I was about to blow a three-year record with an explosion that would incinerate all my achievements
Today I had an anniversary. It wasn’t one of the “six months to the day I almost killed myself,” “two years to the date of trauma X,” or “one year since my therapist called Hatzolah to get me to the hospital” anniversaries, either. I didn’t celebrate it with my husband, since he has yet to show up, and I have yet to start dating.
Today, I marked three years with no life-threatening, self-harming behaviors.
It was a miracle my previous therapist never believed would happen. During the first short period during which I’d restrained myself, she had repeatedly cautioned me not to be down on myself if I should ever feel despair again. She had prepared me, waiting for it to happen.
“If you had told me a year ago that you would stop self-harming, I would have told you that you were crazy,” she admitted later on. “In fact, I would have said I was crazy!”
We laughed together, but her frank admission hurt me deeply. But I only let myself feel that hurt much later. It was frightening to hear that she had once thought I would not recover, even while she kept working with me on everything else. I guess I too had once thought I was beyond hope, and there was good reason for her to share that concern. But today, I could rejoice.
All day I wanted to tell someone about this milestone, yet found I couldn’t. My family? No way. Friends? Somehow, I didn’t feel I could, not this time. My therapist? In a twist of Heaven’s hashgachah that had me mentally biting my lips in disappointment and frustration, my session had been canceled that day, delaying my sharing with the one person whom I wanted to tell.
All day long I felt more alone than ever, even as I tried to focus on what this day meant for me. I wanted to thank Hashem, do something meaningful, or maybe do something special for myself to mark the occasion and encourage myself onward. It was hard to remain optimistic, though. Outside, the rain poured down and the sky was prematurely dark. It matched my mood perfectly.
I hadn’t been doing well recently, and dismal thoughts sometimes still crept back into awareness. I got through the day, but in solitude, with no one who might understand if I shared my experience with them.
By that evening, the loneliness deepened, and I found myself despairing, with dismal thoughts again. Some part of me was hurting badly and thoughts of self-harm trespassed into my mind again. I started a caring monologue within myself.
“Today of all days I cannot self-harm. It would be too much for me to handle if on this special day I break my pattern of success and healthy coping. There had been so many near misses over the past few years, so many ‘almosts’ — it can’t finally happen today. Please. I can’t do this.”
But it began to seem like just too much. I felt myself sinking back into despair as my emotions shot higher and higher. A critical voice invaded my awareness: “See, this is where all your effort gets you! Just stop trying right now.”
I was desperate. I felt almost as if Hashem would have the final laugh in this macabre game. I was about to blow a three-year record with an explosion that would incinerate all my achievements. And I didn’t think I had the strength to do it again, to pull myself back up once more. But I did not want that to happen.
I was hanging on to the towel rack in the bathroom, fists clenched, eyes shut. My forehead was pressed against the wall; I was breathing hard, crying, not daring to let go. I used any skill I could think of to bring down the intensity of my feelings. When the skills for coping didn’t work, I debated calling a friend from my therapy group, who kept late hours for emergency support. It was already midnight.
I feared that I couldn’t succeed in isolation from those who would support and encourage me to get beyond this dark moment. The absolute aloneness of my struggle seemed overpowering, and I couldn’t take it for even one more second. With the bathroom sink running full force to block others from hearing, hands shaking, I finally made the call. Crying hysterically, I blurted out that I was struggling. I told her how today was so significant for me, and yet a part of me was about to blow it.
My words spilled out in a flood, and I was shocked that I was letting myself go like this; I’d never made such a call before. I had never spoken so freely about my suffering. Now I told her how I felt like a failure for having this setback on my “anniversary.”
We spoke for half an hour. I sobbed and talked it through, hardly knowing what I was saying. My supportive friend didn’t say much, just listened with an occasional word. Eventually my fragmented gasps became coherent sentences. Finally, I was focused enough to deliberately shift the conversation to her and listen to what she had been undergoing recently, having also been experiencing an extremely tough time.
At the end of the day, I did not self-harm.
That was how I celebrated my anniversary.
It has taken me a while to stop berating myself for that night, and to really thank Hashem for helping me through yet another crisis. I ask Him now for the strength to help me further, to continue helping me in my fight for life. I truly believe that I can and must turn to Hashem in times of victory and at times when I begin to fear defeat.
