[self-harm, mention of sexual assault, suicidal thoughts]
I don’t really know why but I grew up hating my body. I hated how it looked and I hated how other people treated me because of how they thought it looked. I read somewhere when I was a young teenager that your body is just there to carry your mind around and that framing stayed with me. I never considered how it felt.
I started self-harming when I was 14 years old. I mostly cut my abdomen with a razor blade. I also cut the tops of my thighs, my inner thighs, my hips, my left shoulder, my chest and my breasts; anywhere that was covered by my PE kit. I think I self-harmed because I didn’t know the words how to express my pain, frustration and anxiety from my untreated depression. I had also been extensively bullied at school for years. I had a lot of suicidal thoughts and plans too.
After eighteen months or so of self-harming, I finally went to my GP, was honest about my symptoms and I was given fluoxetine (Prozac) and weekly counselling (changed days to what people get today) which helped a lot. My GP was very matter of fact about my self-harm and focused on what I now know is called harm minimisation. I never felt even a flicker of shaming. I had been self-harming every day: every night in the bathroom before I had a shower. I always had wounds in various stages of healing. This is actually kind of horrifying me now to look at these memories from my current relationship with my body but it was so normal then. It felt like a logical and sensible response to my life. It fucking was a logical and sensible response to my life. But the self-harm just melted away as the depression melted away. I don’t remember any kind of fight to stop. It just naturally camed to an end. From the time I was 17 years old to now in my early forties, I have self-harmed less than a dozen times. When my mood is bad, thoughts of self-harm do come into my head but they feel miles away. It’s only in the worst of situations that I actually do go past thoughts and act on my body.
Can you only self-harm if you hate your body first? I don’t think that’s true. Sometimes things are just very desperate. There are no good choices available in some situations. But I did hate my body; almost as much as I hated myself. Those hatreds and despairs felt separate from very early on and remained separate until this year. Note that I’m not saying the hatred and despair has melted away but it feels like a frayed, stretched apart cloth between me and my body rather than a solid, impenetrable wall.
When I look down at my hands, there is still a tiny pause while I recognise them as mine. They don’t feel like mine but intellectually I know they must be. There is a much bigger pause when I look at body parts that I dislike more like my abdomen or my breasts (it still feels weird typing “my” there; my habit is to say “the abdomen” or “the breasts”).
That pause and the detachment were put there deliberately to protect my body from me. I can’t remember exactly what I read or what I heard that made me decide to pursue this detachment but I remember pushing it in my mind until feeling like I was quite separate from my body was a very natural state. It tied in well with my depersonalisation.
The next stage was a calling of a sort of truce between my body and myself. I think this happened in my early twenties. I had been sexually assaulted a few times by then though had convinced myself that it wasn’t affecting me. I was dealing with a lot of psychiatric medication side-effects. I was fat and finding that unacceptable to myself. My body didn’t feel like mine and I still hated it. I was reading about fat acceptance and I longed for the peace that the people I was reading about had found. It wasn’t this but I read something like this tweet from Michelle Allison (the Fat Nutritionist):
Your body is not an object, not a sculpture based on some universal and enduring Platonic ideal of beauty — it is a living creature, an animal in your care that needs care and compassion, that suffers and dies if neglected. https://t.co/Q1lTdtI1or— Michelle Allison (@fatnutritionist) December 20, 2017
It lead to a sort of ‘truce’ or ‘deal’ in my head: I won’t hurt you anymore and you will leave me alone. That was the basis of my relationship with my body for the great majority of my adult life. I did the basics to look after it, to some extent anyway, and the rest of the time I was free to ignore it. The best that can be said for this ‘truce’ or ‘deal’ is that it eased my relentless drive to kill myself which had been powered by my hatred of my body. The thoughts were still there but there was a distance too. I self-harmed very rarely. I gave up drinking alcohol entirely and I didn’t take drugs (I was very lucky in that I hadn’t developed addictions to either). I didn’t exercise and didn’t eat very nutritiously but I don’t think I had any disordered eating behaviours either. But it was a miserable, joyless way to live, I see now. Not taking any pleasure in my body, whether that was eating or sex or physical activity, etc, meant missing out on a lot of the experiences that make life worth living and make a human, human.
What changed was I read two books this year that profoundly challenged my thinking. The first was Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski about female sexuality which explained a lot of my past experiences to me, not just about sex but also about emotions and the stress responses. The second was Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch which explained a lot about eating, hunger and fullness. Both of these books talked matter of factly about taking pleasure in your body and of being connected to your body. It probably sounds ridiculous but I’d never considered that was possible. I kind of knew that some people had strong, solid relationships with their bodies but I didn’t think that applied to any of the people in my life and certainly not to me. But these books were arguing that yes, it was possible for me too.
So I stepped inside my body. Quite terrifying at times and very unsettling. These books made my thoughts safe enough and the meditation released my depersonalisation enough to make it possible. My medication and all the endless self-care I do controls my mood enough, at the moment at least. I still feel some detachment but I think that is fading as my new thoughts bed in. In some ways, I am convinced being connected to my body is a much better way to run things rather than my old detachment and ‘truce’ but in other ways, it feels riskier and more unstable.
I’m still afraid of my body and I still don’t like parts of it but the old hatred and despair has faded away mostly to nothing. I’ve seen it flare up a bit at times but not for long. Is this a new truce? Not really. This is very soppy but I feel like my body and me might be on the same side now. There is something very peaceful and lovely with that.