“Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” I don’t know how or where this phrase originated (theory has it based in Catholicism dating back to the early 1900’s) but I’m sure most children recall using it to swear their honesty and faithfulness by. I’m also sure none of us kids ever actually expected to die or have to stick any sharp pointy things anywhere near our eyes even if we weren’t being truthful. We did say it a lot, though. As a matter of fact, everyone, at some point in any given day, gives someone their word, their vow, their promise to do something, whether it’s for a co-worker, your partner or your best friend. It isn’t always a big deal, it can be just a little favor that you wouldn’t even consider to be promise-worthy. Sometimes we make promises to others with all good and honest intent to do our very best to follow through on, but somehow fate or Murphy’s Law or bad GPS directions or dead batteries in the alarm clock or a run in our stockings or any number of valid reasons cause us to fall short of seeing our promises out. For the most part we are forgiven and allowed to simply re-do our promise for another day or time. But when it comes to promises we make to ourselves, most often we fail to follow through on them without any excuses at all and then don’t bother to make up for it. Why do you suppose that is? Why do we consider ourselves to be of lesser importance than anyone else? It’s a good question, isn’t it? Perhaps we just determine that making a promise to ourselves doesn’t count as a real ‘promise’, or that there’s no time restriction on our own promises so if we don’t fulfill them today it’s alright to put them off for another day or two or three. I suppose that would be acceptable for small promises we make ourselves, like promising to give ourselves an extra half-hour of sleep by going to bed earlier the night before, or promising to leave the phone on ‘silent’ for lunch hour so calls from work don’t disturb our ‘me’ time. Those sort of promises can always be put off for tomorrow. But what about the promises we make to ourselves that really matter?
Sometimes it’s easier to do difficult things for other people than it is to do easy things for ourselves. For someone struggling with self-love issues, doing something just for yourself is almost always considered a waste of time and effort, because we don’t believe we deserve it, we’re not worth the trouble, the time, the cost or the exertion. When others pick up on the fact that we’re cheating ourselves out of personal care or ‘me’ time and admonish us for it, we’ll make that hollow promise, fingers crossed behind our backs, swearing that we’ll be good to ourselves just to appease our concerned friends and family so they won’t worry about us. It’s easy to promise my Mom that I’ll buy something ‘special’ for myself when I go to the store, or to promise my hubby that I’ll treat myself to a nice long soak in the bath after a rough day at work, or to promise my boss that I won’t let a rude customer upset me. Those little promises are easy to say and sometimes I can follow through on them and not feel guilty for treating myself at the time, but later, once hubby’s asleep and I’m laying in bed awake and alone with the crazy person that lives in my head, the voice in my head sneers, “Oooo don’t you feel special? You spent good money on something you didn’t need when there are bills to pay!”, “Gee, did you have a rough day at work? So did millions of people! and they didn’t get to come home to a nice long soak in the tub because they have kids to feed and housework to do… oh, yeah, housework… you remember what that is don’t you? No? Probably because you haven’t done any in DAYS because you’re too LAZY!!”, “Awe, poor baby, did that nasty customer make you cry? Well, grow a spine, sweetheart!”. That’s about when I’d get up out of bed and go to the farthest end of the house so no one would hear me making any sound, and proceed to punish myself for being nice to ‘me’ when I didn’t deserve it. Yes, that sounds absolutely crazy. Yes, I knew even then how crazy it sounds. Yes, in my mind (somewhere very very very deep down) I knew that voice was wrong but I still believed it and I still believed I deserved punishment for wanting to do something nice for myself. Yes, that’s crazy. That’s what chronic depression does. It blocks the mind from thinking and acting rationally. That’s why to this day psychiatrists and psychologists are still trying to find out what happens to cause the mind to go into self-destruct mode like this. They still don’t really know. It just happens.
Okay, so this is the blog that I’ve been putting off writing. I’m not comfortable about openly discussing this aspect of mental illness, but if you want to understand what your friend, loved one, coworker, or whomever it is in your life that is fighting their own war is going through, this is a huge battle that they are likely dealing with and one that you should know about and hopefully this will help you understand their struggle a little better. One bit of advice though, please do not come forward and ask them about it or they may become clams and close themselves off from you and the world, hide in their shells and bury themselves in the sand rather than admit and discuss this part of their struggle. It may be a very common issue, but it’s not one we’re comfortable with – if they do it, they’d feel embarrassed about it, afraid of criticism and mockery and ashamed to admit it. I’m going to open up about it here strictly so that you might be able to comprehend somewhat about what goes on in our minds when we do the things we do. Understanding is one step closer to healing. Please don’t judge, just have an open heart and open arms.
The battle with self-punishment is one of the hardest ones for us to overcome and one of the issues most likely to return again and again despite how well therapy and medications are helping. There are many different ways in which a person struggling with any of the types of mental illness will inflict harm on themselves: pinching, punching, bruising, cutting, scratching, pulling hair, burning, slapping, and just about any other way you can imagine. Cutting has become one of the most common ways mainly because of mainstream media sharing – young people see it online in images, read chats about it among friends, watch interviews of their favorite celebrities who speak out about overcoming it, and so, because they’re trying to deal with their own darkness and don’t know how to, they try it, hoping it will ease their mental pain. Regardless of the form of punishment taken, it’s something that we do because we believe we deserve it. We made a mistake at work, we said the wrong thing to someone, we did something that (in our minds) was stupid, or any number of a hundred different imaginary errors that our self-hating minds have created, and therefore we deserve to be punished for it. We justify our need to inflict pain on ourselves. If we feel the pain, if we get the punishment we’ve earned for being *insert self-degrading adjective here*, then we’ve paid the price and made things all better.
On the road to balanced treatment, therapy helps us begin to see how we treat ourselves from a rational perspective. When we begin to accept that we’ve been unfair and cruel to ourselves, we start to make promises, both to our therapist and to ourself, that we’ll stop hurting ourselves, stop blaming ourselves for imaginary wrongs, stop punishing ourselves for things we’re not guilty of. At first, making these promises is like making that vow we made as kids, fingers crossed behind our backs. We sort of mean it honestly, but hey, who’s kidding who? We know we’re going to really try to follow through with it but we also know that we’re going to break it eventually. In time, though, we’ll slowly pull ourselves away from that edge, away from that need to inflict pain, to take out justice on the wretchedness that lives within this skin. Eventually we’ll be able to stop completely… for a while. The hardest part about living with mental illness is the ‘no cure’ bit. There’s no cure, there are only treatments, therapy, medications. It can be coped with, but it never ever goes away altogether. So for a while we’ll gain control, we’ll stop punishing ourselves for imagined wrongs, stop hating ourselves for imagined flaws and keep our promises to be good to ourselves. But there will come a time when the dark days will return. We’ll try our best to ignore the monster inside when it starts poking and prodding and whispering lies in our ear, but eventually it will get stronger, start shoving, bullying, and the whispers will grow into screams and we’ll believe the lies and the punishment will be the only way to make it shut up. Those are the hardest days. Those are the days we need our family and friends to look at our faces and not our arms or legs. Those are the days we need hugs and fake smiles and distractions, anything but questions and lectures. Yes, we know it all sounds crazy. That’s because it is. It’s a crazy world inside our head. But don’t worry. I promise it isn’t always that scary…. at least, not most days…. and my fingers aren’t crossed. Promise.
“Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.” – Parker Palmer
PS. There are six new poems under the Poetry pages including “Light and Dark” posted below.