Why I Cut Myself

Why I Cut Myself

I was asked by Ariane Zurcher of Emma’s Hope Book to contribute my thoughts about SIBs… This is what I wrote in a comment on that blog:

I went through a spell in my early 20s where I would cut myself. I was living away from home for the first time, attending university, and I was not coping well. I was feeling lonely and out of my depth: I was awkward socially and didn’t feel that I fit in, and what I now know to be executive function deficits made living independently a huge challenge. It also made the degree of independence expected of university undergraduates with respect to managing their studies a big challenge: for me the rigid structure of school education where every day was filled with lesson after lesson was perfect, although I always had issues getting homework done when left to my own devices.

To cut what could be a long story short — I’ll write about it in detail one day but not right now — I was failing my courses: missing lectures, lab time and supervisions (what they call tutorials outside Cambridge, England). I had begun to drink heavily — my first means of harming myself — as a coping mechanism more than anything else. I was depressed, had problems with anxiety that I still suffer from, and hated myself for being unable to cope, for failing, for getting drunk every night, for not being able to make the kind of close friendships I saw all around me.

In my state of mind I considered killing myself. No, it was more than consideration: I calmly sharpened a knife, sat down, removed my watch from my left wrist and made a small cut. I’m uncomfortable admitting that it felt good. It felt really good, as if I was releasing the pain of my feelings. It wasn’t painful so much as a feeling of sharp clarity bringing my mind into focus. I did it again, just a short cut of about an inch, through the skin but not into my veins. And again, then on the other wrist. I was enjoying the feeling: I felt that I was in control for once.

That was the first occasion. There were others. I believe it was a reaction to overload, to more stress than I could handle, to feelings of failure and low self-esteem. I can’t say whether I felt anger — internalized anger. I can say that I was self-destructive and that I have always internalized my feelings, at least until I explode into a violent meltdown. And I can also say that the cutting helped. It brought a relief from the intensity of my emotions, a distraction from my troubles.

It also brought shame later on. It was sign of weakness, another sign of failure. The marks on my wrists were a visible reminder. And I was ashamed that I wanted to do it. I believed — because that was what I had been told — that it was wrong. That “normal” people didn’t do things like that. And I wanted to be normal, to fit in. Even my coping mechanisms were causing me additional stress.

I don’t cut myself any more. That behavior stopped after I left university — dropped out. I was away from the cause of my distress and no longer needed to escape from it. I was back in control, back home in a safe environment. But sometimes I still become tempted to go fetch a sharp knife when I’m feeling overloaded and away from any place I feel safe. There is a desire to feel that release again.

I hope this explains my experience of self-harming, how it started and why it stopped. And why I am never that far from it even today.

Bad Things Happen

Bad Things Happen

Sometimes something happens that threatens to break the natural feeling of trust I have in people. I’ve been accused of being in a world of my own half the time, of being naive and not “street-wise” (whatever that means — I’ve always struggled to picture the proper meaning of that expression). But I value my innocence, my trusting nature. I cherish the hope I carry that there is good in people and I’m rarely disappointed. I try to treat people with courtesy and respect… but there are some people out there in the world who do intentional harm to others — take advantage of that innocent trust — and that causes me pain. Pain because people I care about get hurt. Pain because the world is not as I believe it ought to be. Pain because my trust is injured.

I wrote this on that theme: it’s about the damage done to innocence when bad things happen; it’s about the impotence felt when the wrong can’t be made right. It’s… a faint cry in the dark, soon swallowed by the night and forgotten.

There are times when the world is right,
When the skies are so blue and bright,
And there’s never a cloud in sight.

There’s no danger to make us hide,
No dread terrors to force eyes wide,
And no evil… oh, but I lied.

The righteous bow before might,
The sword will determine who’s right
As they lead us out of the light.

Tell your children, the herald cried,
The hands of the good have been tied,
Flame of hope in my heart has died.

Reblogged When Upset Turns Violent: The Conversation Continues…

Reblogged When Upset Turns Violent: The Conversation Continues…

This is the latest installment in what has become an active discussion on violence, its causes and effects, and ways to deal with it. It’s building into a very useful resource, and it’s not a subject that gets tackled very often because of its emotive nature. So great to see it handled so well here — this has turned into a real community effort (and I got a couple of quotes in this latest post).