That night, on the brink of relapse, I also learned how important it can be to reach out to friends for support and not be alone — and how a few words, unconditional acceptance, and a listening ear can literally be lifesaving. I feel increased desire to be there for my friends and others in their times of need.
The irony of my experience — feeling the lure of relapse on the very occasion of my greatest achievement — made me realize how alert I need to be for triggers, and how important it is to anticipate and accept myself despite those delicate moments, not beating myself up for my reactions. Being critical of myself when I feel down just breeds more feelings of contempt, which I strive to avoid. My harsh self-talk and unending judgments aren’t good for me, ever, and lead me to feeling emotionally wounded. Learning to stop such internal mistreatment of my inner self is my next healthy goal.
And I realized something else, too. I realize that no matter how weary I’m feeling, I still have it in me to fight. It’s a strength I can barely acknowledge, yet I’m told by others that it’s there. And sometimes, like on that night, I clearly see that strength. I will stand up to the internal pressures and get past the events which trigger me. I deserve to thrive and to survive, and I will advocate for myself. I will cope and transcend.
I still struggle intensely with the urge to self-harm. I fight my urges and fend off those thoughts, and use any skill I can think of to lower the intensity, to pass through the overwhelming pain safely. I fight intrusive ideas about ending it all, and I do not want to contemplate letting myself take it a dreadful next step. Sometimes this means just sitting still, unmoving, because otherwise things will go out of control. Sometimes it requires more active means of promoting self-care and boosting my respect for who I am.
It’s admitting to myself that I’m in tremendous pain — and that’s okay. It’s okay to be me, and to feel. It’s understandable why there can be moments when I begin to question my life, and simultaneously I know and believe that I can work on overcoming these feelings —without denying them — and work hard to cope effectively with them.
Sometimes it’s being mindful of the emotions I’m desperately escaping, finally letting myself sit with a long-suppressed feeling or thought, allowing myself to cry, and asking what I really need right now. When I realize what I really need — validation, self-acceptance, and support — the spinning thoughts in my head stop, and I might still feel the pain, but I also experience relief because someone finally understands. Even if that someone has to be me when no one else can.
I’ve learned that if my feelings and thoughts escalate at times, I have a pause, a few-second window, during which I can use my DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) skills to fight it, lower the intensity, and cope. I remind myself emphatically and compassionately: You don’t want this. You will not let this happen. Never again. You got this far, you’ll make it through this time too. You know it doesn’t really help, only worsens things. I will not self-harm. I will use my coping skills. I can do this.
I think of all that my therapist has taught me and know I have her full support. I utilize the DBT skills, track the buildup of emotions and situations, and deal with them before I reach the boiling point of self-harm.
While there’s progress, it’s not easy being at times a breath away from life-threatening behaviors. The eerie thought that I might have been dead, or gravely injured, or alive with severe physical damage is disconcerting, particularly when at times I’m unsure that I can endure. All I can tell myself is that Hashem must really want me here, because He has given me the brachah of enduring and surviving deep distress.
Over the painful months since that night, I’ve asked myself many times: “What is making me want to live even though I go through profound emotional pain? Why am I here? What’s making me go on?”
I remember my therapist’s reaction after a crisis when she told me “You have a whole life ahead of you.”
Uncharacteristically, I raised my voice in reply: “I don’t want to live a whole life this way.” It was the closest I’d come to breaking down in session. The outburst had been long in coming, but she was the first and only one to hear it out loud.
“Do you not want to live, or do you not want to live this life?” she asked me quietly. I didn’t answer, but I knew.
I think what makes me hang on is my therapist’s and others’ complete acceptance and belief in me, because it allows me to hear and absorb their optimistic question of “What if?!” What if I can live a different life? What if I really can be okay one day, if I really can live the life I want to live? What if I’ll find that there truly is more to life than severe emotional pain; that there can be love, acceptance, and even improved emotional health? What if I accept that it’s possible to learn to trust again in Hashem, in people, and in myself? What if I can still get married and build a family? What if I can become emotionally healthy enough to help others like me? Can I take the risk of not finding out?
I ask myself this when I say “no” to those urges, to intrusive bleak thoughts, to negative actions that will leave a lasting impact on my spiritual life. Would I give it all up? Can I risk it? Do I really want to? And even when I’m beyond asking questions, I just feel it in me. I want so much to live my best life, growing and thriving. And with Hashem’s help, I shall.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 600)
(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 600)
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