – confirmation that I wasn’t the only one in the world that suffered with this symptom. In fact, it’s common with many different conditions – OCD, Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and PTSD all have intrusive thoughts listed as a possible symptom. I am far from alone. If you’re reading this, there’s a strong chance you know exactly what I’m talking about.
These thoughts don’t always take the form of injury to oneself, either. It differs from person to person, from disorder to disorder. They can take the form of unwanted or “embarrassing” and “bad” sexual thoughts. They can be pictures of harm coming to someone you love or care about. They may take on religious overtones. For me, it’s both self-injurious and sexual in turns. The sense of guilt, of being broken or fundamentally flawed in some way can cause us to attempt to push these thoughts away. We try to ignore them. We tell ourselves that it’s bad and to knock it off, brain. Unfortunately, the harder we push, the stronger they become.
One of the skills learned in DBT (or so I’ve read, since I’ve never had the therapy) is to let your thoughts come and go without judgment. It sounds simple. It totally isn’t.
The method requires us to step back from ourselves, to separate ourselves from our thoughts and look at them objectively and without judgment. There’s a thought about stabbing my eyes out with a pencil. Oh, look, cookies. I’ve been using this method, with mixed success, for a few months now. It’s still very difficult, but I can notice a difference. I’m still affected, but it’s shorter and lighter, if that makes sense. Where I used to have incredible amounts of guilt, now it’s a mild regret. What used to ruin my day – or longer – now only wrecks a few hours. It’s not perfect, but it’s something.
And sometimes, something can be everything.