Emma's Hope Book

The comments continue to pour in, both through email and on yesterday’s post and the post from the day before on the topic of violence and coping when overwhelmed and overloaded.  A number of parents have emailed that a behavioral program helped tremendously and a few wrote about various medications they’ve (almost always) reluctantly given their child as a “last resort”.  One parent wrote:  “I had to go to the ER because he broke my nose and when the doc saw the bruises on my arms and my broken finger they called social services.  I was told my child would be taken from me.  Another doc prescribed _____  (anti-psychotic drug) and told me it was the only shot I had at keeping my son with me.  Sometimes the choices we parents are given suck.  I never went back to the ER even after he broke two ribs and my…

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Sidestepping Meltdown

Sidestepping Meltdown

It’s curious that the day after I wrote about violence in meltdowns I felt myself approaching one. This is how I handled it.

It was Tuesday morning and I was feeling tired after a poor night’s sleep. That in itself is never a good thing because it heightens my sensitivity to sensory stimuli such as bright light, loud or high-pitched noise and touch. It puts me on edge: I become liable to jump at the slightest disturbance, balanced on the cusp between holding it together and going into overload.

Well, I was a mess. Couldn’t concentrate on anything: the slightest disturbance grated. The noise of the air conditioning, people’s voices, vibrations in the floor as they walked by all contributed to my discomfort and I could feel that I was becoming more and more tense.

And then an alarm went off! Loud and high-pitched. I felt myself sliding into meltdown, the anger building as I began to feel the urge to lash out…

..but I was aware of all this. I realized how close I was to a meltdown and that realization slammed the mental brakes on. In recognizing my state of distress I had subconsciously triggered my learned coping strategies. My focus shifted from the external stimuli that were overloading me to instead observe my own body: I was breathing too fast, I was very tense. I began to consciously relax, the tension easing and the anger ebbing as I did so. My breathing slowed to a more normal rate as a result of the meditative technique.

And the alarm stopped. Bliss! Comparative peace at last. Until the fire alarm test sounded a few minutes later, which caught me unawares despite happening at the same time every Tuesday morning for the past six years and more. I’m laughing at the irony in hindsight: I just got over one alarm and there was another! However this one didn’t cause me nearly as much distress because I was already in my coping mindset. Yes, it was painful to the senses and I couldn’t physically do anything while it was ringing, but I had successfully reduced my stress level from the first alarm and had the reserves to avoid a full overload.

A couple of minutes later it was all over. I went for a short walk to give myself a break and help complete the process of relaxation which helped somewhat. The tiredness though; that was exacerbated by the effort of will to drag myself back from the brink of meltdown. It wasn’t a very productive day after that: I got through and made a point of not setting my alarm that night. I knew I needed to sleep and recover enough to be able to function the next day and it’s better to be late in to work and productive than turn up on time with a mind like molasses in winter.

Violence As A Means Of Expression

Violence As A Means Of Expression

I’m not a violent person in general. People who know me well have remarked on my placid nature. But I have a darker side: there’s a reason my mother told my wife to watch out for my temper…

I have a high level of tolerance for frustration or pain but when that state continues — whatever the cause — I become enraged. I shout, yell, scream; I throw things that are close at hand (although as an adult I nearly always have the presence of mind not to break stuff or throw it towards any person); I hit doors and walls.

As a child there were holes in my bedroom walls where I had punched or kicked through the plasterboard. I have punched and kicked through doors, or burst them from their hinges. In later life I have learned to punch solid brick walls where the only resulting damage is to my hands or elbows: this lessens my shame in the aftermath.

Because I do not want to act in this way. I know that my rages can frighten my wife. I have never aimed my rage at a person, although their actions might be the cause, and I believe that my inhibitions against harming a person or animal run too deep even for my rage to overwhelm. But even I can’t be absolutely certain. Because there have been accidents: a couple of times I have pushed somebody away from me after yelling at them to go away and they have fallen. I once hit my wife with the door I was pushing closed as I tried to keep her away from me; I didn’t even notice she was right behind me. Does this mean I could go on a rampage, attacking random people I encounter? I seriously doubt it: my drive is simply to release the anger and I have always aimed it at inanimate objects.

But I have caused people harm as a result of my involuntary violent outbursts. I am lucky that I caused them nothing worse than a bruise: I have to live with the consequences of what I do, whether my acts are conscious or not. As it is I always feel deeply ashamed once the anger subsides and I calm down. I feel guilt. I usually cry and shiver — it’s similar to the effects of shock. I will not — cannot — excuse my violence. But I can try to explain.

Why do I do it? That’s a very important question. I am usually able to communicate effectively but emotion is a minefield: I have alexithymia which means I have great difficulty identifying and describing my emotional states. Strong emotions, especially negative ones, are very stressful. Add to that the fact that I become practically non-verbal when under stress — words are in my mind but I can’t get them to come out of my mouth — and you have a recipe for disaster. I’m not able to communicate my state of mind or my immediate needs which adds to the sense of frustration.

I fall back on instinct which is to lash out, to exhibit violent behavior. It is a reaction, just as screaming is a reaction to acute pain — rather than calmly stating “My word, that hurt”. As a child it was described as “temper tantrums”: that was the best description my parents could come up with. When I am in that state, which is thankfully very rarely, I do not have any other viable means of expressing myself. Instead of reaching the crisis point I have learned to recognize the early signs that I am heading in the direction of a rage and take steps to remove myself from the cause. Often this is as simple as walking away for a while until I feel calm.

For this reason I can understand that when an autistic person — adult or child — expresses themselves through aggression or violence they are displaying a reaction to pain, frustration or some other stimulus that is beyond their ability to handle. This understanding comes from personal experience in my case but isn’t hard to grasp. How many non-autistic people would become aggressive if unable to otherwise communicate their distress? What if they had a severe toothache but their mouth was taped shut? Imagine them trying to seek help in the face of that handicap and in the grip of such pain. Don’t you think they might exhibit some aggression?

Understanding is key. You don’t pour oil on a raging fire: you cool things down. Remaining calm in the face of the rage is so important; anything else simply feeds the flames. And understanding is not difficult to learn. Yes, it takes patience and practice. But when you care about the person experiencing the rage surely your first desire is to help them, to do what is best for them?

Humans may consider themselves apart but are still animals with all that entails. Even a domesticated animal — your dog or cat, say — can react with violence when in pain. Why is it that some people can understand and accept this behavior from their pet as natural but not see the parallels in a child? I may not be able to excuse the violence in myself but nor can I excuse a failure to understand its causes in those close to me, or close to anybody else who suffers something similar.

I am lucky in that I am able to analyze and explain what happened once the violent episode has passed. For those who are not so lucky and are not able to do this I can hope those close to them might gain some insight from my own experiences. I can’t say that the violence is avoidable but there are ways of handling it calmly that reduce its severity. And analyzing its causes can help you develop strategies to avoid the triggers. Above all, please remember that the violence itself can be as traumatic to the one experiencing the rage as it is to one observing it: it is disturbing to feel that you are not in full control of your own body, and on top of that is the shame and guilt in the aftermath.

Happy Flappy Tappy Aspie

Happy Flappy Tappy Aspie

My project at work went well yesterday. Really well. So well that I got excited — this happens when I’m pleased with what I’ve produced. Now, the thing about getting excited is that, as with most emotions, I feel it mostly as a set of physical effects.

Excitement starts with a tense feeling building deep inside. Not the heavy, paralyzing tension of anxiety but a light, bubbly, tension of anticipation that spreads out. Up my neck to my head, molding my features into a broad smile. Down my legs making them jiggle and my feet tap. And along my arms until it reaches my fingertips and gives me the urge to flap. By this point I guess I must be awash with endorphins and fireworks are going off in my brain!

I’m still working on quashing my learned inhibitions against the more attention-drawing stims that resulted from teasing at school. So I bounced lightly away from my desk with my hands twitching slightly as I contemplated the forthcoming pleasure of flapping them. I might even have skipped a little — I can’t remember. As I passed through the door into the stairwell I gave myself to the sensations and my hands started flapping involuntarily.

Oh, the euphoria of the release I felt! After so many years of suppression it felt incredibly good to ride the wave of emotion and allow my body to express itself naturally, even though it was in private. This was something I decided recently: I would work on overcoming my inhibitions so that I can be more myself. Because being true to myself makes me happy.

A happy, flappy Aspie — I wouldn’t want to be any other way. You see, for autistic people stimming is a way of modulating sensory input — which includes the effects of emotion — and helps greatly in coping with many situations, both good and bad. It helps with concentration because it frees the mind to focus on something else rather than the sensory stimulus. Suppression — the building of barriers and inhibitions as a result of pressure through disapproval, teasing or bullying — can be harmful. Without stimming it is that much harder to cope with emotional or stressful situations. Without stimming we are denied a means of expression as much as if our mouths were taped shut or our hands bound.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. Don’t deny that to autistic people just because the way we express ourselves is not your way.

I’d like to thank the online Aspie/Autistic communities for providing me with a sense of belonging, of support, so that I have begun to feel confident about expressing myself naturally and honestly. On the subject of stimming there’s a short article about it from the BBC here, and a great blog post over at autisticook that has an illuminating survey of different stims.